Choosing wood for carving

The wood used in wood carving

Woods, like so many materials we use, are subject to fashion. For instance, pitch pine and mahogany suffered an eclipse at the close of the nineteenth century but now they are again gaining favor. Fresh treatments and new designs make us see these woods in a different light. Those who can look back far enough remember the pitch pine school desks, still surviving in the 1920s. They were usually ink-stained and scarred and for me associated with being ‘kept in’ on sunny afternoons.

Now, less pitch pine is imported but the strong resin-filled grain with its striking pattern would lend itself to modern treatment. A wood craftsman I met recently talked sadly of the time when he burned quantities of pitch pine veneer because at that time it was out of fashion and unsalable. Of course, some woods are more pleasant to carve than others. Some will carve in almost any direction, others are stubborn with difficult grain, and some blunt the tools.

In this chapter I describe some thirty-five woods which are suitable for carving. The carver should be ready to try any variety of wood that comes his way, provided it is seasoned and little expense is involved. Woods new to this country are continually being imported and exciting discoveries can be made. A few minutes’ work will show the carving qualities of a new wood. The amateur, carving just for his own pleasure, can afford time to experiment on small pieces while the professional carver tends to use woods already proved. When you go to a lumber or timber yard do not be put off by the look of the outside of a stack of timber. Sometimes it is stacked in the open under a roof but not closed in, a method also used in air seasoning.

At first glance the wood may look a uniform grey but its true color will not be revealed until the wood is cut or carved. Wood as a material is invariably of great interest to those who work with it and in a timber yard you might possibly find men who have been in the trade for years. You will find them knowledgeable and very ready to tell you all they know. Wood that works easily in their machines is likely to carve well also.

In the following descriptions, the weight in parentheses is the approximate weight per cubic foot of air-seasoned timber.

  • White Afara (3<M0 lb.). A straw-colored wood, this is a general utility hardwood. It will carve reasonably well and is even in texture. Afara splits very readily and takes glue, stain, and polish well. It is often used for turned work and parquet flooring. Afara is grown in tropical Africa.

