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Best Woods for Relief Carving: 11 Good Options



V Susan
Hi! I'm Susan. I am passionate about woodworking, general DIY and home improvement. If you'd like to connect with me or talk about something you like at mellowpine, drop me a mail at susan@mellowpine.com


Wood for relief carving

Although most wood can be used for relief carving, some are better suited for the job than others because of their grain structure and softness.

So selecting the suitable wood is crucial in deciding the ease and quality of your relief carving project.

Basswood, butternut, jelutong, aspen, mahogany, etc., are some of the best woods for relief carving. These woods are easy to work with and can hold details well, making them ideal for high-quality relief carvings jobs. Moreover, their easy accessibility and affordability make them the best among other wood.

This article discusses different wood choices available for relief carving projects and explains the factors you must consider while choosing the wood and working with them.

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Best Woods for Relief Carving Jobs

WoodWhy choose them?
BasswoodInexpensive, soft, and ideal for beginners
​​ButternutEasy to carve and polishes well
JelutongExceptional finishing properties
AspenEasy to carve and crack resistant
MahoganyRot-resistant with good carving results
CherryWavy grains and attractive appearance
LimewoodSoft and easy to finish
Sugar MapleAffordable and durable
PineSmooth and easy to split
Red OakExtremely durable with a long life
Black WalnutRich color with outstanding patterns
A quick overview of different wood used in relief carving


Designs carved on basswood
Designs carved on basswood

Basswood (also called Lime or Linden) is one of the softest hardwoods with a fine texture. It also holds details, making it ideal for small and large relief carving projects.

It has a clean, consistent grain and a light hue with brown streaks that help to bring out the carving features.

Additionally, basswood can absorb stains well, making it easy to paint or finish the carvings.

Due to its affordability, accessibility, ease of carving, and warping resistance, it is equally popular among beginners and experienced woodworkers.

When worked with tools like knives, chisels, hammers, and gouges, basswood is quite resistant to splitting or splintering.

​​Butternut Wood

​​Saint Nicholas hand carved on butternut wood
​​Saint Nicholas hand carved on butternut wood (Source: Santas)

Butternut (white walnut) is a beginner-friendly softwood with a definite, linear grain pattern with a medium-coarse texture.

It is visually attractive, polishes well, and is nearly as easy to carve as basswood. 

Butternut often has a light brown to golden tint and is darker than basswood or aspen.

It is inexpensive and is typically used to substitute more expensive wood like black walnut.

Butternut wood can be used with both hand and power tools but can quickly dull tool blades and is prone to wormholes.

Moreover, you have to be cautious when making deep cuts against the grain, as this may result in the popping or tearing of the wood.


Jelutong wood carving blanks
Jelutong wood carving blanks (Source: English Woods)

Jelutong is a soft, easy-to-work hardwood that can take details well.

It usually has a straight grain, but occasionally you’ll discover jelutong wood with an interlocking grain pattern.

Jelutong’s medium to fine texture, beautiful appearance, and ability to take finish well make it a good option for relief carving jobs.

Also, because of its ideal density, hand and power tools are equally suited for carving.

Unfortunately, jelutong is not as readily available and is known to cause allergic reactions in some people.


Sheep carved on aspen wood
Sheep carved and painted on aspen wood (Source: Southwest Indian Foundation)

Aspen is harder than basswood, making it resistant to cracking but soft enough to allow for easy carving.

It is inexpensive and quickly found, has a straight grain, and can hold detail well.

Furthermore, aspen has a beautiful white color and lacks knots as it is non-resinous.

The presence of knots makes woods like pine frequently challenging to carve.

Various tools, including chisels, knives, files, and sandpaper, can be used to carve aspen.

Honduran Mahogany

Art carved on Honduran mahogany
Art carved on Honduran mahogany (Source: Bucks County Estate Traders)

Honduran mahogany is a costly rare hardwood that is hard to find but has a reputation for generating exceptional results in relief carving.

The wood grain can be interlaced, straight, wavy, or uneven with natural resistance to rot, termites, and moisture.

Moreover, it comes in various visually appealing shades.

Although this wood is durable and relatively easy to carve using hand tools, it is prone to undesired chipping and tearing.

For best results, use power tools while carving Honduran mahogany.

Cherry Wood

Sculpture carved on cherry wood
Sculpture carved on cherry wood (Source: Philip Stites Antiques)

Cherry wood is a popular hardwood for relief carving due to its attractive pinkish color, wavy grain, and stability.

However, the hardness and density of cherry wood can make it harder to carve using standard tools.

Also, apply a sanding sealer over cherry wood before staining it to avoid a blotchy appearance.

If you have access to power tools, you can produce spectacular results on cherry wood.


limewood carving of a saint
Limewood carving of a saint (Source: Christie’s)

Limewood is a soft, white wood that is easy to work with and produces fine detail.

It has a smooth, even grain structure that allows for precise carving.

