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How to carve wood: a start-up guide for beginners
So you want to be a carver?
This is a step-by-step guide for beginning carvers who are ready to start working with some basic power tools to carve wood. This short guide will cover four basic steps to get you going on a "relief carving" project as soon as possible. A "relief carving" is a carving which is done on a flat surface, such as a wood panel. First this guide will introduce you to some of the necessary tools and materials you will need to begin your project, as well as the precautions which you will need to take in order to ensure safety. Next, you will be introduced to some basic carving techniques, as well as some tips and tricks to help you make the most of your wood projects.
Step One: Start building your toolbox
Having a good selection of carving tools can only help to make your work better, but you don't have to go out and spend a fortune on tools right away. Start out with the basics, and build up your tool inventory over time as you continue to practice new carving techniques.
#1 The first most basic carving tool that you will need is a rotary tool. Simply put this is a power tool with a fast rotating chuck that has interchangeable bits which spin very fast and allow you to easily cut through various materials, including wood. Dremel has one of the best rotary tools on the market, not only can you get a start up kit for around $65, but Dremel also has an excellent line of very handy accessories and attachments that you can add to your toolbox down the road. There are other cheaper rotary tools that will suffice for this project, which you can purchase online for as low as $15. Also, if you continue carving and want to move onto something much larger there are super high powered rotary tools that can cost $300 or more, but are well worth it for serious carvers.
#2 The second tool you will need is a small handheld palm sander. Black and Decker makes the Mouse Sander which is an excellent buy because it comes with several different attachments for doing detail sanding work and it's reasonably priced at around $35. There are also generic palm sanders available for about $15 that would work fine for our small relief carving.
Step Two: Materials and safety.
For this relief carving you will need a flat piece of wood that is at least 3/4 of an inch thick. The thicker the board, the more depth you will be able to achieve with your carving. It is important to understand that different types of wood will produce various results. I recommend using a solid plank of soft wood such as pine or cedar. 2x4 scraps are perfect for this project. If you absolutely have to use a type of particle board I recommend avoiding the ones made with large wood chips, or distinctive layers and sticking with the ones made out of finer particles such as Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) which is made from broken down softwoods mixed with glue and pressed tightly together. Once you select your wood canvas, use a pencil to sketch your desired image onto the surface in order to guide your carving.
SAFETY: It is imperative that you secure a well ventilated area to carve in, keep the area clean and free from excessive dust and debris to avoid fires. Always wear a NIOSH N95 rated respirator that is specifically for sanding/woodworking. Always wear safety goggles that completely shield your eyes from all directions. I DO NOT recommend wearing gloves while operating rotary tools, but if you absolutely must, make sure they fit snug because loose gloves can get easily get caught in spinning bits and result in severe finger injuries.
Step Three: Carve!
Different rotary tools will come with different carving bits, and various carving bits work better for certain applications in the carving process. If this is your very first time carving, I highly recommend you take some time to experiment with the various effects that can be achieved with your bits on a piece of scrap wood. Keep in mind that some bits are made for specific materials and though I'm an advocate for pushing the boundaries of tools and materials, sometimes using bits on unintended materials can lead to damaged tools. Dremel brand bits are clearly labeled with specific materials for recommended usage. Use your favorite bits to cut away, shape and texture your design. It takes a lot of practice to master, but you should start getting a feel for the process immediately.
Tips and Tricks: My favorite bit to carve wood with is Dremel's tile cutting bit. It is a long, thin, threaded bit with a round tip. I like it because it's rounded shape is similar to that of my fingertip and allows me to make sharp deep cuts and to smooth down sharp edges.
This is how it's done!
Step Four: Final touches~
After your image is carved you can used sanding bits to smooth down any rough edges, and use the mouse sander last to create a super smooth surface. Keep in mind that power sanders are able to make deep imprints into the wood, so be careful not to smooth away the details you've worked so hard to achieve on your carving. One thing to avoid in woodwork is obvious tool marks, smooth away as many as you can before moving on to the next step. Once you've achieved a nice smooth surface it's time to apply a protective finish. Any sort of polyurethane sealant will work, and depending on your taste you can choose from a matte or gloss finish. If you can't decide which one to go with, I recommend a nice satin finish which is somewhere between the two.
TIPS AND TRICKS: If your carving is made to be outdoors or will be exposed to water or sunlight I highly recommend using spar urethane, which protects against natural elements such as the sun, wind and rain. Follow the directions indicated on the particular sealant you choose and experiment until you find the finish that works best for your carvings.
Practice makes perfect!
I know it's a cliché you've heard a million times, but it's true, practice really does make perfect. Keep lots of little projects going all time time, and work at it everyday. Wood is great to work with because it is cheap (or free) and easy to find. Have fun, try new things and keep at it until you get it!