Is Oak Good For Carving?

Disclaimer: Obsessed Woodworking is reader-supported. I may receive a small commission if you purchase anything through my site.

We will admit that we are not wood carvers.  We love working with wood, of course, but our woodworking is in the making and building of things – desks and bed frames for the kids, outdoor decks, cutting boards, and dining tables.  While we like to work with a variety of woods, even on the same project, it’s in the making of things.  Carving is outside of our experience.

Key Points:

  • Oak is a hard and dense wood, and carvings of it endure.
  • Oak is not a wise choice for the beginner carver, but in the hands of a skilled carver, it is a terrific choice.
  • Sharp tools, proper safety, and patience will turn that piece of oak into a thing of beauty. 

But, when you work with woods, it’s important to know woods.  Hardwoods, softwoods, grains, colors, density, strength, and durability – these are all key to knowing which types of wood(s) are good choices for particular projects.  Cost, and even wood left over from a past project, also play a part in the choices.

This is not to say we don’t appreciate the beauty of a well-carved relief, sign, or animal  – ducks, owls, and such.  We also marvel at those who have the talent to turn out a gorgeous sign or relief carving.  We think we have some talent in our hands, although the really hard work is done with machines and power tools.

Oak Wood

It’s the hands of a wood carver, though, that has the talent.

Of all the types of wood to choose from, though, which is the best wood for carving, you ask?  We asked around among a couple of friends whose hands have that talent, and we did our due diligence researching for this piece.  We’ll tell you what we heard and what we learned.

It was and is enough for us to look forward to someday in the future when we’re old, sitting on our rocker on the front porch with a knife and a piece of wood.

Woods For Carving To Choose From

Pretty much any wood, we suppose, can be carved if you have the right tools, strong hands, skill, and patience.  Perhaps not Australian Buloke, considered by many to be the hardest wood in the world, with a Janka rating of 5060.  You know of the Janka Scale, developed by Gabriel Janka, to measure the hardness/density of woods:  the amount of pressure needed to embed a half-inch steel ball halfway into the wood.

A rating of 5060 is pretty darn hard, and you probably won’t find tools strong enough to carve it by hand or hands strong enough to do so.

Types of wood approaching that hardness should also be avoided when setting out to carve something.  To put things into perspective, red oak has a Janka rating of 1290 and is often used as a reference or benchmark for comparing relative hardness among woods.

White oak is a bit harder, with a Janka rating of 1360.  At the other end of the hardness rating are woods like pine, butternut, and basswood.  

What Is A Hardwood?

A hardwood is a type of wood that comes from angiosperm trees. Angiosperm trees are flowering trees that produce seeds enclosed in a fruit. Hardwoods are typically denser and harder than softwoods, which come from gymnosperm trees. Gymnosperm trees are cone-bearing trees that produce seeds that are not enclosed in a fruit.

Hardwoods are used for a variety of purposes, including furniture, flooring, and musical instruments. They are also used in the construction of boats, ships, and other vessels. Some of the most common hardwoods include oak, maple, birch, and walnut.

Here are some of the characteristics of hardwoods:

  • They are typically denser and harder than softwoods.
  • They have a wider range of colors and grains than softwoods.
  • They are more resistant to decay and rot than softwoods.
  • They are more expensive than softwoods.

Hardwoods are a valuable resource that is used in a variety of ways. They are strong, durable, and beautiful, and they can be used to create a wide range of products.

What Is A Softwood?

A softwood is a type of wood that comes from gymnosperm trees. Gymnosperm trees are cone-bearing trees that produce seeds that are not enclosed in a fruit. Softwoods are typically less dense and softer than hardwoods, which come from angiosperm trees. Angiosperm trees are flowering trees that produce seeds enclosed in a fruit.

Softwoods are used for a variety of purposes, including construction, papermaking, and furniture making. Some of the most common softwoods include pine, fir, spruce, and cedar.

