8 Basic Steps to Successful Woodcarving

  1. dan on scaffoldDecide what you want to carve.
  2. Make a scale drawing or plan for that carving.
  3. Find a piece of wood that suites that carving (size and material).
  4. Transfer your drawing or plan to the piece of wood.
  5. Roughing out or grounding.
  6. Modelling.
  7. Detailing.
  8. Finishing.


This is the unedited text in progress.   Please do not comment on spelling and punctuation.  It will change with time.  Comments on content are welcome.

Eight steps learning to carve anything.


When students call me and ask about carving classes the first question I usually ask what kind wood carving are you interested in.  Most answer “I don’t know”.

I ask this question because as time goes on I like to direct the instruction towards a particular interest of each student.  Most new carvers are unaware of the great variety of forms and categories that wood carving can encompass.  Most are only aware of the to generalized categories of relief carving and carving and around.


Relief carving being that which is carved into a flat surface and in the round being carving that are fully carved in three dimensions.  These categories can be divided into, realistic or abstract some also like to further divide these categories into foliage carving, decorative carving, chip carving, figurative work, lettering, wildlife, waterfowl etc.

Some students: say quote  “I want to learn to X”, the being a cat or lettering or what have you.  It has long been my contention that if you learn to carve you should be able to carve anything.


I’ve met many carvers that go to carving classes were at the end of the class it created some object or other, but most of no idea how to do it again or don’t know how to translate what they learned onto another carving.


It is my hope that through my carving classes students fully understand the fundamentals of wood carving, and to take what they’ve learned and move confidently into a lifetime carving enjoyment.



To carve anything you need to have a plan.  The good news is that basically it’s the same plan for 90% of all carvings you may want to attempt.


The plan goes something like this.

Eight easy steps:

  1. Decide what it is that you want to carve.
  2. Make a drawing or plan.
  3. Find a piece of wood suits what you want to carve.
  4. Transfer your drawing to the wood.
  5. Rough out for grounding.
  6. Modeling.
  7. Detailing.
  8. Finishing.



If you follow the eight easy steps you can carve anything.  From the simplest leaf to full figure the steps are always the same!  Carvers tend to get into trouble the transpose the order.  Which quite often leads to what I like to call “square duck syndrome “but more on that later.


Learning to carve is like riding a bike, you’re a little wobbly at first but once you have learned the basics.  How to balance, start and stop, the bike will take you anywhere you want to go.  However, with carving like riding a bike you must start with a few short trips around the block for you take on the Tour de France.



Part One: Stuff You Need to Know before you get started.

Tools, Wood, and Grain Direction


Regardless of your artistic ability, mechanical aptitude or your artistic talent, you cannot carve wood successfully unless you have a basic understanding of the tools, wood and grain direction.  For some this understanding will come quickly, others will struggle, particularly with  grain direction.



There are many ways to carve wood.  Many of today’s hobby carvers prefer to use die grinders, foredom grinders and Dremel tools.  These are equipped with burs and grindstone which come in a infinite variety.  For those who wish to use these, I say “more power to you”.  However, we will not be talking about those here.  I say if you’re going to carve Wood who would want to listen to the grinding and suck in all that dust all day.  Traditional hand tools work faster, and do a cleaner job and once properly sharpened her pleasure to use.


The vast array of carving tools that are available can be overwhelming.  The good news is the beginner Carver only needs a few tools to get started.  In my beginning classes I try to provide my students with as much information as possible about the availability of tools, and their wide variety of sizes shapes.  I believe it is helpful to know what is available, even if you will not be needing them all, especially to start.


There are three basic carving tools: knives, chisels, gouges.


The good carving knife will have a strong short blade and a long comfortable handle.  When beginning a good knife is an invaluable substitute for many carving tools.  Once you become proficient with your other carving tools however your knife will rarely be used.




Chisels and gouges.

A chisel has a straight flat edge.  It can be found in a variety of sizes and shapes including: pairing, mortising, general carpentry, and even large slicks for boat building and timber framing.

A good chisel is indispensable.  I prefer to use a paring chisel with a thin tapered blade beveled on one side only.  In the beginning a chisel with a blade a 1/2 inch to 3/4 of an inch-wide is a good start.  You will add more to your collection as you go.  Many commercial carving tool sets include a double beveled chisel, but I find that I almost never use mine.


The chisel can be used for almost any convex surface, and beveled side down can be used on many concave surfaces.  Almost all lettering can be done with a single chisel.  Of course more chisels and gouges can make carving more efficient, but they are not required to get started.  Oddly, lettering is somewhat of an exemption to the carving steps, once the basics of letter carving are mastered virtually any style of lettering can be tackled with confidence


Gouges come in an almost infinite variety of shapes and sizes.  Gouges is categorized in three ways, the size (i.e. width), the sweep (how much curve there is to the blade), and profile(whether the blade is straight or bent or spoon shaped).  The gouge will generally fit into widths from 1/32 of an inch wide to 3 inches wide.  There are larger gouges but they start become unwieldy as they get larger.


