WOODS FOR CARVING
By Bob Atkins
This article was published in the now defunct British Woodcarvers Association magazine in the early 2000s, but the information is still valid.
The figure in Brackets is the weight of the timber (lbs. /cu.ft.) and is provided as a guide to the hardness of the timber.
AGBA (32) Stable, resistant to decay & available in large sizes. Colour varies from yellowish pink to red-dish brown. Grain too soft & open for fine detail
AMBOYNA (41) Highly figured burr of Padauk
ASH-American (41) Similar to European, but often considered inferior. Much easier to work
ASH-European (44) A straight grained nearly white wood, Ideal for bent work and resistant to shock which makes it difficult to use for normal decorative carving. Course grain & stringy, unpleasant to carve. Available in large sizes
BASSWOOD (26) Also called American Lime. Favoured carving wood in America. Creamy white to pale pinkish brown. Straight grain
BEECH (45) Light brown to brownish red, but rather plain except for fine flecks of the medullary ray. Seldom used in it’s natural state as a show timber. Hard but not very stable or durable. Straight grain and fine even texture. Darker wood with wide well defined annular rings is the hardest and strongest. Will take fine detail, polishes beautifully.
BIRCH (40) Remarkable carving qualities, capable of taking the finest detail. Cuts cleanly and easily and should be available in large pieces fairly cheaply
BOX (57) The ultimate wood for carving fine detail Grain structure almost invisible. Lovely butter colour, occasionally with dark streaks and has a sweet smell. Very hard, dense, cuts cleanly and easily and takes a beautiful polish. Grows only a small bush, so 3″ to “diameter logs is average available. 6” dia would be most unusual. Expensive to buy.
CEDAR (36) Western Red (See softwoods) A light weight softwood of exceptional durability. Pale yellow-ish brown. Turning grey on exposure
CHESTNUT (34) Spanish or Sweet. Very similar in appearance to Oak, similar properties, but lacks the medullary ray and is lighter in weight.
EBONY (64) Very hard, heavy and close grained. Polishes well. Different specimens vary in colour from pale brown with grey and black streaks through to black. Often simulated by staining pear
ELM (34) English Not traditionally a carving wood, but has been used extensively in recent years because of its availability, cheapness and great size, whilst being very resistant to splitting. Fine for very large pieces, but not suitable for smaller intricate work, being a rather coarse wood with interlocked grain. Does have a tendency to warp. Durable in wet conditions
ELM Wych, Mountain or Scotch A British timber, the grain of which is straighter, more finely textured, fighter in colour and rather harder than other Elms
ELM Rock (43) A tough. Dense, strong and durable North American wood.
FIR Douglas, Columbian Pine or Oregon Pine. Available in very large sizes and usually with very straight grain. Rather redder than Pine. Highly water resistant (See Softwoods)
FRUITWOODS Most of the timbers from fruit trees are pleasant to work and will take very fine detail. They are difficult to obtain in usable sizes being exceptionally prone to splitting, especially when left in the log
APPLE (44) Very pale, hard and close grained. Traditionally used for moving parts such as cogs
APPLE (44) Very pale, hard and close grained. Traditionally used for moving parts such as cogs
CHERRY European (38) Hard and close grained. Pale pinkish brown. Carves well and takes excellent polish. Darkens with age to a honey colour
CHERRY American (36) Similar but has a redder tint.
PEAR (44) Considered the best for carving. Cuts well in all directions of the grain which is firm and even. Beautifully coloured, pale but variable
PLUM Very fine grained, Beautifully coloured
HOLLY (50) White, hard close uniform grain. Excellent for carving. Capable of the finest detail and a beautiful finish. Stains well and was often coloured for decorative furniture. American Holly is claimed to be better, whiter and available in larger sizes
HORNBEAM (47) Very pale, tough and resistant to shock. Difficult to carve but turns well and takes a smooth finish. Good for detailed work and small mechanical parts, but not stable or durable.
