Wood Carving For Beginners — Put Down The Power Tool And Read This Guide FIRST!

wood carved of a father and son

Image from Pexels

Wood carving is one of the most ancient crafts in the world. From spears to decorative handles to religious relics, humans have been doing few things as long as carving wood.

caveman spear

Image: Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons

But how much do you know about it?

Whether you're looking to make the perfect gift for your partner, or you just want the opportunity to use gnarly power tools, you're going to have to learn wood carving for beginners before you can fly.

Why (Wood) You Carve?

Let me ask you a question:

Why are you interested in wood carving?

Are you interested in it for the long haul or just for a specific project? Whether you'd like to learn it as a profession, or just a one-time thing, we can help!

So here are a few good reasons to try wood carving for beginners:

Gifts

When it comes to gifts, almost nothing is more personal than a gift you make yourself!

Let's face it:

Anyone can go out and buy an expensive antique — but not many people take the time to craft a gift with their own hands.

Most of the time, you'll have the double play of wowing someone with a hand-crafted gift and making a gift that will last them a long time (if you make it well).

Easy to start

According to Udemy, wood carving for beginners isn't only a craft for the well-prepared. You won't need a studio or fancy equipment — just some wood and something sharp to cut it with.

man working on woods

Image via Pexels: Man doing some woodworking

The accessibility of the craft is one of the best reasons to start! And even if you don't have all the knowledge you need right now, you'll be able to pick it up as you go.

Commerce

If you learn wood carving for beginners, even simple designs can make you some money. From Etsy to eBay, the possibilities are endless.

As a special bonus:

Not that many people are handy with wood. Sure, you'll be moving into a competitive space, but when compared with the outside, it's a special skill — and that means you can be unique!

business meeting

Image via Pexels: Business meeting

For example, I live in Rabat, Morocco, and sellers always stress the handcrafting of their wares. They do that because they know that hand-made objects are more valuable and interesting than factory-made ones.

The artisanal shops in your neighborhood do the same thing.

And you can too.

An Ancient Craft (History)

As we mentioned before, woodcarving is a long and storied craft among most peoples of the earth (Noah had to build his boat somehow). But it's helpful to know a little more about it before you start wood carving yourself.

Wood carving predates writing

According to Scholastic, one of our most important methods of communication and history was beat by wood.

"In the South Pacific and Africa, people who had not yet developed writing made wood carvings that were used in their worship."

For context, cuneiform (Mesopotamian script) has been around since 3,200 B.C.

Wood carving is common to all cultures

Humans have literally been carving wood since the Stone Age. Unfortunately, one of the biggest drawbacks of wood carving is that it doesn't last forever. While Stonehenge is still going strong, we have limited examples of wood carving through the ages because eventually, it rots and decays.

stonehenge

Image via Wikimedia Commons: Stonehenge

Other things that wood has been used to create are:

  • Masks
  • Statuettes
  • Religious objects
  • Ceremonial canoes
  • Totem poles

Some carvings have even been found in pyramids in Egypt that are estimated to be from 1981-1975 B.C. But most climates aren't the same as Egypt's, and most places don't have pyramids to preserve their wood carvings.

If you're the traveling type, the Encyclopedia of Sculpture has compiled a list of fascinating wood works that still exist.

Wood carving marvels

The Shigir Idol (7500 BCE) Yekaterinburg, Russian Urals.

shigir idol

Image via Wikimedia Commons: Shigir Idol

Rottgen Pieta (1300 CE) Limewood, Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn.

rottgen pieta

Image via YouTube video: Röttgen Pietà

This video from KhanAcademy discusses the Rottgen Pieta:

Mary Magdalene (1455) Bargello, Florence. By Donatello.

donatello maria magdalena

Image via Wikimedia Commons: Donatello, Mary Magdalene

St Wolfgang Altarpiece (1471-81) Church of Sankt Wolfgang. By Pacher.

st wolfgang altarpiece

Image via Wikimedia Commons: St. Wolfgang Altarpiece 

High Altar of St Mary's Church, Krakow (1484) By Veit Stoss.

wit stwosz altar in st marys church krakow

Wit Stwosz Altar in St. Mary's Church, Kraków.  Image CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Holy Blood Altar (1499-1504) Linden wood, Rothenburg. By Riemenschneider.

holy blood altar

Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons: Holy Blood Altar


Virgin and child with Saint Anne (c.1500). By Riemenschneider.

wood sculpture of the virgin child and saint anne

Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Magdalene ("La Belle Allemande") (1500) Limewood, Louvre. By Erhart.

saint mary magdalene

Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons: Mary Magdalene "La Belle Allemande"

The Annunciation (1518) Church of St Lorenz in Nuremberg. By Veit Stoss.

the annunciation

Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons: The Annunciation

Descent from the Cross (1513) Victoria & Albert. By Jacopo Sansovino.

descent from the cross

Image CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons: Descent from the Cross

Raphael and Tobias (1516) German National Museum Nuremberg. By Stoss.

the archangel raphael and tobias

Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons: The Archangel Raphael and Tobias

Altar of the Virgin (1613-16) Spruce/Limewood, Uberlingen. By Jorg Zurn.

altar of the virgin

Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (cropped): Altar of the Virgin 

Woodcarving of Music from the Carved Room, Petworth House. By Grinling Gibbons.

