Our guide to wood carving

Our guide to wood carving

First published date January 29 2014 Amended date August 10 2015

Have an interest in wooden sculptors or ornaments and possess an arty eye?  Feel that maybe wood carving is something you can try your hand at? Well if you think you could be more of a whizz with wood than ‘Handy Andy’ off Changing Rooms with MDF then a wood carving course could be for you. Discover the world of wood carving and sculpting with a course learning everything from the different types of wood and their properties and how to sculpt both abstract and practical pieces. You don’t have to have any experience, many courses on offer are for beginners but there are also options for those looking spruce up on their already capable sculpting skills.


What will a wood carving course involve?

There is more to a wood carving course than the obvious carving of wood. Taking an introductory or beginner course will lead you to learn and discover the various types of wood you could be working with and the different tools and techniques you will need to know to carve to a high standard. The vast majority of courses, especially at the beginner stage will probably begin with a bit of highly entertaining health and safety... But in all seriousness you will be working with knives and other very sharp tools, so before you get whittling or carving, it’s best you are clued up so not to injure yourself on the first day!

With the H&S out of the way, depending on the course you take, you might be taken on an interesting journey looking at the history of wood carving from maybe Ancient Egyptian times, gothic eras or Swedish wood carvings and folk art. Other courses may go straight in with a look at the various types of woods you may end up using and all their traits, properties, pros and cons. Knowing the differences between woods from trees like chestnut, oak and lime trees is so important to get the  most out of the carving you are going for. Choosing the wrong variety will make life difficult for yourself as work could become damaged as you carve. When things get hands on you will learn how to utilise different carving techniques for different results, or depending on what course you’ve chosen specifically, you may focus on engraving. Most courses will involve you making your own small project with a finished carving or engraving to show off at the end of it.


More intermediate options

If you already have a bit of carving experience and want to further develop your skills or learn new techniques in a different, specialised discipline, then there are numerous options for you also. You can choose to delve into new fields such as bird or gargoyle carving, or Swedish woodcarving.


How can a course benefit me?

Whether you take this course as a beginner or an intermediate carver, you will take away a lot of valuable skills at the end of your time learning and may find yourself a hobby you wish to pursue further. Crafting is a fun, interesting and precise skill, plus, wood carvings handmade by you will make a brilliant gift for friends, family or that special someone. You may take your newfound hobby for sculpting elsewhere, maybe with a course in stone carving perhaps, or you might even want to look at the possibilities of some kind of career with it.


Career options

If you’re a more experienced carver or someone wanting to make a living with a job doing your favourite hobby then there are some career options for you to consider. While it would be true to say there isn’t a great amount of work out there in the wood carving field due to modern mass production, there are still some paths you can venture down. Wood carving still remains a highly-regarded art form, so if you find yourself carving objects of the more abstract nature, you may find a few prospective buyers of your work at craft shows or flea markets. Online options are also available, you can perhaps sell your carvings on eBay but a more industry specific site would be Etsy, a site similar to eBay but one which specifies in handmade craft. If the freelance path doesn’t take your fancy then there are careers which you can try and pursue with your new carving skills. Take a picture framer for example, or any kind of arts and design careers that may take your fancy.  As a picture framer, you will need to have the woodwork know-how to delicately carve patterns or engrave words on frames.


Q & A with a professional

John Hollerbach teaches wood carving but is also by trade a professional restorer of antiques. John is a fully qualified lecturer and is currently teaching in East London at The Cass, short for the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design. We asked John a few questions about the wood carving and antique restoration business...


How did you originally get into the restoration industry?

As a young man I was involved in the antiquities businesses of my local town and I spent a considerable amount of time around auction houses and galleries. This time was spent examining objects of art, jewellery and furniture and learning of the associated design and history.

What qualifications route did you take to realise your career?

I studied for a Restoration and Conservation degree and graduated as a Bachelor of the Sciences. I then went on to study for a Professional Graduate Certificate in Education and began spending more time teaching whilst working as a professional restorer in my studio.

How did you find yourself wood carving and teaching from restoring?

I came into woodcarving through my profession as a restorer and developed my skills from Ivory carving restoration, then practised woodcarving continually through commissions and restoration projects. I then began teaching at FE and HE level and have been carving for a decade.

Please explain in detail what students will learn during your course.

The course begins with identifying carving gouges and tools and there appropriate application. Then we observe and practice identifying timber as a sculptural resource and understanding wood in carving. Students then begin designing and planning woodcarving projects in lime. Learners practice carving techniques in relief and move through to sculptural carving techniques. The course will also cover sharpening techniques as well as finishing methods.

What’s the first thing you teach your students?

The identification and safe use of carving tools.

What are the benefits of studying this course?

Students gain a diverse group of skills and knowledge of timber as well as the tools and the carving itself.

Please explain why you love your subject.

I love quality craftsmanship and enjoy developing student interest in the subject matter.

What’s the best way to go about getting a job in wood carving?

Continual practice of the techniques and the ability to develop knowledge daily.

What qualities do you need to succeed?

You need to have a lot of patience and the willingness to learn daily.

Can you describe a typical day in your working life?

I will do the usual answering of emails and address student questions before I work in the studio for half a day and then travel to University or College to lecture. Address learner development in the evening and respond to business calls and e-mails also.

What advice do you have for people interested in studying a course like this?

Attendance is key and practice of the techniques is essential.

Tell us about some of the projects you’ve worked on.

Recently one woodcarving project involved a medieval oak carving for a church in Cornwall. The project involved research, collaboration and carving in the studio and then upon completion installation in the Church. There is a great satisfaction in working with historical institutes and keeping the crafts alive through teaching.

What do you think is the most important skill required to do your job?

 Patience and a love of wood and trees as a wonderful natural resource.


Some wood carving tools, techniques and terminology

Carving knife – A specialised knife, one most commonly used by carvers. It is used to pare, cut and smooth wood.

Chisel – This is used to create lines and perfect flat surfaces because of its straight cutting edge.

Gouge – A tool used to create curves, hollows and rounds owing to its curved cutting edge.

Coping saw – A type of hand-saw used for cutting out chunks of wood in one go. Not as precise as other tools.

Relief carving – Is a carving in a flat wooden panel that only slightly rises out from the initial piece of wood and can be described as carving pictures in wood.

Chip carving – This is a style of carving that involves chipping small pieces of wood of a panel or piece with either a knife or chisel. This can also be called ‘Spoon carving’, a modern term for chip carving.

Scandinavian flat-plane – This is a very rough style of wood carving. Figures are carved mainly using a carving knife and involves little sanding or rounding leaving a rough finished product. A Dalecarlian Horse is a common example of a sculpture using this method.

Whittling – A very precise form of carving. It’s a technique used for small pieces and is created mostly using small, specialised carving or pocket knives.

Similar Subjects