Carving wood can lead to the most beautiful works. But what makes certain species of wood great for carving? Each tree has growth rings that happen in two parts, one in summer and another later in the year. If the growth across the seasons is similar, both the same consistency, that wood will be easy to carve.
So, how to choose the wood species that is the best for carving?
What Is the Best Wood for Carving?
Some of the best wood species for carving are Basswood, Butternut, Black Walnut, Cherry, Aspen, White Oak, Western Red Cedar, and Eastern Red Cedar. Each wood species has a Janka Hardness rating of 410, 490, 1010, 950, 380, 1335, and 900, respectively.
Knowing the wood species that are best for carving can help you choose the correct one for the level of skill that you have. Some wood species are more suited for beginners, while others require more effort to work with, making them slightly more tricky and suited for advanced woodcarvers. The wood species in this article make carving a seamless experience.
Can You Carve out of Any Wood?
Generally, softwoods that can be cut easily and retain shapes are considered as good wood For carving. Here we are not talking about the softwood vs hardwood classification; rather the physical hardness of the wood on the Janka scale.
Woods with lower Janka ratings are easier to work with manual carving tools. As a rule of thumb wood species with a Janka rating of 900 lbf (pounds-force) or lower can be carved with knives and gouges. Anything higher may be easier to work with power tools such as Dremel, angle grinder, and chain saws.
10 Best Wood for Carving
Although there are many other wood species that woodcarvers work with, below you will find the best wood for carving for both beginners and experienced woodcarvers.
1. Basswood – The Most Popular Wood for Carving
Basswood, also known as lime, is the most sought-after in wood carving as it is what most people consider your ideal wood. Basswood has a 410 lbf Hardness rating and does not splinter much, making it nice and soft. You can carve it easily, and it comes in various cuts and sizes.
The wood grain is straight and uniform, meaning that it goes in one direction and is not all over the place or getting wavy and having funky knots in it. It has an appealing soft color to it. There are two different types of Basswood, kiln-dried and air-dried.
Air Dried vs Kiln-Dried
Air-dried wood has dried out slowly and naturally. This process releases internal stress and tension that the timber experience during drying, making it easier to whittle and carve.
Kiln-dried wood is a little more complicated because the drying process was sped up, making the grain get tighter together, therefore changing the grain structure requiring more oomph to get into.
2. Butternut – My Personal Favorite
Butternut is a beautiful member of the walnut family that goes by a few nicknames, one being White-nut. It is kind of like taking a Basswood tree and crossing it with a Walnut tree, as the properties are pretty similar.
Is Butternut A Good Wood to Carve for Beginners?
Butternut wood is lighter and softer than Walnut wood. It is effortless to carve, and many people often use it for decoys and fine carving. This wood species is in trouble because there is a fungus called Butternut canker that has caused Butternut wood to be an endangered species. With a Hardness rating of 490, this wood species is suitable for beginners.
This is another wood species that is very easy to whittle and carve.
Is Aspen Wood as Good As Basswood For Carving?
With a rating of 380 kg/m3 according to the Janka Hardness scale, Aspen wood is softer than Basswood. Aspen is a tight-grained wood with closed pores. This makes it similar to Basswood, meaning that it carves nicely.
Aspen wood carving will give a nice shine if you finish it with penetrating oil.
If you are a beginner at wood carving, then pine is a good choice. Pine is inexpensive, soft, and abundant in North America.
White Pine is softer than basswood and is very easy for carving. However, you should avoid pine knots; they are hard to carve.
The Southern Yellow Pine is harder than the white pine and is a bit difficult to carve with knives alone. Use gouges and mallet and you can carve some beautiful yellow pieces with it.
My only gripe about pine wood is that the grain can be all over the place. It can cause splitting and can be frustrating when it happens after you have put a considerable amount of effort into your piece. So be careful about the direction of carving to avoid splitting.
If you are searching for a wood that looks great with a subtle sheen, go for Sycamore. While it is harder than basswood and butternut, with a bit of extra elbow grease it carves beautifully. Or use a Dremel that will cut the wood like butter.
The quartersawn Sycamore often has these cool lacey ray grains that look beautiful when finished.
If you are a chainsaw carver try Sycamore. It retains the cuts well and is very easy to work with.
There are quite a few subspecies to Cedar, but the main two are Western Red Cedar and Eastern Red Cedar. Cedar is very well known for its smell. If you are an outdoorsy person, you may have gone out hiking and even stayed in a cabin and may have noticed that there is a lot of Cedar there.
