Whilst you can use almost any wood for carving, including twigs and scrap wood that you find. Some woods are better for the job in terms of the strength and aesthetics of the wood. Some other important factors are that, universally, the wood you choose should be straight-grained and free of knots because carving wood containing knots is challenging due to its hardness. Also, the wood should be relatively dry.
Whittling wood that is damp will likely cause the wood to snap when you apply pressure, and the same could be said for overly dry wood. Good wood doesn't have sticky sap on its surface. An example of a wood that contains a lot of sap is pine, and whilst it is possible to use pine wood for carving, you will likely end up having to clean your hands and knife a lot.
Preparing the wood
Some branches you find will likely be dusty, dirty, or even contain fungus, but that can easily be fixed with a cloth and water. Working with clean wood is better, and removing the dirt from the outside of the bark will reduce the risk of transferring it to the clean inside piece that will make up your finished piece.
Some woods are better than others to work with, and whilst nearly every wood can be carved, using suitable wood will give you better results, help you achieve the look you want, and make the experience more enjoyable. Some wood species can also be toxic and can irritate the eyes, skin, and lungs, so if you are using wood that you're unsure about, you should wear protective goggles, a face mask and gloves to be on the safe side. You should avoid those with a strong scent as some contain a type of chemical within the odour that can cause headaches.
There are many varieties of maple, some that are softwoods and some that are hard. Maple timber is strong, is usually straight-grained and can be challenging to carve. Despite its cheapness, it is often used to mimic more expensive woods, making it an excellent choice for carving.
Oak is a popular choice for carving mainly due to its long term durability. Even after ten years, it will still look new. It is not as simple as carving with basswood or pine because oak is tough. Working with oak and trying to shape it isn't easy. For inexperienced woodcarvers, you will likely end up damaging your carving tools many times again due to the hardness of the wood.
Carving with oak is recommended only for experienced carvers and is probably the worst wood for your first project. On another note, oak is non-toxic and food-safe. It can be used for almost any purpose and offers a beautiful, attractive colour. Pin oak, live oak and water oak are the best for wood carving. Red oak is not great because of its open grain that is wavy.
Beech is a beautiful wood for carving, and it is strong, heavy, and straight grained. Even though this wood is hard, due to its common issues with fungus, it is often bendable and, in some cases, can even be brittle, which means that you have to be extra careful not to snap your piece. Beechwood is typically used for flooring, furniture and veneer.
Holly wood (the wood, not the place) is usually used for making piano keys, furniture, broom handles and other ornamental items. Holly wood must be seasoned properly before being used for carving projects. The wood is an attractive ivory white colour, is heavy, smooth and looks clean.
Many citrus trees are great for wood carving. To name a few, these are Lemon, orange, tangerine, and grapefruit. The wood from an orange tree will require sharp tools, and you will find that carving this wood will take longer simply because of how hard and dense the wood is. Lemonwood is a close-grained hardwood that is so strong that it is often used for making archery bows and fishing rods.
Myrtle is another hardwood that will require sharp tools. This wood is best for carving figures and statues as it has a tight grain.
There are many cherry varieties, and most domesticated and wild cherry are great for carving. Cherry wood is a fine carving wood that is reddish-brown and is an attractive wood to carve. It is known to shrink a lot after drying but once dried. The wood will remain stable. The timber is often used to make furniture, kids toys, musical instruments, and more. Cherry wood is usually used to smoke foods such as meat since it gives off a pleasant flavour.
Most varieties of birch are great to work with, and it is one of the most popular types of wood for carving. It is hard, has a fine grain, a natural shine and is typically used as firewood due to its high energy value per unit and volume. It is often widely used for flooring because of its strength and beauty, but the negative to birch wood is that if it is not dried correctly, it is known to warp and, in some cases, crack.
Basswood is considered to be one of the best woods for beginner carving. The reason why is because even though it is hardwood, it is softer than the other wood types mentioned above, thus making it easier to carve. It is cheap, which means that it is excellent for your first whittling project, but the negative is that the wood has little to no grain and lacks character.
Wood from the Mango tree is one of the most sustainable woods that you can get. It is one of the most beautiful; however, it is not readily available in England. It typically grows in Asia, Mexico, Brazil and Australia. It is considered easy to carve, and it is just as sturdy and hard-wearing as oak. Although it flourishes better in humid environments, it can warp and crack if the wood becomes too dry.
Black walnut is used for high-end luxury wood carving and is one of my favourites. The wooden timber is costly, and as it is more robust than most woods, you will need sharp tools and a mallet to work with it. Walnut wood is famous for its grain and colour that is typically dark brown to purple. The negatives apart from its cost is that the wood is heavy, hard, stiff, and the colour variation can be inconsistent, ranging from light to dark throughout the same plank.