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Updated on February 1, 2016

A Little History of Woodcarving

Woodcarving is a centuries old craft of creating works of art by taking a knife or chisels to wood. It has been around almost as long as man himself. Think about it. From the first time primitive man sharpened the end of a stick to use as a spear, woodworking and woodcarving got it's beginning. It's even mentioned in the Bible.

Through time, the tools used to work wood have improved greatly, moving from low grade metals to the high grade steels of today that can be sharpened to a razor's edge. Some carvers of today even make use of power tools to make carving easier and faster. Bandsaws are used to remove larger portions of wood to get down to a more basic shape, then power carvers and sanders can be used to finish the more intricate details, sculpting the wood into it's final form. The vast majority of woodcarvers however, do tend to rely on the tried and true method of hand carving with conventional knives and gouges.

While there are a vast array of carving types and styles, I'm going to show you some of the more common types of woodcarving done today, including some outstanding examples of exquisite art in wood, so have a look around and prepare to be amazed.


Probably the simplest form of wood carving is called whittling. It can be done with a simple pocket knife and just about any type of wood and anyone can do it. Some people use the term whittling interchangeably with woodcarving but I’ve always thought of it as a simpler form, not quite as polished, while woodcarving defines a little more refined form of the art.

I remember playing around with whittling when I was a young lad back on the farm. I always had my trusty jackknife with me and I’d sit in the shade in the backyard and hack away at a stick I found lying around somewhere. I wasn’t really very creative though and usually just ended up with a pointy stick and a pile of wood chips but I had fun nonetheless. People that actually have a modicum of talent end up with an object recognizable for what it is as a result of their efforts. Experienced whittlers could take a chunk of wood and knock out a toy boat or a willow whistle in no time flat.

How To Make a Willow Whistle

Relief Carving

Relief carving may be the first form of carving ever practiced. When most people think about carving, they think of traditional object or figure carving, where the craftsman takes a chunk of wood and carves out a 3 dimensional figure from it. Relief carving is done on existing objects or a flat piece of wood. The carver creates a scene on it much like a painter would paint a picture. It is used to create independent works but also to ornament existing objects like furniture pieces, such as the headboard and footboard of a bed. It's also used to ornament structural or architectural elements like a staircase or mantel piece.

relief carving
relief carving
chip carving
chip carving

Chip Carving

A form of carving that is not as well known as other forms is called chip carving. Much like relief carving in that it’s usually done on flat surfaces, it differs in that instead of carving large sections out to form an image, small pieces of wood or chips are carved out in a pattern. It’s common to use it to form geometric shapes or designs in the wood but it also can be used to create images or scenes.

chip carving art
chip carving art
indian carving
indian carving

Traditional or Object Carving

Probably the most common form of woodcarving is traditional object carving and is most likely what most people think of when you mention wood carving. It’s where the woodcarver takes a solid block of wood and carves a 3 dimensional carving, “in the round” so to speak. It can be of just about any subject or object that you could think of, but some of the more common subjects are animals, birds, including decoys, fish, people, caricatures, mythical creatures, totem poles and more.

Interesting to me is that this type of carving can be, and is, done on any scale. I have seen carvings so small you almost have to have a magnifying glass to see them and I’ve seen huge sculptures carved out of tree trunks with a chain saw. It all depends on the desire and talent of the wood artist doing the carving. One thing is for sure - no matter what size or style of carving, it is all beautiful to look at.

Some Fine Examples of Woodcarving - These photos were taken by my Mother at various carving shows

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More Carvings - Also taken by Mom at woodcarving shows

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wood burning
wood burning

Wood Burning

Another way to create art in wood is by burning an image into it with a hot iron. It's sometimes used to create an image or piece by itself, but it can also be used in conjunction with carving to highlight or accent the piece. They are often painted after the image is burned into the wood but sometimes left unpainted for a natural look.

Woodcarvers tend to find a use for every little scrap of wood and this is an excellent medium to turn smaller cuttings that would otherwise be thrown out into works of art. Burning scenes into smaller pieces of wood with the bark left on makes for natural, rustic looking and beautiful pieces.

Wood Burnings

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Chainsaw Carving

Some carvers don't bother with little things like knives and gouges. They do things on a slightly larger scale, with a chainsaw. Watch this carver create an eagle before your eyes. It actually took him a little under an hour to create this carving, but it's sped up so you can see the process in a much shorter time. Enjoy.

Mom's Work - My Mother is an avid woodcarver and here are a few examples of her work

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This one was done in soapstone instead of wood
This one was done in soapstone instead of wood
This one was done in soapstone instead of wood

Floyd Rhadigan

Friend and Michigan carver Floyd Rhadigan has been at his craft for 40 years. He is well versed in many styles of carving but his specialty is caricature, several example of which are displayed below. He is presently the president of the CCA (Caricature Carvers of America) and teaches classes in woodcarving at seminars and carving shows all over Michigan. If you would like to see more examples of his work or information about his seminars, you can go to his website at

Caricatures by Floyd - A sampling of works from a great caricature carver

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Give It a Try

I’m sure a lot of people get into woodcarving as a way to express themselves through art and this is the medium they have chosen. Others are looking for a hobby or a form of recreation or relaxation. There’s something about working with raw wood that draws people to it and there’s no denying the awesome beauty of the finished work.

So what do you think? Do you want to give woodcarving a try? It’s actually pretty easy to get started. You can get woodcarving tools, wood blanks and instructional books and videos online but you may find you have a woodworking supply store in your area.

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