Wood carving is an art without any doubt. But it is also a craft. And, most importantly, wood carving is fun. If you were wondering where to begin, then I’m here to lead you through the very basics and help learn wood carving.
Tip. Moreover, you can read more about How to get into woodworking.
Of course, you can just grab your pocket knife and get on with wood carving, but chances are you will do a lot of things wrong. Let’s try and prevent this from happening with 5 beginner wood carving projects for beginners.
Below I will provide some insights on your first tools, and preparations as well as several simple projects that will help you to master the basics of wood carving and whittling. After reading this you will know which tools to take, which wood to pick and how to take the desired shape out of it.
Tip. See my tips on Woodworking when you live in an apartment.
- 1 Essential theory behind carving wood
- 2 Basic tools and materials
- 3 The best wood for wood carving projects for beginners
- 4 Basic cuts
- 5 First wood carving project: a bird
- 6 Second wood carving project: a gnome house
- 7 Third wood carving project: a fox
- 8 Fourth wood carving project: a relief
- 9 Fifth wood carving project: a miniature
- 10 Further wood carving
- 11 Q&A bit
- 12 Wrapping it up
Essential theory behind carving wood
Before cracking on with actual beginner wood carving, let me explain a bit of the theory. Yes, it is necessary. Many general artistic principles apply to wood carving too. Also, wood as a material has its unique features. Not to mention variations between different kinds of wood. But fear not, my aspiring carver/whittler, as it is much easier than it sounds.
Before getting starting to learn wood carving, you would want to develop an understanding of:
- Volumes and plains, and their interactions.
- Textures, both natural and the ones you will put down on the wood.
- Wood behavior when it’s being carved.
The majority of those principles you will master through the practice of wood carving. In my humble opinion, it is the best way to do so. At some point, you will see your wood carving projects inside the stock even before the first cut. Just like Michelangelo and his angel on the marble.
Understanding shapes and planes
Going from general shapes to refined details is the main principle of any art. It is fair for wood carving too. From the very beginning, you’ll just divide your whittling project into simple shapes (spheres, eggs, etc.) and try to imagine how they interact forming planes are surfaces of those imaginary shapes.
There are only two basic ways of their interaction in wood carving projects. They either blend at a certain curve or meet at a certain angle. Your part is to make the respective decision that will better suit your design.
Pro-tip: When you carve, there is no way back, so try to take off less material as there is always time for another cut, but there’s no way to undo one. Try to stay cautious even when making a rough blank for your wood carving projects.
The texture is the property of a surface. At first, you can always get away with the natural look and feel of wood, and a nice faceted whittled surface. But by building up skills, you’ll be able to translate the silky texture of a leaf or a hairy beard by cuts and finishing techniques in advanced and basic projects.
Just remember to leave a bit more material in areas where there should be texture. It is needed since you’ll use various V-shaped cuts, chiseling, and other wood carving styles.
Understanding the wood grain
Wood has its grain. The wood grain is the structure and direction of fibers in the wood. Because every kind of wood consists of dead cells and tissues that were a tree at some point in the past. Best way to imagine it as a lot of straws glued together:
- they have variable diameters;
- they are different in hardness and wall thickness;
- they aren’t always straight and parallel.
And that’s what you are going to cut through while wood carving. So remember to keep the blade sharp (I’ll cover it a bit later) and not to wedge a bunch of fiber, or it might chip a good chunk of wood. It is exactly what you want to take out big chunks off of a blank and the opposite when working with fine details.
Relief wood carving
Relief wood carving is a great way to practice textures. And it also improves three-dimensional perception through the need to arrange layers of the design. It can create magnificent decorations for furniture and interior, or become a pretty piece of its own.
Usually, wood carving reliefs are made with chisels, but if you are starting with no tools, then there’s no need to buy them. At first, you can get away with basic wood carving knives and create decent pieces. Just take one step at a time and build up your arsenal gradually. Eventually, you’ll be able to carve a wooden spoon and then put relief on it.
