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Wood Carving Tutorial

How to Carve Wood

A word about Safe carving:

When the chips are flying with gouges and mallets, or when using any power tool, wear safety glasses. Your eyes are your most valuable tool; protect them.

If you are using power tools that create dust, be sure to wear a dust mask. Wood can contain toxic fungi, and some woods themselves can be hazardous.

While applying force to push a knife or gouge through wood, tools frequently slip. Always keep your hands behind the tool's sharp edge. Do not hold the wood in your lap while carving. Always try to secure the work piece on a table or in a vise so that both hands are free to control the tools. Cuts often happen when one hand is trying to hold the piece and the other hand is pushing hard on the tool - and it slips. Secure the work piece, and keep both hands on the tool and behind the sharp edge.

Use common sense. Listen to the voice of self preservation. Every time, just before I hurt myself, there was a little voice in my head saying "you shouldn't be doing this, it's unsafe." Ignoring that little voice, even for a second, may result in a trip to the first aid kit.

Speaking of first aid, be sure to keep a well-equipped first aid kit handy.

Wood Grain

Wood is composed of longitudinal cells lying parallel to each other and running in a roughly straight direction from the roots of the tree to the leaf canopy.

Note: The grain in a board doesn't always follow the parallel sides of the board. It often angles slightly up or down, or can even take unexpected dips and curves.  So when carving, you may have to change direction of the chisel to keep the wood from splintering.  Cutting cross grain, at about a 45 degree angel, can help solve this problem.

Carving with the grainCarving against the grain

Carving with the Grain:

To carve efficiently, your tools must be razor sharp. They should leave a shiny cut through the wood, with no white streaks that indicate a nick in the blade.

To determine the direction of the grain, look at the long cell fibers. The darker streaks of the annual rings can help indicate the direction of the grain.

Carve in a downward direction onto the parallel lines of grain. Note, if the wood seems to be tearing, and your tools are sharp, then you are probably going in the wrong direction. Turn around and carve in the opposite direction.

You can also carve diagonally across the grain and even parallel to it, but if you carve upwards against the grain, it will only tear and splinter the wood. 

Carving parallel to the grain can be disasterous.  It can raise a long splinter of wood that runs under an area of detail that you wanted to save.

Carving with knifeCarving with gouge

Using a Knife

When working on a small carving that can be held in the hand, hold the wood in the left hand (assuming you are right handed), the knife in the right.

Keep the left hand behind the knife and use the left thumb on the blunt side of the blade to act like a fulcrum to control the cut. With the thumb stationary, rotate your right hand and wrist to make the cut.

In this position, if the knife should slip, you will not be cut. The knife should never go flying uncontrolably out off the piece of wood.

You can also hold the knife as though you were peeling an apple. Just be careful not to nick your thumb.


Using Gouges

Hold the handle in the palm of the right hand to push the gouge; hold the metal shaft with the left hand to guide the cut. With your left hand firmly holding the metal shaft of the gouge and resting on the wood, it can act like a brake so that the tool does not slip out of control when pushed forward. Use your body weight to help push the tool.

Roughing out

Roughing out

Remove as much of the scrap wood as possible with a band saw or chain saw.

The most common mistake of first time-carvers is that they are not aggressive enough in removing material. They never get past the square shape of the original block. Don't be afraid to round out the basic shapes.

Start with large U-gouges to remove the maximum amount of material. Establish large shapes first. A good way to do that is to define the major planes of the object being carved.

Work from the large forms to the small details, large chisels to small. If you have not established the large shapes that define the form first, no amount of beautiful detail laid on top will save ill-defined forms.

Adding the Details

After the structure has been established, you can begin to put in the details with the smaller U-gouges, V-gouges, and veiners (small U-gouges) that will define smaller shapes.

At this point, it is important to keep tools razor-sharp if you intend to leave the tool marks as the final texture. Any nicks in the tool's edge will leave white lines in the cut and detract from the final appearance.

If you want to leave chisel marks as the final texture, concentrate on following the contour of the shapes, as though the marks are wrapping around the shape. 

St Andrew

Follow the step-by-step carving of a life-size figure in wood, from gluing up the block, to carving with mallet and chisels, and then applying the finish.
Click carving a figure.


See details of a 5'x12' wall mural carved out of eight different types of wood. The mural depicts scenes of the Eastern Pennsylvania countryside, from wild life scenes on the left side. to Amish and farming scenes on the right.

Click wood carved wall mural.

Types of Wood

Types of wood for carving.

Wood Carving Tools

See some of the tools for carving.

Follow my Facebook Page,  The Sculpture Studio LLC
to see more in-progress photos of making sculpture.