FAQs: What is the Best Wood for a Sculpture?

Welcome back to our ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ series! This week we answer one of Simon’s most commonly asked questions. That is, ‘What is the best wood for a sculpture?’.

Simon O'Rourke uses a chainsaw to carve a lifesize portrait of Ken Dodd

What is the Best Wood for a Sculpture: Sustainability

So, the first thing we want to mention is something more personal and subjective. That is the sustainability and sourcing of the wood. Trees are an important part of our ecosystem, and although Simon loves wood as a material, he doesn’t believe in cutting down a healthy tree to source timber. All his sculptures are made from trees that were no longer viable for different reasons. Our team knows those reasons as ‘The Four D’s”: dead, dying, diseased or dangerous. So basically, the best wood for a sculpture always some from a tree that fits one of those D’s.

What is the best wood for a sculpture? Redwood ranks at No 3. Photo shows an example of a redwood sculpture, the european wolf at Fforest Fawr
The redwood used for the Sculpture Trail in Fforest Fawr was from a tree that had to be cut down as it had become a danger to the public.

What is the Best Wood for a Sculpture: Durability

One of the key factors in what makes the best wood for a sculpture is durability. Especially for sculptures that will be outdoors in the wind and rain! But, as we said in the blog ‘Is my Tree Suitable for a Tree Carving Sculpture’, wood is not an exact science. This means although the woods we mention here are generally the longest-lasting, we can’t really give an exact life span! It also means that the list that we give is very much Simon’s opinion based on experience and his own research. There may be others who disagree or recommend other woods – and that’s OK!
So, without further ado, here are the top five (in Simon’s opinion!) woods for an outdoor sculpture*

What is the best wood for a sculpture? Photo shows a sculpture of an angel in oak standing next to a small pond. The oak is aging and turning a deeper shade of grey, but has no signs of decay.
The Angel at the Pool of Bethesda made in oak is not only durable but as she ages fits in beautifully with the historic property

Best Wood for a Sculpture #1: Oak

Oak is Simon’s number one recommendation for an outside sculpture. It is extremely durable, and in abundance in the UK! In fact, it’s the second most common tree in the country (Birch being most common). It has the bonus of having very defined grain too. This means as it ages, the markings stand out more, making it more striking and emphasising features like the eyes, drapery, or textures like scales. For more of Simon’s thoughts on that aging process, you can read our blog How Long Will My Wood Sculpture Last?
The oak maiden below is one of the many, many examples of Simon’s oak sculptures.

The Oak Maiden by Simon O'Rourke. Oak is the best wood for a sculpture according to chainsaw carver simon o'rourke
This aptly named ‘Oak Maiden‘ shows an example of freshly carved oak.

Best Wood for a Sculpture #2: Cedar

Coming in as Simon’s number two best wood for a sculpture is cedar.
Cedar wood is extremely durable and holds up well to outdoor weather conditions. Because of this, it’s often used for fencing. It smells great, ages to a beautiful silver-grey, and looks amazing freshly-carved, as this Radagast sculpture shows.

Cedar is the second best wood for sculpture according to simon o'rourke. Pictrure shows an example of a cedar carving : A wizard holding a staff
Simon made Radagast The Brown from diseased cedar.

Best Wood for a Sculpture #3: Redwood

Redwood ranks at number three of Simon’s preferred timber in terms of durability. They can grow to 300ft, making them one of the tallest trees in the world. Girth is an important factor in suitability of a piece of wood for carving. This is definitely not an issue with redwood! It’s not unheard of for them to breathe fire too like this redwood dragon created for The Dragon Tower.

george clark stands in front of a small stone building. The building has a redwood dragon mounted above the door. The dragon is breathing fire. Created by Simon O'rourke from redwood, his number three recommended best wood for a sculpture.
Maggon the Fire Breathing Dragon featured on George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces earlier this year.

Best Wood for a Sculpture #4: Yew

Yew trees rank at number four in Simon’s recommended wood for an outdoor sculpture. Yew trees don’t always get the best press. Not only are they toxic, but they are also said to be a symbol of death and doom. BUT! They¬† DO make great sculptures! They are durable, and the wood has lovely purple or deep brown undertones, as you can see in this fairytale dragon scene Simon created…

photo shows a garden. One the right is a dragon carved from yew. On the left two fairytale towers also carved from yew. Shown as an example of the fourth best wood for sculpture that will be outdoors.
Simon created this scene from yew trees that had to be cut back.

Best Wood for a Sculpture #5: Sweet Chestnut

Our final wood to be featured today is sweet chestnut. It’s extremely important to note ‘sweet chestnut‘ NOT horse chestnut! Sweet chestnut is the tree that produces the nuts we eat at Christmas (speaking of which, have you indulged yet?!). It stands up well against wind and rain, and has a girth of around 2m. This means it’s great for an outside sculpture. Horse chestnut however rots extremely quickly and is one of the worst woods for an outdoor sculpture!
Sweet chestnut was the choice of both the wood and frame in this memorial for a local school teacher.

chair with a daffodil carved into the back. to the left is a framed mosaic. it is made of sweet chestnut, the fifth best wood for a sculpture according to simon o'rourke

What About Other Trees?

Of course, these top five are not the only woods for a sculpture. If you follow Simon on social media, you will have seen examples of his work in elm, walnut, and monkey puzzle from the last year alone. In some cases these trees would otherwise have been cut down, and this is a way of extending their life in a new way. This walnut fairy is just one example.

fairy carved into a standing tree stump around 2m tall
This fairy was carved into a standing walnut stump

If you have a tree that fits one of those Four D’s (dead, dying, diseased or dangerous) and you would like a wood sculpture by Simon, it’s definitely worth contacting him to chat. He will be able to determine if the timber will work or not.
Contact him on www.treecarving.co.uk/contact/ to start the conversation.
We look forward to hearing from you!

*We have talked about most durable wood as much of Simon’s work is for commissions that will remain outside. If you are interested in a sculpture for indoors, there are many more options available to you. Contact Simon using the link above to find out more.