The curve of the blade also known as the sweep, is generally stated by a number between 2 and 10 or 3 and 11 depending on whether the manufacturers located in the UK or in continental Europe.  The important thing to know is, the smaller the number the closer the gouges to being flat.  The higher the number close to the gouges to being completely U-shaped.  Because each student has a different variety chisels and gouges, and I don’t force them to buy more than they want or can’t afford, I find it easier to talk in terms of fast and slow gouges.  A fast gouge removes material quickly and is more U-shaped.  These are the number 9 to 11 gouges.  A slow gouge is one that is almost flat these are the number 2 to 4 gouges.  Moderate gouges land in the middle these are the 5 to 8 gouges.


There are also specialty tools.  Parting tools sometimes called V-tools the most common being the 60° or 90° which refers to the angle that the two sides the tool will meet.  There are also veiners which are completely you shaped and get their name for their use in putting veins on leaves.  There are also others like skews and macaroni tools etc. These tools are usually only purchased as the need arises.


Gouges in all the configurations of size and sweep could easily surpass 300 tools if you wanted to have one of each.  To add further to the confusion each size and shape is available as a straight shaft, bent shaft or spoon gouge, as well as back-bent, fishtail or palm sized.  This brings the possible selection into the thousands.


The good news is that you can do a great deal carving with a very basic set of six tools.

All of these selections are full-size straight gouges:

  1. A paring chisel 1/2 to 3/4 inches wide.
  2. A slow ballads number two to number four 1/2 to 1 inch wide.
  3. A moderate gouge number five to number eight 3/8 three-quarter inches wide.
  4. If asked gouge number nine to number eleven 3/8 to 1/2 inch wide.
  5. A 60° parting tool 3/8 to 1/2 inch wide.
  6. The good carving knife with a short straight blade.


The above would make a good beginner set.  If you imagine yourself doing large carvings start with the larger range of tools if you imagine yourself doing smaller carvings start with the tools and the smaller end of the range.


Some students will buy commercially available sets of Palm gouges to supplement the carving tools in the beginning.  I’m not a fan of these tools, but they are an inexpensive way to get started.  Try not to rely too heavily on these tools.  Full-size tools are more efficient and easier to handle.




Holding your carving down:


One of the most important parts of traditional carving is fastening your work securely, so that both of your hands are free to control the tools.  You will never cut yourself as long as both of your hands are behind the cutting edge.


There are many ways to hold your work down.  There many expensive and elaborate carving vices sold and most will work adequately.  I don’t recommend buying one until you’re more aware of your needs and what will work for you.  When you start out, there are several easy and inexpensive way to hold your work fast.  Simply clamping your work to a firm surface works well for securing it in a bench vice.  Sometimes the clamps will get in your way.  A piece of scrap plywood or other wood screwed to the underside of your carving moves the clamps of the way and keeps them from getting in your way or damaging your work or tools.  Quite often with relief work I have found that double-sided carpet tape works as well as any clamp and gives you freedom of movement all around your carving.  Be warned however, if you viewed the tape on your carving for too long can damage the wood when you try to remove.  I usually try not to leave the tape on for more than two or three days at the time.  A more traditional method is to glue a heavy piece of paper between your work and a supporting piece of wood.  The work later be released by breaking the paper apart.  A piece of 2 x 4 or a 4 x 4 can also be screwed your work and clamped into a bench vise which allows you to move your workaround in three dimensions quite effectively.


  • How to hold a gouge for chisel
  • wood grain, what does with the grain mean?
  • how to choose wood
  • getting started.



Things Know before You Get Started


How to hold a gouge for chisel for knife


The first rule carving is always, always, always keep both hands behind the cutting edge.  This is why it is important to have your work properly secured.


As a general rule it is very important to try and keep a third point of contact with the work.  i.e.  Both hands are gripping the gouge with either the heel that you love your hand is in contact with the wood.  This allows for you to maintain control of the board movement of tool.  You cannot maintain contact with you and use your forearm or elbow for your body.  This rule also applies when you’re using a mouse in particular when you’re doing more detailed cuts.


The standard grip


This is the fallback position, it give you the most control should be used whenever possible.  This is a description of the standard grip are right-handed Carver if you’re left-handed simply reverse.  The factual find it easier to carve if you switch your grip from left to right and from time to time.  This will help prevent you from having to carve and some contorted position.


Hold your left hand out, palm up and thumb pointing away from you.  Made a gouge in your palm concave side down.  The blade should be in your hand, and your thumb should extend up to handle.  Curl your fingers around the blade and rotate your hand so that your palm is now facing down.  There should be a few inches of blade sticking out past your pinky finger and the gouge should now be in a usable position.  Please the heel of your right hand on the butt of the chisel handle.  You should be as old the handle of the gouge is making a straight line of your forearm.  Now lightly curl your fingers and comfortable position around the handle.  The strength of the cuts should come from your arms and shoulders not your fingers.  Your grip should be just tight enough to control the rotation and angle of the tool.  The place the heel of your left hand on the work, with read/write and provide resistance with the left.  The heel of your left hand acts as a pivot point helping you to control the movement of the gouge.