Basic tools and materials
The variety of wood carving tools is astonishing. But it is possible to start wood carving with a decent pocket knife alone. But initially, you have several options to choose from:
- Purchase a beginner set of wood carving tools (two or three whittling knives and a hook knife).
- Just pick two separate knives of different sizes.
- Go for a decent pocket knife.
Pro-tip: Try to pick up a wood carving or pocket knife with hard, high-carbon steel blades. They will hold the edge much longer and are genuinely nicer to work with. Optimal hardness is in the range between 55 and 60 points by the Rockwell scale.
I would recommend going for a kit if you already dabbed into the wood carving and are determined to carry on with it as your hobby. Buying a couple of wood carving knives and all the required supplies is a nice option for the very first project.
Alternatively, you can go for a ready-made wood carving kit. And if you’re tight on a budget, then just pick a decent pocket knife with two blades (the smaller and bigger one).
A whittling knife has a nice big handle and a much smaller blade. The blade has a curved back and a straight cutting edge. Unlike a Sloyd wood carving knife with a rounded cutting edge (usually used for rough shaping) or a chip carving knife with a straight cutting edge, and a blade slanted at a certain angle.
Tip. Furthermore, you can read more about The best whittling knife for beginners and professionals.
I’d recommend starting with a couple of wood carving knives for whittling. One with a 2,3” (60 mm) blade to make an initial rough shape, and the other one with 1,37”(35 mm) for details. It will be more than enough to start your wood carving journey.
Pro-tip: If you’re going for a pocket knife for wood carving, you’ll most likely have to redo the cutting edge to be able to carve wood with some sort of comfort.
Hook knives, gouges, and chisels
Those are additional carving tools to perform various operations:
- hook-knifes have a curled blade to hollow out wooden spoons, and cups and perform similar tasks;
- chisels with blades of various shapes are for taking out the mass of wood or making refined lines and patterns;
- gouges are very similar to U-shaped chisels and are predominantly used for roughing up a blank or taking out a bulk of the material with great control.
None of those are necessary for the five beginner wood carving projects below, but if you go the classic way and begin at carving a wooden spoon, I won’t stop you.
Saws and rasps
Coping saws and coarse rasps will come in handy for making a blank out of a piece of stock. These tools are really useful for cutting a piece of stock into chunks or removing massive parts of it. On the other hand, you won’t need them if the initial stock size is close to the desired size of a piece or if you’ll use a ready-made blank.
Tools holder is often overlooked. You will have to store your carving tools somewhere where they won’t bounce around and hit each other. Rolling or stationary tool holders will keep the blades safe. There are some great DIY projects for those if you want a tailor-made one.
Sharpening is half of the success in wood carving. The blade with a right edge will require a light honing every 15-30 minutes of work to keep the sharpness at a comfortable level. A leather strop and a piece of a polishing compound will last for a long time.
However, to remake the edge of a knife you’ll need several whetstones, or oil stones and some fine sandpaper. And then spend some time practicing sharpening. It is not that hard, just requires steady angles and some patience.
Even the most skilled carvers and whittlers cut their fingers. So decent protection will significantly reduce the usage of band-aids. There are several options to choose from for protection:
- Safety wraps on thumbs and index fingers on both hands.
- Cut-resistant glove for the off-hand and a wrap for the thumb and the index finger on the knife-hand.
- Cut-resistant glove and a safety pad for the thumb.
- Straight-up set of protective gloves.
Gloves or wraps will also make pressing against the back of a blade a bit comfortable.
Finishing a piece
There are different techniques for finishing a freshly carved piece, varying from leaving it as is and up to a paint job, with oiling, staining, and varnishing in between. Sanding as one of the steps is quite widespread too. Everything depends on desired aesthetics of a finished piece.
For sanding, you would want to go with rather rough sandpapers of 150-320 grit. The actual selection of grit will depend on the type of wood and desired surface.