HORSE CHESTNUT(31) Creamy white with fine uni-form texture. Not durable or strong
IROKO (40) Similar properties to Oak but with interlocked grain. Colour varies from light to dark brown. Not good carving timber but available in large sizes
JELUTONG (28) Recommended for carving in America. It is soft and characterless. Useful if carving is to be completely painted. (Timber of the rubber tree)
LABURNUM Hard and solid. This beautiful wood can be successfully carved but it is not easily found in sizes useful for a carver
LARCH (34) A strong durable softwood used in boats and outdoor work. Reddish brown heartwood
LIGNUM VITAE (77) One of the hardest and heavi-of timbers. Sapwood is yellowish, heartwood is lark brown and the grain is interlocked. Is glass hard and would damage gouges. Often used for carving mallets due to it’s hardness
LIME (34) Definitely the woodcarvers wood. A beautiful creamy colour with occasional brown patches and streaks, it cuts beautifully and easily in any direction. some of the finest carvings in the world have been done in lime. Its fine grain and clean easy cutting facilitates the most delicate work, whilst the great size of the trees produce timbers of large dimensions and fairly low price. Has an attractive “pure” quality when polished and after many years its colour deepens to a golden gown
MAHOGANY (34) Obtainable in large diameters, A Board 24″ wide by 4″ or 5″thick is not unusual. There are many woods referred to as mahogany that it is difficult to say which one you may have bought. Very variable in working quality and is invariably with interlocked grain. Mahogany now used is a light pinkish wood totally unlike the dark brown, hard heavy Cuban mahogany originally employed for furniture which is now virtually unobtainable except from old furniture. Hardest (Spanish) mahogany is the best to use. Very sharp tools are needed which are blunted quickly by the chalky deposit in the pores. Ideal for large and medium pieces, but tends to be fragile across the grain when used for fine detail. Stains and polishes very well and can have beautiful figuring on large pieces
MAPLE (41) Very hard, creamy coloured and can be successfully used for fine work
OAK (45) Not well suited to fine, elegant, detailed pieces but capable of almost any other kind of work. At its best, straight grained, easy to work and beautiful to look at. At its worst, hard, twisting in grain, knotty and intractable. Japanese Oak tends to be straight grained and rather characterless in comparison to English and of a fairer texture, but not as nice to carve. American oak is best avoided being stringy and coarse. Oak can be stained and polishes by a multiple of methods. Is never better than when left natural and waxed
OBECHE or AFRICAN WHITEWOOD (24) Soft with a pale straw colour, because of its stability and availability in large sizes is often used for large works
OLIVE (55) Excellent to carve for detailed work. Hard, fine grained and with fascinating dark streaks in its creamy white body and mellows to a golden brown
PADAUK (45) Great to carve, hard, heavy and bril-liant orange when freshly cut. Tends to crumble on the thin cross grain edges. Grain often interlocked. Satisfying wood for small detailed figures 10″ to 12″ high. Takes a beautiful polished cut from the chisel and darkens to deep red
PINE, PITCH (42) ( See softwoods) Relative to other pines this is strong, hard and heavy. Yellowish brown, very durable but highly resinous
PINE, SUGAR (See softwoods) Similar to yellow pine, but slightly stronger, harder and obtainable in large sizes. Pale Yellowish white. Used for pattern making
PINE, YELLOW, WHITE or WEYMOUTH (24) (See softwoods) Yellowish white, fine textured, straight grained and easily worked in all directions of the grain. Less shrinking and warping than most softwoods PLANE (39) When cut on the quarter, known as “LACEWOOD”. Can be carved very well. The speckled appearance for which it is known is best suited to large plain surfaces rather than complex shapes. Pale yellow to pale red.
ROSEWOOD (53) There are several kinds of rose-wood which are not the same type of tree, but the tim-ber has the qualities in common. Indian rosewood is nice to work. Sharp tools will leave clean polished cuts although thin edges across the grain tend to crumble. Colour can be darkest black to purple, red and orange with black streaks Very beautiful wood, expensive, but available in fairly large sections. Madagascar rosewood is not good to use, being more splintery and less clean cutting. In both cases the white sapwood is best avoided
SEQUOIA or CALIFORNIAN REDWOOD (26) A lightweight pinkish red softwood of exceptional durability. (See softwoods)
SOFTWOODS Throughout history various species of softwoods have been carved with great success from the most delicate detail to enormous ships figureheads i.e. pine, red pine, yellow pine, pitch pine, cedar, red deal and so on, but many of the softwoods are unsuitable to carve. Positive identifications of many species is difficult, in particular from the average timber yard
SYCAMORE (38) Fine grained, fairly soft, creamy coloured. Good to carve but tends to get very dirty so must be handled carefully immediately before polishing The rippled sycamore, so attractive in appearance, can be difficult to carve, and the silky effect tends to be lost on shaped surfaces. Is odourless and tasteless so is mainly used for kitchenware. Sometimes used to simulate satinwood, when dyed grey is called harewood. Member of the Maple family
TEAK (40) Mid brown with an oily nature which makes it difficult to glue but modern adhesives should overcome the problem. Is available in large sizes and pleasant to work although some peoples skins react to it and the dust is irritating
WALNUT, African. Golden brown with pronounced silky bands running down the length caused by interlocked grain. Far less trouble than mahogany and the wood carves very easily and quickly. It is soft, splits easily and available in large dimensions
WALNUT, American Black. (40) Purplish or greyish brown. Carves in a similar way to European Walnut but much more resistant to decay. Figuring tends to be more dull and uniform
WALNUT, English (European), (40) Excellent for carving and its great variety of grain and figure recommend it for both large and small pieces. Brown, strong and tough, difficult to split. The white sapwood is best avoided as it is much softer. It is not very strong on short grain and pieces can easily be broken off
YEW (42) A beautiful, much sought after wood. It has virtually been ignored by the traditional furniture maker because of its inherent faults and is incredibly wasteful. One would be fortunate to find a good block without cracks, dead knots or seams of bark in it. However, it is superb wood to work, cutting cleanly and taking a very high polish. Very fine grain, hard and takes the finest detail but this may become confused by the strongly marked grain. The striking colours do however quickly mellow to a warm reddish brown. Although hard, is classified as a soft-wood