Understanding Trees Through Wood Carving

Wood carving is a ver low-footprint hobby that can give one a new perspective on wood and the forests which that wood comes from.

Practiced for thousands of years, woodcarving can produce intricate sculptures, ornamental designs, furniture, or even kitchen utensils. Beginners can pick up a block of wood and a chisel or carving knife and get started right away. 

What is wood carving?

You’re simply using tools to cut and shape your desired object or pattern from your choice of wood — whether that’s hardwoods like oak or softwoods like basswood. Some people choose this hobby to relieve stress or connect with nature, while others find it to be almost a meditative practice. Some also seek profit or a sense of purpose. 

No matter your motivation, you will be working with wood in much the same way even prehistoric people did. The oldest known wood carving, an idol unearthed in Russia, dates back to about 10,000 B.C. It stands over nine feet tall. 

The Art Institute of Chicago says wood carving appealed to Americans of all ages and nationalities in the Midwest of the early 20th century. Instruction manuals were easy to find. The institute also says the Works Progress Administration even contributed to one published by the Chicago Park District. Today, the art form remains popular with retirees, though some have passed it on to younger generations. 

As in any endeavor, knowing some key terminology is a great place to start:

  • Chisel: A tool with a flat blade used for lines and cleanup of surfaces. Can be hit with a mallet.
  • Gouge: Curved implement for carving curves and hollows
  • V-tool: Used to outline and add detail. Also known as a parting tool.
  • Bench knife: A simple knife great for beginners and basic carving projects.
  • Rasp: A scraping tool with triangular lines of teeth that leave a rough surface.
  • Riffler: A double-ended file with cutting edges designed for tight spaces.

Safety equipment is also a must, as you will be dealing with sharp wood carving tools and flying chips of wood. A good pair of gloves and eye protection are essential. Needless to say, just like you’re careful about your environmental impact, be careful while using any sharp tools.

Wood and woodcarving (and the environment)

Next, you will want to choose which type of wood you will be using. This will depend on what you’re making, of course. Basswood is popular and versatile, often used in spoons and bowls. Balsawood is good for dollhouses and ornaments. Butternut is inexpensive and ideal for wood art. You can use cherry for decorative items you might sell later. Hardwood like maple, hickory, and alder is very dense and fire-resistant, but also expensive because of how long it takes to grow.

Some of these woods are more eco-friendly than others. Here’s a good rule-of-thumb to keep in mind: if you’re buying the wood it’s less eco-friendly and may contribute to deforestation. If you’re scavenging the wood it’s more eco-friendly and in most cases won’t have any negative impact on forests.

To keep your wood carving as eco-friendly as possible, use scrap wood. You can collect wood that has naturally fallen from trees or has been washed ashore on the beach. Every carver has their preference for wood types and the hunt for a nice piece of wood can be just as enjoyable as carving it.

If you want to get into woodcarving you can further explore these different styles: 

  • Whittling: Using a carving knife only on a piece of wood. This style lends itself very well to using driftwood and other scavenged pieces. It’s also a great place to start because it requires little investment for tools.
  • Relief carving: A method that creates a pattern, scene, or other design that projects only slightly above the wood’s surface.
  • Carving in the round: This method is easiest for beginners and yields a smooth, polished surface on a three-dimensional sculpture. Depending on the size, you will need a bandsaw, knife, and gouges.
  • Chip carving: Removing wood chips piece by piece. Most often used in decorative wood ornaments.