Carving and Carving Techniques

When it comes to truly creative and skilled woodworking, carving leads the pack.

If you break down regular woodworking, it often amounts to simply assembling a range of components in a routine fashion to make a complete structure.

Carving, on the other hand, involves the removal of surplus material to that the form hidden beneath is revealed. Blending your own ideas with the innate quality of the wood is what successful carving is all about.

Different Types of Carving

Imagination is your only limitation when it comes to carving.

There are many completely different styles.

  • Relief carving: With this specialist form of carving, you carve away the background of a wooden panel. This leaves you with a 2D form set in relief
  • Floral carving: These very detailed and intricate carvings were usually created in basswood or lime. This style has a rich heritage and peaked during the 17th century
  • Sculptural carving: These large-scale carvings from laminated composite forms are incredibly realistic

Tools For Carving

You can pick from a very wide range of carving tools.

From a crude pocket knife through to gouges and chisels, you are spoiled for choice. Many of these tools have very strange names from the fishtail to the macaroni.

A gouge is the staple tool for carvers. With its outside bevel, you can chip away at the wood piece by piece. Your gouge can also come in handy if you are working with curved profiles. You use it much like a straight chisel. Rest the bevel on the surface of the wood. This allows you to control the depth of cut effectively. Work slowly and methodically away from you. Tap lightly using a little mallet.

Spoon gouges have a cranked shaft shaped like a spoon. These are ideal of you are carrying out any deeply recessed work.

When it comes to roughing out your work, use a carver’s mallet. Made from beech, you’ll get no shocks as you tap away. The round head means you can approach your work from any angle.

Standard woodworking chisels are tailor-made for the heavy work that comes before you move on to the detailing.

Basic Tools

  • Skew chisel: Great for undercutting. Blade is beveled on both sides
  • Parting tool: 60 degree ¼-inch and 45 degree ½-inch. Perfect for patterning, outlining and lettering. The 2 straight edges form a V-shape
  • Straight gouge: Various sizes from 1/8-inch through to 5/8-inch. General carving tool. You need to sharpen it to a bevel on the inside and outside
  • Fluter: 3/8-inch and ½-inch. This is a type of gouge with the sweep greater than a semi-circle
  • Mallet: A round wooden mallet was the traditional favorite. Modern versions with iron heads demand less effort and tend not to bounce around as much as wooden mallets. Choose whichever feels best

Wood carving tools

Specialized Tools

  • Salmon-sweep gouge: 1/4-inch and 3/8-inch for cutting recesses and curves
  • Spoonbit gouge: Superb for cutting recesses and acute curves
  • Backbent gouge: ¼-inch for accessing awkward spots
  • Spade: 3/8-inch and 5/8-inch. The splayed blade helps you see the wood skimming away
  • Fishtail: 1-inch. Used for heavy work. You can invert it for rounding over
  • Macaroni: Cut straight sides with a flat bottom. ¼-inch
  • Flutaroni: ¼-inch for cutting straight sides with a flat bottom. Also good for curved corners at the point where the parallel sides meet the bottom
  • Veiner: 1/16-inch for extremely fine and narrow gouge-style cutting

As with all woodworking tools, there’s no need whatsoever to try rushing out with a huge shopping list.

The best toolkits are built up over the course of time so focus on the basics first. If you find you really love carving, you can work on accumulating some more advanced tools in due course.

Woods For Carving

When you are looking for wood to carve, opt for something that’s stable with a close grain. Here are some great examples…

  • Alder
  • Basswood
  • Mahogany
  • Oak
  • Walnut

That said, since you can work away slowly with a range of sharp tools, you can carve most wood to a greater or lesser degree. All you need to do is approach it with care and from the right direction and you can tame even the knottiest grain.

If you have the chance, roll with well-seasoned wood. There’s nothing worse than beavering away at a carving only for unsightly cracks to appear as it dries out. This is especially critical if you will be working in fine detail.

Check out PEG (polyethylene glycol), a wax-like solution that gets right through to the structure of the wood. It works by replacing the water and acting as a stabilizer. You can buy this in most good craft or tool shops.

Carving Techniques

Carving work demands a very creative mind. You need to conjure up what a 3D form would look like on a flat surface.

By breaking the piece down into a pattern of interlocking or overlapping planes, you can simplify things slightly. For example, if you are using square stock, first draw the shape on all 4 sides. Work on opposing faces in turn.

Preparation is fundamental to any successful endeavor. Carving is no exception. When you are marking out, use straight and square stock for best results.

Here are some handy hints to get some basic carving techniques down pat…

  • Stand when carving for superior control. Set up your work bench so there’s no need for you to stoop over the work piece
  • Rest your arm on the work bench or the work piece to keep full control of the tool you’re using
  • As you carve, move the wood around. You want the wood you are working to be close at hand
  • For running cuts, rest your thumb and middle finger on the tool. Exert backward force with your index finger so the tool won’t run through too quickly. Use your other hand to push the tool forwards. Keep your index finger pointed down the shank
  • Cut away from yourself whenever possible
  • To make a setting in cut, simply stab your tool down vertically into the wood
  • Use a mallet for driving your cutting tools if at all possible
  • When you are working with hard woods or bigger pieces, wrap your fingers around your tool to generate backward pressure. Rest your wrist against the work piece
  • Always cut in the direction of the grain if this is practical


We hope you’ve enjoyed this glance at carving and some simple carving techniques.

Please drop us a line if you have any queries at all. We love to hear from our readers and are always happy to help.

Now get started with some carving and see what you can come up with!

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5 thoughts on “Carving and Carving Techniques

  1. Coasters with the initials of my boyfriend and I — that’s what I’m gonna try to make. Hope I carve those coasters good! :))))

  2. This is one of my favorite guidelines on the site! It really gave me an idea of what to expect when carving. What a good basic guideline for carving.

  3. I remember my first carved piece… it was a simple ornament I wanted to give to a friend… made so many mistakes which was normal of course…. but luckily I had my brother to tell me more about wood fillers, super glue, sanding paper, and even an iron and a pencil color. My ornament did look decent at the end, but just decent. But all of my efforts paid off and today I make sculptures that are more complex. so, don’t give up, beginners!

  4. Do I need to have a lathe to do decent sculpture carving or are the basic tools that you’ve mentioned enough for achieving the effects that a lathe would have on a piece of wood? I wanted to make a Mezuzah, but I can’t afford a lathe. I know that it might be a tough first project, but I wanted my first carved object to be meaningful.

  5. Which brand of tools do you recommend for the more experienced carvers? I’m not a newbie, but neither am I an expert in this. I’d say I fall somewhere in the middle. I’ve done some research on some sets and I’m thinking about getting the Flexcut SK107, but I’d really like to hear your opinion.


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