Carving names in wood is an art that every woodcarver would love to perfect. One of the earliest woodworking memories from my childhood is seeing my father carving Roman numerals on the window frames.
The time I spent watching him carve has not only influenced my woodworking today, but it’s why you are reading this post on how to carve letters into wood.
Read on to get carving letters into wood down pat.
How To Carve Letters Into Wood
Wood carved lettering is a two-part process. The first step entails drawing letter designs to a wood surface using a pencil and carbon paper. Next, you’ll use a rotary or hand tools to carve the letters and sand using sandpaper. Paint or apply a finish to make it stand out.
Supplies for Carving Names in Wood
- Chip carving knife
- Flat Chisels
- Carbon paper
- Right-angle chisels
- Rotary Tool
- Sealer (Optional)
How to carve names in wood – Step by Step
Step 1: Choose and Prepare Your Wood
I recommend using softwoods when carving into the wood for a seamless experience. Besides being easy to work with, softwoods keep your tools sharp and prevent them from breaking. For starters, pick woods such as butternut, basswood or pine.
However, if you are a seasoned woodcarver, you can try your technique on hardwoods such as cherry, red oak, or maple. Carving incised letters into hardwoods requires more force to chip off the smaller pieces.
Step 2: Draw/ Trace Letters On The Wood
Use a pencil to draw the letters freehand on wood. However, this should only be the case if you want to achieve unique or handwritten letters. While block letters work best when carving into wood, you can also go for thin letters.
If you wish to use a printed format, use carbon paper to trace letters onto the wood surface. Type the letters you want to carve in a word processing program on your computer, then print on a paper sheet.
Secure the printed letters to a piece of carbon paper using clear tape. Next, ensuring that the dark side of the carbon paper faces downward, set the paper on the wood surface and trace the letter outlines slowly.
Avoid rubbing the paper when tracing the letters to prevent streaks on the wood. You can access carbon papers at any of your local office supply stores. Another option is to trace pre-made stencils.
Step 3: Clamp The Wood On A Work Surface
After tracing the letters:
- Secure the wood piece to your work surface using a clamp.
- Tighten the hand clamp, ensuring it doesn’t come in the way of where you wish to carve.
- Give a little shove to confirm that the wood doesn’t move. If it does, place a second clamp on the other end.
Step 4: Carving Letters Into Wood
Use a right-angle chisel when carving initials in wood. Since chisels come in different widths, ensure to use one with the same width as your outlines. You can buy the right-angle chisel from a hardware store near you.
With its V-shaped end, a right-angle chisel can cut away larger chunks from your piece of wood.
How to cut letters in wood:
Place your thumb on the ferrule (base of the chisel blade) while maintaining the V-shape in a face-up position.
Next, to carve into the wood, lightly push and tilt the chisel forward along your outline. The blade will easily go into the wood and carve along the outline.
Start with a shallow cut, repeating along the line to remove the wood. Tilt the blade slightly to break off the smaller pieces when you reach the edge of your line.
Use a flat chisel to break off smaller chunks of wood. With its straight sharp edge, you can make more precise cuts using a flat chisel.
Hold your chisels with the beveled edge facing upward while tilting it at a suitable angle for the cut. Drive the blade into the wood until you achieve your desired depth.
Work the edge of the chisel forward to the areas you already cut, using the right-angle chisel to break the wood off. Get rid of the wood shavings that occur between each cut.
I prefer a flat chisel for this step since it is great for making vertical cuts and straight edges. Continue chiseling your letters until you finish. Strive to work within your outline to achieve a clean finish on your wood.
While you can carve the letters as deep as you wish, carving into more than ¾ of the wood’s thickness could weaken it. To obtain maximum control, work slowly around curves.
If the wood is too hard to chisel by hand- typical with hardwood- use a mallet to hit the end of the chisel. Take caution when hitting the mallet to avoid gouging the wood.
Keep hitting the chisel until you can cut into the wood seamlessly. If you’re nervous about using the mallet, try hitting the chisel handle with your palm instead.
I don’t expect this to work when wood carving with hardwoods such as white oak. When carving into wood, avoid placing your other hand in the way of the chisel blade to prevent accidents in case the chisel slips.
Using A Rotary Tool
To achieve the best line control for each letter, use a rotary tool with rounded cutting bits. A standard rotary tool set features 3 or 4 cutting bits of different sizes, which you can access at your local hardware store.
Use larger bits for wider cuts and smaller bits for narrow and precise cuts. First, hold down the lock button at the end of the rotary tool to apply the cutting bit. While still pressing the lock button.
Tighten the cutting bit by spinning it clockwise. Ensure that you unplug the rotary tool before changing the cutting bits.
Plug in the rotary tool and turn it on, checking that the cord does not come in the way. Use your thumb to hold the tool and turn it on to a moderate speed. To turn the rotary tool off, slide the switch into the OFF position.
After ensuring that the wood is steady:
- Drive the bit into the wood along the outline to carve the letters out. Consider making shallow carves on the wood to enhance the outline.
- Carve inside the letters to make them inset or around the lines for a 3D effect.
- When carving, work in one direction for a consistent look.
Like with all power tools, take the necessary precaution by wearing safety glasses to protect your eyes when working with a rotary tool. Also, when carving into wood, watch your finger while you work, especially when the cutting edges of the tool.
Step 5: Sand the Edges to Smooth Them Out
After carving every letter using the above steps, use 80 or 100-grit sandpaper to smooth the chisel cuts and remove any leftover wood.
As you sand, wipe off the sawdust to see the areas you need to work on. Work around all the edges until they’re smooth to the touch.
