The best wood for carving depends on the purpose. For those who want wood that will last a long time and be forgiving of mistakes, a hard wood may be the best option. For beginners armed with only knives and willing to experiment, a soft wood is generally the right choice. What types of hard or soft wood are best depend on where the carver lives and what kind of texture or appearance is desired.
Types of Wood Carving
Wood carving is in general divided into three different types, based on what objects are being created and how the wood is being cut. The first and simplest is chip carving, in which the wood is shaped by gouging out slivers in a whittling fashion. This type of carving can create rough-fashioned panels and full figures made from chipping out parts of the wood. The second type of carving is pure panel carving, which uses more advanced tools to cut or press a pattern into wood designed specifically for panels, creating picture and image reliefs that are used for wainscots or borders. Carvers forgo the rough chipping blades for finer tools that can express a range of detail in the panels. The third type of carving is figure carving, in which a block of wood is taken and formed into a specific shape. This requires a wide range of chiseling, cutting, gouging, and smoothing tools, and is considered the most difficult of the three.
The wood required for any type of carving depends both on the carver and the ultimate use of the piece. Some pieces must be made of oak or other hard woods to fit in with particular furniture or design, so the skill of the carver needs to be adequate to deal with less malleable wood. For other carvings the type of wood is less important and carvers can choose a softer wood that is easier to chip and more forgiving for a beginning carver. With the softer types of wood, a carver only needs the proper knife to begin with.
The most popular soft woods can be imported widely depending on location. Basswood, a soft wood obtained from the Linden tree, is one of the most popular types of carving wood in both North America and Europe. It is light, stronger, and fairly easy to cut with a knife.
Another popular wood, especially for North America, is Butternut, which is also easy to carve but has a stronger grain that can be enhanced by oils.
Various types of cedar and sugar pine are used in the Northwest United States, since both varieties of wood are fairly easy to cut and known for their durability, especially in outdoor weather conditions.
Jelutong and obeche are two rarer types of soft wood that can be used in carving a variety of figures. Obeche especially is known as a very soft wood that can be easily dented and needs careful attention.
Popular Harder Woods
Harder woods are more difficult to shape and cannot be cut as easily, but are often preferred for more intricate work since a large amount of detail can be added to them. Mahogany and walnut are some of the most popular varieties, both for their strength and rich color. Sassafras and quaking aspen are also options in the United States.