9 Best Woods for Carving (for Beginners & Pros)
So you’ve decided to try your hand at wood carving: good for you! Or maybe you’re just looking to test your skills with a new type of wood. Either way, choosing the right wood is essential for crafting something you’ll be satisfied with.
But there are so many wood options, each with different grain types, hardness, texture… yikes. What does any of it mean for your carving project? That’s what I’m here for!
I’m going to share the best wood for carving, that’s soft enough for beginners to work with but has an even, sturdy grain that will hold up well.
So whether you just want to practice, or create something elaborate, I’ve got you covered. Just be forewarned–once you carve your first wooden spoon, you won’t be able to stop!
- The best woods for carving are butternut, basswood, walnut, tupelo, aspen, pine, mahogany, Red oak, and limewood.
- These woods are best for carving because they’re soft enough to manipulate with relative ease, but their denser grains still allow for a beautiful, sturdy finished product.
- When selecting a wood, look for straight, even grain patterns, medium hardness, and a fine, even texture.
In This Article:
Best Woods for Carving
Butternut wood, sometimes referred to as White walnut, is a fairly soft, easy-to-carve wood that’s a great choice for beginners.
It’s sourced from the Butternut tree, which is equally as valued for its sweet, oily nuts. These trees can also be tapped for some pretty tasty syrup. Okay–back to the wood!
Butternut is classified as a hardwood, with a lovely light-brown to cream color and dark streaks throughout.
It makes for an interesting hardwood, since it’s actually quite low in density, while still being a sturdy wood.
The grain is straight, which is ideal for carving. It does have a somewhat coarse texture though, and being so soft, it may leave some fuzzier surfaces when cut. But butternut stains and finishes nicely.
This wood has beautiful visible grains and cuts easily, making it a top choice for professionals who sell carving figures and other products. So grab your whittle or carving knife and try it out!
Note: if you’re looking for a really strong hardwood along this vein, Black walnut (a close relative of butternut!) may be a better choice.
As the best wood to carve for beginners goes, basswood (also known as linden) is an excellent option. This hardwood is quite soft, making it easy to carve, while still maintaining its detail nicely.
If you like a lighter-colored wood, you’ll enjoy its pale white, creamy appearance with streaks of brown.
Basswood has a straight, even grain, and is resilient to warping. It finishes and glues well too, making it a popular option for figure carving and relief carving.
One of the great things about basswood carving for beginners is that it’s easy to find in hobby shops. Albeit slightly more expensive than comparables like plywood. Try it out and see what you think!
Walnut is a gorgeous hardwood, and a top pick for many professional furniture makers and woodcarvers.
There are many reasons to love it. I find the variety of walnut colors to be all so gorgeous, ranging from rich, dark browns with lighter streaks to light, creamy beiges.
Its natural beauty is the reason applying a stain isn’t necessary (and we like working smarter, not harder when we can, right?).
Important note for anyone embarking on their first carving project: walnut is a harder wood than butternut and basswood, listed above. This makes it somewhat less easy to manipulate, but don’t let that scare you off completely!
Walnut still carves well, and is among the best wood for carving figures. It’s also among the best wood for relief carving, and for really anything with simpler lines.
Wood Magazine also makes a good point: The grain of walnut can vary from very open to nearly closed, which will affect how the wood performs. If you can, source a walnut that has a more open grain, which is easier to carve.
In addition to being great for carving, Walnut is also one of the best woods for cutting boards.
Calling all wildlife lovers and hobbyists! Tupelo might be the carving wood for you. Wildfowl carvers love this stuff for creating decoy and decorative bird carvings.
The reason? Tupelo wood doesn’t split as easily as other softer hardwoods like basswood.
This makes it an ideal wood for carving intricate and thinner anatomical features that have more detail, without the fear of snapping your creation in half!
This lighter, softer wood is also great for power carving because it doesn’t get fuzzy, with its even, uniform grain. It’s easy to woodburn, stain, and paint as well.
Coming up next on our list of the best wood for carving is aspen! Closely related to poplar wood, aspen comes from the Quaking aspen tree.
It’s a really popular all-purpose wood that’s super easy to find, as the Quaking aspen tree is the most widely distributed native North American tree species.
This hardwood is strong, straight-grained (with the occasional knots), and definitely easy to work with.
With a nice light cream to off-white color, aspen cuts and engraves well, and can be nailed, screwed, and glued without splitting easily.
I’d definitely recommend aspen for anyone who’s just starting out on their woodcarving or woodworking journey!
Ah, pine. One of the most versatile woods on the market! This highly-accessible resinous softwood is definitely one of the best woods for wood carving, for beginners and seasoned woodworkers alike.
You can find an endless supply of blanks at your local Home Depot, lumber company, or Amazon. Or literally wander into your backyard!
This pale yellow wood is definitely softer than the hardwoods I’ve already mentioned, but that makes it easy to carve with hand tools. Pine holds its shape well, and is durable and stable.
Not quite sure how to cut wood without a saw? Here are some great pointers on using various hand tools.
But there’s a catch. Pinewood often has hard knots and chips easily, so it’s important to make sure your tools are really well sharpened. Pine will dull your tools quickly, so be prepared.
