Six Essential Tips for Woodcarving

I'm by no means an expert woodcarver but have been practicing for long enough to notice the significance of certain aspects. The following points stand out, they can make the difference between satisfaction and utter despondency.

  1. Plan ahead
  2. Use good quality tools
  3. Sharpen well
  4. Support the workpiece securely
  5. Be aware of the wood's grain
  6. Be patient

They may seem obvious, but that's the big problem, these things are really easy to overlook. I'm going to print this list out and stick it on the wall, I suggest you do the same.

1. Plan ahead

Yeah, obvious. But specifically with woodcarving, it really does pay in the long run to devote plenty of time to planning. First there is making sure you've got all the tools and materials you're going to need (not forgetting superglue and band-aids for those unintentional cuts in work and fingers respectively). Even if you're lousy at drawing, rough sketches can not only focus your mind on the task ahead but also reveal potential problems ahead of time. There's little worse than spending hours working on something only to discover a silly oversight that means it won't work.

rough sketch

If you're making something fairly figurative, making a model in plasticine is a good idea. Any bits that look especially tricky can be tried out on a piece of scrap. Consider making a disposable prototype using cheap materials. Experiment, experiment, experiment.

If you're really lucky, there may be something you can copy from.

squirrel carving and stuffed squirrel

Don't forget the woodworker's maxim : measure twice, cut once.

2. Use good quality tools

Good quality essentially means steel that will hold an edge and a comfortable handle.

Nothing can be more frustrating than trying to work with bad tools. No matter how much effort you put in, however careful you are, you'll be lucky to get good results.

Good quality doesn't necessarily mean expensive. There are cheap sets available but beware, often the price is reflected in the quality - nasty bendy steel that won't stay sharp. Look for a respected maker's name (When buying new I personally favour Henry Taylor tools: no-fuss solid Sheffield ware, though there are lots of other good brands around, e.g. Pfeill, Two Cherries etc). While new gouges usually cost around £20 upwards each, second-hand ones can be found at a fraction of this price (junk shops, yard sales, obscure online shops, eBay). As long as there isn't too much pitting of the metal, even very rusty tools can be resurrected. Tools that have come from another carver's toolbox are likely to be good, whatever their age (if you see a personal name stamp on the handle, that's a win).

good gouges

Smaller tools do tend to be less expensive, but bear in mind it's pretty straightforward to make your own from masonry nails using a blowtorch and hammer. With care the quality can be top notch.

What's more, it's much better to have two or three quality tools than dozens of poor ones. Virtually any carving can be done with a couple of tools. It may take longer than it would having racks of gouges available, but it's still possible, which it probably won't be with bad tools. Even if you have racks of gouges, you will tend to use three or four of them more than any other. It's often easier to make two cuts with a slightly suboptimal tool than look for the ideal one and make one cut.

3. Sharpen well

Yup, sharpen well, sharpen again and keep sharpening. The necessity of properly sharp tools cannot be overstated. They simply don't work properly unless they're razor sharp - literally. While the steel/temper of carving tools is usually a little less hard than shaving tools (to avoid destruction by bashing and enable easier resharpening), the required edge is very much in the same ball park.

It can be seriously tedious getting an fine edge back on a tool that hasn't been used for a long time. But the effort will be repaid by sheer pleasure when using it. Also, a little counter-intuitively, sharp tools are much safer than blunt ones because they allow you considerably more control and require less force. Not so likely to skid off into flesh. But take care if you've not used the particular knife before - treating a genuinely sharp knife as if it were a normally "sharp" one can easily result in injury (as I once discovered when I borrowed a knife off a chef to cut an orange and it slid gracefully through the orange and continued effortlessly through my palm).

Not strictly relevant to sharpening but also on the subject of safety: you've probably heard the one about always cutting away from the body. With woodcarving this is still a good idea, especially if you're new to it, but not the whole story. It doesn't matter if parts of you are in the line of fire as long as you are in complete control of the cut. That's what to aim for. I've not personally tried using leather/Kevlar/chain mail safety gloves, again they're probably a good idea if you're new to carving. But I suspect long term they're probably best avoided, because of the psychology of risk compensation - if you feel safer, you're more likely to take risks, and that suggests decreased control. Having said all that I must also say that although eye protection isn't usually necessary while carving it's absolutely essential when using power tools. (I'm short-sighted so my glasses are my usual protection, but I'll still pop on the goggles if I'm grinding or whatever).

