Getting Started – Woodcarving

For our first installment I’m going to talk about some basic things you’ll want to have handy to get started woodcarving. Some of these are things you already know and some of them you may not have thought of but I have found them all to be very handy.

I bet you already had this one figured out. If you didn’t know you needed wood to be a woodcarver you may need to find a friend to help you along.
What kind of wood? That’s a great question. Most folks start out with basswood. It’s tight-grained but it’s not too hard. It also paints well. Another wood similar to basswood is jelutong. If you want a wood with a nice grain for a natural finish then pick butternut. If you plan on doing a lot of power carving then tupelo is nice for that.

Carving tools
This one’s pretty obvious as well. Occasionally you’ll find some Neanderthal beating on a piece of wood with a rock but for good results you definitely need some tools specifically for carving.

Which tools do you need first? First of all I would buy a knife. There are some very specific knives out there for woodcarving. There are knives for roughing out, detailing, and other functions. I would start with a general purpose knife and add some others as you go along. I do not recommend a regular pocket knife. That’s fine for whittling but won’t do much for your carving.

Adding gouges is next. I started with a nice v-tool and then worked my way into the rounded gouges. There are enough options out there to fill the hands of an octopus. Don’t add tools until you know you need one.
If you are like the rest of us, as soon as you buy your first tool you will contract a horrible condition called collectus muchos toolitis. The basic symptom is the constant desire to add tools to your collection. The only known cure is to hide money in your mattress and use it to buy more tools. If your spouse finds out you may contract a condition called gluteous muchos hurtous.

Which tools to buy? There are many brands of tools on the market and many of them are of fine quality. Check out the advertisements in ‘Carving Magazine’ for the different brands and vendors. Visit the vendor websites or give them a call if you have specific questions about their tools. Always buy quality tools. They’ll last a lifetime and you’ll never regret it.


Have you ever tried to cut through a piece of leather with a butter knife? You end up frustrated with a mess of hide and the cow ain’t happy either. That’s exactly what it’s like trying to carve with dull tools. Wood is hard. Even the best wood in the world won’t carve well with dull tools.

Most tools you buy will come pre-sharpened (always check with your vendor). You won’t have to put an edge on them but you will need to maintain that edge so first off buy a strop. A strop is basically a piece of leather that you can add some compound to that will help keep your already sharp edge sharp. Think straight-razor-old-timey-barber-shop and you know what a strop is.

For more advanced sharpening there are many different stones and machines out there. Again, check the advertisements in the magazine and past articles for more details on this subject.

Vices and other holding methods
You’ve got wood and some sharp tools so you’re almost ready to go. The next thing you’ll need is some way to hold the wood.

For smaller pieces I usually just use my hand. Hands are very good at holding wood, they’re small, portable, and I usually always have two of them with me. You can’t ask for more! The problem with hands is that they are very susceptible to being cut. There was once a great baseball pitcher named Three-Fingers Brown. That was a neat baseball name. However, Two-Fingers Smith isn’t as exciting if you got that name from your carving buddies. Wear a protective carving glove on the hand that holds the wood. There are many different kinds available and I guarantee that you can find one you like. I also wear a protective piece on the thumb on my hand that holds the knife. This protects my thumb when I’m pulling the knife towards it. If I slip I’m usually OK.

If you’re carving larger items you will want to invest in a vise. There are many of these around. They come in a variety of sizes and have different abilities to position the wood in favorable ways. Do your research and you’ll be alright.

Something to Carve
This can be the biggest problem for some novices. They can’t figure out what to carve. I went through a long period of trying to carve what others were carving, carving what I thought others would like, or trying to carve what would sell. None of those options are any fun. There’s only one thing you should carve and that’s what you like. If you like birds then carve birds, fish then fish, caricatures then caricatures. You get the idea. If you already like it then you’ll probably know it pretty well and be more interested in doing a good job. Look through this issue and past issues for ideas
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