Basic Techniques and Timber Selection


I always aim to encourage beginners to to learn six basic carving techniques very thoroughly.

Practising these teaches people how to hold and use their chisels effectively, safely and, most importantly, in a controlled manner. Once perfected, they will also provide the foundation for developing more advanced skills. They are all used repeatedly throughout the projects.  At first, you may find some of these methods awkward but with a little perseverance you will soon find yourself using them without thinking.


The first technique is a way of holding the chisel so as to maximise the efficiency of the cutting edge. Don’t worry if you are left or right handed. Just hold the chisel in whichever hand feels most comfortable. Pinch the shaft between your fingertips and thumb to provide a firm grip. Your other hand should be used to hold the handle and to apply the controlled pressure needed to make the chisel cut, This technique is used for ‘setting in’, which basically means that the chisel makes an incision at 90″ to the surface of the timber. Setting in should be done very gently at first, lightly marking a pattern on to the wood.

You can then apply steadily greater pressure to cut more deeply. The pinch position should also be used for gripping the chisel when removing small amounts of wood. This makes it particularly suitable for fine work.

The pinch position is used mainly for fine work

Use the pinch position also when you need to set in a fine cut.


Close your hand around the chisel to make a fist, leaving approximately 25-35mm (1-1 3/8in) of the chisel shaft tom the cutting edge exposed. Remember the cuting edge should always be next te your little finger. This method of holding the chisel provides extra grip when removing large amounts of timber.

The fist position provides extra grip when increased force is required to remove large amounts of timber.


Apply this technique at all times combined with both the pinch and fist positions. The hand (or forearm of the hand) holding the chisel must always be in contact with the workbench or the timber that is being carved. This provides the chisel with a breaking system or anchor. Notice the hand is pivoted at the wrist when using the fist position.


The sliding technique is used to maximize the effcienoy of the chisel’s cutting edge. Try cutting a loaf of bread using downward pressure alone. The result would be very ragged and torn. If you use a sliding motion, the cut becomes much more eftective. Similarly as as you move the chisel forward through the timber, turn the handle from side to side to create a sliding action along the length of the cutting edge. Practise this action initially without cutting into the timber and then apply it to very shallow cuts. The technique proves its worth particularly when carving across the grain.

Slide the chisel in a similar action to cutting a slice of bread with a knife, rotating the wrist from side to side as you work

Practise by carving a piece of wide and straight grained timber, preferably a softwood such as pine, aiming for a clean cut without signs of tearing. The blade should leave a polished sheen on the surface of the wood.


The final technique is is potentially the most awkward and wil probably require more practice than the others, However, if you are to work efficiently you will certainly need to be able to use both hands with equal confidence.

The photographs show how to work with both hands when carving a barley twist, but the same method should be applied to any project whether happens to be as small as the basic flower project or larger and more complex like the decorative bracket project.

In this instance the fist position is being used and the chisel is gripped with the left hand to carve to the left-hand side of the bench and vice versa for the right. Mastering the technique of using both handsthout having to think about it enables you to remain centrally located in front of your work and avoids the need for you to lean over the bench or to reposition the carving at regular intervals.

Practise using both hands to carve. Hold the chisel in the left hand to work towards your left.

Hold the chisel in the right hand to work towards your right.


When moving the chisel forward, never apply a greater force than your controlled arm weight.

It is dangerous to use your body weight since your anchor will be unable to withstand such force. If greater pressure is required, a mallet should be used.

The tapping technique combines the fist and anchoring positions. Grip the chisel in the fist position, making sure your forearm is correctly anchored, and gently tap the handle of the chisel with a mallet. The chisel will be pushed forward by the tap, making a cut, but the anchor will immediately force it to return to its original position. This provides a controlled burst of power and when the cut needs to be advanced, the anchor can be relocated. 

The tapping technique is used to drive the chisel through the wood when greater pressure is required than the weight of your arm.