Also, it takes paint and other finishes well, resulting in a finished product with a high level of detail and a smooth, polished surface. 

It is also relatively inexpensive, making it a good choice for less experienced carvers.

Limewood and basswood come under the same wood family, but limewood is a better option as it can be easily carved using hand tools.

Sugar Maple

Carved sugar maple wood
Carved sugar maple wood (Source: David Fisher, Carving Explorations)

Sugar maple is known for its creamy white to light brown color, which can vary depending on the age and location of the tree.

It’s also called hard maple and rock maple because of its rugged and solid nature.

While sugar maple is excellent for relief carving, it isn’t easy to work with because of its high density.

Moreover, it better suits experienced woodworkers as it is prone to chipping. Also, it can cause respiratory issues and skin irritation for some people.

However, sugar maple’s hardness and affordability make it a durable and long-lasting choice if you are on a budget.

Hand tools are preferred for relief carving on sugar maple. You must be careful when using power tools as the wood can quickly burn.


Sacred heart image carved on pine wood
Sacred heart image carved on pine wood (Source: Fructus Art)

Pine is easy to split and has a good texture with a medium grain.

It will initially have a yellow or reddish-white shade that gradually darkens to reddish-brown.

Its softness and ease of carving make it comparable to basswood. It holds details well and can be carved using hand tools.

The grains can occasionally be stubborn, but their improved longevity makes up for the wood grain pattern.

Pine works well for relief carving, but its smooth, straight-grained texture makes it prone to splitting and chipping.

Carve pine wood slowly using hand tools to get the best results.

Red Oak

Owl sculpture carved on red oak
Owl sculpture carved on red oak (Source: WorthPoint)

Red oak is a highly durable hardwood known for its distinctive reddish-brown color and prominent grain pattern, which gives it a bold, rustic appearance. 

It has a straight grain with a medium to coarse texture, making it suitable for carving various intricate designs and details.

Moreover, red oak is easily accessible and relatively affordable.

Given its hardness and texture, red oak is best suited for experienced woodworkers and demands power tools for the best result.

Black Walnut

Hand-carved walnut wood
Hand-carved walnut wood (Source: 1stDibs)

Black walnut is a costly hardwood often used for intricate and luxurious carvings.

Its rich and dark chocolate brown color requires minimal work after carving, and the straight grain makes it reasonably easy for relief carving.

This wood is hard and durable, and you need to use a mallet and a chisel to get the best results.

Black walnut is also highly resistant to warping and rotting, even in high humidity. This justifies its higher price.

If cost is not a concern, black walnut can produce stunning relief carvings that can last a lifetime. 

How to Choose a Wood for Relief Carving

A wood carving
A wood carving

When choosing wood for relief carving, there are some favored properties that you may want to consider for optimal results in your projects.


Harder wood is generally easier to carve because they hold its edge longer and are less prone to chipping.

However, they can also be challenging to work with if you’re a beginner.

If you are a beginner, initially carve on softwood and work your way up to hardwood, so you’ll know how to work around them properly.


Wood with a straight grain gives the best results when carved, as the fibers are aligned in a consistent direction.

In contrast, wood with a more irregular grain can be challenging to carve as the fibers run in different directions, making the wood more prone to splintering or tearing.


Pick smooth textured wood for carving jobs, as they provide a better holding grip.

Rough-textured wood can be difficult to grip with carving tools and may also be prone to splintering or tearing.


Wood prone to warping or twisting is generally not ideal for relief carving as it is difficult to get consistent detail in the final design. 

While stable wood, such as those with low moisture content, is generally better for carving.

Cost of Wood for Relief Carving

The cost of the wood is also an important factor to consider when choosing wood for relief carving. 

Some types of wood, such as mahogany and black walnut, are more expensive than others and may not be suitable for beginners and large carving projects.

Tools for Wood Relief Carving

Wood carving tools
Wood carving tools


Chisels are long, flat-bladed tools used to remove material from the surface of the wood.

They come in various sizes and shapes, including straight chisels, V-shaped chisels, and U-shaped chisels, which can be used for different cuts and details.


Gouges (Source: Lee Valley)

Gouges are curved, scoop-shaped tools used to create rounded or concave shapes on wood.

There are different types of gouges, including straight gouges, bent gouges, and flared gouges.


V-tools for wood carving
V-tools for wood carving (Source: DOCKYARD TOOLS USA)

V-tools are thin, pointed tools that create V-shaped lines or details in the wood. 

They are also used to create sharp lines or to add texture to a surface.

Mallet or Hammer

Wood carving mallet
Wood carving mallet

A mallet or hammer is used to strike the carving tools, providing the force needed to remove wood from the carving surface.

Sharpening Stone

Sharpening stone for carving tools
Sharpening stone for carving tools

A sharpening stone helps you keep your carving tools sharp to achieve clean, precise cuts and prevent them from getting stuck in the wood.


