Woodcarving isn't a mystery. Anyone can do it. Once you start on a woodcarving, it begins to reveal itself to you, in your mind and in your hands. It may even change slightly as it progresses, depending on the location of knots or grain patterns. There are lots of different styles of woodcarving, some more difficult than others. It's best to start out with softer woods using time-tested carving techniques.
For beginners it's best to start with one of the species that is well known for workability. Poplar and pine are the best softwoods, while black walnut and mahogany are the best of the hardwoods for carving. These types of wood have grain patterns that you can cut across perpendicularly, with a minimum of splintering or shattering. They are softer and easier on the hands, whether you're using hand tools or power tools. For signs and small crafts such as toys, poplar and pine are best. For larger sculptures or carvings for furniture items, black walnut or mahogany are best because of their inherent color and character.
Letters With Hand Tools
Almost everyone has carved letters into wood. Take it to the next level with sign carving. Download some fonts and use them to trace a saying or a slogan onto a 3/4-by-12-by-18-inch poplar panel. Use a bench knife to cut the tracings about 1/8 inch deep. A bench knife is a stubby woodcarving knife that you can get at any hobby shop. After you've cut the tracings, use a 1/4-inch chisel to chip away wood from the letters. When you've deepened the letters, use a 1/4-inch bent spoon knife -- also available at a hobby shop -- and push the sharp curved end of the knife to cut smooth, round bottoms on the letters.
Grape Leaf With Rotary Tool
Grape leaf designs have been around for many years, and are often used on tables, altars, pulpits and even along the sides of elaborate picture frames. Start by downloading a grape leaf pattern; there are all kinds and sizes of them available online. Trace the pattern onto a 3/4-by-6-by-18-inch piece of mahogany. Use a marker to darken all of wood that is not part of the pattern. Use a handheld rotary tool with a cutting accessory to remove all of the dark wood. This technique is called relief carving. As you remove the wood, the grape leave pattern will stand out from the surface of the wood. Continue to swap out accessories on the rotary tool, moving to smaller tips as the carving begins to get more detail.
For larger sculptures such as animals or abstract art, use a 4-by-4-by-12-inch block of black walnut. You can laminate it up yourself, or purchase one from a cabinet or wood shop. For large three-dimensional sculptures, begin by drawing as much of the sculpture as possible on the block with a marker. Clamp the block in a vise and then use a coarse wood rasp to scrape and grind off wood. Use authority to force the teeth of the rasp into the wood so it comes off in large amounts. Work around the block, defining the image. When the image begins to emerge, switch to finer rasps, working them for a while, and then switch to small files to add fine lines and detail to the sculpture.