It will not take you very long to realise that most timbers tend to work rather better in one direction than the other. Timber such as oak for

example, may plane beautifully one way leaving a smooth surface and a polished sheen from the blade. However, if you try to plane in the opposite direction, the grain may lift, producing sporadic tears and pitted areas. The same problem will also occur when carving a piece of wood with a chisel, making the process frustrating as well as leaving you with a difficult task in in terms of repairing the damaged surface of the wood.

Although it is only common sense to try always to carve in the best direction, on certain projects, such as mouldings, it is often impossible. This is where the sliding technique illustrated comes into play.

To overcome this problem you must first understand how the timber is formed. This, in turn, will help you to make decisions about the appropriate direction to cut.

A cut is always more effective when it is directed from short grain to long. 

Imagine a piece of wood as being a bundle of long drinking straws the length of the straws representing the direction of the grain. Figs, 1-3 show that the cut will always be more effective when it is directed from short grain (straws) to long. As you can see in Fig. 2, working in the correct direction produces a smooth, clean cut while working from long grain to short as shown in Fig. 3 will result in a ragged cut.


Before you tackle the various projects it is good practice to familiarize yourself with the chisels and the six basic techniques. The following exercise is also ideal to test the sharpness of the chisels.

Secure a piece of timber to the work surface and, with whichever hand you feel most comfortable, hold chisel No. 3 in the fist position. Slide the chisel through the timber the direction of the grain, making sure that you anchor. Remove small scoops at a time, moving the chisel with controlled arm weight only. If you find that you need to apply body weight, you are trying to remove too much timber in one go.

Next carve across the grain using the sliding technique, attempting to remove timber from different directions. If you need to carve further than your anchor hand will allow relocate it rather than raising it to finish the It cut. This will ensure a “breaking system’ is in place at all times.

Now apply the tapping technique in a number of directions. Try to produce clean scoops, formed by a number of taps, without any visible chatter marks from the blade. Using the same hand to grip chisel No. 3, change to the pinch position and set in a cut with the chisel shaft at 90″. Remember to use controlled arm weight only with the motivating hand, while anchoring the chisel with the other. 

Now revert to the fist position and slide the chisel towards the convex side of the first cut. The aim is to remove a clean segment of timber with only two cuts. However, if more cuts are required or if small fragments of timber are left behind, you need to practise the technique. 

Repeat each stage again, but this time hold the chisel in the opposite hand. With perseverance the techniques will gradually become easier. 

Test your chisels on a block of wood, practising making cuts in all directions both across and with the grain.


There are, without doubt, better woods to carve than others. Lime, Basswood, Honduras mahogany, North American tulipwood and certain pines are all commonly favoured by carvers. Timbers that are light in weight with close, straight grain configurations are generally ideal for beginners, but may not look as interesting as others when polished. Dense timbers with interesting grain configurations on the other hand tend to be more awkward. Do not be fooled by the terms ‘softwood’ and hardwood’. A softwood actually means that the tree is coniferous, retaining its foliage is throughout the year. Hardwoods on the other hand are deciduous trees, which lose their leaves during the winter months. This categorization is no indication of the density of the timber, which is illustrated by the fact that balsa is a hardwood. 

The best way to determine a good carving wood is actually to take a few scoops with a sharp gouge out of various samples. This may not always be possible before you purchase, however, unless you are on particularly good terms with your local supplier. If you are able to test a few pieces of wood before buying or if you have an alternative source of supply, such as wood from a storm-felled tree in your own or a neighbour’s garden, try carving in all directions, particularly across the grain, to determine which pieces are the best. Try not to condemn an entire species simply because the sample you have chosen happens to be awkward. It may have been stored badly in very dry conditions and become brittle. Lime for instance, is known for being like butter to carve but if stored in very dry conditions it may become crumbly. lf your timber choice is a good one, the grain should not bruise, pit or tear.

Another consideration when selecting a suitable timber is the location of the finished carving. This is particularly important when is the carving is to be used on furniture that is functional or positioned in in places where it is vulnerable to damage. A softer wood for instance, may be incapable of withstanding continual knocks and the pressure of admiring hands.