Wood carving for beginners – Tips and tricks

Wood carving for beginners – Tips and tricks

Wood carving for beginners – Our guide

Wood carving for beginners might sound hard, but with our help it will be easier! When the workshop is prepared try a few simple exercises described in chapter 6 so that you may acquire practice with tools and get to know the ‘feel’ of the wood. You will then be ready to think of designing something yourself, and before doing so, look at some really good wood carvings. Photographs can remind us of things seen but for proper appreciation it is better to see the actual work. A visit to the local museum is a good idea, or to a church or building where fine wood carvings can be seen. Grinling Gibbons, the English sculptor, was one of the most skilful wood carvers who ever lived and for the realistic carving of natural form in wood he is unsurpassed. (Fig. 1).

Starting idea

There is no harm in borrowing ideas from the richest sources. This has always happened as a natural evolution in the arts. It would be absurd to say that the artist must always endeavour to copy natural forms, but rather that in nature we have a field of inspiration and profitable study. If for instance, we use the human figure, or animal form in design, we are engaged in a translation from flesh to wood, stone, or paint, from life movement to move­ment in a static material.

We can find pattern motives in such natural forms as shells and leaves. The African carver finds many of his patterns in the skins of snakes. We draw our ideas then from works of the present and the past and also from life. Even visionary artists such as Willliam Blake did not find the image of their designs without the influence of environment and the work of other artists.

Dont be afraid

The amateur should not be discouraged by all the tools, methods, diagrams and equipment. It may appear at a glance that the business of wood carving is too involved or costly. I must therefore point out at once that you can carve if you have a piece of wood, a kitchen table, three gouges, and two ‘G’ cramps. Many of us in the profession have a magpie acquisitiveness where tools are concerned and like to be equipped for all eventualities.

Wood carving for beginners - Lime wood
Fig. 1. Carving in lime wood by Grinling Gibbons, Belton House, Grantham, England.

This is quite unnecessary for some­one who intends to carve occasionally. Indeed, some well-known highly successful wood carvers manage perfectly well with very simple equipment and prefer to do so. So much depends on the work in hand. As you progress you will naturally wish to buy more tools from time to time but this can be a gradual process.

Copy wisely

Do not try to copy an ivory or metal object as the designs may be unsuitable for wood. Do not expect to be able to carve with the skill of a Chinese ivory carver who has been doing it all his life. For the amateur, time is no object and patience is essential. If you have an idea that comprises two or more figures, it may be better to try a high relief rather than attempt it in the round. Read first the chapters on equipment and sharpening tools, then the paragraph on procuring wood. Start with a wood of medium hardness such as lime.

You may be discouraged if you commence with a hardwood such as oak. Very soft woods can also be diffi­cult, needing razor sharp tools and skill in carving, and you may find that you are cutting away too much, too soon. Soft woods also tend to blunt tools quickly. If, however, you are working under the supervision of a teacher it is quite another matter as you will then get guidance in carving and help in sharpening your tools. Not all art schools specialize in wood carving and it is best to inquire locally if you wish to attend classes.

Work on bigger wood

Do not try to work too small at first. It is easier to work on broad surfaces and will also make you bolder and more fearless in the way you use the tools. A complete figure may be too difficult if you have no experience in drawing. A head or an animal would be less of a problem. If you are interested in ornament, you could pick a leaf from the garden and use it as a basis for a design. In leaves you can find simple shapes with infinite variety. When you have carved one simple piece well it is easy to advance to something more difficult.


Good looking wood carving for beginners seems only achievable only experienced wood carvers, but it is not!. If you are very eager to try a figure, it will do no harm to look at primitive and peasant carving. Look at the American Indian carving illustrated in figure 2. Here you will see a draped figure in most simple terms. This would be a starting point. Carve the body and head as one uniform statement. In the work of early civiliza­tions and more primitive communities there is a zest and simplicity far away from naturalism.


There is also a great feeling for pattern and design. It is interesting to make a near copy of something you admire but you will not wish to continue working in a manner that belongs to other countries and civilizations. Therefore, it is better to learn from them but gradually begin to make your own designs. You can try out texture and pattern with your different tools and master the use of them before starting on a definite project.

It is often easier for the wood carving beginners to visualize his design as a profile or silhouette. If you are working in relief, an outline is enough to work from. You will discover how to develop this in the process of cutting. If you wish to carve an animal in the round, read the chapter on carving a pigeon. Even if you prefer to carve some other object of simple design, the principles described can be adapted and will still hold good.

Wood carving for beginners
Fig. 2. Indian Woman, painted wood, Vancouver Island, Canada.

Look closer

You may have a smooth-haired cat in the house, if so, you have a model ready at hand. You may at first see your cat’s head as a round knob with fur on it but as you look closer, you will observe that the shape is full of variety, of flat planes and curves that lend themselves to carving. Try to discriminate when you are looking at other models or carvings of animals. Avoid the sentimental approach or you will lose the real character and vig­or of the animal.

Look, for instance, at the way the Egyptians carved their sacred cats in wood and in stone. Observe that the sweet little pottery deer, with eyes six times too large, is no rela­tion of the beautiful animal you can see for yourself in the parks and zoos. If you have no confidence in your drawing but feel you can carve a shape then just make diagrammatical draw­ings as a shorthand for yourself. If you can get the habit of looking at live things with the idea of using them in your carvings you will begin to see forms and shapes in relation to one another. Notice, for instance, the size of the head. A small head on a figure or animal will make the body look large. A large head on your cat will turn it into a kitten.

Source of inspiration

Wood carving for beginner student might not imagine every sculpture in his head. If you feel incapable of designing your own carving, be careful from what source you get your inspiration. If you are going to copy ornament, try to work from the photograph or drawing of an original piece belonging to the period in which it was carved. At first it may be difficult to appreciate the reason why so many modern copies of Gothic ornament become deadly dull. It is as though the wine had been watered down too many times and the original flavor destroyed.

It is also that a ‘tidying up’ process goes on. The parts of the design are measured and all made symmetrical. The medieval carver let his work grow more naturally. In consequence his leaves and flowers are still living while the copies are dead. There is more to a work of art than its obvious exterior, and something copied just ‘as a job’ cannot have the life infused into it as when the design was first carved, say, in the fourteenth century with feeling and a sense of adven­ture.

If, on the other hand, you contemplate some early piece of carving with real appreciation and great liking you may be able to make use of this design and carve something which is in part your own. You must not only be in love with the action of carving but also with your own idea about it. Therefore, before you shut yourself in your workshop go out and look at living things and works of art.

Wood carving for beginners might be hard at first point. But with time it will be easier and easier!

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