I’ve had several requests as of late from the few visitors that I have and their main question is; “What type of timber would I recommend for carving?” This leads me to think of all the exotic timbers that are available, then again, most of the people who are asking are novices starting out themselves. Exotic timbers always spring to mind as you dream of all the cool carvings that you can do, the various streaks of color and unique colors that adorn the more expensive woods, but getting back to reality, why spend hard earned cash on a timber that is more than likely to be difficult to carve. Sure this type of wood will produce memorable and eye-catching carvings but why place additional pressure on yourself when first starting out.
To me the most important aspect of carving is to first learn the tools that you have chosen to be your companion and the easiest way is to use a timber that can be readily purchased at a Home Depot, Lowes or a DIY store. There you can get good quality lumber without it being limited in availability, for instance, Select Pine is knot free, soft enough so that it carves like butter with a sharp tool and priced so that it doesn’t matter if the carving is not quite up to speed. With this type of wood you are not struggling with a hardness issue and can concentrate on the design and the carving, knowing that you can control the tool without excess pressure. Yes, I know this is a soft timber but to gain experience with sharp carving chisels and gouges the last thing needed is an extremely hard timber like Walnut to debut your carving skills!
With the Select Pine, care still has to be taken so that it doesn’t tear when excessive amounts of material are taken away. It will split, so carve with the grain when you can and use fine sandpaper to finalize. What can be better for your self esteem than a successful first carving.
If you are feeling more adventurous and want a harder material then the next best timber available from the DIY stores is a hard wood such as Poplar. This has a close grain that carves very clean and you will find that it is knot free. This material you will find needs more control of your carving tools because of the firmer material but nevertheless cuts cleanly and precise. For me these two timbers, Select Pine and Poplar are the best to use if shopping at Home Depot.
- Availability, always available and in different widths.
- Price, Select Pine is priced per board and Popular by board foot.
- Knot free, this is always a bonus as you will find the grain runs generally quite straight.
- Hardness value, first initial carvings need a user friendly material until familiar with carving tools.
As your carving skills increase the more challenging timbers that are readily available are Red Oak and Maple, both of these timbers are priced per board foot. With Red Oak you will find it is a lot harder material with a more open grain that is prone to stringy tears if you try and lever the material away on a deep cut. With any type of depth carving it is best to work the material from all angles to eliminate this type of problem. As in furniture making Red Oak finishes well and has a nice grain that would compliment any carving.
The hardest of the available timbers at Home Depot is Maple, this is a creamy white wood with very close grain and a hardness factor that will challenge most carvers but it does hold very good detail. With this wood it is important to maintain a very keen edge to get the best results and also for safety reasons. With Maple being a hard timber a dull blade is more likely to just skid across the surface rather than cut it leaving you more prone to injury. I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping those cutting edges sharp.
To give you an idea of how Maple looks when carved check one of my previous posts “Carving with Passion” the beauty of working with a hard wood is it will sand and polish up like glass with the right finish.
If the carving is going to be made from a thicker material than supplied by your local home improvement or DIY center then there is no problem in gluing several layers together with waterproof glue. It is important that the layers are clamped together to ensure that the glue joints are as thin as possible to the extent that is it near impossible to detect the joint and that the grain does flow in the same direction. The reason behind this is to reduce the amount of cutting against the grain and to give the impression that the block was indeed one large piece. If carving an irregular shape then the block can be glued up locally to give the necessary bulk to the areas that need it and again make sure the grain runs in the same direction.
I’m finding with my carvings that in trying something different I’m using offcuts from branches from the garden due to windfalls or annual pruning. It is surprising the different textures and shades of wood that you find that are not as readily available at your local timber store. The beauty of this is it’s free and if it doesn’t work out, I had fun anyway.