Figure of Mother and Child (Phemba), Brooklyn Museum. 

figure of mother and child brooklyn museum

Figure of Mother and Child, Brooklyn Museum.  Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Construction of Volume Relations (1921) Mahogany, MOMA. Vantongerloo.

construction of volume relations

Image Public Domain via Wikiart Visual Art Encyclopedia: Construction of Volume Relations

Big Black (1963) MOMA, New York. By Louise Nevelson.

wood boxes and scrap pieces spindles moldings etc to create a wall of sculpture

Wood boxes and scrap pieces, spindles, moldings, etc.  Image CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, most examples of the art form have perished. But don't get discouraged! There are many ways to make sure that any woodcraft of yours lasts long after you create it.

Woodworking throughout history

Believe it or not, wood carving could be a bit controversial back in the day. For example, one of the longest and most specific commandments in the Bible is about making images.

"You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth ..."

In keeping with that principle:

Wood carving, painting, and other kinds of art were strictly banned in some parts of Europe from 700 A.D. to 900 A.D. This led to some pretty ornate designs within churches (such as doors) because artists had to express themselves somehow.

Famous wood carvers

If you're looking to advance beyond wood carving for beginners, here are a few a​​rtists that you can look up to:

Deborah Feltham

Feltham is the creator of exquisite statues of dancers and says that she was drawn to carving dancers because they inspire her to try to recreate the symmetry and beauty of their movements.

Neil Cox

Cox works in a variety of mediums, even creating a detailed statue of the Native American Shawnee warrior and chief Tecumseh. Fascinated with storytelling, Cox tries to convey feeling in all his pieces.

Obviously, it's unrealistic to start out creating works like the pros, but if you stick with wood carving for beginners, ultimately, you'll be wood carving like a pro!

Getting Started

Now that you know some of the basics of the history of wood carving, let's get you started! You'll want to brush up on your vocabulary!

Vocabulary

Ever notice how when people start a new hobby, their whole vocabulary changes? That's because every hobby has its own lingo — and wood carving is no different.

With a good understanding of vocabulary, you'll be able to understand the entire craft better and sound like a pro.

“To whittle”

To carve (wood) into an object by repeatedly cutting small slices from it. If you're like me, you did this with sticks from the woods around your home when you were a kid.

Now you can do it with a little more precision.

"Carcass"

The frame or main parts of an unfinished workpiece before they are completed with coverings.

"Wane"

An edge of a sawn board where the bark or surface of the trunk remains.

"Warp"

A distortion in a piece of lumber, such as a twistcup, or bow.

"Wasting"

This one might not mean what you think! "Wasting" actually means quickly removing wood during carving, usually with an adze, knife, or rasp.

modern adze cutting tool

Modern Adze cutting tool.  Image via Pixabay

Of course, if you don't cut carefully, you might waste your wood!

"Undercutting"

Cutting away from an edge to increase the sense of relief or thinness. No surprise why the word also means "to weaken."

"Veneer"

Very thin slices of wood used for inlay or to cover surfaces. This is pretty common in works like cabinets and walls, so chances are, you might have some veneer right next to you.

Once you boost your wood carving vocabulary, you might be able to contribute to the glossary yourself.

Wood carving safety

There's no way around it — wood carving can be dangerous, especially for beginners. You'll probably start with an experienced mentor, but if not, you still have to stay safe.

Here are some helpful tips:

  • Always wear safety glasses or goggles, or a face shield (with safety glasses or goggles). It's easy to imagine an errant wood chip flying into your eye, and it's so easily preventable. Put on your glasses.
wearing safety glasses and earpads

Image via Pexels: Woman wearing ear protection and safety glasses

  • Wear earplugs (WHADDJA SAY?!) Wood carving for beginners can be a loud business. With different power tools like chainsaws, you're going to want to protect your ears. 
  • Check that keys are removed from machines before turning the power on. This is pretty self-explanatory. No one wants a rogue saw to come to life the moment they turn on the power.
  • Inspect stock for nails or other materials before cutting, planing, or routing. The same way you investigate vegetables at the supermarket before buying them, you should inspect wood before you cut. Lumberjacks actually get hurt this way — by people placing items inside or around trees they'll cut. So before you do anything with your wood, you should know everything about it — every abrasion, warp, nick, and scratch.
  • Ensure that all machines have start and stop buttons within your reach. You'll want full control over when machines are on and when they're off. Another thing you should keep an eye on is protecting the start buttons, avoiding any false starts.
  • Wear protective footwear when required. Sometimes, sneakers will cut it. Sometimes it has to be steel-toed boots. Never is it flip-flops.
wearing protective boots

Image via Pexels: Protective Boots 

safety tips dont
saftey tips infographic

Safety is never overrated

Maybe you just want to get into wood carving and don't really care for the safety lecture, but that would be a mistake.