The underhand or finger grip


With this grip the right man remains in the same position.  The left hand grips the chisel or gouge between your fingers and thumb with the thumb on top.  The back of the left hand is rested against the work to help maintain control.  This grip is used for very light finishing cuts.


There are hundreds of ways to hold carving out for chisel, you will in time figure them all out for yourself.  Just remember the golden rule, all flesh bits must remain behind the sharp bits, and if it feels dangerous it likely is, stop what you’re doing and evaluate safer approach.


Wood grain

what does with the grain mean?


Wood grain is a strange and mysterious thing.  No not really!  Many people who think they understand it don’t, many who are new to the subject get it right away.  The best way to get a true understanding of wood grain is to get some hand tools and dig in.


Wood grain refers to the fibrous material that makes up a tree.  As a tree grows out from this center during the material are added each year.  These rings extend, more or less, full height of the tree.  Intrusions or knots are formed by merging rings coming from branches or defects in the wood.  These intrusions or causes the grain to be not so straight.


So what does it mean to go with the grain?  Easiest way to describe it, it’s alike in the grain of the wood, to the fur on a cat or dog.  If you bet the animal head so that the hair lays flat and smooth.  If you went the other way there would stand up and be messy.  So if you liken the fibers of the wood to the hair of a cat, to work with it, is to work in the direction which lays the fibers flat.  This is essentially a very simple concept.  Where people have trouble, is when the grain changes direction within individual piece of wood.  Grain direction can also change with any which way you approach carving.  For instance, the grain may be going from left to right of carving the left side of an incised letter, and right to left will carving the left side or vice versa.  When carving the letter O grain direction changes eight times.  Been absolutely new Carver that might sound a bit intimidating, but really it’s not that bad.  The grain direction is dependent primarily on the fees of wood that you want the not the part that you’re cutting away.  When carving wooden three dimensions grain will be consistently changing spending on which part of the carving you’re working on.  Good news is a real very quickly learn the lay of the land your carving, and where the grain is and is not so obvious.  If you’re not sure grain direction can easily be tested with the like that from a chisel or gouge.


How to choose wood


What wood you choose will largely be dependent on what it is that you are planning to carve.  Theoretically, all with their carve able, but not all are created equal.


Smaller carvings with a large amount of detail and often benefit from a hardwood that will hold the fine detail large carvings on the other hand are more quickly completed with the wood of the softer which allows the wood to be removed quickly.  Find details in the loss of wood that has a heavy grain, a stylized carvings may benefit and even be enhanced by heavy grain.  For the beginner I would recommend staying away from most of the harder and grainier woods.  This would include woods such as Oak and Ash an even hard maple or even cherry.  Softwoods can often be stringy brittle, in the beginning it is better to avoid these as well.  Spruce and fir are not good carving was.  The best all-around carving woods by the softer hardwoods.  Most popular of these is basswood or Lynden, which are the same more or less.


Basswood is a light straight grained wood that has very little pattern to it and easily available and cheap.  Is a very fine grained was that will easily tolerate the occasional faux pas with regard to grain direction.  Another great wood for carving, if you want have some grain pattern is butternut.  Butternut is not available in some areas due to a Blight, but it is worth trying if you can find it.  Is not as forgiving is basswood, but carves is easily the grain look similar to ash for Oak.  My personal favorite is black walnut or pine but really nice pine is hard to find so for economic reasons and speed in most often carve basswood.


List of wood characteristics

  1. fast
  2. butternut
  3. Walnut
  4. ash


How to select a piece of wood

anks Dan




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6 Responses to 8 Basic Steps to Successful Woodcarving

  1. Ria says:

    This was SO helpful! I am researching for a project and i got a TON of info!thank you whoever wrote this😊

    • blogadmin says:

      You are welcome. Sorry that it is so full of grammar and spelling errors it is a first draft. I haven’t had time to edit or add to it, but will someday.

      • Terry Cochran says:

        I’m getting ready to carve a Manatee out of a piece of Basswood. I have the basic tools for doing so but not the right mindset….nervous that I will slip & make a mistake. I’ve only been carving a couple months & have carved a boot (toothpick holder), a dog and a bear (each are about 5″‘s ). The Manatee will be a lot larger, approx. 16 to 24″. Any suggestions on where to start my carving once & have drawn a rough sketch outlining the shape I want? Terry

        • blogadmin says:

          Hello Terry

          Cut with a band saw or similar or carve as close to the line as you can. Do this from the top and the side. You will end up with a square version of the carving. Do not attempt to round anything off at this point. Next use a set of dividers to measure points of reference for the carving. for example the intersection of flippers and body. Carve away any obvious bits that are not not required like above and below the flippers. Mark a center line for the body on all sides. Then round the figure to these lines but make sure you don not remove them as if you have done a good job cutting out the shape these should be the widest measurement of the figure. Use dividers and calipers to take measurements from you drawing and transfer them to the wood and work to the desired shape. Avoid putting and detail on until you are happy with the overall shape of the carving.

          Hope this helps.

  2. Adenle Olukunle Sunday says:

    It’s was educative, and we’ll explained

    Thanks 👍

  3. Thomas Carroll says: