How To Carve Wood And Whittling – A Beginner’s Guide

For beginner woodworkers like you, it’s important to know how to carve wood. Only then can you create objects that you’ve always been dreaming of. As you perhaps know, there are four woodcarving styles, though the same tools aren’t used interchangeably. You, therefore, need to choose your carving style at the outset so you know which tools you’re going to need.

Types of woodcarving

Before learning how to carve wood, you should know that there are five wood carving techniques. So before you launch into any woodcarving project, it would be a good idea to find out which style suits your competence level and to create your project before you buy supplies. Take a look at these techniques…


This is a three-dimensional carving where the wood is extracted from around the subject to create a 3-D effect. The carving in this piece of wood can be seen from any angle. The subject may be large or small or could be made to scale or painted, stained or left as is. Here, objects are smooth and come with rounded angles, hence it is called carving in the round. All its sides are carved, unlike in relief carvings.

As a woodworker, you would use knives, veiners, gouges, micro tools, power tools and V-tools to create carving in the round objects, such as sculptures and decorative objects.

Relief carving

This wood carving technique involves carving wood away from around the object so that the object stands away from the wood surface. Relief carving is divided into three sub-types:

  • Low relief: Here, a small amount of wood is taken from around the object. Low relief carvings do not have any undercuts but can have lots of detailing.
  • High relief: Basically low relief, this technique allows for removal of more wood from around the object and undercuts to make way for shadows. Objects made from this technique are more dramatic than the low relief type.
  • Pierced relief: Areas to be carved are completely taken out so that you can pierce right through.

It’s common to find crests in relief carving. They can also be left untouched or painted and stained. To create all three sub-types, you will need knives, gouges, veiners and V-tools. You can make all kinds of decorative objects using these techniques.

Chip carving

One of the oldest forms of decorative woodcarving, this technique involves using a chip carving knives, chisel and hammer. By chipping away at wood, the woodworker removes a chosen few wood chips and creates intricate and unique patterns in wood.

how to carve wood

The patterns created here are usually repetitive and have structures like triangles, geometric shapes and curves. This technique calls for a lot of precision and practice before one can be skilled at it. Using this, you can make a range of decorative objects.

Incised carving

Incised carving involves carving the object’s outline into the wood with the rest of the wooden piece remaining untouched. This kind of carving is made using V-tools, veiners and differently-sized knives. Woodworkers can make decorative furniture with this form of carving, apart from letter carvings and carved wood block printing.


The oldest form of woodcarving, whittling is done using a carving knife. With this form of woodcarving, once the carving is done, you see the knife stroke, not a sanded surface. It is identified by it sharp and textured incisions that result in knife strokes. Whittling usually leads to creating angular sculptures.

How to get started on whittling: If you’re interested in whittling, here are a few ways of getting started on it:

Sign up for a class. This is perhaps the best way of learning this craft. Here, you will learn about different kinds of wood, tricks and techniques and safety precautions. Your instructor will walk you through the entire course while giving you step-by-step instructions. Your rough knowledge of this subject will be fine-tuned in this course, so you’re right in joining up for one.

Learn on your own. Perhaps you live far away from a whittling class or you like to learn by experimentation. If this is so, all you need to do is to pick up a knife and begin. You can start by reading up on the subject and following instructions from books or the Net.

Practice your craft. It helps to practice this craft so that your strokes are better. It makes sense to start with carving small objects like boxes, balls and spirals. Choose objects that have holes, right angles and turns and aim to master all the various cuts. Once you do this, you can apply your skill to any complex project.

Using appropriate and sharp tools. To be good at your trade, you need to outfit yourself with the most appropriate knives. Ensure that you don’t buy expensive ones believing that they are the best. Make sure they are sharp, which will also be safe to use. A blunt knife may just slip from your hand and fall on your foot. Besides, using one means exerting more pressure to make a cut.

As a beginner it is a wise idea to invest in a whittling knife rather than starting out with the traditional pocket knife. The whittling knife has a longer handle and a fixed blade and offers great cutting control. We found this great set for beginners on Amazon with very hard steel blades.

Safety. To be safe, use a wood carver’s glove while carving wood or whittling.

Types of carving wood

Basswood, butternut, balsa and white pine are easy to carve, but steer clear of mahogany, black walnut, cherry, sugar maple and white oak.

Read related article on best wood for carving here. 

Few important tips

  • Learn to handle a wood carving knife. Once you buy a wood carving knife and are ready to start carving wood, you need to learn to handle the knife carefully. One way of being careful at this stage is to wear a carving glove. With your knife in the right hand, wear the glove on your left hand. And, to control the knife’s motion, use your wrist rather than your elbow. This will give you enough control to make precise incisions and carvings.
  • Make incisions along the grain. Before getting into carving headlong, determine the wood grain’s direction. Also, check for any long dark wooden streaks of color that run through the wood.
  • Sketch your cuts with a pencil. Before you make your first incision, draw out your cuts so that you know how precise they should be and their exact dimensions and shapes. Without this, you may make some mistakes that would damage your original plan.

Here’s a great video tutorial we found on YouTube about woodcarving basic cuts for beginners:

Now that you know the basics of how to carve wood, pick up that knife and wood and get started. Start with simple projects.

Author: John Clax

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