Best Wood for Relief Carving

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Relief carving is a specialized form of wood carving where we carve figures and objects from a flat piece of wood. This form of art is similar to sculpting. However, the difference here is that the figures only project a bit from the background. We classify wood relief carving into high and medium relief depending on the extent that the objects in the relief project outwards.

We can also call relief carving “pictures in wood” because the result is like a 3-dimensional picture. The starting point of a wood relief carving is in the form of an idea in the artist’s head.  The artist then puts an image onto paper to depict what the final image should be. The images are then transferred from the paper onto the wood, and that is when the carving begins.

Viking ship wood-carved relief
Viking ship wood-carved relief (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Relief carving is an extremely specialized field of woodworking and is indeed a form of art.  The artist uses a chisel and gouges with the help of a mallet to cut out the wood to create the wood relief carving.  They will also use specialized woodworking equipment like a workbench with bench dogs, clamps, screws, and a variety of other jigs and fixtures.

A wood relief carving artist relies on sharp tools to get the work done. Therefore, knowledge of tool sharpening is also a critical part of the job. The artist will have to sharpen tools from time to time in the course of the job.

Best Types of Wood for Relief Carving

Countless varieties of wood are suitable for wood carving and relief carving.  However, each type has a unique advantage. When we talk about relief carving, we have to consider the factor of high relief or low relief, and we need to consider the experience level. Here are some of the types of wood which are best-suited for relief carving:


Basswood (Image: Katja Schulz)

Because this wood is so much softer than many other types of wood, you would find it easy on which to work. Basswood is an excellent choice for beginners. It has a light cream color, which brings out the features of relief carving very nicely. You can use a knife, chisel, gouge, or hammer on basswood quite comfortably and get some excellent results. Whether you are a novice and you don’t have much experience or are a veteran wood relief artist, you can always get some great results from basswood.

Honduran Mahogany

Honduran mahogany is a rare type of wood and not readily available. However, it has an excellent reputation for producing good results in relief carving. Although it is a hardwood, with the right type of tools, you should be able to create some beautiful relief carvings out of Honduran mahogany.

White Pine

White Pine
White Pine (Image: Marco Verch)

With white pine or, more accurately, Eastern white pine, here again, you have a popular wood used by beginners and experts alike. The medium grain texture and creamy shade of this wood give relief carving a pleasant appearance. It is a softwood and is well-suited for hand carving but by chipping it with a hammer. Pinewood remains to be a prevalent wood due to its easy workability.

Black Walnut

Black Walnut
Black Walnut (Image: Erin Koch)

The deep, dark chocolate color of this wood makes it a popular choice for relief carving. Being a hardwood, it shapes nicely, and you can make some intricate and exquisite carvings with black walnut. As in the case of mahogany, this wood also requires very little post work thanks to its dark color. Using a hammer and chisel is the favored method of carving walnut wood. You would find it difficult to whittle on this wood with a knife.


Cherry Wood
Cherry Wood (Image: CG Masters)

The pinkish shade of cherry wood with its wavy grain makes cherry a much-favored wood for relief carving. However, because cherry is a dense hardwood, which is extremely hard, you may find working on it somewhat challenging. Whittling is also quite tricky. Nevertheless, if you can work on cherrywood successfully, the results can be spectacular.

Sugar Maple

Sugar Maple trunk
Sugar Maple trunk (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

You might feel that sugar maple is an easy wood to work on, but that is not so. It is a dense wood and produces some awe-inspiring results if you manage to successfully work on it. This wood shot into fame in the colonial era due to a cabinet maker called “Rock.” He advertised his product as “Rock’s hard maple furniture.” Another interesting fact about this wood is that maple syrup comes from the sap of the maple tree.

White Oak

Finally, we have one of the most popular hardwoods available on the market, which is white oak. The light yellowish color of this wood produces some pleasing results in relief carving. The medium-coarse grain imparts a subtle finish to the carvings. You will be able to do chipping on this wood, but you with find it difficult to whittle on it because of the extreme hardness.


We hope that you have found this post on relief carving an interesting one.  Relief carving is indeed an intricate form of art, and everyone cannot do it. But if you have the talent and skills to do relief carving, you would be interested in knowing the type of wood that you can use for the job.

In this post, we have highlighted some of the most popular types of wood for relief carving. Every single kind of wood has its pros and cons. The kind of wood that you will need is particular to the kind of relief carving that you want to do.  Hence, knowing the specific details of the best wood for relief carving is exceptionally critical, and we felt it necessary to highlight these different types of wood.

We trust that you have been able to get some useful information out of reading this post and that you can use that information to get the best out of your relief carving projects. You can also find more about some of the best types of wood for carving in another of our interesting posts.

Featured Image by Peter Burka