    Red Alder (28 lb.). Red alder is easy to work on and finishes well. It is durable even in damp climates.
  • Crab Apple (46 lb.). The color is pinkish grey to light brown and the wood is suitable for fine carving. It is hard and heavy. Unfortunately, the tree does not grow to more than 12 in. in diameter as a general rule. The wood takes a fine natural polish with handling. It is used for mallet heads, drawing instruments, saw handles, and other purposes where a fine-grained, reliable timber is required.
  • Ash (45 lb.). Color white to light brown. Ash is a rather tough wood to carve but not excessively so. The grain is broad in character and strongly marked. Other uses: furniture, axe- and hammer-shafts, hoops, and rims.
  • Basswood (26 lb.). Easily workable and soft enough that you may dispense with your mallet, this wood tends to brittleness and is susceptible to decay. Especially useful for woodenware, it takes stain well and can be finished to a fine luster.
  • Beech (45-50 lb.). Beech varies in color from greyish pink to warm light red. It is plentiful in America and used widely in the furniture trade. It is a reliable all-purpose hardwood, with an even texture that can be worked in all directions, carves and polishes well, and will readily take stain.
  • Boxwood (60 lb.). Boxwood is remarkable for its uniform yellow color. It is almost like ivory in that it will take very small carved detail without breaking. Boxwood was used extensively in the seventeenth century for small figure carving. Unfortunately, owing to the bush-like nature of the tree, the sizes are small. It is commonly used for chessmen, modeling tools, rulers, pulley blocks, bowls, and wood engraving.
  • San Domingo Boxwood (58 lb.). This wood is sometimes used as a substitute for true boxwood. The heartwood has a yellow tinge, the sapwood is white to pale yellow. The texture is uniform and fine. It is very durable and has a straight but wavy grain. It carves well and takes a very high polish.
  • Butternut (27 lb.). The wood of the butternut, a member of the walnut family, is much in use for cabinetwork, inlay, and veneer as well as for carving. Unlike the walnut, however, this wood is soft and rather weak and may be carved entirely by hand. You should, in fact, avoid exerting too great an effort when working with this wood since, due to the weakness of its texture, you may easily make a larger cut than you had intended and thus ruin your project. A light grey-brown in color, butternut will take both paint and polish effectively.
  • Wild Cherry (40 lb.). Like other American fruit woods, wild cherry is a very good carving wood. It needs slow seasoning and tends to split if dried quickly. The sapwood is light and the heart-wood a reddish-brown. The texture is fine and even and it takes a smooth polish. It is used also in cabinetwork, frames, and other decorative work.
  • Sweet Chestnut (42 lb.). This wood can be mistaken for oak but it is about twenty-five percent lighter when seasoned. The silver grain present in oak is absent, however. It is easy to work and has been widely used for timber work in churches.
  • Ebony (63 lb.). Ebony, not easily obtained, is black with a fine grain. The tools tend to blunt because of the rather gritty nature of the wood. It will take fine detail and a high polish.
  • Elm (36-37 lb.). Elm, like ash, is a wood familiar in everyday life. We see it in wheelbarrows, furniture, and garden seats, and— like ash—it is tough and strong and suitable for large wood carvings.
  • Douglas Fir (31 lb.). This is very strong wood and quite hard. It does, however, have a great tendency to check, split, shrink, and swell.
  • Holly (36 lb.). This wood, fine-grained and heavy, is pure white in color. As the holly is of shrub-like proportions, its wood can be used, like boxwood, only for small objects and carvings, musical instruments, and inlay. Holly is fairly easy to work with and will take detail without breaking or splitting.
  • Curly Jarrah (55 lb.). This wood is rich red in color and is probably the most important tree found in Western Australia. It can grow to as much as six feet in diameter. Jarrah carves well and takes a very high natural polish. It is extremely durable. The grain is straight but with a wavy or rippling character.
  • Iroko. This is the West African carver’s favorite wood. Exposure to air turns the wood from straw color to red and the surface hardens. Finally, however, it becomes hard all through and it is resistant to termites.
  • Kingwood (70 lb.). This timber, not easily obtained, is found in Brazil and is similar to Indian Rosewood. Sizes are small, the maximum is 18 in. in diameter. The color of the wood is remarkable, almost violet with narrow, regular black stripes interspersed with wide, lighter bands. The grain is uniform and the wood will burnish to a fine natural polish.
  • Lignum Vitae (80-90 lb.). This is one of the heaviest of all woods and is therefore widely used for mallets and tools where weight and toughness are required. The heartwood is dark green­ish brown and the sapwood a contrasting yellow. The fibers of the wood are interlocked and it is impossible to split, though it can be carved with sharp tools.
  • lime (33 lb.). This is a favorite wood for sculpture. It is firm and pleasant to carve. The color is whitish to yellowish pink. Lime takes stain or bleach readily, the latter turning the timber pure white. It is moderately hard and takes a very good polish. Lime is also used for drawing boards, hat blocks, and cabinetwork.
  • Honduras Mahogany (43 lb.). There are various species of mahogany, but from the carver’s point of view, the characteristics are similar. It is a good carving wood and of a beautiful rich red color. The grain is usually fairly straightforward. It does split rather easily and care must be taken in carving when this tendency is apparent. Mahogany glues well and takes a fine polish.
  • Red Maple (38 lb.). A wood with easy workability, red maple is used in woodenware, cabinetwork, and furniture.
  • Silver Maple (35 lb.). This soft maple is employed a great deal in trim and paneling.
  • Sugar Maple (42 lb.). This wood has a fine natural luster and is quite stable when properly dried.
  • Oak (43 lb.). For hundreds of years, oak has been esteemed as one of America’s finest woods. Although it is not eminently suited for small detail, it lends itself well to bold carving. It resembles ash and sweet chestnut in grain character.
  • Northern White Pine (25 lb.). Finely textured and of the usual yellow-white color of pine, this is an excellent wood for carving, because it is both easily worked and inexpensive.
  • Ponderosa Pine (28 lb.). This wood has a fine grain and finishes well. It is quite soft and of easy workability. It is a preferred material in the paneling.
  • Sugar Pine (25 lb.). Like that of most pines, the wood of the sugar pine is yellowish-white in color, straight-grained, and durable. A softwood, it is easily carved by hand and will present no difficulties to the beginner. The grain of this pine is particu­larly stable and even.
  • Indian Rosewood (54 lb.). Rosewood is a rich, dark brown with dusky blackish markings and sometimes has a purplish tinge. It is hard and heavy and takes a very fine polish. It is excellent for carving but not inexpensive to buy, is often used in the manufacture of musical instruments, billiard cues, and fine inlay.
  • Eastern Spruce (28 lb.). A softwood, with fair workability, it is especially favored for its soft and satiny texture. Although it is a strong wood, this spruce is not decay-resistant. It is used particularly for making patterns and musical instruments.
  • Sycamore (40 lb.). Sycamore is white but turns light brown in the open air. It is very easy to carve. The grain is straight and indistinct. If used out of doors it should be protected against the weather as it rots very easily. It is fairly hard and is used for rollers, tabletops, and textile machinery.
  • Teak (41 lb.). Teak is a rich golden brown. It carves readily but has a rather coarse and uneven texture. It is durable under almost any climatic conditions. The wood contains aromatic oils which act as a preservative. Its tough nature tends to blunt tools. The grain is straight but undulating—a quality peculiar to trees grown in dry soils. Teak is grown in India, Burma, and other countries of the Far East.
  • Black (American) Walnut (38 lb.). This wood of rich color and distinctive figure makes beautiful carvings for fine furniture, veneers, and cabinetwork. It is hardwood.
  • Willow (30 lb.). Willow is straight-grained, soft but tough. The wood is whitish to pale brown in the center. It seasons without difficulty and is suitable for carved toys.
  • Yew (46 lb.). Perhaps the most beautiful of the conifer woods. It is hard, with a fine decorative grain, excellent for wood carving, cabinetwork, and turnery.

