How to Carve a Figure Out of a Block of Wood

Updated April 17, 2017

Every material used for sculpting requires a specific set of tools. Some materials allow you to add material as you sculpt, such as clay. Stone and wood do not lend themselves to this, as any additions must be attached, using glue or epoxy, thereby depreciating the intrinsic value of the sculpture. Wood sculptures can be created using traditional chisels, saws and knives, as well as with power tools like electric burrs. Very large wooden sculptures are often made using a chainsaw to remove larger amounts of wood. It is best to start with a smaller sculpture, maybe a foot high.

Assemble your reference images near your sculpting area so you can easily switch back and forth between the images and your sculpture. Refer to the images frequently so you don't cut away too much material. Secure the wood block to the table or to a larger wooden board with screws or nails. Secure the board on the table with clamps so it will stay in place as you carve.

Outline the general shape of the figure using a marker. Use crossed lines to mark areas you need to remove. Make sure the limbs, torso and head are in proper proportions when you mark them. The negative space is the wood around the figure you want to sculpt. Use a saw, chisels or burrs to rough-out the sculpture using your markings as guidelines.

Remove the material around the head. Use several images to help you get the right shape of the head. Leave a little extra material for the detailing as you remove the main areas. Be careful as you cut, since you will not be able to add wood once it is gone. Carve the rounded shoulders and arms hanging down on both sides. Contour the legs and remove the material in between. Round all sharp edges to resemble a figure.

Detail the face with small chisels, knives or burrs. try different tools and see what works best for a specific area. Carefully carve the eyes, nose, mouth and ears of the figure. Leave the final detailing for later; continue with the neck, hands and feet. If the figure is clothed, carve the creases and folds of the fabric. If undressed, detail the bone and muscle structure of the figure.

Carve the sculpture on all sides, keeping the same level of detail as you work. Continue with the final detailing of the face and extremities, until the figure begins to look realistic. Carve the nostrils, lips and inner ears and eyes to finish the face. Take a break to let your eyes recover. Come back and examine your work as it progresses.

Sand the sculpture once you have finished detailing. Use different grits, starting with 100- or 200-grit, and going finer from there until all surfaces are smooth. Clean the dust from the sculpture and disconnect it from the table. Trim the bottom edge of the sculpture to finish the carving.

Protect the wood by using beeswax for a matt finish, or varnish for a stronger semigloss or glossy coating.

Things You'll Need

  • Chisels
  • Carving knives
  • Power tools with burrs (optional)
  • Nails or screws
  • Wood block (12-by-5-by-5 inches)
  • Sandpaper
  • Beeswax
  • Marker
  • Reference images
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About the Author

Rod Kuster has been a writer and editor since 1995. His work has been published in "Computer Magazine," "Boom Magazine" and Shock Media. Kuster holds a B.A. in international development studies from the University of Dalhousie.