The best wood for wood carving

Learn what you need to look for.

What is the best wood for wood carving? You can carve any type of wood, but that doesn’t mean that you will enjoy it.

A lot depends on what type of carver you are. If you are carving by hand, you want wood that is soft and cuts easily, does not peel or chip, and will hold paint (or stain) well. 

If you are using power tools, the best wood for wood carving will be something that is harder. 

best wood for wood carving collage

Important considerations

For small carvings, you should know that a highly grained wood may overpower your carving details. Personally we like highly grained wood. 

Harder woods will dull your tools faster, which means you will need to strop and sharpen them more often. You may also need to make smaller cuts. 

Woods that have blemishes that will affect your carving and design (such as knots) should be avoided. 

raw woodBackyard wood isn't always ideal for carving

The best wood for wood carving by hand is easy to cut

Balsa wood is super soft and easy to carve, but it crumbles easily. If you are making a model airplane it might work just fine. If you are carving a detailed caricature, you will probably become frustrated pretty quickly.

Some say that wet or green wood is the best wood for wood carving. While it may be easier to carve, it often cracks as it dries. 

Our rule of thumb is to start with basswood to build your carving skills for figures, caricatures, and chip carving. Then try some other wood and see if you like the results. 

Basswood blocksBasswood from different suppliers

Best wood for wood carving properties at a glance

The table below will give you an idea of different types of wood and how some carvers are using them. We’ve also included the Janka hardness test scores to give you an idea of the difference between various timber species.  

Note: Bear in mind that the Janka test measures resistance to denting and wear. It does not reflect how difficult a wood is to carve

Balsa wood infographic
Poplar wood infographic
Butternut infographic
Red cedar infographic
Tupelo infographic
Cottonwood infographic
Basswood infographic
Mahogany wood inforgraphic
Birch infographic
Red oak infographic
Pear wood infographic
Aspen infographic
Black walnut wood infographic
Eastern white pine infographic
Cherry wood infographic

Kiln dried versus air dried wood: the big debate

The purpose of drying wood is to reduce the moisture content. 

What method of drying wood provides the best wood for wood carving? 

The chart below tells you how kiln dried wood compares with air dried wood.

Air dried wood infographic

What we think is the best wood for wood carving

In our experience, the best wood for wood carving comes from a mill that uses a mixture of both methods—first air drying and then finishing in a solar kiln—to provide easy-to-carve basswood blocks. 

We feel this hybrid-dried wood is the best of both worlds! 

basswood eggSome suppliers will cut wood down or provide different shapes

Is craft store basswood the best wood for wood carving?

Definitely avoid basswood from big-box craft stores. It is usually poor in quality and you will not get clean carving results. 

If you are just starting out, you can certainly buy a little to see if you like carving. Then invest in some wood from a better wood source.

It will make your carving much more fun. 

Know that some basswood suppliers will only provide long blocks of basswood in various widths. You may have to cut the wood down to smaller-sized blocks. 

Long basswood blankSome suppliers only provide long blanks

 Avoiding allergies, toxins, and odors

There is nothing worse than getting a skin rash from the wood you are carving. This website provides a database of wood types and includes known health risks.  

Some wood may not be a good choice for carving spoons or other kitchen utensils because it is toxic to humans. 

For example, cedar is a beautiful wood but some species (e.g., Australian Red Center) can cause stomach cramps. This database provides common reactions, areas affected, and potency of many species of wood.  

Speaking of cedar, it has a strong odor that may not appeal to everyone.  Check the databases above to learn more about wood and odors. Basswood generally does not have an offensive odor. 

Cedar woodCedar is colorful and aromatic

Tips for storing basswood

As basswood ages, it can become tight and hard to carve, especially if you do not store it properly. 

If you are buying your wood in bulk, keep it in a place where the temperature and humidity are stable.  

Some carvers wrap basswood in saran wrap or place it in closed plastic containers. 

We store our basswood in a cool, dry place (away from heat and air conditioning) inside Ziploc bags. We check the bags often to be sure they are not gathering too much moisture or getting moldy.

Others keep their basswood on shelves in their shops or basements. If you do, avoid direct sunlight.

Wood too dry?

If your wood is dry and hard to carve, first check that your knives are super sharp. 

If the wood is still challenging to carve after sharpening, try storing it outdoors in a sunny place inside a closed plastic container, along with a sponge that is damp (or a bowl of water). Leave it for a day or two.

Some carvers spray dry wood with a mixture of 50% water and 50% isopropyl alcohol to rehydrate it.

You can also store the wood in a damp area of your home and see if that helps. 

Wood too wet?

Wood that you collect from outdoors may have a high moisture content and will need to be stored outdoors until it loses some moisture.

Keep it off the ground so air can circulate. Also avoid covering it tightly with a tarp or covering. 

What moisture level is "just right" to be the best wood for wood carving?

Moisture content in wood is a delicate balance. The ideal moisture content is 10% to 12%. Unless you have a moisture content meter, however, it is hard to determine the exact moisture content of your wood. 

Want to know more about moisture content in wood? Read this scientific article

Best wood for wood carving summary

  • There are many different types of wood you can carve
  • The best wood for wood carving may be a matter of personal choice
  • Basswood is ideal for those who are new to wood carving
  • As your skills improve, you can try other types of wood

Sources:Bell Forest Products, Inc.; Hardwood Distributors; Woodcraft; Woodworking Network; The Wood Database; and Chippingaway.com



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