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Woodcarving for Beginners

Woods for Carving

Any wood can be carved with differing results since wood is a natural material, and varies within the species, or even from the same log, but different species show a great variation of grain, texture, colour and hardness. Timber may be selected for colour to match some existing piece, or may be selected for grain texture according to the use to which the piece is to be used. Ornamental pieces may require grain pattern, or for lettering little or no grain pattern may be needed.

I have selected a few of the more common species below, and given a short description of each as a start towards recognition of timbers, but this study should be read in conjunction with the specimen pieces.

Lime is a yellowish white colour and has a very close grain, and was very popular at one time for the most finely carved work, and was a favourite with Grinling Gibbons, famous for his highly ornamental work in the late 17th Century. Not specially durable and does not take stain well.

European and North American origin, the latter - American White Ash - is available in longer, straight grain lengths, used for furniture and shopfitting extensively. Hard medium fine grain, works well with sharp tools, excellent for colour staining and finishes well.

Similar to the above, slightly harder to work, and the grain is not so significant. Creamy white with close grain, carves and finishes well.

American cherry produces much larger board than English or European, warm brown in colour, medium straight grain, carves well and produces a good finish.

English Oak
One of the more popular timbers for carving in this country is the English Oak, durable, strong, fairly hard to work, and more suitable for larger pieces since it has a fairly coarse grain, and will tend to break away at the edges if very fine work is attempted. Suitable for outdoor use. Takes stain well as all the oaks do. May warp or crack if not adequately treated.

American Oak
Has a much straighter grain than English Oak, but otherwise similar characteristics to work.

Japanese Oak
A much more interesting grain pattern and will carve to finer detail, having a closer grain structure. Not suitable for outdoor uses.

Has a much more figured grain than oak, but a closer grain and will take detailed work well. Not suitable for outdoor use. Takes stain well. Many different sources with different grain figure. American Black Walnut is not so richly figured, but carves well, and comes up to a beautiful finish.

Brazilian Mahogany
Has a fine grain, and carves well, durable and can be used outdoors. Takes stain well. Somewhat straight grained with little figure. Shows little tendency to warp or crack.

African Mahogany
Has more figure than Brazilian, but carves well with a fine grain, although not so suitable for outdoor use as it will tend to crack if not adequately treated. Stains well. There are several types of African Mahogany, the more popular being Sapele which has straighter grain and paler in colour, and Utile, (pronounced with the 'e' on the end), which is more figured, and darker.

Sycamore, Holly
Yellowish white woods, fine grain and carves well but not very durable and does not stain well. Unsuitable for exterior use.

Apple, Pear
Similar to Sycamore, may twist and crack if not seasoned properly, and should be polished soon after carving to avoid cracking.

Close grained and carves well, fairly hard, but not suitable for outside use, and does not take stain at all well. Used by the furniture trade for chairs and other furniture for its durability and stability in use.

Close grained and carves well. Has an oily texture that makes it ideal for outside use, but the gritty texture in the grain blunts tools rapidly. Very expensive. Mellow greeny-brown in colour.

African hardwood, resembles teak in colour and texture, excellent for use outside and used extensively in the garden furniture trade. Like teak, a little gritty on chisels, and frequent re-sharpening may be necessary. Close grained and selected pieces can be used for fine lettering. Much cheaper than teak, and is sometimes known as poor man's teak.

Indian and South American are the main two sources. A beautiful timber when carved and produces a lovely finish. A hard wood, and tends to be a little brittle for fine detailed work. Most expensive.

An extremely hard wood for the carver and needs experience. Very dark in colour with little grain figure. The dense, close grain makes it suitable for miniature work, but very hard on tools.

From Sarawak (Borneo), Yellowish white colour, used for general cabinet work, inclined to split and requires pre-drilling. Straight grained and hard. Not an ideal timber for the carver.

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Last updated: April 4th, 2000.
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