It's actually pretty easy to get started!
When you break it down, woodcarving is just removing the wood that's not part of your final vision.
I think of Woodcarving in FOUR main steps, no matter what you plan to create...
Knowing your tools.
Knowing your 'model' or subject.
Seems simple enough, and it is to get started! But mastering all four can easily take a lifetime.
Woodcarving is a subtractive art (in contrast to mediums like pottery, which is often additive). This means, in laymans terms, that if you want one part of your carving to stick out 2", then you have to remove or lower 2" of wood everywhere else on your piece.
It seems obvious, and it is in theory, but learning to think and design shapes (and then apply it) in reverse can take a while to wrap your head around.
It also means that the more depth there is in your project, the larger piece of wood you need to start with, and the (exponentially) more work you have cut out for yourself.
I'll be honest, wood is not the best material to learn subtractive thinking with. It's tough to work with, and is not forgiving in the least.
Wax is an easy option to practice. There's no grain. It won't split. Your tools won't dull. It won't dry out and crack. It cuts very easily and is quite light to carry. Plus you can melt it down, or even practice by making custom candles as gifts.
KNOW YOUR TOOLS
And yes, this means sharpening them too.
The right tools, when cared for, can last more than a lifetime of use. The wrong tools ...well, they won't ever get used.
Selecting which tools you need is tricky, ESPECIALLY if you haven't done much hands-on carving yet.
The tools you have will dictate (mostly) what types of things you can carve and, in the same vein, what you want to carve will dictate what type of tools you'll want.
Identify what type of projects you want to carve. The umbrella terms often used to separate/identify both the tools and the projects of woodcarving are...
a) Chip Carving
b) Relief Carving
c) Carving in the Round (or sculpture) <--- What I do.
Searching each of the three on a platform like Pinterest will show some incredible artwork and will help you identify which one you'd like to persue the most.
Once you figure this out, hit up YouTube! Watch some artists at work, some timelapses. Pay attention to the vastly different (or, more importantly, similar) tools people use.
Notice the different processes entailed too! Some people use chainsaws. Some use dremels. Some use chisels. Some use lathes (woodturners). Some start a piece on an industrial bandsaw.
Pay attention to which process actually looks enjoyable to you, but also, and I cannot stress this enough, which ones you can actually facilitate!
Look at the setup these different artists have and pay attention to the mess created, the equipment needed, the noise produced, the danger involved.
- Live in an apartment building in New York? Chainsaw carving might not be the best fit.
- Carving indoors with carpeted floors? The fine dust created by dremels might be a problem unless you rig up some sort of ventilation.
- How much space can you dedicate to equipment / working?
Give these factors a thought and give your budget a lookthrough. Then you're in a good place to look at tools (and know which tools to look for).
Stay away from sets of tools unless you need every one of them and READ REVIEWS. It sounds cliche, but stick with either a trusted/established company or go with products endorsed by a carver who knows what their doing and that you trust. Stay away from cheap garbage.
Remember: these tools are often dangerous. Quality, trusted tools will not only make your life easier while carving, sharpening and maintaining them. They will also keep you safer from accidents.
I am by no means the authority on this, but I find Flexcut has fantastic detail products for chip carcing and relief carving (whittling, too). They strike a good balance of maintaining affordability without sacrificing the quality of metal.
You could easily dedicate your whole life to this. Infact, some jobs do!
It's important to gain even an basic understanding of how wood, as a tree, grows and lives. This will help in understanding and tackling issues such as cracking, mold/rot, drying wood (if you carve green, which I strongly recommend). It will aid in a ton of other things such as how to go about sealing a log from drying, how spalting occures, and how grain functions.
The absolute basics can be found online, but if you want to gain a more indepth understanding about wood itself, check out: "Understanding Wood: A Craftsman's Guide to Wood Technology" by R. Bruce Hoadley.
KNOW YOUR SUBJECT
The sky is the limit on this one, but it's oh so important.
If you want to carve a face, you need to know what a face is shaped like.
It sounds easy, but it's not. We see faces around us every day, but we only pay attention to certain features and expressions.
Everything connects and flows. Everything varies in depth and spacing. Everything is symetrical ...or not.
I'd invite everyone to take what they have at home, maybe some clay, plastecine or playdoh, and try to shape an annatomically face. Chances are, it will look off. Really off.
Unless you're a plastic surgeon, artist or some such that has already studied the face, this is completely normal! We stare at faces around us 24/7, and we watch features to exhibit emotion and feeling, so of course we pick up immedietely on when a face looks "just off". Our brain notices it's off, but we don't think about what makes it seem off. Not really.
I use faces as an example because it's what I love to carve. But I also think it's a great example for challenging it can be to accurately portray something in wood when doing sculpture or "carving in the round". Drawing a face with a pencil in 2D is hard enough, but trying to portay all angles and depths in 3D is another challenge altogether.
So start with something a bit more simple! Or keep the face more 2D / flat to start as you learn!
And pay attention to the depth in whatever subject you plan to carve!