In addition to basic carving tools and means of maintaining them, you’ll need something to mark your wood with. A simple pencil will suffice. Some carvers use the tip of their knife to mark, but it’s a matter of taste. For more complicated beginner wood carving projects, you can use printed real-life stencils.
So, here’s a list of basic tools you’ll need to start wood carving:
- two wood carving knives;
- leather strop and honing compound;
- safety gloves or wraps.
On top of it, you’ll, of course, require some stock. It will be better to buy a set for your first projects. Later you’ll be able to work with any piece of wood, picked up outside.
Having a vise or a bench clamp will help a lot too for some larger projects or for taking chunks of wood off the blank. But it’s not a big deal if you have none. When it comes to wood carving, there’s nothing that patience can’t compensate for/
The best wood for wood carving projects for beginners
There are three main kinds of softwood for beginners: basswood, yellow poplar, and pine. Though, basswood is considered the best option for a combination of uniform wood grain and consistency which is soft enough for comfortable cuts, but hard enough to hold the fine details.
Poplar is a bit harder, though has a nice grain, while pine is much softer, but has a rather unpredictable wood grain. Butternut, walnut, and cherry are other great options, but they are more expensive and will require at least some practice.
Now, with basic theory and equipment figured out, it’s time to look at some basic cuts. Having some idea about how to cut will save a lot of time and effort. But no one will stop from diving into wood carving head first. Just be careful.
Pro-tip: Understating the grain and blade control is the key to satisfying wood carving.
Sacrificing some stock to practice the basic cuts without any design and getting the feel of the material is a great idea. It may seem like a waste of material, but in fact, it will assist in the long run. The better you feel the wood and the knife, the better the result.
А straight cut happens when you hold the blank in your off-hand and push with your thumb against the back of the blade while controlling the knife with the knife hand. The blade moves away from you. Try to combine pushing and slicing motions to reach the best effect.
Try making straight cuts with different parts of the blade to control the amount of material that is being cut. This goes for the amount of pressure too.
Stop cut is cutting across the fiber to prevent chipping off. Try rocking the blade a bit instead of just pushing it down. This is a great way to make straight edges and control the amount of material that is being taken off.
Combine a straight or peeling cut with a stop cut to create pronounced edges and make pieces of the design stand out.
While performing a peeling cut, you will hold the knife with four fingers and use the knife hand’s thumb as a lever to draw the blade towards yourself.
Note: Always place the thumb below the blade to avoid cutting when the blade comes off the wood.
Combining straight cuts and peeling cuts will enable you to take out a lot of material without the risk of chipping away large chunks of your blank. It is the best way to make indented curves.
Grooves or v-cuts
To make a groove, you’ll need to push the tip of the blade into the wood at a certain angle and make one cut. Then make another one, parallel to the first one, but at an opposite angle. The part of the wood between the cuts will come off as a chip, leaving a groove. With this being said, let’s carry on to a few projects you might enjoy.
First wood carving project: a bird
A comfort bird along with a wooden heart is one of the simplest beginner wood carving projects one can make with even one knife. The basic shape consists of a head with a beak, a body, and a flat tail.
You can combine them in any possible way to have a nice silhouette of a bird. It is way simpler than a wooden spoon, which is often considered the best first attempt.
Start with carving wood to create a side profile, then make a top profile. The rest is just refining the blank into a body shape. Finish it by sanding and sealing the preferable way, and there you have it. It is a great woodworking project to practice all the basic wood carving techniques.
Second wood carving project: a gnome house
Making a small gnome house is a great way to practice texturing, as it requires minimum shaping. Just make the slanted roof in the upper half of the stock and then try to use V-cuts to carve out some details:
- four supporting columns in the corners;
- a door and a window on the front face;
- a window on one of the side faces;
- some sort of brick texture or other exterior wall finishing where it applies;
- a roof tiling or straw texture.
There’s no need to go into very much detail. Just imagine you are drawing with those grooves by variations of their thickness and depth.
