Wood carving is a form of working wood by means of a cutting tool held in the hand (this may be a power tool), resulting in a wooden figure or figurine (this may be abstract in nature) or in the sculptural ornamentation of a wooden object. The phrase may also refer to the finished product, from individual sculptures, to hand-worked moldings composing part of a tracery.
Some of the finest extant examples of early wood carving are from the Middle Ages in Italy and France, where the typical themes of that era were Christian iconography. In England many complete examples remain from the 16th and 17th century, where oak was the preferred medium. In Russia wood carving was popular for centuries. For many Russian men who were raised in settlements surrounded by forest the wood carving became an important part of life. In a matter of fact, Russian Orthodox Churches were all initially built of wood, including the Moscow Kremlin. There was not a single household in ancient Russia that did not have wooden furniture, utensils and kitchen ware. Later, various home decor figurine, wooden boxes, carved chess sets become very popular not only within Russia but far beyond it.
The nature of the wood being carved limits the scope of the carver in that wood is not equally strong in all directions: it is an anisotropic material. The direction is which wood is strongest is called "grain" (grain may be straight, interlocked, wavy or fiddle back). It is wise to arrange the more delicate parts of a design along the grain instead of across it, and the more slender stalks or leaf-points should not be too much separated from their adjacent surroundings. The failure to appreciate these primary rules may constantly be seen in damaged work, when it will be noticed that, whereas tendrils, tips of birds beaks, arranged across the grain have been broken away, similar details designed more in harmony with the growth of the wood and not too deeply undercut remain intact. Probably the two most common woods used for carving are Lime and Tupelo types, both are hardwoods that are relatively easy to work with. Oak is a lovely wood for carving, on account of its durability and toughness without being too hard.
A wood carver begins a new carving by selecting a block of wood the approximate size and shape of the figure he wishes to create. The type of wood is important. Hardwoods are more difficult to shape but have greater luster and longevity. Softer woods may be easier to carve, but are less resistant to damage. Once the sculptor has selected his wood, he begins a general shaping process using gouges of various sizes. The gouge is a curved blade that can remove large portions of wood smoothly. For harder woods, the sculptor may use a chisel and mallet, similar to a stone carver. Smaller sculptures may require the wood carver to use a knife, and larger pieces might require the use of a saw. No matter what wood is selected or tool used, the wood sculptor must always carve with the grain of the wood, never against the grain.
Once the general shape is made, the carver may use a variety of tools for creating details. For example, a “vainer” can be used to make deep gouges into the surface, or a “v-tool” for making fine lines or decorative cuts. Once the finer details have been added, the wood carver shell smooth up the surface. General smoothing can be done with tools such as “rasps,” which are flat-bladed tools with rippled edges. “Rifflers” are similar to rasps, but round in shape for working in folds or crevasses. The finer polishing is done with sandpaper. Large grained paper with a rougher surface is used first, with the sculptor then using finer grained paper that can make the surface of the sculpture slick to the touch.
After the carving and polishing is completed, the artist may color the wood with a variety of natural stains, such as walnut or linseed oil. He may also apply a final coat a varnish, a resin-based sealer that will protect the surface and give it a shiny appearance. Objects made of wood are frequently coated with a layer of wax, which protects the finish and enhances the shine.