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 throughout the year. Hardwoods on the other hand are deciduous trees, which lose their leaves during 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 to actually 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 a particularly good terms with your local supplier. If you are able to test a few pieces of wood before buying, 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. If 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 the carving is to be used as furniture that is functional or positioned 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.