Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wood Carving: Where Do You Start?

A Variety of Carving Tools
Disclaimer: I am not an expert carver. I don't even play one on TV.  Feel free to challenge, contest, throw tomatoes at, or add your thoughts to any of the following.

There are several types of wood carving: chip, letter, and relief carving; and carving in the round.

Chip Carved Box
Carving tools include knives, chisels, gouges, and mallets. For carving in the round, rasps and files are helpful.

Gouges come in many shapes and are gauged by their width and sweep (the amount of curve on the cutting edge). Included in the mix are straight, bent, fishtail, in-cannel (the bevel is on the inside rather than the outside), spoonbit, and V-gouges.  Many are also available with short or long handles.
Chip Carved HandPlane

Like any new woodworking venture, it can be a little daunting to know where to start.

Several woodworkers have emailed me with questions about which tools they need to carve wood. They ask if it’s best to invest in a set of carving tools.

My response is always the same: find a project you like—from a book or magazine—and purchase the tools you need to carve it. Publications will often provide you with a checklist of tools for the project. Chances are you’ll use those tools again because you used them to carve a project you like.  Whereas, when you buy a set, there will be one or more tools you will never use.
Letter Carved Symbol

Now, what type of carving would you like to try?

Chip carving is the easiest. You need only two tools—a primary knife and a stab knife. Chip carving consists of three basic, rather shallow cuts. Once you master them, you need only arrange them to create your own designs.

Letter Carved Sign
Lettercarving can be complex or easy. You can use a large variety of chisels and gouges which match every conceivable shape you need.  Or, you can simply use a chip carving knife. With chip carving, however, you will be limited by the type of wood (certain hardwoods can very difficult) and the size of the letters. I use a different technique which requires only one chisel and one shallow-sweep gouge.  The size of the tools depends on the size of the letters. With this technique I can carve just about any type of wood and any size or shape letter.

Relief Carved Box
Relief carving is where you start getting into some money. I do not have a huge variety of gouges, and try to make do with what I have. As you begin to carve, you will realize what you’re missing from your collection. Keep in mind, just as you don’t need to have chisels ranging from 1/16” to 2 1/2” and everything in between, you can often get by with less.

Relief Carved Cross
Carving in the round is like relief carving only the project is carved on all sides, as with a ball-and-claw foot. Rasps can remove lots of wood in short order, and files refine the shape. There is nothing quite as luminous as the smooth facets left by a chisel or gouge however, so I remove all rasp and file marks with them.

I do not use sandpaper to smooth portions of carved pieces—the abraded areas have a different appearance than and don’t blend in with the sheared surfaces created by cutting tools. Plus, sandpaper rounds over crisp edges.

With any carving, you must have sharp tools. I can’t stress this enough. Dull or semi-sharp tools will only frustrate you and you’ll never produce the results you want. I use ceramic-, water-, and slipstones, and strops charged with honing compound. It’s much easier to maintain an edge by frequent honing than it is to completely resharpen a tool.

You must also learn to read the grain. The “petting-the-hair-on-a-cat” analogy never resonated with me. Maybe I’ve been petting cats the wrong way all these years (which might explain the scars), but I came up with a different image—that of a skier.  Always carve downhill—with the grain—and the trail you leave behind will be smooth. If you carve against the grain, the direction of the cut will leave the fibers that are ahead of your chisel or gouge unsupported, resulting in tearout. And you'll fall off a cliff. And die.

If that visual isn’t working for you, think of grain as walking up or down steps—it’s much easier to walk down a flight of stairs. 

If you'd like to read more of my blog entries about carving, key in phrases such as these in the search box: “chip carving,” “lettercarving,” “relief carving,” and “sharpening gouges.”

If you’re looking for good books, I recommend Wayne Barton’s book “The Complete Guide to Chip Carving”and Richard Butz’s book “How to Carve Wood.”  I have not found any reference that shows the exact lettercarving technique I use (which was taught to me by a sign carver), but I plan to make more videos on the subject in the future.


I wrote the above entry for Marc Spagnuolo, The Wood Whisperer, who invited me to be a guest blogger on his website. Thanks, Marc!