Sculptural carving gives the artist complete control over what is created. Using your imagination, and a few tools you can easily create wood sculptures that are as unique as you are.

What is sculpture carving?

A sculpture is less about trying to recreate something that already exists, and more about creating something unique.
As an example, carving an eagle is a carving that imitates nature, and can be great, but it’s not a sculpture it’s a carving.
If instead you carve an eagle that is emerging from a branch, creating the illusion that it’s still part of the branch, and being born from it. This has a more sculptural appearance, because it creates wonder in the observer.
As the artist creates the sculpture, he carves what he is seeing in his mind. Someone looking at the finished product may have a totally different view of what had been created.

Are carvers and sculptors different?

Wood carvers and wood sculptors have a love for working with wood. The difference between them is just the mindset of the individual.
Pure woodcarvers prefer to plan out what they will carve in detail. Then if necessary they will glue wood together to create a block for carving that will give them the least amount of trouble in the carving process.
We don’t like surprises in our carving wood like uneven grain or a damn knot. This can make a detail that you planned to carve more difficult.
When I am sculpting, and I think others agree, that the imperfections in a natural tree branch can be an awesome feature in your finished product.
A sculptor can look at a tree branch and envision what is inside the branch waiting to be created. A sculptor lets the piece to be carved show what is inside. Very seldom will a sculptor know what they are going to carve before studying the piece of wood for as long as it takes to see the vision.

What are you looking for when you’re studying the wood?

What I look for when I’m deciding what to do with a branch, or a section of tree are:

Shape or form of the piece – If the shape of the piece is formed perfectly to represent what you want to convey. This can be a geometric shape, or if it’s shaped like something in nature. If the wood is shaped like a horses head then sometimes you just need to carve what the piece can best be, rather than trying to force it into something else.

Unique knots – Knots in the wood can be any woodworkers worst enemy, and a sculptors greatest asset. Knots create great grain pattern that can be polished like a diamond. Giving your sculpture a dynamic look when finished. Find ways to accentuate the knot in your work.

Awesome wood grain pattern – One reason I like sculpting is the look of the grain of wood that has been polished. The wood grain is what creates depth in your sculpture. It can be difficult to know how the pattern will go until you cut into the wood, but you can get an idea by looking at the outside. Many times I have been pleasantly surprised by amazing wood grain in a piece that was going to be firewood

Curls, burls, and swirls – These flaws in wood are what can make your sculpture amazing. If you can incorporate the natural imperfections of a piece of wood into your sculpture it will give it character that you couldn’t create.

What tools work best for sculpting?

Sculpting is easiest when you use power tools. Chisels might be used to do some detail work if there is any. Generally sculpting is shaping a piece into a form that may represent something. The finished product is usually smoother than a carving of something. This is not always the case there are no rules in sculpting.
Forming a log or stump into a smooth form requires removing large amounts of wood in some cases. Doing this with hand tools would be less efficient.
Depending on the size of your project you can go from a handheld Dremel tool with micro bits, to using a chainsaw. There are specific tools made for carving and sculpting. These are nice to have if you’re going to be working with wood a lot. A simple grinder with carving blades attached is a great and inexpensive way to start. Look around your shop you may have some tools that you could use. Just do it safely.
A good rotary carving tool is a versatile tool that you can get a variety of bits for. The Foredom is what I use, it works great for me. Getting a small hand rotary tool is not a great investment. They lack power, and burn out quickly. Upgrading to one with a larger motor and a flex shaft is worth the extra money.
The Arbortech line of tools is also made for woodcarvers, They have a variety of tools that work great for sculpting wood.

Aren’t sculptors just hippies with sandpaper

To sculpt you need to be an outside the box kind of thinker. Sculpting doesn’t require the detail carving skills that a carver uses. What it does require is for you to see something in a piece of wood that nobody else can see. Then bring it to life. Shaping the wood could essentially be done with sandpaper. That part is easy. Having the vision to see the finished product before you even put a tool to work is what makes you a sculptor.