Woodcarving is an art that I have wanted to master for years. My first attempt at carving was mutilating a bar of soap when I was a kid, you will never find that bar of soap in any art museum or on display anywhere. Woodcarving is probably the most ancient woodworking skill and is truly a form of art and expression. From what I can find, it seemed to have been developed in Italy and France back in the middle ages, and from there spread worldwide. Taking a block of wood and creating something personal and expressive is really rewarding.
Like so many forms of art, the style and tools that are used vary from person to person. To get started in woodcarving there are a few basics that apply to most people. When you choose your first few projects, be kind to yourself and start out simple. If you choose to advanced of a project, you might get discouraged and give up on something that you might really enjoy.
Get yourself a good quality basic set of carving tools. A basic beginner set would include usually 6 tools, a chisel, skew, bent chisel, straight gouge, bent gouge and bent v-parting tool. It's real easy to get carried away with the tools that you purchase. I found one web site that offered over 20,000 different woodworking tools. You do not need to start out with the most expensive set of tools, but make sure that they are of good quality. You can increase the number of tools as you get more involved with your art, and typically adding to your tools is easier on the pocketbook.
Pick up a book or two that relates to your interest and gives you some insights on how to carve. I would also suggest that you check around the area where you live for a carving club or maybe just a group of people that you can carve with. Learning by watching and listening to others in your art form is invaluable. Find out if there are any classes held in your area or possibly check with a woodworking store to see if they offer any demonstrations. If you can not find any classes or help in your area, do not give up. There are video's on line that will help, and I know some carvers who are self taught that do beautiful work.
To get started, one of the main things you need is obviously a piece of wood. If you are doing a hand held object, soft woods are definitely the ones to start on, such as butternut, aspen or basswood. Any of those three would be perfect for your first few projects. Soft woods such as basswood will not take a stain very well, so a lot of people paint their finished item. Your harder woods such as walnut, mahogany, cherry have a beautiful grain pattern that you can finish by a slight stain, but because of that grain, they are harder to carve. You will need a mallet in your starting kit, if you start out on hard woods. Once you determine the wood that you want to use, sketch out your design with a pencil, transfer the design with granite paper on to the wood and you are ready to start.
Always consider safety First! Do not hold your wood on your lap while carving, use a table and secure your wood to it or use a vice to hold it. You will always be applying some type of force to push the knife or gouge into the wood, and it will slip frequently. If you are going to hold the item that you are carving, then I would recommend that you get a proper glove for the hand that you hold your wood in, before you start. There are gloves available that are extremely cut resistant. This does not mean that you can not poke your hand and that you do not still have to be very careful with a serrated blades or cutting tools, but it will definitely help save on the use of band-aids. Wear safety goggles when carving so a small chip of wood does not fly into your eye. When you get advanced enough for power tools, be sure to add a dust mask to your list of safety items, so you are not constantly breathing in dust.
Woodcarving is not an easy art, it's usually mastered slowly and gradually, but it's one of the most rewarding hobbies or pastimes you can have, in my opinion. It may be one of the cheapest woodworking projects to get into, but it can be a great expression of yourself and truly enjoyable. Try it, you just might like it!