Third wood carving project: a fox
A stylized fox figurine is a next step in practicing three-dimensional wood carving. The basic principles mentioned in the bird woodworking project are applicable here too. But you’ll have to work with a bit more shapes and details.
Just follow along with the general procedure. Mark the head, body with legs, and tail. Stay cautious with a weak point at the base of the tail, as well as ears and muzzle. Pick a bigger stock to keep on the safe side. And don’t be scared to make mistakes. 80% of them can be fixed. The rest 20% will become the experience.
Fourth wood carving project: a relief
Carving wood into relief is the next step in practicing texture. For starters, I would recommend going for a simple two-layered flower layout. Take a nice square 2”(5 cm) thick flat piece and mark the design on it. It is customary to use chisels and gouges for wood carving reliefs, but a knife will do too for such projects.
Feel free to mark every layer, though I would recommend marking only the layer that you are working on. It will prevent confusing visual clutter. Then just work your way up from the background until the last layer. The goal is to create defined lines and visual depth.
Fifth wood carving project: a miniature
A miniature is a great beginner project to summarize skills acquired through the previous four projects. A small, around 3” (7.6 cm) tall figurine of a gnome will do. Wood carving will involve both skills of working with shapes, planes, and textures.
Add a bit of detail to the beard with grooves, carve out a couple of folds into a hat, and find a nice shape for the hat as well. Express your artistic vision in any reasonable way, and there will be in wood carving.
Further wood carving
Iterate a couple of times through those few projects to build up the skills, and you are ready to crack on with more serious projects. You can carry on to crafting a wooden spoon or a wooden ladle. Or just try everything you feel like. Each way is great until you’re having fun.
Draw ideas for further projects from any source you’ll be able to reach. Find some blogs, and follow a couple of related YouTube channels or Instagram pages. Join the community, it is a great source of inspiration. Alternatively, there are tons of books dedicated to projects and wood carving techniques. Usually, there are plenty of them in every library or bookstore.
Now, to recap everything a bit, let me answer a couple of the most frequent questions.
What wood is good for beginner carving?
Go for a good dry basswood. It is the best material to start with. If there’s no access to it in your area, try some pine or yellow poplar. Cherry, butternut, walnut, or apple will do too, but they are on the expensive side and a bit harder, than basswood.
After picking up some skills and building up wood carving habits, you’ll be able to carve wood of virtually any kind, including greenwood taken straight from a tree. Some carvers rely on the forest supply of the wood, pick it, dry it and carve it on their own.
Tip. See my tips on How to dry wood fast for woodworking.
What material is easiest to carve?
The ease of wood carving depends on the grain structure and hardness of the wood. Pine and basswood are the easiest wood to carve into and are hard enough to hold the shape. Maple and birch are soft enough too. Cherry and walnut are next in hardness. All the mentioned species are great for beginner carvers.
What tools do I need to start carving?
There is a saying: “The best knife is the one in your hand”. And you can start carving wood with just one knife. A decent, and sharp one. But it will be much better to start with two nice wood carving knives and build up your carving tools from there.
Because as you explore materials and basic wood carving techniques, you’ll find the ones that suit you the most, and investing in them is the best way to go. So just get hold of a short, and a longer wood carving knife, as well as everything needed to maintain them, and you are all set.
Wrapping it up
So now you have the idea of how to start wood carving, and my part is done here. After making those beginner projects, just try whatever sparks your interest and move along.
Practice makes perfect.
Five wood carving projects provided above along with the initial instructions will be the starting point and the rest is up to you.
My name is Alex Mashinsky
I am an enthusiastic woodworking hobbyist who created topwoodworkingtools.com to provide helpful information and advice to fellow woodworkers.
The goal of the website is to help readers make informed decisions about woodworking tools and materials, with the ultimate aim of ensuring that they achieve the best possible results from their projects.
My main focus is on offering accurate, honest, and well-reasoned opinions and advice to help readers choose the most suitable tools and materials for their particular needs.