Because of the hard knots and occasional sappyness, pine is a perfect wood for training purposes, but isn’t always a #1 pick for commercial use.
Mahogany is what I’d call an elegant wood with a beautiful finish. This wood isn’t just a moderately accessible carving wood, but its rich, gorgeous red-brown tones make for a gorgeous end result too.
Mahogany is harder than butternut and basswood, but not so hard that it can’t be manipulated with carving tools.
Its grain is straight, with occasional interlocking patterns. You’ll need gouges and a mallet when working with mahogany, especially when chip carving.
For these reasons, mahogany is a great choice for people with a bit of experienced in wood carving and woodworking.
Cool fact: Mahogany is one of the best types of lumber for rainy weather, as its properties allow it to resist the effects of prolonged water exposure. This is one of the main reasons it’s often used to make outdoor furniture and structures.
8. Red Oak
Red oak is up there among the best wood for carving, as well as being a really popular choice for cabinet and furniture making. That’s because of its attractive reddish-medium brown color, durability, and affordability.
Red oak is a medium Janka hardwood, meaning it won’t scratch easily. It has a straight, open grain, making it ideal for carving larger objects as opposed to small, detailed carvings.
It does dent a bit easier than some other hardwoods, so if you’re especially concerned about denting you might want to opt for the harder White oak.
And remember: as one of the harder hardwoods, your carving experience will be much less frustrating with a power carver than with hand carving tools.
Completing our list of the best wood for carving is limewood, a big winner for those who want to carve something intricate with their own two hands!
Soft and crisp with a straight, close grain, lime wood is exceptionally workable with hand tools.
It has hardly any knots, so you won’t have to worry about running into major kinks, chipping, and fuzziness. It finishes smooth and clean, with a nice pale white to cream color.
Note: Yes, limewood is almost identical to basswood! They simply have different origin continents (limewood from Europe, basswood from North America!), and thus ever-so-slight differences. But that may only matter to the foremost woodcarving experts out there.
What Makes a Wood Good for Carving?
When deciding what makes a wood good for carving, we’re generally looking at three main features: grain, hardness, and texture.
When it comes to carving, we want a clean and straight grain without too many knots.
We also want the wood to be hard enough to withstand the pressure we put it under, but not so hard that it’s difficult to manipulate.
Another good rule of thumb is to look for wood that comes from leafy hardwood trees, which tend to absorb less moisture.
This makes hardwoods like mahogany the best wood to carve a bowl, or other functional objects like spoons.
Let’s dive into what makes grain, hardness, and texture so important when choosing a carving wood.
A straight and even grain pattern makes a wood easier to carve. The looser the grain, the softer and easier a wood will be to carve and manipulate.
So if you’re a beginner, you may want to select a wood with a slightly looser grain while you get your practice in.
And if you’re a little more experienced, or want to make something study and functional like a wooden bowl, you might want to opt for a harder wood, as these have interlocking grain patterns that offer density.
When selecting a wood for carving, you’ll want to consider the hardness of the wood. It’s best to find a wood with the perfect balance of hard enough to hold fine details, but not so hard that it’s difficult to manipulate with hand tools.
Beginners will want to keep an eye on picking the really hard woods like oak and mahogany, as these may prove a challenge.
Woods with a fine, even texture are much better choices for carving than those with tons of knots.
For example, woods like hickory and cherry have a lot of knots, wormholes, and other unrefined grains.
This can be aesthetically beautiful depending on your taste, but this type of uneven texture can make the job of carving much more frustrating.
Looking for more help with wood carving? Check out the video below!
Is hardwood or softwood better for carving?
Both hardwoods and softwoods can be good for carving, depending on the specific wood species.
Softwoods like butternut, basswood, and pine are popular choices for beginners because they are easy to carve.
Hardwoods like mahogany and walnut are harder, but still carve well and make for a gorgeous finish.
Is pine good for carving?
Yes, pine is definitely a great wood for carving, especially for beginner crafters and woodworkers.
It is softer than hardwoods, making it easier to manipulate, but still has a nice texture and grain that can be carved easily.
What is the worst wood for carving?
There isn’t really a “worst” wood for carving, as any wood can be carved with enough skill and effort.
However, some woods like oak, hickory, and maple can be more difficult to carve due to their hardness and interlocking grain patterns.
Bottom line: If you’re trying to figure out which wood to choose when starting your carving project, there are many things to consider.
When considering what makes a wood good for carving, think about the grain, hardness, and texture of the wood.
It’s also important to think about whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned wood carver, as this may determine the best wood for you.
But in general, the best wood for carving includes butternut, basswood, walnut, tupelo, aspen, pine, mahogany, Red oak, and limewood.
Jessica Vaillancourt is a freelance writer and blogger obsessed with the Travel, Wellness, and Personal Development industries.
She has 5+ years of experience helping human-first agencies, global companies, and entrepreneurs crush their content marketing goals, and serve more people. Jessica’s work has appeared on leading websites like UpgradedHome.com, BetterHelp.com, and TheDiaryofaNomad.com.
Today, her sole focus (besides finding the world’s best coffee shop) is writing to serve humans, and slow traveling abroad to expand her mind. You can get to know her work at JessAnneWriting.com.