Back in the day, I was a keen amateur sculptor. I was lucky enough to live in Oxford, England, where there is a strong tradition of carving and sculpture going back to the Middle Ages. There was a broad spectrum of adult education classes in the visual arts. I used to take my entire annual leave in Wednesday mornings, so that I could attend life sculpture classes. (Yes, I was still an employee — that’s how long ago it was.)
My favourite medium was wood. It is such a wonderful material for carving. The sculptor has to go with the flow, follow the wood’s infinitely varied nature – a product of its species-specific characteristics and the environment in which it grew as a tree: the cycle of the seasons, flood and drought, heat and frost, trauma from fungal and insect attack, etc.
My preference was always to use hand tools only, no power tools. With a power tool like a Dremel, you can easily fall down the rabbit hole of fine detailing and lose sight of your over-all expressive aim. You can also, to an extent, force the timber to do things that it doesn’t ‘want’ to do, and that was never the object of the exercise for me.
The timbers readily available to you will depend on where in the world you are, even in these days of global online shopping.
Limewood (linden, basswood) is one of the best timbers for hand carving. It has a fine, even grain which holds detail well and yet is quite soft. It will carve well across the grain and on end grain without breaking out or blunting your tools excessively. With a little beeswax it can be polished to a beautiful sheen.
It was the timber of choice of the celebrated Baroque carver Grinling Gibbons (1648–1721), the ‘King’s Carver’, whose work can be seen at Hampton Court and Windsor Castle.
Lime was one of my favourite timbers. It feels almost buttery when you’re cutting into it with razor-sharp gouges and chisels. It can be a little too regular, almost characterless, however.
Ash is another excellent carving timber. It’s harder than lime and less forgiving, but also finely and evenly grained.
English Elm isn’t easy to come by these days, thanks to Dutch elm disease, but it’s a beautiful timber, often strongly figured. Rather coarse-fibred, though and prone to split along the grain.
I must have a go at carving some Aussie timbers one day. We have so many beautiful hardwoods here in Australia, available in big, big blanks, but I haven’t carved for nearly 20 years.
I was no Grinling Gibbons, and truly a novice, but here are a few of my pieces to give you an idea of the level of detail that can be achieved relatively easily. These are all smallish pieces, constrained by the size of the blanks available to me. All were carved entirely with hand tools – not a Dremel in sight!