The Basics of Wood Carving: What You Need To Know

Updated: Jan. 27, 2023

A life-long wood carver shares tips for getting started in this rewarding hobby. A pocket knife and a piece of wood is all you need to start.

I first became fascinated with wood carving at age seven when my mother told me the story of how my father proposed.

They were driving along a quiet country road in my dad’s 1968 Ford Mercury in the mid 1980s. During a natural break in the conversation, my dad reached under the seat and produced a lemon-sized object wrapped in cloth. Handing it to my mother, he asked her to unwrap it as he drove.

Inside was a smooth, beautifully hand-carved basswood egg. Dad then asked Mom to check the glove box, where she found a sharp whittling knife. “Carve into the egg,” Dad said.

About 10 minutes later, with shavings covering the truck’s floor and seat, Mom discovered the egg was hollow. Inside was a gold engagement ring. Needless to say, she said yes. Wood carving was instrumental in my parents’ relationship, and perhaps that’s one reason I’ve enjoyed it since I was old enough to handle a whittling knife safely.

If you’re interested in giving wood carving a try, it pays to learn the basics. Keep reading for everything you need to know to begin your wood carving journey.

What Is Wood Carving?

Wood carving involves creating a desired object, shape or design with sharp-edged cutting tools. Although there are many forms, all fit this basic definition. Wood carving tools include knives, chisels, gouges and in some cases even chainsaws!

Some people confuse wood carving with woodturning. Although both remove wood with sharp-edged tools, they’re not the same. Woodturning pieces are created with a motorized device called a lathe. If a lathe is involved, it’s a woodturning project. If not, it’s wood carving.

Whittling is also sometimes mistaken as a separate form of woodworking. It’s just a simple type of wood carving.

Types of Wood Carving

Carving methods vary greatly. The type of carving you pursue and the tools you use will depend on what sort of finished result you’re after. Here are the different types of wood carving:


The simplest form of wood carving, whittling involves shaving off slices of wood with a straight-blade knife. It’s easy to learn and can be done with just about any sharp knife, including a regular pocket knife.

Although you can certainly whittle wood into desired shapes, some people whittle simply as a pastime. Whittling knives made especially for carving give more comfort and control; they’re the best option if you want to whittle something pretty. One benefit of whittling: It can be done with nearly any species of wood.

Chip carving

This involves removing small pieces from a flat wood surface with a chip carving knife or chisel, via downward pressure. It’s good for inscribing intricate lines or details into a workpiece.

Carving letters and numbers into wood is one of my favorite projects. Although many wood species can be chip carved, beginners will have the best luck with basswood, knot-free pine or poplar.

Relief carving

This means carving a picture into a flat piece of wood. Traditionally, carved wooden reliefs are subtly three-dimensional, so the image appears to project out of the wood’s surface.

Gouges and chisels are the usual tools for relief carving, often accompanied by a mallet to drive the tools into the wood. You’ll also need clamps or a bench-top vise because the flat wooden workpiece needs to be solidly secured.

Flat-plane carving

A specific style of figure and object carving, flat-plane carving involves shaping wood with a series of flat, clean facets, then purposely leaving them visible. No sanding or rounding.

Most often done with a single carving knife, wood art collectors around the world favor flat-plane carving. Like all forms of carving, this is easiest with basswood, which strikes the perfect balance between hard and soft.

Chain saw carving

As the name suggests, this involves creating a desired object or figure from wood with a chain saw. It’s almost always done with a single large upright log, and occasionally one that’s still rooted to the ground.

Although chain saws are coarse, aggressive tools, skilled chain saw carvers around the world created some remarkably intricate works of art. Although it’s tempting, don’t try this style of carving unless you’re already experienced with chain saws. And be sure to wear hearing, face and leg protection at all times.

Wood Carving Terms and Techniques

Here are some terms you’ll likely hear thrown around in the world of wood carving:

  • Carving knife: Different from a whittling knife, these feature large handles and small blades, often with a gentle curve in their edge.
  • Chisel: A straight-blade, beveled-edge wood carving tool.
  • Gouge: A type of carving chisel with a curved-edge blade.
  • Mallet: A cylindrical handled tool, often made of wood or rubber, for driving the butt-end of a chisel or gouge into wood.
  • Roughing: Removal of large amounts of wood early in the process, often with a roughing gouge, to get the workpiece closer to the desired shape.
  • Detail work: Generally refers to the fine, intricate work toward the end of a wood carving project. When carving a wooden duck, inscribing lines to suggest wings and feathers is detail work.

Wood Carving Tips for Beginners

  • Keep your wood carving tools sharp: Dull carving tools don’t work well. Learn to sharpen yours to a razor’s edge. Keep them sharp and your wood carving will be much more enjoyable.
  • Carve away from yourself: It sounds obvious, but many beginners carve towards their hand instead of away from it. Don’t. Carve down and away from your hands and fingers for safety.
  • Wear safety glasses: Though carving doesn’t involve power tools (except chain saw carving), lots of chips still fly. Protecting your eyes with goggles is always smart.
  • Start simple: Don’t try to carve intricate projects at first. Start by whittling a walking stick, then go from there as your skills develop.
  • Use the right wood: Regardless of the style of carving, basswood is a great material for beginner carvers. It’s smooth and fine-grained with an ideal carving density.