Coniscliffe Carving Club



A Guide to Wood for Carving.         by Alan Suddes


Now that you have bought some basic tools, you will need to find a suitable piece of timber to carve. Timber from DIY and builders merchants is not suitable. Carving timber can only be purchased from specialist suppliers, some of which are listed later.

Oak is the traditional English carving wood, used in our cathedrals and churches, but this is not the easiest wood for your first attempt. The most popular wood for detailed carving is Lime (Tilia vulgaris). Take a look at the work of Grinling Gibbons and you will see how Lime in the hands of a master can be transformed into festoons of fruit, flowers, foliage, birds and musical instruments.

Woods are divided into softwoods and hardwoods. Most softwoods suitable for carving are now difficult to obtain, so we will concentrate on hardwoods. Listed below are some of the timbers you may come across, with a note about their suitability for carving.

Alder (Alnus glutinosa) – rarely available commercially, carves like Lime.

Apple (Malus spp) – dense, pink, even grain, carves well

Ash      Difficult, not recommended.

Basswood – American form of Lime. Carves well.

Beech Difficult, not recommended.

Box     (Buxus sempervirens) – only available in small sizes, beautifully dense and yellowish wood, takes minute detail. 

Elm     Difficult, not recommended.

Holly   (Ilex aquifolium) – very dense and hard, but carves well and takes fine detail.

Iroko (Chlorophora excelsa) – not easy to carve, but takes lettering and is durable outdoors.

Jelutong  (Dipera costutata) – soft, lightweight, carves very easily but fine details are delicate and it takes an unpleasant finish. Lime is preferable.

Lime (Tilia vulgaris) – exceptionally easy to work, white, creamy colour, takes finest of detail. The wood most carvers use. Soft and crisp to carve, but it is a hardwood.

Mahogany  Various types, some carve well, and some are soft on sharp edges. Some older types used in antique furniture are excellent to carve.

Oak (Quercus spp) – excellent, needs broader treatment than Lime. Beautiful ray patterns in grain.

Pear (Pyrus communis) – dense, fine grained, carves very well and takes fine detail.

Plum (Prunus communis) – as Pear, but with interesting orange, pink and purple variations. Not  as easy.

Rowan (Mountain Ash) (Sorbus aucuparia) – tough, but carves well and takes detail.

Sycamore  (Acer pseudoplatanus) – carves easily when green. Hard when dry and not easy, but  can take fine detail.

Teak Very expensive, carves well, good for outside use, but dulls tools very quickly.

Walnut (Juglans regia) – carves very well and takes detail. Finishes well to a rich dark brown.

Walnut ( American or Black Walnut) (Juglans nigra) – as European species above.


Many species mentioned are not available commercially, but if you see for instance a fruit tree being cut down, try to acquire the main trunk and limbs. Keep the logs in 4 ft. plus lengths and paint both ends with old gloss paint (the thicker the better) or car underseal. Stack the logs in a shady place in your garden and do not cover them. Leave for 2 – 3 years and, with luck, you may get a 2 ft. carving length from the centre – barring worm attack!

Where to Buy

In the Northeast there are 4 possible sources of timber for carving.

1. G & S Specialist Timber, the Alpaca Centre, Stainton, Penrith, Cumbria. (Take the A66 to Penrith, cross over the M6 towards Keswick, follow the sign to Rheged, then the Alpaca sign).  CA11 0ES Tel 01768 891445
2. Hexham Hardwoods, Whitley Chapel, Nr. Slaley. (Difficult to find! Follow A68, turn off at Slaley Hall Hotel).  NE47 0HB Tel 01434 673528
3. Snainton Woodworking Supplies, Snainton, Nr. Scarborough (On main A170 York – Scarborough). YO13 9BG Tel 01723 859545
4. Duffield  Timber. Green Lane, Melmerby, Ripon, HG45JB.  An excellent supplier with a huge and varied stock. They also sell bargain pieces and woodturning blanks. Use your 'satnav' to find it. Tel. 01765 640564

Most are open 6 days per week (closed on Sunday), but Hexham Hardwoods can be irregular. Look for nice, clean, knot-free wood and avoid pieces with lighter coloured outer sapwood e.g. Yew is rich orange brown (heartwood), but the sapwood is creamy white. The sapwood of Lime (just underneath the bark) tends to be soft and fibrous, whereas the heartwood is closely grained and cuts well, with a satisfying "zipping" sound.

So, welcome to the craft of Woodcarving! Enjoy!!