Here are some of the characteristics of softwoods:

  • They are typically less dense and softer than hardwoods.
  • They have a wider range of colors and grains than hardwoods.
  • They are more resistant to decay and rot than hardwoods.
  • They are less expensive than hardwoods.

Softwoods are a valuable resource that is used in a variety of ways. They are strong, durable, and beautiful, and they can be used to create a wide range of products.

Here are some additional facts about softwoods:

  • Softwoods are typically evergreen, meaning that they keep their leaves all year round.
  • Softwoods are typically faster-growing than hardwoods.
  • Softwoods are typically less expensive than hardwoods.
  • Softwoods are typically more abundant than hardwoods.

Softwoods are an important part of the global economy. They are used to make a wide variety of products, including lumber, paper, and furniture. Softwoods are also used for construction, fuel, and other purposes.

There Are Many Ways of Carving Wood

BeaverCraft Deluxe Wood Carving Kit S18X - Wood Carving Knife Set - Spoon Carving Tools Set - Whittling Knives Kit - Woodworking Kit Wood Carving Tools Kit Large Whittling Kit S18X

There are many different types of carving, each with its own unique style and techniques. Some of the most common types of wood carving include:

  • Chip carving is a type of wood carving that uses a knife to remove small chips of wood to create a design. Chip carving is often used to create geometric patterns, but it can also be used to create more intricate designs.
  • Relief carving is a type of wood carving that creates a three-dimensional image by carving away the wood around the design. Relief carving can be done in a variety of styles, from simple to highly detailed.
  • Pyrography is a type of wood carving that uses a heated tool to burn a design into the wood. Pyrography can be used to create a variety of designs, from simple to complex.
  • Chainsaw carving is a type of wood carving that uses a chainsaw to create a three-dimensional image. Chainsaw carving is a relatively new form of wood carving, but it has quickly become popular due to the dramatic results that it can create.
  • Wood sculpture is a type of wood carving that creates a freestanding three-dimensional image. Wood sculpture can be done in a variety of styles, from realistic to abstract.

What Are Good Woods For Hand Carving?

Woods within that range of Janka rating (pine to oak) can be a good choice for wood carving.  Your level of skill and the tools you will use help determine the right choice for you.

There are many different types of wood that are good for hand carving. Some of the most popular choices include:

  • Basswood is a softwood with a Janka rating of 410. It’s easy to carve and takes detail well. It is also relatively inexpensive, making it a good wood for beginners.  The key word here is “beginners,” although even experienced carvers like to work with basswood occasionally for nostalgic reasons, as it was the wood their grandfather introduced them to when they began carving.
  • Butternut is another softwood that is good for carving. It has a nice grain and can be finished to a high sheen.
  • Poplar is a hardwood that is easy to carve and has a straight grain. It is also relatively inexpensive, making it a good option for beginners.
  • Walnut is a hardwood that is good for carving. It has a rich color and can be finished to a high sheen.
  • Maple is a hardwood that is good for carving. It is hard and strong, but it can be carved with sharp tools.
  • Birch is a hardwood that is good for carving. It is easy to carve and has a straight grain.

The type of wood that you choose for carving will depend on your skill level, the type of project you are working on, and your budget. If you are a beginner, it is a good idea to start with a softwood like basswood or butternut. These woods are easy to carve and will help you to learn the basics of carving.

As you become more experienced, you can experiment with different types of wood.

Here are some additional tips for choosing wood for hand carving:

  • Choose wood that is dry. Wet wood is more difficult to carve and is more likely to split.
  • Choose wood that is free of knots and defects. Knots and defects can make it difficult to carve and can ruin the finished product.
  • Choose wood that is the right size for your project. It is easier to carve small pieces of wood than large pieces.
  • Choose wood that is the right color and grain for your project. The color and grain of the wood can add to the beauty of the finished product.

What About Oak As a Good Wood For Carving?

Oak is a hardwood that is not as easy to carve as softwoods like basswood or butternut. It is a dense wood that is more difficult to cut and can be more prone to splitting.