It's usually best to try and sharpen all the gouges and knives you expect to use during a carving session before you start, give them a wipe to remove any traces of stone and also wash your hands. Once a tool is sharp, it can be kept sharp by briefly stropping it periodically during the carving session (say after every 10 or 15 minutes of use of that particular tool).

At the end of a carving session it's a good idea to wipe the tools with an oily rag and remember to keep them in a dry place.

4. Support the workpiece securely

As well as control over the cutting tool, you need control of the thing you are cutting. Traditionally the woodcarver would work standing at a heavy-duty wooden bench with their work either held in chops, a leg vice or on a screw. While these approaches are always options, all that really matters is that the piece you're working on isn't going anywhere. This can be achieved using anything from a carpenter's bench and vice, a solid tray on your lap with ad hoc wedges or a thick piece of plywood on the kitchen table and a handful of clamps.

A vice used in conjunction with wedges in bench dog holes makes a good solution to holding flat work.

work held indirectly with vice

If the work is small or an unusual shape, it may be possible to knock together a quick-and-dirty holding jig from bits of scrap.

Plywood laptop carving tray Little jig

Modern screw clamps are really cheap and can work perfectly well. Every time you visit a tool shop or hardware store, pick up a couple more. If the work you're carving is coming from a big piece of wood, you can probably leave some of the surplus attached to help with clamping. Even if you can't clamp to the work directly, you may be able to screw it to a board that you can clamp.

Work held indirectly with clamps

You can never have too many clamps.

5. Always be aware of the wood's grain

The grain is probably the most important characteristic of a piece of wood in practical terms. How the blade of a gouge or knife is angled relative to the grain will determine how the cut proceeds. Cuts in the direction of the grain take less effort, but have a tendency to slip out of control. Cuts straight across the grain are harder work but aren't so likely to surprise. However most cuts will be made between these extremes, at a diagonal at some angle.

Diagonal Cut

The grain can be very deceptive. Sometimes it looks like what's needed is say, to simply use a V tool to cut out a line or curve to outline a form. But although the grain might be running in a favourable direction for one side of the V, on the other side it's running exactly wrong, and the result when you try it is a nasty tear.

Diagonal cut - good side Diagonal cut - bad

In fact quite often when you'd ideally like to make a single, possibly deep groove the grain on one side is angled in a way likely to cause problems. One trick that can help in such situations is to cut a line vertically into the wood down the middle of where you want the groove to go, then make two cuts to form the groove - one in each direction.

Actually, think twice before using the V tool would make a good candidate for a 7th tip, a lot of the times when it seems like the best tool for the job it isn't. What's more it's the hardest to sharpen, so best left alone unless it's really called for. Ok, if you're doing a relief, the V (also known as parting) tool is an obvious choice for outlining. In these circumstances the groove it makes acts as a marker and stop cut (see below) for where the ground will be as well as a something of a stop cut when you come to setting in (making vertical cuts around the exact outline of the relief). But for both these purposes a tight gouge or veiner, say a No.10, 1/4" can do the job equally well. Just consider it, all I'm saying...

The stop cut is your friend. In its basic form you make a vertical incision across where you want your planned cut to end at the depth you're aiming for, so the wood won't split beyond when you make the actual cut. There are many variations of this basic technique. For example, say you were carving some letters in relief, and want to get the background down immediately around the letters. It may be useful not only to make a vertical stop cut around where the edge of the letters will be, but also gouge a groove further away from the letters than the cut you really want to make. This way there's a kind of fire break on either side of your planned cut, it's much more likely to go the way you want it to.

While some woods can be easy-going, fairly consistent across different directions (e.g. basswood, boxwood) others can be really obstinate and prone to split (e.g. some oak, chestnut). Ideally you should experiment with offcuts of the piece of wood you're going to be carving, failing that start the work with really gentle cuts until you get a feel for how it responds.

6. Be patient

No matter how slow you feel you are proceeding, you're very unlikely to get better results by trying to speed up. A true cliche : more haste less speed.

Generally it is better to make a few well-placed cuts rather than a lot of little ones, it's more efficient and the result is usually more pleasing. However unless you're pretty sure a particular cut is going to work, the shave-shave-shave option is preferable to one big screw-up.

Mistakes in themselves may be undesirable, best avoided, but in the great scheme of things they're positive. Making mistakes is a great way of learning. There's always next time.

If you find yourself starting to make mistakes, take a break.

Some final thoughts

Aim for perfection, but be happy if you achieve mediocrity. If you've made something that didn't exist before, no matter how shabby, that in itself is a significant achievement.

Oh yeah, and never give up. Well actually, give up if you want to, it's entirely up to you.