Getting started with wood carving – Wood Part 1

The most commonly used carving wood in the U.S. is kiln dried basswood.  The wood is relatively soft, but hard enough to hold fine detail.  The softness and uniformity of the wood make it easier to carve than most other woods.  It’s also very light colored, allowing paints to cover it fairly easily.

Basswood in the U.S. is usually categorized as northern or southern, based on where it was grown.  In general, northern basswood is better for carving because it’s lighter in color and and the grain is tighter (because the tree grows more slowly).

You can buy basswood in many different places, but the quality and price will vary widely.  Craft stores like Hobby Lobby and Michael’s sell basswood carving blocks in small packages at ridiculously high prices.  I found basswood from Michael’s to be of very low quality:  poor color, splinters easily, and is in general less uniform than what I’ve obtained from other sources.

Woodcraft and other woodworking shops also sell basswood.  You can buy individual blocks or “grab boxes” that contain blocks of varying sizes.  The individual blocks will be of somewhat higher quality than the wood in the grab boxes, but at a higher price.

Almost every online source that sells carving supplies will also sell basswood.  The wood you buy from these sites comes in three forms:  blocks, cutouts, and roughouts.  A block is what you expect:  just a block of wood.  Included with blocks are dowels, eggs, spheres, and other basic shapes from which you’re expected to carve something.

A cutout is a block of wood that’s been cut to the basic finished shape.  Typically this is done on a bandsaw.  A simple example is shown below:  the cutout I made for my little dog, and the finished product.


A roughout includes more detail than the cutout.  Most of the figure is “roughed out” so that all you need to add are details.  A good example is Herby’s Angel Roughout.  Expect to pay more for a cutout than for a block, and more for a roughout than for a cutout.

Let me stress that whichever you choose is fine.  Some people like whittling away all the waste wood and are happy starting with a block of wood.  Others find roughing things out annoying and want to get right to the detail, which they find most interesting.  Most carvers I know have worked with blocks, cutouts, and roughouts.  As far as I know, there isn’t a stigma attached to which of the above you start with.  I’ve never seen a carver look down on somebody’s carving because he started with a roughout rather than a block.

The consensus of carvers I know is that Heinecke Wood Products is the place to buy basswood in bulk.  The wood is very high quality, the prices are very good (even when you take the shipping cost into account), and their customer service is first rate.  I bought a bunch of practice sticks from them and have been very happy with the quality of the wood.  But shipping charges will eat you up if you’re ordering small quantities.

My suggestion if you’re just starting is to visit your local Woodcraft or similar store and get a grab box of blocks, or find a place to order it online.  The wood probably won’t be as good quality as what you’ll get from Heinecke, but the price is very reasonable and you’ll get an idea if this carving thing is something that you want to persue.

Another source for basswood (and other woods, for that matter) is cabinet shops and other businesses that work with wood.  You might stop by a cabinet shop and ask them if you can have their cutoffs.  Some will sell them to you at a very reasonable price.  Others will be happy to give you more wood than you can possibly carve in a lifetime.  The wood will be of varying quality, but you can’t beat the price.

Although basswood is by far the most common wood used for carving, you can carve just about any type of wood.  I’ll talk more about that next time.

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