In this article, we will explore the best wood for carving. Whether you are carving with a Dremel or manually with a whittling knife or gouge, you will need to know the best wood to use for a given project.
The basic rule of thumb is simple – the softer the wood, the easier it is to carve by hand. A power carving rotary tool like Dremel is better if you are going for harder wood. Wood that has a hard grain is more difficult to carve by hand. That said, woods with harder grain have their advantages.
Best woods to use for carving:
Using Woods of Different Hardness
The hardness of the wood will determine how much effort is required to make a cut. This also means softer wood wears out quickly. So if you are making something for daily use, it is better to find a medium to hard wood.
Wood with a harder grain tends to hold details better. This is great for small projects, where softer wood would not hold minute details very well.
The hardness that we are talking about here is not the traditional differentiation between softwood and hardwood. This is about the actual hardness of the material. This is determined by how tight the grains are and how the wood is dried.
It is measured on the Janka scale. This scale is measured in lbf or pounds-force, indicating the amount of effort required to push a steel ball into the wood. A fancy way of measuring hardness, but it works!
Thanks to this scale, we know precisely where a type of wood is in relative hardness.
The Drying Process
Most greenwood is easy to cut. A live tree has soft and supple wood that is alive and growing. This wood, when freshly cut, is still soft and pliable, making it an ideal medium for beginners to hone their skills. However, carving greenwood is not always feasible. Greenwood needs to be dried very carefully. Otherwise, it will crack or warp, or both.
For this reason, as well as for the sake of convenience, wood carving is mainly done on dried wood. When the wood is dried naturally after cutting, it is dried over a more extended period. The sap slowly evaporates, and the grain is left in its natural state. This kind of drying produces grain that is easier to cut and shape.
Kiln drying is the other way of drying wood. As the name suggests, it is done with the heat from a kiln to speed up the drying process. This has consequences, however. Kiln-dried wood tends to have a tighter, more unnatural grain. This makes the same wood harder to cut and shape.
So when you are sourcing your wood, it is essential to source naturally dried wood. Otherwise, you might not get the hardness you want for your project.
Now that you understand these additional factors about the wood you will be using, let’s dive in!
This is the best wood for hand carving. It is lightweight and soft, making it easy to handle. It is excellent for both beginners and professionals. Most wood under a Janka rating of 900 lbf is considered suitable for carving, and this one has a rating of 410 lbf.
The grain is nice and straight, and it rarely has knots. It also does not splinter easily, making it an easy wood to deal with overall. The color is soft and beige, making it great for coloring afterward if required but also appealing when kept as is.
For these reasons, most of the branded carving wood blocks that you will find online are Basswood. It is suitable for both small and large projects because it tends to hold detail relatively well at smaller scales. However, I would not recommend this wood if you are making some kind of utility like a keychain or a locket. In that case, use a harder wood higher on the Janka scale.
Aspen is 420 on the Janka scale, making it a very soft wood to carve. It has closed pores and a tight grain like Basswood and is lightweight, making it ideal for carving. This makes it a fairly common choice in the wood carving community.
Aspen has very low flammability and gives off a lovely shine when rubbed with penetrating oil. Its light color just adds to the effect, making it an ideal choice for pieces that will be polished. Properly dried Aspen weathers very well. It will ensure that pieces carved from Aspen last a very long time.
It is an easy wood to find and grows in many areas. Your local supplier or lumberyard is very likely to have some Aspen lying around. If you live in an area where Pine and other conifers grow, you are very likely to find Aspen.
Pine is a commonly favored wood for carving. It is a conifer that grows abundantly all over the USA. This is one of the most common timbers available anywhere. At just 380 lbf, it is one of the softest woods you can easily find. It is possibly the next most common wood for beginners after Basswood.
With alternative grains and a lot of residual resin, it is not the ideal wood for carving. It can, however, be dried and seasoned to become good stock for carving. A kind of Pine called Ponderosa is harder than other types, rated at 460 lbf. This might be a better option for carving smaller projects if it is readily available.
Yellow Pine can be even harder, rated at 870 lbf. This type of Pine is best approached with a good rotary tool if you are a novice.
This is a member of the same family as walnut and also goes by the name of white-nut. The wood is almost a cross between walnut and Basswood and has properties of both.
It is lighter and softer than walnut, making it much easier to carve in comparison. You will find it almost effortless to work with, making it ideal for really fine carvings. Its tight and fine grain allows for a lot of detail work that a wood-like Pine would not support.
It has a hardness rating of 490 lbf, making it an ideal wood for carving by hand. The only problem with the wood is that the fungus called Butternut canker threatens this beautiful tree’s population. It is being pushed into becoming an endangered species.
The color tends to be light with a light brown heartwood, giving your carvings an exciting look.
There are two common types of Cedar found in the US. One is called the Eastern Red Cedar and the other Western Red Cedar. Cedar is a fragrant wood, which makes cedarwood oil a commonly used essential oil in the fragrance industry.
Western Red Cedar smells the best, but Eastern Red Cedar has more visual appeal. So for wood carving, you are most likely to be attracted to Eastern Red Cedar. The Eastern variety is also fragrant, but it is not as mild and pleasant as Western.
Eastern Red Cedar is rated at 900 lbf, so it is definitely not suitable for beginners unless using a rotary tool. It has a richer color that is more appealing. The western variety has a lighter color and is very soft, at only 350 lbf. White Cedar is not as common, but it is softer at just 320 lbf.
The only problem to watch out for when working with Cedar is knots. Cedara is (k)notorious for having knots all over. So choose your block carefully and plan your design around any knots.
Cherry is classified as hardwood and physically hard on the Janka scale. Coming in at 950 lbf, cherry is not an easy wood to carve for beginners. However, the physical beauty of the wood is what gets most woodcarvers interested in it.
It has a rich and fine grain that runs straight and smooth. This makes it a lovely wood to carve even though it is so hard. If you are carving with a rotary tool, you can look at Cherry wood for your more delicate pieces. The end results look amazing when rubbed with some penetrating oil.
Cherry wood is fairly common and readily available in most areas. However, the price may vary depending on where you are. It is usually a moderately priced wood, but it can be expensive to buy in some areas where it is less common. In that case, you can quickly look at other types of wood.
Both White and Red Oak are popular when it comes to wood carving. However, Oakwood is very, very hard. It is rated at 1335 lbf, making it the hardest wood on this list by far. It is also classified as hardwood.
Oak has a beautiful grain, light color, and a fine pattern to it. White Oak is more common than the Red variety. It has tiny open pores, making it less lasting than something like cherry. However, as a cheap hardwood that is also physically hard, it is a good bargain if you want pieces that will see some use.
It can be brought to a beautiful finish, has a pleasant odor, and is long-lasting when used inside. Since it is cheaply available, it is an excellent option for furniture.
So that is it for my roundup of some of the most common and some of my favorite wood for carving. I hope this list has given you a good starting point for choosing your wood for carving. Sourcing wood doesn’t have to be challenging or expensive.
You can easily find off-cuts at lumber yards, used timber at salvage yards, and much more, which are usually free for the taking. You can also use fresh greenwood if you want something quick and easy to hone your skills on.
If you are new to wood carving, I encourage you to go read my articles on various aspects of wood carving, including a detailed post on how to get started.