Canadian Woodworking

Wood grain

Author: David Bruce Johnson
Published: April May 2005
carving wood grain
carving wood grain

When carving wood, one thing is a certainty – you must deal with wood grain.


The growth rings of a tree are like several tubes that fit perfectly together and run lengthwise along the tree’s trunk. Once the tree is cut, it isn’t always obvious which way the grain goes. Sometimes the grain can be a real challenge, but most of the time, it provides a built-in way to enhance a carving. It’s easy to understand the challenges wood presents by considering carving across, along, and on the end of the grain.

Three main directions to carve

Carving across grain is most effective

Wood splits along grain

Carve in small steps along grain

Turning along grain into across grain

Easy carving with grain

Digging in against grain

Carve end grain by slicing

Patterns in grain appear automatically

Grain line moves opposite to cutting direction

Y-pattern created with #5 gouge

Saw-tooth pattern created with parting tool

Carve cube into ball to see classic circular pattern

Across the Grain

It might come as a surprise that the most effective way to remove wood is to carve across grain. When carving across grain, you are cutting the wood fibre, and you have very good control of what wood is being removed. The same can’t be said when carving along the grain.

Along the Grain

It’s very tempting to remove large pieces of wood along the grain because it’s so easy. Unfortunately, that’s just the wood trying to fool you. One of the first disasters every carver encounters is when a huge chip of wood splits off just where it’s needed. To avoid such a disaster, you can create a “cross grain” situation by beginning to carve at the edge of the wood and gradually work back.

With the Grain

When you look at the results of this more cautious and controlled approach in profile, it is apparent that you are creating a slope across the grain. That’s what I call carving either “with the grain” or “downhill”. The alternative is to carve “against the grain” or “uphill”.

Usually, the first indication you’re carving against the grain is that your gouge will dig in. You will notice that you need to apply a lot of extra force.

End Grain

Just to make things more interesting, end grain is always hard and demands very sharp tools to carve. To make your task easier, you might want to try slicing the wood off. By that I mean, slide the cutting edge of the gouge sidewards while pushing it forward. In essence, you are making your gouge act like a skew gouge. An alternative, adopted by some carvers, is to have a complete set of skew gouges. For most, that isn’t a viable choice economically.

Recognize Resistance

When you’re busy removing wood, the need to apply extra force isn’t always recognized. The change in resistance, however, is important to notice. It usually indicates that either the wood is resisting or that your gouge is becoming dull.

Control Grain Patterns

Luckily for carvers, every piece of wood has its own characteristics and peculiarities. Nevertheless, as soon as you begin to round a piece of wood, contours and patterns appear. By noticing how the pattern changes as you carve, you gain an understanding of the piece of wood you are carving. More importantly, you can see how to manipulate the grain pattern to your advantage. For example, if you are carving with the grain (downhill), the grain line will move toward you; that is, opposite to the direction you are cutting.

With care, you can move the grain to create a pattern you like or to make it coincide with other features. To illustrate this, I have carved the letter ‘Y’ (or possibly the trunk of a tree) using a #5 round gouge. Then, I created a saw-tooth pattern with a parting tool (or V-gouge). To further your understanding of wood grain and how you can control it in your carving, practise on any scrap of wood that has noticeable wood grain. Butternut or sumac would be good choices. For a very clear example, carve any 2″ cube of grainy wood into a ball. With that small exercise, you will see the classic circular pattern on two sides of the ball.

In the next issue, our project will be to carve a decorative owl. I will be using butternut, so an attractive pattern is guaranteed.

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