Carving wood with a knife
Carving wood with a knife

Knives, such as linoleum knives or scalpels, can make precise, fine cuts in the wood.

They help create detailed, intricate designs or refine a carved design’s edges.

Files and Rasps

Carving wood with a file
Carving wood with a file

Files are used to smooth and refine the surface of the wood after it has been carved. 

They come in various shapes and sizes, including round, flat, and half-round files, and can be used for different surfaces and details.

A rasp is a coarse-textured file used to remove large amounts of material quickly. 

It helps rough out a design or for shaping large, curved surfaces.


Smoothing the edges using sandpaper
Smoothing the edges using sandpaper

Sandpaper is used to smooth the surface of the wood after it has been carved.

It comes in a range of grits, from very fine to very coarse, and can be used to achieve a smooth finish on the carved wood.

How to be Safe when Relief Carving Wood

Wear protective gear

Protective glass and gloves for wood carving
Protective glass and gloves for wood carving

Wear goggles to protect your eyes from flying chips and a dust mask to prevent inhaling wood dust. 

Additionally, wearing gloves can help protect your hands from cuts and abrasions.

Use sharp tools

Sharp tools are less likely to slip or break and are less tiring to use than dull ones. 

Keep your tools sharp and in good condition, and replace them if damaged.

Use the correct grip.

Hold your carving tools with a firm, relaxed grip, and use the pads of your fingers rather than the tips to apply pressure. 

A good grip will help you to maintain control and reduce the risk of slips and accidents.

Clean work area

A cluttered or poorly-lit work area can increase the risk of accidents. 

Keep your work area clean and well-organized, and ensure you have good lighting to see what you are doing.

Working with power tools

Power tools can be handy for relief carving but can also be dangerous if used carelessly. 

Read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and be mindful when operating these tools.

Take breaks 

Wood carving requires a great deal of physical effort, so taking breaks to rest and stretch your arm muscles is essential to prevent fatigue and reduce the risk of accidents.

Dispose of waste safely.

Avoid leaving piles of sawdust or wood chips near heat sources, as they can be a fire hazard.

Consider using a sawdust vacuum to help keep your work area clean and safe.

Finishing Relief Carved Wood

Sand the surface

Use sandpaper to smooth the surface of the carved wood and remove any rough or uneven areas. 

Start with coarse grit and gradually work up to a finer grit to achieve a smooth finish.

Finish the wood

Applying a finish to the wood can help to protect it from moisture, UV rays, and other environmental factors, as well as enhance its natural color and grain. 

Many wood finishes are available, including oil, wax, lacquer, and polyurethane. 

Choose a finish appropriate for the type of wood and the carved design’s intended use.

Mount the carving

If you want to display your carving on a wall or other surface, you will need to mount it securely. 

You can use picture hanging wire, mounting brackets, or other types of hardware to attach the carving to the wall. 

Alternatively, you can place the carving on a pedestal or in a display case.

Store the carving properly

If you are not planning to display the carving immediately, store it in a dry, cool place where it is protected from moisture, dust, and UV rays. 

Avoid stacking other objects on the carving, as it can damage its details.

Clean and maintain the carving 

Over time, the finish of your carving may become dirty or worn. 

To keep your carving in its original look, you need to clean it periodically with a soft cloth and mild detergent.

Avoid using harsh chemicals or abrasives, which can damage the finish or the carved details.

Final Thoughts

Relief carving is a complicated but rewarding process that allows you to create highly detailed, intricate designs on wood. 

It only requires relatively simple and inexpensive tools, making it accessible to woodworkers of all skill levels.

However, relief carving can be time-consuming, as it requires the carver to work manually, one cut at a time, and also requires a high level of skill and precision.

Modern workshops employ computer-controlled machines like CNC routers for such carving jobs.

These machines are generally faster and more efficient than manual carving techniques, and they can produce consistent results with minimal effort. 

However, they can be expensive to purchase and operate and require a high level of technical knowledge to use effectively.

Still, the level of detail you get through manual carving can’t be achieved using a CNC.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the ideal thickness of wood for relief carving? 

The ideal wood thickness for relief carving depends on the detail and depth needed. Generally, it is easier to carve relief details in at least 1″ thick wood. However, for creating deep or highly detailed relief carvings, you may need to use at least 2″ inches thick wood. 

How do I keep my relief carving tools sharp?

To keep your carving tools sharp, you should use a sharpening stone. Sharpening is essential to maintain the cutter’s angle, as this will help to prevent them from becoming dull too quickly.

Which tool is best for relief carving? Power tools or hand tools?

The best tools for relief carving depend upon the type of wood. However, many carvers prefer to use hand tools whenever possible as they provide more control and allow for precise carving. 

V Susan
Hi! I'm Susan. I am passionate about woodworking, general DIY and home improvement. If you'd like to connect with me or talk about something you like at mellowpine, drop me a mail at susan@mellowpine.com