However, oak is a beautiful wood and a dense wood with a rich grain that can make for stunning carvings. If you are a beginner, it is a good idea to start with a softwood and then move on to oak once you have more experience.

Here are some tips for carving oak:

  • Use sharp tools. Sharp tools will make it easier to cut through the wood and will help to prevent splitting.  While always wanting to keep your shop tools sharp, it is especially important that carving tools be kept very sharp at all times.  Working with a hard and dense wood like oak wood will tax your hand-carving tools to their limit, and sharpening them regularly while working with them will make the task easier and less dangerous.
  • Work with the grain. Carving against the grain can make the wood more likely to split. Oak wood can be apt to split if you are not careful, so working with the grain is important.
  • Use a mallet. A mallet can help to drive the chisels into the wood without damaging the grain.
  • Be patient. Carving oak takes time and patience. Don’t try to rush the process, or you will end up with a rough finish.

Adding to this last point is the porous structure of oak. This makes it difficult to keep oak wood surfaces smooth.  Your oak carving will look rough and unfinished if your tools are not especially sharp and your skill level is high.

Although oak wood can be a good choice for an experienced carver to work with, there are some projects for which oak may not be a good choice – spoons are on that list.  The porous nature of oak can lead to the absorption of foods, oils, and fats, leading to the growth of bacteria.

Essential Wood-Carving Tools

Choosing a Chisel

“Clothes make the man,” as the old saying goes.  In woodworking, it would be “Tools make the carver.”  There are essential tools the wood carver should have, and if you are determined to master the craft, your list should include many of these:

  • Chisels are the most important tool for wood carving. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, each designed for a specific purpose.
  • Knives are also an important tool for wood carving. They can be used to cut, shape, and detail wood.
  • Mallets are used to drive chisels into the wood. They come in a variety of sizes and weights, each designed for a specific purpose.
  • Gloves protect your hands from cuts and splinters.
  • Eye protection protects your eyes from flying wood chips.
  • A carving apron protects your clothes from wood chips and dust.
  • A workbench provides a sturdy surface to work on.
  • A sharpening stone is used to keep your tools sharp.
  • A strop is used to polish your tools and remove burrs.
  • A variety of wood is needed to practice and carve on.  For beginners, this will be softwoods like basswood, butternut, and pine, both excellent choices. For the more skilled carvers, oak will certainly be a good choice, too.
Narex 811603-811650 Premium 16 Piece Chisel Set with 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12,…
  • Made by a small tool manufacturer in the Czech Republic
  • Blades are made from fine-grained, nicely tempered chrome-manganese steel and hardened to Rc 59
  • 16 piece set includes the following sizes: 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 26, 30, 32, 40 and…

These are just some of the essential wood carving tools. With a little practice, you will learn which tools are best for you and your projects.

Here are some additional tips for choosing wood carving tools:

  • Choose tools that are made from high-quality materials.
  • Choose tools that are the right size and weight for your hands.
  • Choose tools that are comfortable to use.
  • Choose tools that are sharp.
  • Choose tools that are easy to sharpen.
  • Choose tools that are well-made.
  • Choose tools that come with a warranty.

Video About Tools and Woods

It’s only a bit over 6 minutes, but this video will give you a wealth of information about woods and tools for hand carving.  If you have even a passing interest in learning something about wood carving, this is a great video to help you get started.

Oak is not an uncommon wood for hand carving, notwithstanding it is a dense wood.  It is not the ideal wood for beginners, but for the experienced wood carver who is looking for a durable wood with great grain, it is a good choice.

Old churches around the world are filled with carved wood depictions of religious scenes, and a lot of those carvings are of oak.  A bit of drying oil from time to time will keep the carvings looking fresh and new.

Oak carvings endure, and that is why it is an excellent choice for the skilled carver.

Last update on 2024-04-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Please leave a comment to join the discussion