It's critical.

People who begin woodworking without proper safety knowledge get hurt (professionals too.)

Especially if you plan to start your woodworking venture in a private space (like a garage), there are fewer regulations than there would be in a professional environment. That means your chances of getting hurt are even greater.

wood carving and shaping tools

Wood carving and shaping tools  Image from Pixabay

Here's what you need to know:

While woodworking can be a fun passion, it's never fun to be injured. So it's vital that not only you know proper safety procedures, but that everyone who ever comes into contact with your workspace knows and abides by them, too.

Choosing Your Wood

This can be one of the most important choices you make when it comes to woodworking. When you choose your wood, you're choosing your limitations — or at least they're choosing you.

Image via GIPHY

Some woods just can't do what you're looking for. Or even if you can accomplish it, it will take 10 times longer. So it behooves you to do your research to make a great choice!

Softwoods

Softwoods aren't weaker than hardwoods, but they're usually cheaper. Usually reddish or yellowish, softwoods are also pretty easy to find.

And here's the best part:

You can even help curb your environmental impact by getting softwoods that are reclaimed, and therefore not contributing to deforestation.

Hardwoods

However, it won't shock you to know that most woodworkers prefer to work with hardwoods. Their patterns and textures are very alluring for woodworkers beginners and professionals alike.

Oak

What you might not know is:

There are over 200 species of oak in commercial cultivation. So what do people love about it? A few things:

  • It's durable
  • Resistant to insects and fungi
  • Resistant to moisture
oak wood

Image via Pexels: An oak wood 

If you're building something to last, oak's not a bad choice, and English Oak is one of its most trusted variants. It's great for furniture, flooring, and if you're a Viking, boats.

Mahogany

Known for its luxurious deep-red tint and ability to stain, mahogany is a great choice for furniture.

Image via GIPHY

One of the best parts about it is that it is indigenous to the Americas. However, it's not grown in sustainable forests.

Elm

There are a few reasons to love elm, like:

  • Interlocking grain
  • Resistance to splitting
  • Used to make long bows in the Middle Age
silhouette of man using a longbow

Image via Pexels: Man using Longbow

Elm can also be fantastic for chair seats and coffins, and they were used as keels in ship construction (a keel is a long, long piece of wood that extends the length of the vessel and provides added stability).

Walnut

Walnut, while easy to work with, can be pretty pricey. It's rich brown wood and is excellent for inlays and accents. And it produces tasty nuts!

walnuts and leaves

Image via Pexels: Walnuts in a bowl

Regardless of the price, walnut can sell pretty quickly, so get your hands on it while you can!

Wood Carving Tools

Just like choosing wood, choosing your tools depends on all the usual factors — the project, your resources, and your level of expertise.

So let's talk about some of the most common types of tools that you'll encounter on your foray into wood carving for beginners.

Blades

You need something to cut the wood. Whether it's a pocket knife or a chainsaw, you'll want to choose carefully based on what you'd like to accomplish. These blades won't cut it:

knives

Image via Pixabay: Blades, Different kinds of knives

Folding

One of the first concerns with a small knife can be whether carrying it around is legal.

But don't worry:

In most states, if it's in a sheath, you'll have no problem.

For carving, the advantage of a folding blade is that it's discrete, it fits in your pocket, and it's versatile to perform many tasks. However, you can be in a real jam if the hinge breaks!

folding knife

Image via Pexels: Folding Knife

Fixed Blade

That brings us to fixed blades. Unlike the folding ones, fixed blades don't have a hinge that will give out.

On the other hand:

You'll have to keep them at home or the workshop because they're probably not legal to carry around.

This can be a bummer if you're whittling something like a small keychain and prefer to work on it anytime, rather than a designated one.

fixed blade knife

Image via Pexels: Fixed Blade Knife

And that's not all:

Fixed blades can also provide the benefit of being easy to maintain and clean. They're also great for larger tasks than a folding blade.

Knife Guides recommends that if you're a beginner, you should get a medium-length knife because it gives you the most control.

Sharpness

Sharpness is the most important factor to consider when thinking about knives for wood carving. Obviously, the sharper the knife, the more accurate, but also it will be safer.

Another important term is:

Edge retention is the ability of a knife to be sharpened. If a dull knife is bad, a knife that doesn't stay sharp is just as bad.

