tools and wood for letter carving

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Forum topic by ozarker posted 06-24-2015 08:52 PM 3664 views 0 times favorited 12 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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5 posts in 2036 days

06-24-2015 08:52 PM

Hello all,
I’ve enjoyed reading on this forum and decided to ask my question.
I’m looking to carve a wooden sign of the meal prayer but I’ve never done letter carving. I’ve read a lot and watched tutorials on the how-to but I can’t seem to figure out exactly what kind of tools I need to buy.
The letters will be pretty big but will also be in a “stylish” font kind of like Old English I suppose.

What type of tools should I look at getting for this? Since they are expensive I want to be as specific as possible.

What kind of woods would be good to use? (I plan on staining it). I was thinking perhaps Cherry?

I’m looking forward to some serious trial-and-error and I’m not afraid of failure. I really want to do this on my own but I am totally lost when it comes to tool selection on type, brand, where-to-buy, etc.

Any suggestions are appreciated. Thanks!

12 replies so far

View Jim Finn's profile

Jim Finn

2866 posts in 3891 days

#1 posted 06-25-2015 12:48 AM

By “carving” are you talking about power carving?, gouges carving? knife carving? Each method requires different tools and different skills to use. Basswood is the usual carving wood.

-- No PHD just a DD214 Lubbock Texas

View ozarker's profile


5 posts in 2036 days

#2 posted 06-25-2015 06:10 PM

Knife carving. The “traditional” style I suppose, although I’ve never seen carving done with power tools. I’m guessing that’s a tad easier?

And you’re right about Basswood. I’ll probably go with that. Thanks for the reply.

View EPJartisan's profile


1123 posts in 4094 days

#3 posted 06-25-2015 07:06 PM

Hi Ozarker… and sorry to contradict you Jim.
Basswood, is good for simple carving, where form takes more precedent over detail. You want a wood that will hold detail, and since you are new to carving, you want a wood that is easy. Cherry is your best bet… it has some tricks, as all wood does, but it has the easiest grain and texture to cut and you can hide mistakes really easy.

It really depends on the font you are using… the more curves the more difficult and the more gouges you need. You might want to check out Felxcut for palm carving tools… best buy for your skill level. Stick with mostly flat chisels for straight lettering (e.g. one knife-like, one chisel about 3/8” and a flat scoop)... and one or two gouges for when you need curves.

And my usual advice.. learn to keep your edges sharp. Pay attention to how the wood feels as you slice it… resistance is about your dulling tool and the wood talking to you about grain. Hope this helps… have fun.. post it when you’re done. ~ eric

-- " 'Truth' is like a beautiful flower, unique to each plant and to the season it blossoms ... 'Fact' is the root and leaf, allowing the plant grow and bloom again."

View chrisstef's profile


18127 posts in 3975 days

#4 posted 06-25-2015 07:47 PM

If you can get quarter sawn cherry that would help even further. Ive done a couple of letter carving plaques with just regular straight chisels. Making curved letters was tricky but it can be done. I mostly use a 1/4” chisel around the corners. A 4 letter plaque in old English font took me about 3 hours to finish. Its slow going but a lot of fun IMO.

Walnut wasn’t too bad to work with either. Soft woods like western red cedar and pine sucked. Alder wasn’t too bad but still a bit soft.

-- Its not a crack, its a casting imperfection.

View ozarker's profile


5 posts in 2036 days

#5 posted 06-25-2015 09:42 PM

Thanks for the tips everyone. It is helpful. I’m planning on having a lot of curved letters which I know won’t make it any easier; I’m planning on this taking a long time because it will be a lot of letters. But I have a shop and time to kill right now.
Also, do you suggest using rubber cement to glue paper letters in place and carve the letters out that way? I saw that trick elsewhere and thought it was unique and want to be sure it’s a good thing to do. ?
Now I’m thinking cherry again!

View Jim Finn's profile

Jim Finn

2866 posts in 3891 days

#6 posted 06-26-2015 03:35 AM

I would apply the pattern using carbon paper. No glue necessary. I do a lot of inlay, not carving, of lettering and that is how I do it.

-- No PHD just a DD214 Lubbock Texas

View Robert's profile


4295 posts in 2450 days

#7 posted 06-26-2015 11:26 AM

If you are thinking of chip carving then basswood or butternut are best for this technique.
Making letters higher than 2” gets difficult.

Its an option worth looking into especially with a lot of curves.

-- Everything is a prototype thats why its one of a kind!!

View kepy's profile


293 posts in 3242 days

#8 posted 06-26-2015 01:54 PM

As a novice carver, I can’t offer much carving advice. I can tell you that tracing the pattern is best done with graphite paper as it doesn’t smear like regular carbon paper.

-- Kepy

View ClaudeF's profile


1209 posts in 2676 days

#9 posted 06-28-2015 07:47 PM

For the curves, you could just buy specific gouges that have the required radius of the curve you want to cut.
For example, a curve with a 10mm radius, a #5×10mm gouge would be perfect, and it would cover a 60 deg arc. Or you could use a #4×6mm gouge that covers an arc of 35 degrees, but has the same curve radius. These numbers, plus the attached table are based on the Pfiel (Swiss Made) gouge designation.


View bruc101's profile


1384 posts in 4511 days

#10 posted 06-28-2015 09:40 PM

Hand carving is something you can be taught but only you can develop your skill and own technic as how to hold and move the chisels through the wood. Practice practice practice and the sharper your chisels the less frustrating it will be for you. You want to slice the wood fibers not tear them.

99% of my hand carved signs are exterior signs carved in kiln dried cypress.

I also suggest you don’t buy a set of carving chisels, expensive, but buy the chisels you need to get started carving your first project then add chisels as you need for a project. My set of carving chisels got started over 45 years ago and I have a pile of them now but in all actually I use only maybe a dozen of them.

On the V parting chisels I have 25 for them and I reground the shape of them from a positive rake to a negative rake and that makes them move through the wood easier, faster and can do curves with them without having to use a gouge with a sweep on it to match the outside radius of the curved letters. I use skew chisels to do the inside radius but then again that is my self taught technic as how I move a chisel through the wood on inside and outside radius.

I hand carved this table using only two chisels and trust me, a sharpening touch up about every two hours.


-- Bruce Free Plans

View ozarker's profile


5 posts in 2036 days

#11 posted 06-30-2015 02:44 PM

Thanks for the tips everyone. I’ve ordered some tools already.

But now I’m having problems finding a block of wood to carve it on. 3’x3’ block of cherry wood would be great to carve this on, but I can’t seem to find anything like that online.

Anyone wanna share a site or a place you buy your wood at?

View wabower's profile


2 posts in 2136 days

#12 posted 08-22-2015 05:00 PM

Chris Pye is a prominent carver and teacher who has published a lettering book and video (with Rob Cosman) that are extremely helpful for beginners.

He also has an internet subscription site that you can join for as long as you want and includes the information from the video as well as an additional tool-sharpening video and many lessons and demos. His techniques are simple, consistent and easy to incorporate into your carving.

He recommends (and endorses) the Auriou lettering tools and gouges. I have both sets and have enjoyed learning to “commission” them (his term for shaping and sharpening) and have put them to work. Google Chris Pye woodcarver to see all of his stuff show up.

I recently took his week-long annual course in Maine and benefitted greatly from the personalized instruction. What he says in person is no different from the material on the videos and website, but he is quickly able to see and correct the mistakes you may be making but can’t figure out how to correct. In my case, I was simply gripping the tool incorrectly. It seemed right based on what I had seen in the instruction material, but one small correction made a huge difference.

-- "Y'all be careful now, you hear?"

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