Procuring wood

With a little enterprise a small stock of wood suitable for carving can soon be acquired. Aim at collecting sound, dry timber. Visit large carpentry shops in your district where you may find that you can buy off-cuts for a few cents. Not all timber yards deal in seasoned woods, so inquire about this before buying. Large mahogany table legs from Victorian pieces may sometimes be found, also newel posts and thick wardrobe panels that can be utilized for carving in relief. If you are prepared to spend some money on a stock of wood and to buy seasoned timber, contact a firm dealing in a variety of woods, including hardwoods. Four inches is usually the maximum thickness of the planks supplied by such firms.

These large merchants will not as a rule sell less than one plank which may be 9 or 10 ft. in length. If you do make this kind of investment, you will have enough wood to make a dozen or so small carvings. Do not despise the pines and firs which are often loosely termed ‘deal’. Many of them have a very beautiful grain and can be polished if the grain of the wood is well sealed.

The grain of wood as it affects carving

The grain of the wood has a bearing on carving in a visual sense and also in a practical way. In some woods, such as boxwood, the grain is hardly visible and also tremendously strong, close, and even in texture.

Fig. 1. Diagrams showing the strength and weakness of the grain. A. Tangential section in Douglas Fir. B. Cross-grain section in Douglas Fir. C. Cross-grain section in African Walnut. D. Structural use of grain in toys.

Other woods in this category are rosewood, ebony, and sycamore. In such woods, fine detail can be cut in any direction without fear of a fracture. In figure 5, A, you will see a small piece of the tangential section in Douglas Fir, that is the grain fibers are running down the length of the section.

