10 tips for carving in Oak

I have recently completed a job carving an egg and dart pattern into oak moulding for the edge of a table top, you can see this in the photo.

Egg and dart pattern carved into oak moulding
Egg and dart pattern carved into oak moulding to edge a table top

While I was working on this job I thought of some things to think and work through the next time I have an oak carving to do.

Hopefully these tips will help you too.

If this is your first carving project please choose another wood now before you read any further. While I enjoy carving oak it is a little difficult for a first piece, choose something a little easier – Lime or Jelutong if you can get it are excellent starting points. I have spoken to several beginners who have been completely put off carving by using oak their first time out.

Be careful that the design you are carving is fairly bold and not too intricate as you will be fighting the very open grain of the wood which will make for a highly frustrating and unpleasant carving experience.

When you are estimating how long the carving will take you, take your estimate and multiply it by at least twice and then add some more.

Allow for a practice piece so that you can get a feel for the wood and the gouges/chisels you will need before you start on the actual work. It does not need to be a full size piece just a bit to try things out on.

Check the pattern/measurements before you start as mistakes on a carving that will not be gessoed (for gilding or painting) or painted are very hard to disguise.

Secure the work to your bench as well as you can, if the piece moves during a vital cut it could ruin the whole design.

Make sure that your tools are sharp and keep them honed. When you carve it should feel like a hot knife cutting through butter – if you don’t know what that feels like give it go when you eat your dinner (with a cutlery knife not a chisel/gouge!). Cut a hot potato with the knife first then cut some butter or margarine with the same knife, this should give you the right feeling.

Use shallow cuts and build up to the depth you want. It is more time consuming but will make the carving easier.

Try to use a carving mallet as much as you can, it will save your hands and control the cuts.

Do not try to work long hours on the job especially at first. Oak can be very hard on the hands which may over time cause a strain.

These are just 10 tips that I came up with, if you can think of any more please leave them as a comment below, I’d love to hear them.





Jutta M Stiller is a wood carver and sculptor specialising in Netsuke and Couture frames click here to subscribe to her newsletter ‘Tales From the Woodcarving Bench’ .


This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Sue Gent

    Hello we have recently had to fell an oak tree in our garden due to roots uplifting drains, i know the trunk would make an excellent piece of furniture possibly coffee table or a bench etc but how do we go about this? i came across your site whilst trying to find “carpenters” or “carving” not sure how to go about finding someone any suggestions or could we just move (with difficulty) the trunk into the area we would like seating and leave it as it is? Sorry if these questions sound dumb!!

    1. Jutta

      Hello Sue,

      No your questions are not dumb.

      If you would like the furniture to go inside your house the tree would need to be made into planks first, then dried before it could be made into something and come into a heated dwelling. This would take several years for the air drying etc unless you can find someone who can kiln dry it for you. If you would like to follow this option you need to look for a furniture maker (preferably someone local) who already does this for themselves.

      If you would like an outdoor piece of furniture try searching for a chainsaw carver. They will work with greener wood (I think) and make you something beautiful in your garden.

      I hope that has helped you, please do come back and tell me how you get on I’d love to know, or if you have any more questions.


  2. D

    Hello, Great tips! but i was wondering a few tips about carving a oak staff with a totem pole design. the staff is 58 inches and about 4 inches in width. I was hoping to atleast hold 14 different images of animals. which way of carving would you recommend? also about which dimensions should each image have? if these demands are too detailed that is fine, i apprecatiate the time and tips!

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