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Wood Carving

Updated on June 8, 2009

Wood carving is the art of fashioning objects or sculptural designs from wood. An inexpensive and readily available medium, wood has long been used both for figure sculpture and for ornamentation of religious and domestic architecture. In modern art it is also used for abstract constructions. Although less durable than stone or metal, wood is easier to carve and its natural beauty can enhance the finished work.


Wood carving is one of the oldest forms of sculpture. Wood was used in ancient Egypt for figure sculpture and in Oriental countries for ornamenting temples and shrines. Wood carving has also been a prominent craft in primitive cultures. Typical primitive wood sculptures are ceremonial masks, funerary figures, and other ritual objects. The Indian tribes of the American Northwest are noted for their huge totem poles, which are carved in relief and painted.

Wood carving reached its peak as an art form in Europe during the Middle Ages. In such countries as Germany, France, England, and Italy, wood was used extensively for sculptured choir stalls, screens, and architectural ornaments in Gothic churches. In addition, altarpieces and relief panels depicting Biblical scenes were often carved out of wood. Many fine examples of Gothic wood sculpture are exhibited at The Cloisters and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York City.

With the increasing popularity of stone and metal as sculpture mediums during the Renaissance, wood carving gradually declined to the level of a minor art. In the 18th century, however, English cabinetmakers and the sculptor Grinling Gibbons did much to revive the tradition of fine wood carving. At the same time, craftsmen in the United States became noted for their handsome ship's figureheads, medallions, and relief panels carved out of wood.

The trend toward geometric abstraction and simplified form in modern art has stimulated a new interest in wood carving. Sculptors have become increasingly concerned with the various textures, colors, and grain patterns that wood offers. Among the 20th-century artists who have produced outstanding wood sculptures and constructions are Aristide Maillol, Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore, William Zorach, Louise Nevelson, and Marisol.

Commonly used woods and materials

Hardwoods, such as walnut, chestnut, oak, and mahogany, are most commonly used for wood sculpture, but many other kinds can also be employed. Among the various implements used to shape the material are gouges, chisels, files, rasps, and mallets. The carving is usually done in the direction of the wood's grain. Although simple objects can be carved directly out of the wood, complex figures are often first modeled in clay. The design is then drawn on a wood block that has been cut to the approximate size of the projected sculpture.

Large areas of wood are chipped off by driving the blunt end of a chisel into the block with a mallet. Delicate detail is carved with the sharp edge of the chisel. Protruding forms are kept as nearly parallel to the grain as possible to prevent them from being split off. The surface of the wood can then be rounded and smoothed with a file or other abrasive instrument. A completed carving may be painted or may be stained and finished with shellac, varnish, oil, or wax.


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