This gives strength. B shows a cross-section in the same wood: this is weak and if a similar piece is less than 1 in. square and 5 in. or more in length, it can be snapped very easily by manual pressure. C is a drawing of a piece of black walnut 1 in. x 3/4 in. x 5 in., and broken in the hand.

You should take care, therefore, to design your carving with an eye to the direction of the grain. For instance, if you are carving an animal and the base, from one block, with the legs joined to the body and base, they will be fairly strong even if the grain runs across the legs.

Fig. 6. Italian ‘penny’ toys; Yootha Rose collection.

If, on the other hand, the legs are free without a base, as in the Italian penny toys illustrated in figure 6, the grain must run the length of the legs. These toys were sold in the Italian markets during the 1920s and ’30s for the equivalent of one penny. If you look at them, you will notice that the necks are thick and the noses rather short and the tail of the dog is at an angle. This means that although carved from one piece, they are very strong. Only the cow’s ears and horns are made of separate pieces of wood and glued in. These would certainly have broken off if carved from the main block. Cross-grain weakness is not confined to the softwoods. Hardwoods, such as oak, are very brittle in a cross-section of less than 1/2 in.

A diagonal run of grain is fairly strong and, as forms in carving do not necessarily run at right angles to each other, you are bound to find the grain running diagonally in many places. Also, the grain does twist and turn in some woods. In small work, such as toys, I would advise you to use close or straight-grained wood with no knots, however small.

Ornament carvers, when making delicate carvings such as wall-light brackets, sometimes laminate sections with the grain of each piece running in the opposite direction to that of its neigh­bor. When glued up, these pieces support and strengthen each other. In figure 5, D, you see a method of making toys in eight sections for the sake of strength, the grain in every case running the length of the thinner parts of the horse; the ears, legs, tail, and body are all in separate parts. This type of toy is usually cut out on a fret saw, glued up and then carved by a knife in the hand. I have used a similar method of construction in making a carved horse in mahogany for a restaurant sign. The pattern of the pieces will vary according to the design.

In many kinds of wood, such as jarrah, which grows under very dry conditions, the grain is often wavy but straight in direction. This type of grain in no way impedes carving. Woods such as lignum vitae, have an interlocking grain and turn well on a lathe but can be difficult for an inexperienced carver. In carving lime wood, apple, beech, cherry, sycamore, pine, oak, and mahogany, you will not find any serious difficulty as far as grain is concerned, provided you remember the strength and the weakness of wood described in this chapter.

Carving a log 

I have discussed the seasoning of wood and the desirability of using dry timber. There is a great risk of splitting if this latter rule is not observed. However, I do not overlook the fact that you may have a log of wood in your garden just asking to be carved. If you are willing to take a chance on its opening-up then by all means go ahead. Cracks are not necessarily disastrous and can be filled. I have heard of carvings splitting completely in half but you may not be so unlucky. First, bring the log undercover and jack it up on wood blocks in a cool dry place. If you can leave it for some months, do so.

Many say that a log should be given a year’s seasoning for every inch of its diameter. I have heard a timber merchant say that the center of a large log is never seasoned. It is not easy to make rules about this as so much depends on the type of wood and the humidity of the atmosphere. In any case, you should not hasten the process of drying by exposing the log to direct heat. If you paint the cut ends it will help to prevent splitting. If a log is kept in the dark, in for instance the cellar, and then suddenly exposed to the light, splitting will often take place. I know this from painful experience.

In medieval times wood carvings were often made from the trunks of trees that had been hollowed out from the back. This enabled the wood to contract and expand. If therefore, you hol­low out the center of the log it will help. This is not easy but you can bore a few holes up through the center with the auger.

A carving in a large log of wood, such as elm, may develop cracks, but the wood is very tough and the whole mass holds together. When carving just to please yourself experiment with any wood available, remembering that most of the fruit woods are excellent for carving. Do not, therefore, turn your apple or cherry tree into logs for the fire.

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