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What Is Wood Carving?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 22, 2024
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Wood carving is a broad term encompassing any form of working wood with a tool into some sort of aesthetic object. One would rarely refer to a non-aesthetic form of woodworking as such, but some types of carving may be functional, as with artisanal chairs, instruments, or paneling. Humans have been carving wood for thousands of years, and examples of this form of art can be seen in almost every society on the planet.

The ancient history of wood carving is not as complete as many other forms of art, such as stone statuary, simply because wood tends to degrade over centuries or millennia. Some fine early examples this craft can be found in Ancient Egypt, however, with beautiful wood panels that have hieroglyphs and stories carved into them, and the iconic wooden mummy sarcophagi uncovered in various tombs. A particularly beautiful example was found in Egypt that is thought to date back nearly six thousand years, carved into the likeness of a man from a block of sycamore and inlaid with bronze, ebony, rock crystal, and quartz.

wood carving

Christianity led to another surge in wood carving that has been preserved into the modern age, with the bulk coming from the period of around 500 to 1500 BCE. Many depictions of Christ, as well as of saints and their trials, can be found from this era, and beautifully carved wood panels were made for ancient churches, depicting the life and death of Jesus. Around the same time in Japan, Buddhism was leading to its own upswing in carving, with the split and joined style creating many different Buddhist sculptures.

One of the simplest forms of this art is known as whittling, and involves just taking a knife and cutting away bits of wood. Often softer woods are used for whittling, as the knives may not have the force needed to work harder woods. Whittling is generally practiced as a hobby, but it can be a more serious form of artwork, and some specialists produce beautiful wood products, especially canes, staves, and trinkets. Whittling is mainly differentiated from other forms of wood carving by its use of a knife instead of chisels and other tools.

wood carving

Wood carving can use many different tools, and professionals take their chisels and gouges very seriously. Different tools have different shapes and sizes, giving the woodworker a great deal of precision in their work. A mallet is used to exert sufficient force to work harder woods, and some sort of device is usually used to hold the wood tightly to a work bench. Some basic tools include: the chisel, which is a straight-edged blade to make lines and to level out flat areas; the gouge, which is a curved blade to make curves and carve out hollows; the veiner, which is a particularly deep gouge; the v-tool, which is a v-shaped blade used for outlines; and the carving knife, which is essentially a whittling knife, and can be used for any number of small tasks.

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Discussion Comments

By mrwormy — On Mar 30, 2014

I tried wood carving a few years ago as a hobby and I really enjoyed it. The instructor reminded us that the trick is to keep our carving tools really sharp. Finding the right kind of wood was also important. I could buy slabs of balsa or basswood at local hobby stores, and they were very easy to carve. Other classmates tried to carve really hard woods and were disappointed with the results.

By Reminiscence — On Mar 29, 2014

I've always wanted to learn the wood carving technique called "chip carving". I saw a demonstration on public television a few years ago and I thought it was something I could do when I retired. The idea is to plunge a small but sturdy knife into a soft wood, like basswood, and make triangular cuts. The carved triangles pop out of the wood, and the process is repeated over and over again. The end result is an elaborate design, almost like a basket weaving.

The other chip carving technique involves slicing a curved line in one direction and then making a similar slice in the opposite direction. If it's done right, the carved piece falls out of the wood, leaving a nice stem-like shape behind.

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