Getting Started with Wood Carving
Want to start creating but don’t have a lot of money to spend on tools? Whether you’re making a wooden spoon, wood spirits, creating unique spindles, or adorning furniture carving wood is all about patience, tools, and timing. From choosing the right wood, to picking the right tools and accessories this guide is all about helping you get started woodcarving without breaking the bank.
First, you will need a place to work. Carving wood is very messy, loud, and requires lots of lighting.
Your Basic Woodcarving Tools
There’s really not a lot that you’ll need to get started; a carving knife, an ax, and a sharpening stone.
You’ll want to invest in a good carving knife. These knives intended for whittling tend to have fixed blades and longer handles. If you already have one, a good pocket knife will do, too. However, there are some inexpensive wood carving knives for less than $10 that are excellent and of good workmanship. If you don’t already have one you will also want to get a small ax that you can grip easily. And, to keep your blades sharp you will need a good ceramic sharpening stone. Tip: When sharpening, angle the blade between 10-20 degrees and swipe it back and forth across the sharpening stone.
To protect your hands, eyes, and lungs you will also need a glove, a pair of safety glasses, and a dust mask. Always wear a glove on the hand that isn’t holding the carving knife. A leather hide work glove works best. It will not only protect your hands, but they’ll be more resistant to damage than other types of gloves and they will last longer. Marcus wears gloves both hands to avoid blisters and splinters in the hand holding the wood, too.
You will also need to wear a good pair of safety glasses to prevent wood chips from getting in your eyes when you’re sawing, chopping, or using a rotary tool. Don’t forget to protect your lungs with a dust mask. It will make sure you’re not inhaling the dust created by carving, cutting, sanding or polishing.
Your Rotary Tool and Accessories
A rotary tool is a great tool for carving. We love the TECCPO 5-Speed Variable Speed Rotary Tool, with its flexible shaft. This makes maneuvering much easier than holding the bigger heavier tool in your hand. It is also in the $25 – 30 price range making it more affordable than a Dremel. To get the most out of your tool you will want to get some Tungsten Carbide bits. These will last longer than the high-speed steel bits that come with your kit. Carving bits go by names such as burs, cutters, carvers, stones, and discs. Two sets that we have purchased on eBay are a 10-piece Tungsten Carbide Burr Bit Set and 6-piece 40mm Tungsten Carbide Burr Bit Rotary Cutter Files.
Having a variety of high-speed cutters will make shaping, hollowing, grooving, slotting, and making tapered holes easier. The rotary tool we purchased also came with some finishing accessories to get us started. If you choose a rotary tool that does not include finishing tools or if you’ve used them up, you will need a sanding drum and sanding bands. There are all types of accessories that you can get for your rotary tool, just make sure that they will fit your tool. Most rotary tools take accessories that have a 1/8″ or 3mm shank. For more guidance on what each type of bit does check out this power carving bit guide from Woodcarving Illustrated.
The Best Woods For Carving
When you’re just starting out, it’s better to choose softwoods like birch, limewood, pine, willow, spruce, cedar, redwood, basswood, or horse chestnut. They are easier to carve. Once you’re more experienced, you can start using hardwoods such as elm, butternut, aspen, birch burl, cherrywood, maple, apple, pear, olive, mahogany, or walnut. Although harder to carve, these all contain beautiful patterns and colors that will add new elements to your carvings. The wood you use will also vary based on what’s available in your area and the project you are working on.
Get the cleanest wood possible. If you’re getting your wood from a craft store, chances are you won’t find many growth rings or knots in it. However, if you’re getting it from a lumberyard or using fallen wood that is found in your backyard or local forest you are likely to find these obstacles. When you are a beginner woodcarver it can be difficult to carve around these natural formations. Save the tricky stuff for later and remember practice makes perfect.
Now that you have an idea of what you need, I bet you’re probably excited to start your first woodcarving project.
Preparing the Wood
It’s time to start chopping, so put your safety gear on and grab your ax. To make a controlled split straight down the middle, very carefully wedge the ax into the top of your wood, keep your fingers out of the way. Lift the log, leaving the ax inside it, gently knock it against a hard surface. If you have a piece of wood that is much larger than your project, repeat until you have a piece of wood that is near the size you want.
After you have split your wood, clean up the surface with the ax and remove the dark core. Using your ax, carefully chop away some wood until the dark line in the middle is gone. Now it’s time to remove the bark. Using your ax start in the middle and chop downwards, angling the ax to the outside to help the bark peel away easier. Turn the wood over and repeat. Remove any small bits of bark with your knife.
Once you start, never leave your unfinished piece of wood lying around in the air, because it will dry out. To help your piece to stay moist and avoid cracking. Put it in a plastic bag filled with wood chips and a few drops of water, and leave the bag open. You can safely leave it for a few days or even up to a week, but make sure you check and turn it every day.
Practice drawing your design first. Though your piece might change as you carve, it’s important to practice perfecting its basic shape before you start whittling away. On your piece of wood, trace out your design lightly with a pencil. With experience, Marcus has found that tracing over his design with a Sharpie helps keep it visible when using the cutting bits. Staying within the lines of your drawing will help keep you on track and focused when the ax and carving knife comes out.
There will be times while carving that you will want to speed things up; especially the drying process. But take things slowly and enjoy each step of the process. Carving wood is not a hobby you can rush, and when you hold your finished piece you’ll be glad you took your time.
This spoon was the first item he carved.
Warning! Wood carving can be addicting. Once the carving bug bites you, you may be tempted to spend a lot of money on tools. Your carving skills won’t improve by purchasing more tools nor more expensive tools. The only way to improve is practice, practice, and more practice.
In the few short months that he has been carving, Marcus has created all the pieces in the images above. We’d love to know what you think of the things he’s made. We hope to turn this new love of his into a series on our blog. What would you like to know about woodcarving? Which project would you enjoy learning more about?