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Wood Carving: Making Pieces You Can Use

Updated on May 8, 2015
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Neil grew up in Smithfield, Utah, on a hobby farm and learned gardening from his father and other area farmers that he worked with.

The king, queen, and a bishop from my chess set.
The king, queen, and a bishop from my chess set.

Types of Wood

Any wood can be carved, but if it is going to be used or kept for any length of time is should be dry (dead branches from a tree, or a log from the firewood pile will work; and of course any commercial lumber will work as well). If you have a choice or preference for the wood to be used, here are three characteristics most wood carvers will want to consider: color, grain, and hardness.

Hardwood vs Softwood.

The harder the wood, the harder it is to carve, usually. Poplar, for example is considered a hard wood but is still fairly soft and has a grain that is conducive to carving. Many hobbyists prefer Basswood as the best softwood for carving, because of it’s fine grain, but pine and other softwoods can be used as well.


The grain is determined by how the tree grows, and will affect the appearance of the piece and how much care must be taken while carving (if a piece is going to split, it will spilt along the grain). Basswood has a fine, almost invisible grain while most pine has a distinct, heavier grain.


Although it won’t affect the carving process, it may affect the look of the finished piece. Most wood is a shade of tan, or white, but redwood, for example is red (as is some cedar and some other woods), and poplar may have gray or green stripes.

I remember a comic about a sculptor who started out with a huge piece of stone. Just as he would get the piece finished, an arm would break off, and he would start on something smaller until the finished product was a tiny mouse. While there is a natural attraction between a chunk of wood lying on the ground and a boy with a knife, the results are usually a pile of wood shavings. There are people who have raised whittling and carving to a fine art, creating fully separated link chains from a single piece of wood or creating fully functional scissors from a popsicle stick. These people are the exception rather than the rule. Fortunately, with a bit of practice, the rest of us can create figures that are entertaining, and useful.

I began such a project and have not only found it a challenge, but in the process, have found that my carving skills have improved. My carving for many years consisted of a pile of shavings. Finally it progressed to the point where, if I put forth some effort, I could create faces on a stick - a miniature totem pole. Very few of those sticks ever made it past the final campfire, or even deserved to be saved. Over time the faces became more complex, and finally I decided that it was time to take on a formal carving project.

In addition to camping I enjoy an occasional game of chess. I decided that I would start with a basic chess set. Of course it wouldn't be fancy like the one my uncle carving while I was growing up, but I decided that it would be functional, and the pieces would look like they were supposed to (I hoped).

I started with the rooks, then in a rare burst of inspiration tackled the knights. I moved from there to the king, and then back to the pawns. At this time I was only making one or two of each piece. I have since made bishops and am working on the queen. It will take quite a few more camping trips before I have a complete set but it will be worth it.

Beginning projects need not be complicated or large (such as my chess set). They can be as simple as a set of eating utensils. Start with chopsticks then create a spoon to go with them. Now you can eat while you work on the fork. The mini totem pole makes a good center piece for the camp table. Neckerchief slides are also a good project for the beginner.

Wood carving is part of the folklore that surrounds camping and "the good old days." It can be a form of recycling. Some of us never get past the pile of shavings stage, while others progress until there is very little that they can't do. It just takes time, patience and practice.



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