Both the Western Red Cedar and Eastern Red Cedar are very popular but also very different. Western Cedar is not as visually pleasing as Eastern Cedar, but it has a pleasant scent that is milder than Eastern Red Cedar.
Commercially, Western Red Cedar is used for shingles, siding for barns, and boats like canoes. Eastern Red Cedar is used for chests, birdhouses, etc. Western Red Cedar is easier to get a hold of and is inexpensive, while Eastern Red Cedar is more expensive and a little harder to acquire.
Is Eastern Red Cedar/Western Red Cedar Wood Easy to Carve?
Both the Western and Eastern Red Cedar are softwoods and are both physically quite soft. However, Western Red Cedar is much more on the softer and delicate side compared to Eastern Red Cedar which is similar to Pine when it comes to softness.
Although Cedar can be dented, cuts very easily, and is super easy to work with when carving, it is well-known for its knots throughout the wood. Cedar has an even 900 Janka Hardness rating, making it more suitable for carvers with some experience.
Attention spoon carvers, here is your wood.
Birch is an excellent choice for carving spoons. While it is green, birch is very easy to carve. However, once dry you might find it hard to work with. Both river birch and paper birch are fine species for carving.
8. Cherry Wood
Cherry is a beautiful hardwood that is physically hard too. Cherry is one of the beloved woods to work with. It has a rich, fine, straight grain that makes it an attractive choice for carving projects. Commercially it is used for flooring, cabinets, etc., it is used on a wide scale.
This wood’s availability depends on your location and is a modest price for the most part, although it can be a bit pricey. Cherry wood is friendly to work with, although it can have figured grain, with a Hardness rating of 950.
You might also want to make use of power tools such as Dremel to do the carving since cherry wood is not easy to work just with knives.
9. Read Oak and White Oak
Now we are entering into the power carving territory. Oak is another hardwood that is a popular choice to build furniture with carvings.
What Makes Oak A Popular Carving Wood?
Oak is a light-colored wood with a well-defined grain pattern. This wood is technically classified as hardwood and is physically hard. There are a lot of subspecies to Oak, like Red Oak and White Oak. Red Oak wood is more commonly available than White Oak. It is a solid and durable wood that is widely available.
Red Oak has tiny open pores, making it less durable, although it is pretty inexpensive for hardwood, making it appealing. It is easy to work with and also cuts easily. It has a pleasant scent to it and has minimal burning.
Oak finishes nicely with just about anything and is an ideal candidate for furniture that sees heavy use, as it has a Hardness rating of 1335.
10. Black Walnut
Black Walnut is a beautiful, dark-toned wood that is Native to North America and is very popular. Commercially, walnut is mainly found in furniture, like dining room tables and gun stalks.
Is Black Walnut A Tricky Wood to Carve?
Walnut can have straight wave grain, curly grain, wavy grain, etc., making it appealing to many woodworkers that like a bit of a challenge, but also because your end product will look stunning. However, because of that, the wood can have a lot of internal tension. Black Walnut is a tricky wood to carve as a beginner because of its hardness rating of 1010.
Other Wood Species That Can Be Carved
There are several other types of wood species, each with its own properties and characteristics, which makes carving more diverse and enjoyable.
American Elm: The interlocking grains on this wood species make it difficult to work with knives alone. You may also have to deal with the tear-outs due to the grain structure.
However, elm can be carved with gouges and power tools and it has some beautiful color to it.
Poplar: This is yet another softwood that you can carve easily. It doesn’t hold the details as good as butternut or basswood; but still a good choice.
Alder, silver maple, elm, dogwood, mahogany, boxwood, white willow, white ash, etc are some of the other common wood species used for carving.
Now that you know all about the best wood species for carving making a decision should be a breeze. As a beginner, you can start with wood that has a lower hardness rating like Basswood and gradually make your way to working with other wood species like Cherry and Oak.
- What Is the Best Wood for Carving?
- 10 Best Wood for Carving
- 1. Basswood – The Most Popular Wood for Carving
- 2. Butternut – My Personal Favorite
- 3. Aspen
- 4. Pine
- 5. Sycamore
- 6. Cedar
- 7. Birch
- 8. Cherry Wood
- 9. Read Oak and White Oak
- 10. Black Walnut
- Other Wood Species That Can Be Carved