Here's a helpful tip for checking edge retention:

"To know whether a knife has good edge retention, just take an ordinary paper and scrape its side against the blade. This should cut the paper. If the cut is clean and smooth, it indicates a good retention level.

On the other hand, if the result is uneven or the slicing is not well, it means that the blade needs honing or sharpening."

It should go without saying that you check the sharpness of all your knives every time you begin carving!

Tools

If you're feeling truly overwhelmed with all the new information, there are some shortcuts you can take.

For example, there are wood carving for beginners kits that you can purchase. They'll have the most relevant tools for a newbie to start out.

Designs For Beginners

We've all been there — you start a new hobby, your workspace is set up, everything is neat and tidy, and ... you still have no clue what to do.

Luckily for you, you're not the first person to do wood carving, and you won't be the last.

If you're looking for great designs for wood carving for beginners, we've got you covered.

Something flat

One of the simplest shapes to start out with is simple -- something flat. You'll be able to get some carving practice, but you won't have to create depth or try difficult designs.

Another way to add flavor to your project is to do chip carving, or chipping away at the wood lightly to make designs.

A short, personal story:

My amazing girlfriend knows that I love Harry Potter and Monopoly. So, for my birthday, she got me a Harry Potter monopoly board. 

Obviously, I told that story just to brag, but it also illustrates that choosing a flat design can be great for novice woodworkers.

Relief cutting

Relief cutting can be great for beginners. If you're interested and want to know more, Stumpy Nubs has a great tutorial on the fundamentals.

Other ideas

The possibilities with wood carving for beginners are endless, but if you're still stumped for ideas, here are a few suggestions from The Saw Guy:

  • Simple pallet shelf
  • Rustic candle holder
  • Wooden iPad dock
  • Floating wine bottle holder
  • Simple boxes
  • Wooden arrow wall art
  • Birdhouse
  • Doormat
  • Lazy Susan
  • Bookends
  • Many, many more

Remember, wood carving for beginners is only limited by your imagination.

Here's the truth:

If you have tenacity, follow-through, imagination, and you follow all good safety procedures, you will be able to fill your life with projects you bring to life with your bare hands.

Luthierie

Have you ever heard of luthierie? Because I've been playing the guitar since I was 15, so I've always been interested.

Here's what it is:

Luthiere is the art of making and repairing stringed instruments, like guitars, cellos, and violins. If you're a musician like me, you might be excited at the thought of wood carving your own instrument.

a luthiere fixing strings of a guitar

Image via Pexels: A Luthiere fixing strings of a guitar

Even if your first attempt isn't perfect, there's nothing more satisfying than playing on an instrument you built. And if you'd like to learn more about lutherie, you can click right here!

What You'll Gain

It's hard to say what any one individual might gain from taking up wood carving for beginners. In the beginning, it's a lot of work, but your dedication can open up new areas in the craft for you.

When I was a kid, my father and I made bird feeders. Just two large towers of wood, with a feeding trough attached to the top. We painted them burgundy, to match the shutters and banisters of the house.

And every day, we counted the blue jays that we saw, fighting for a place at the table we had created.

I remember that.

If nothing else, you'll know that when you wood carve, you will be making memories. Memories of who your project is for, or who you accomplish it with. And those memories can last a lifetime!

Not only that:

You'll gain new skills and abilities.

When you take up wood carving for beginners, you can make tables, furniture, and shelves that you see every day in your home. Seeing the fruits of your labor will encourage you on your wood carving journey.

And if you're still not convinced, take a look at these Instagram-worthy wood carvings.

Dragonfly

Name spoons

Relief carving

A few reminders

While you go out into the world and test your wood carving knowledge, here are a few reminders of what you learned.

Safety is never overrated

No woodworker is ever too good for safety. It's so much more fun to craft a new woodwork without getting injured along the way. Make sure you follow all the proper procedures every time. Then you're free to work on your masterpiece.

Manage your expectations

Above all, just because you don't create a world-renowned art piece on the first try doesn't mean that wood carving for beginners isn't worth pursuing.

Managing your expectations is important because you can't expect to be an expert overnight.

But if you put in the practice, read up, and deliberately improve your craft, you'll be making more and more complex projects in no time.

Tell friends and family

You'll feel isolated if you do this alone. It can be a great motivation to get your friend and family involved in your big projects and get them excited about what you can do now.

Whether it's making a new shelf or making a new company, your circle of friends will be interested in your new endeavors, so don't forget to share it with them.

Have fun

Image via GIPHY

Don't forget to have fun!

After you get past everything that you're supposed to do, just have fun. Wood carving is meant for people who love making things. Even though it's easy to get bogged down in everything else, remember that you're supposed to enjoy the work you're doing.

So go make that masterpiece.

Have you ever tried wood carving? Do you have any projects to share with us? Tell us all about it in the comments!

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