Learning to Carve

Learning to carve is like learning to play an instrument: it is an exercise in muscle memory combined with your own artistic style.

Like all other art forms, carving wood is a way to express yourself. 

Over the coming years I will tell you about the lessons I’ve learned by myself and from others, so that you may be better equipped to try it out for yourselves.

Ultimately though it is your journey and I merely wish to provide you with some basic principles, the rest I leave for you to discover as I did (along with the many more I didn’t): there is no ‘right way’ when it comes to art, but you would be wise to listen to advice on safety when using edged tools for the first time.

Your first project

Start small. Choose something you believe you can finish easily, and surprise yourself with the flourishes which come to mind nearer the end of the project: it is likely you won’t want to put it down!

There are many good reasons for this approach when you begin, not least that it is safer: becoming frustrated with difficult cuts can lead to poor and dangerous technique.

Many people will choose first to carve a spoon for the kitchen, and this is a good place to start, but bear in mind that if you want a deep bowl then you will need to buy or make a spoon knife or similar tool which can carve out hollow spaces. A shallow bowl can be improvised with the end of curved knife blade, but this is more dangerous than using the appropriate tool. My first spoons were made this way.

If you just want to carve, then let your imagination take you wherever it will; likewise if you want to carve a stick to a perfectly round and even shape solely for the purpose of carving, there is nothing wrong with that either. Enjoy it and be proud of it.

Choose the right piece of wood: Hazel, Willow and Alder when cut green are good carving woods for beginners as they are soft, don’t chip or split badly and produce usable results. My favourite of the three is Hazel wood for its radial grain patterns and good finish, but it is also the hardest of them.

You will also need a piece which is the right shape for your project. Don’t start with an unsuitable piece thinking you will get there eventually: choosing the wood is the most important part of the process and shouldn’t be rushed, not least because it is enjoyable.

Knowing the different trees in your area and being able to recognise them for their individual qualities is an important foundation to wood carving, but it is by no means exclusive to the experts. Most of you just starting to carve will already enjoy the great outdoors, and know a few trees already. What is important is taking the time to find the right piece.


Before you begin to carve, compile a relevant first aid kit (or buy one) and always keep it to hand when you do.

Carve where you will not be constantly distracted, and when you have time to. Rushed or distracted carving can lead to poor technique, not to mention an un-relaxing experience.

I carve to relax and to improve my skill, so I do my best to choose the right time and place. The fireside is the most enjoyable place to carve, even when you have friends around the fire with you: they will be calm and relaxed as well so should not be a dangerous distraction.

There are a few guiding principles you can begin with to ensure safe cutting:

1)       Consider each and every cut, do not go into auto-pilot; this will help you learn concentration, good control of the knife and a stronger influence on the outcome of the worked piece, along with the safety benefits.

2)      For each cut, you must know where the knife begins and ends, bearing in mind the pivot point and the force of the cut.

3)      Don’t take chances; there is a safe and controlled action for every necessary cut. You should consider that if you are taking risks you may not have the appropriate tool or technique.

4)      Never cut toward yourself. This is perhaps the most well known piece of knife lore. There are perfectly safe cuts where the knife edge will begin orientated toward a part of your non-knife hand or body, but the force behind the blade is not in fact directed toward you when considering the complete action. These are more advanced cuts and you will discover them when you are ready, or more ideally when shown by a competent woodcarver.

5)      Keep you knife sharp. This can not be stressed enough. Carving wood with a dull edge will make you use more force than is safe, and result in a poor, unconfident technique. I will write about what it means to have a sharp edge in the future, but essentially it is the edge most suited to the cutting material and it is kept very keen.

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All written material: Copyright Ian Tompsett 2010-2016