When first selecting the wood to work with an artist must choose carefully because the nature of the wood being carved can limit what the carver can do with it. This is because it is an anisotropic material which means the wood is not equally strong in all directions so the artist must be careful when planning his strategy of attack. The direction in which the wood is strongest is called the grain which may be straight, interlocked, wavy or fiddleback, etc.
A wise artist will arrange the more delicate parts of the carving to be along the grain rather than across it and any slender stems or leaf points should not be too far from their surroundings. A failure to appreciate these basic rules can result in damaged works where small details carved across the grain have been broken away. Carve these details in harmony with the growth of the wood and do not undercut too deeply.
Two of the most common woods used for carvings are Basswood and Tupelo. Both are hardwoods and relatively easy to work with. Other popular woods that make good mediums are: Chestnut, Butternut, Oak, American Walnut, Mahogany, and Teak. Fine work is often done in Italian Walnut, Sycamore Maple, Apple, Pear, Box, or Plum and work that is to be painted is almost always done in pine if the carving is not too delicate in nature.
When beginning a new carving an artist will first select a block of the chosen wood that is about the same size and shape of the planned sculpture. If your design is large you may have to laminate several pieces of wood to reach the required size. Keep these two things in mind when selecting your medium: “Hardwoods are more difficult to shape but have greater luster and longevity. Softer woods may be easier to carve, but are less resistant to damage.” While any wood can be carved they all have different qualities and characteristics so the type of wood will be dictated by the requirements. Figurines needing fine detail will require a wood with a fine grain and little ‘figure’ as high figure will hurt the reading of fine detail.
When the artist has finished selecting his medium they can begin the general shaping process. This is done using different sized gouges or chisels (a tool that removes large portions of wood smoothly). Always carving either across or with the grain and never against it the artist will shape the rough block of wood in to its general shape. Then to achieve finer detail, all sorts of tools can be used. Like a veiner or fluter to make deep gouges into the surface, or a v-tool for making fine lines or decorative cuts.
To finish the surface of the carving you must first decide upon the desired quality. The texture left by shallow gouges will give life to the carvings surface but if a completely smooth surface is desired then it can be done first with rasps and rifflers, and then finished with sand paper to the desired smoothness. When these details are complete you can decide to seal and color the wood using any variety of natural oils like walnut or linseed oil. This will protect the wood from dirt and moisture while also providing it with an attractive sheen and color.