Types of Wood for Carving

Choosing the appropriate wood for carving can depend on many factors. Is the wood soft enough to cut easily with a chip-carving knife, or do you need a chisel and mallet? Will it have a natural finish that shows the grain, or will it be painted?
Some carvers choose interestingly shaped sticks or logs. A freshly cut log can present problems since it is still filled with a great deal of moisture. If the log dries too quickly it may check (crack) badly. It is best to let the log air dry for an extended period of time until it reaches an acceptable level of moisture content to prevent unwanted cracking.
The alternative is to purchase kiln-dried wood that has been cut into boards. If a large block is required, the boards can be milled with a planer and joiner to give flat surfaces that can be glued together. An advantage of gluing is that large, unusual shapes can be created, unlike the confining shape of a log.
For carving small, hand-held craft objects, such as duck or shorebird decoys, characture figures, and chip carving (decorative designs on flat surfaces like the sides of jewelry boxes), basswood is an excellent choice. It is soft and easy to carve, the close grain holds small carved detail, there are few knots or blemishes, and it is stable when dry. However, basswood's softness makes it difficult to apply a stain evenly an carved surfaces or attain a glossy finish. Most basswood carvings are painted.
For sculpture with a natural wood finish, walnut, mahogany, cherry, or butternut provide rich color with an attractive grain pattern. Butternut is very soft and the easiest to carve with hand tools. Walnut, mahogany, and cherry are rich in color, moderately difficult to carve because of the dense grain, and they take finished well. Gouges and a mallet will be needed for these woods.
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