Where you use a rotary tool, rub the edges of the letters to round them. Some rotary tools come with a sanding bit. Do not sand the edges too much, especially if your letters aren’t deep. Doing so could result in a significant loss in detail.
After sanding the surface to a smooth finish, you can spray two coats of a finish and apply a sealer. Painting could also work. I prefer using a high gloss, but you are only limited with your idea.
What Is The Best Wood for Carving Letters?
Finding the perfect wood for carving is not a walk in the park- at least not with the numerous wood types of wood in existence.
Deciding which wood you’ll use is an important step in alphabet wood carving letters. Here are some of the recommended wood types to use;
Besides being classified as a hardwood, basswood is quite soft and ranks among the most popular wood options for beginners.
Apart from showing no grain, this softwood offers room for error for practicing your letter carving skills. Moreover, it is highly available and affordable.
While it’s slightly darker than basswood, butternut features a nice grain, making it a better option for beginners who want to experiment with carving wood with the grain.
It is easy to work with if you’re practicing relief techniques or carving freestanding pieces. It is also affordable, although it costs slightly more than basswood.
Although relatively soft, aspen offers minimal resistance when working, making it a suitable option for woodcarvers. Moreover, it lacks resins and knots, making it easier for beginners to work with.
While it is suitable for any carving type idea, I recommend using it on furniture, among other standalone pieces such as carved letters.
Although the above wood types are good for beginners, you’ll want to use wood that offers a challenge as you gain more experience. Here are some aesthetically attractive woods with a higher difficulty level.
- Red oak
- Sugar maple
- Red cedar
- Southern pine
If you want to carve letters for standalone pieces, consider carving burls- the growths on a tree where the grain grows in an abnormal, deformed manner.
This results in an outgrowth featuring several knots. Even though they work great for freestanding pieces, be confident in your carving skills before using them.
Carving Raised Letters in Wood Carving
You’ve mastered carving and engraving standalone letters, and now you wish to apply your skills to carving raised letters. Lucky for you, with your basic letter carving skills, this process will be simpler.
- Since it’s similar to relief carving, carving a raised letter requires you to transfer the designs to your wood and remove more wood surrounding the design.
- After you outline each letter, chip away the wood closer to the design and remove larger chunks away from the letters; this is a rather easy technique since you only have to avoid carving inside the outline.
- If your design features letters of varying depths, identify the parts that should go deeper and those that will remain shallow.
- Add depth to your outlines and work on any details you’ve included in your design.
- Smooth the background without necessarily leveling the complete backdrop. You could also even out some areas around your design.
- Sandpaper helps to smooth the carving marks and irregularities, among other mistakes.
- After painting, finish using a varnish, stain, or sealer.
Best Fonts To Use When Carving Letters in Wood
When choosing the fonts for woodcarving, you can go for the traditional options accessible on computer programs or settle for the custom fonts designed for woodcarving.
Serifs make the best fonts since they easily form sharp and crisp corners for each letter. They include;
- Times and Times New Roman- These are among the most recognized fonts developed for The Times to simplify printing with certain equipment. Although almost alike, Times New Roman is more popular for wood carving.
- American Typewriter-Originally invented for the International Typeface Corporation, American Typewriter is among the typewriter fonts. However, unlike other serif fonts, the letters have different widths and weights, including bold and italic variations.
- Baskerville- Named after its designer in the 1750s, Baskerville is one of the oldest font styles. Influenced by calligraphy, the characters are regular and more rounded. It is popularly used for printing books.
- Cambria- Designed in 2004, Microsoft commissioned Cambria to ensure that the text is readable on low-resolution screens. Besides featuring even spacing, it is a proportioned text.
Serif fonts feature tiny, pointed ends or corners. These are easier to work with, especially when carving. They also allow woodcarvers to maintain crisp end cuts to achieve a polished look.
Yet, this doesn’t prevent you from experimenting with sans serifs fonts. While they are more challenging to carve, they offer the best challenge for intermediate and expert carvers. Use them if you’ve mastered working around a few of the common serifs.
Tips When Carving Words into Wood
Inspect your wood for cracks and wraps, among other defects, before carving. For noticeable holes and cracks, use a matching wood filler. Before you start carving into wood, prepare the surface by sanding using 80-120 grit sandpaper.
With a rotary tool, sawdust will accumulate on your surface. Hence, wipe or shake away the sawdust after every 4-5 carves. Cleaning will make it easy to ensure straight lines are level with one another.
How to Engrave letters into wood
Engraving letters in wood requires you to transfer the designs to the wood surface using a pencil and carbon paper. Then, use a rotary or hand tool to carve the design and smooth the surface using sandpaper.
Simple wood engraving requires that you carve one letter at a time. Depending on its use, you can apply paint or a finish on the carving for it to stand out.
Can You Dremel Letters Into Wood?
If you don’t wish to practice with a knife, you can Dremel wood carving letters or designs using a Dremel tool. It easily cuts through the wood and makes elaborate lines.
How to carve letters in wood by hand
Carving letters in wood by hand requires you to select softwoods to curve easily. Sketch the letters on the wood with a pencil, or you can also carve them in your style to have a unique style. Alternatively, use carbon paper to trace the letters if you want a printed font
Carving Letters in Wood Summary
With the above steps, carving letters into wood has never been easier. Carving letters in relief allows you to create nameplates and add extra details to other carving projects.
On the other hand, carving freestanding letters is a great way to add unique decorations to your home.
Since you now know how to carve letters into wood, hone your skills by practicing more and let us know how it went. Leave your opinion on what you would do differently in your next project.
For beginners, here’s a detailed guide on starting wood carving step by step.