The ideal carver's wood might be as soft as white pine, with mahogany's straight grain, totally without knots or difficult grain, and able to hold detail as well as persimmon. But the next carver in line may well prefer working with very hard woods that dull tools quickly, with difficult grain including knots acting as designed in pieces to add to the attractiveness of the finished carving.
Here we'll take a look at the first set of features, those that make carving easier to do, but we'll also do a sideways check of some difficult-to-carve woods that provide extra satisfaction for a great many woodworkers.
Notes On Wood Preparation
Because wood dries slowly when air dried, tensions are released slowly: fast drying in kilns, if not well monitored, can actually create tensions within the wood, adding to stresses that are there from the growing years. For this reason, air dried wood is usually best for carving. But it is well to remember that air dried wood dries only down to the ambient humidity of the surrounding air. For use in a shop environment, you need to move that wood into the shop for at least eight weeks to allow it to condition itself to that area's humidity. The thicker the wood, the longer the period of adaptation.
For the most part, avoid buying wood with obvious problems that will interfere with carving--this includes loose knots, large knots, shake, wane, cup, twist and any kind of warping, as well as fungi and any stains. Look at the lie of the grain--rub your hand over the planed board. The direction in which it feels smoothest is the direction in which it cuts most easily, and the direction that produces the smoothest, shiniest cuts. Straight grain wood is nice. Twisted grain and interlocked grain are usually things the woodcarver wants to avoid, unless the carver is looking to enhance the carving with such features of the wood.
For small carvings, get a mildly grained (figured) wood. Otherwise, the grain will dominate the carving detail. For larger works, stand-out grain is fine, often enhancing the look of the finished carving. Close grained woods also take and hold detail better--look for wood listed as easy or moderate to work.
Keep an eye on color changes within the wood, too. Too great variation can create an unintended look.
Some American Wood Species
We're not covering all the woods available in the United States and Canada here--and we're covering a couple that are not too easy to find here--but these are generally all considered moderately good or better carving woods for the reasons listed.
Basswood (Tilia Americana) is easy to work, Europeans sometimes call it American lime because it bears some carving similarities to European lime (Tilia vulgaris). Basswood is an off-white, almost cream colored, tending towards very light brown. The grain is straight, and texture is even. It holds carving detail very well. The wood has no characteristic odor or taste. It seldom warps after seasoning, making it close to ideal for larger pieces, as well as great for smaller carvings. Cost is moderate, usually 25 to 50 cents under the oaks.
Butternut (Juglans cinerea) is also called white walnut. Though it is much softer than black walnut, it is related, and figure and grain patterns are very much alike. The narrow sapwood is almost dead white, but the heartwood is a very light brown, possibly with some pink tones and the occasional dark brown streak…the streaks can make for very effective carvings if handled well. The wood is lightweight, and the texture is coarse. It works easily and holds detail well. It is a fine carving wood.
Cherry (Prunus serotina) is not as easy to work as the above two woods. It classes as moderately difficult, in fact, but the reddish brown color and gentle figures make it an attractive wood to carve. Cherry shrinks a lot in drying, but is very stable afterwards. Power tools can burn cherry, but hand carving tools won't. Appearance is great, it holds detail well, and is currently one of the highest priced American woods because of its popularity for general woodworking. Cherry also darkens as it ages, with color over the years becoming almost as dark as black walnut (which, oddly enough, lightens as it gets older).
Maple (Acer saccharum [hard] and Acer rubrum and others [soft]) are carving woods that present some challenges. The grain patterns are not as straight as in some other woods, especially in hard maple, and create a tendency to blotch when finished that also shows up as varying density when you're carving the wood. More careful planning of cuts may be needed here. There are numerous special grain names for maple, including birdseye, curly, fiddleback and tiger, which can create great special effects in your carving (and make you work for every compliment as the wilder the grain the harder the carving). Holds detail well and finishes to a high shine.
Red Oak (Quercus rubra, et al) is a group of oaks that are all porous (open pores run long distances, so that it is possible to use a 5-6" long piece of red oak to blow bubbles in water, as if you were using a straw). Quartersawn red oak has many attractive rays. Grain is sometimes difficult for carvers, but it takes decent detail (not as good at really fine detail as basswood, cherry, and some others, but pretty good--and it lasts nicely, as evidenced by my house's red oak newel posts that were carved and set in place around 1915). Keep the tools super sharp for this one.
Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is a semi-forgotten wood that is useful for a ton of things, is best used quartersawn (it's not particularly stable in its flat sawn form), and has a really lovely lacey ray pattern when quartersawn. The wood is a silvery white to reddish brown and is a moderate item: it is moderately heavy, moderately strong, moderately stiff, moderately hard and has good shock resistance. It holds detail quite well, probably a little better than red oak, and finishes nicely. Carving can be fairly difficult, but it rewards the work.
Walnut, American Black (Juglans nigra) has heartwood that varies in color from very light brown to almost purple. It is usually straight-grained and easily worked, as well as being heavy, hard and stiff, with good shock resistance. It is a moderately open pored wood that takes natural finishes well (and needs a filler to reach a really high sheen). It is difficult to say enough about the good qualities of this wood, but it is a very, very good carver's wood as well as being a very, very good, and attractive, general use wood. Demand has recently been down a bit, as the lighter colored woods are currently more popular, but the price is still fairly high.
A Few World Woods
Most of these woods are not commercially grown U.S. and Canada woods, but some may still be available as local woods in some areas.
Lime (Tilia vulgaris) is an excellent starter wood for carvers because it is so small grained and easy to carve that it is very forgiving of many mistakes that might ruin carvings in other woods. The grain is tiny and not particularly distinctive. The wood is straw colored, or lighter. This may be found as a decorative planting in America. Sharp tools give the best finish (but when isn't this true?).
Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) is also known as Honduras mahogany, with most now coming out of Central America. Heartwood color varies from light to a dark reddish-brown, right on to a deep, rich red. Grain is usually straight, but may be interlocked. Texture is medium to coarse. Mahogany has low stiffness and resistance to shock loads, but dries nicely, without distortion, and is stable in use. It works easily with sharp tools, and has been for a long time one of the premier furniture and decorative woods of the world.
Pear (Pyrus avium) is difficult to work, close-grained and very hard, but works nicely in small carvings. Strong and tough, but may distort, and has a tendency to split. It is very stable once dried, and is widely used for fancy turnings, as well as carving. A challenge to work, but again a rewarding wood that holds detail exceptionally well.
Tupelo is also known as black gum, which is slightly odd name for a wood that is very light in color, with a pale brownish heartwood, sometimes tending to gray, and fading into a wide band of lighter colored sapwood. Tupelo resists splitting, is uniform in texture and has interlocked grain. The grain makes it hard to work, but it is rewarding for power carvers. Tupelo stains nicely, and can be finished well, is heavy and moderately strong, and holds detail very nicely.