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How to Carve a Balsa Wood Sculpture

0:00     Reductive sculpture
0:44     Getting to know the balsa wood
1:38     Organic forms in balsa wood
2:35     4 stages of the process             

3:44     Kevlar gloves, utility knives
6:17     Visual references & artists
7:04     Removing edges & corners

13:19   Refining the Form
19:01   Sanding: sandpaper grits
22:23   Bloopers

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Create an abstract, organic form by carving balsa wood without any planning.

Core Ideas

Negative space, form, shape, wall sculpture

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Art Prof Caution

Utility Knives are extremely sharp and it’s really easy to cut yourself by accident!  Always wear a kevlar glove on your hand which is not holding the knife to prevent injuries. 

Art Supplies: Sandpaper, heavy grit
Art Supplies: Sandpaper, medium grit
Art Supplies: Sandpaper, fine grit
Art Supplies: Drywall Sanding Screen
Art Supplies: Needlenose Pliers
Art Supplies: Kevlar Glove
Art Supplies: Balsa Wood
Art Supplies: Utility Knife
Art Supplies: Retractable Blades
Art Supplies: Cutting Mat


Marie Latham

This project really made me think on the fly! It was fun to jump right into a very kinesthetic process, where I really had to feel the wood to understand how to shape it. It was also super messy, which helped me loosen up a bit and forget I was working with a medium that I couldn’t really add anything back to.

I think one of the best & worst parts about the challenge with this process was how easy it was to carve away the wood—it doesn’t leave any time to reconsider certain moves, and once something is cut away, you need to react accordingly with the other planes on the sculpture. It was difficult for me to work with the material, which was sometimes brittle—mine even snapped in half—but I found all of the different types of sandpaper to be useful in their own ways and interesting to play around with.

I would definitely try this project again, and maybe on a slightly larger scale!”

Cindy Qiao

Cindy Qiao
Project Assistant

This project was an interesting challenging and definitely made me venture into very different territory that I hadn’t explored that much before. Usually, I stick with very 2D visual work, like painting and drawing, but I’ve never worked with a knife to carve away at a material.

This was such an interesting project as a whole because there wasn’t much planning involved in the beginning at all. It was really just about the balsa wood and sort of just following the texture of it. What I found really challenging was that the wood itself was very inconsistent in its softness and hardness. In some places it would be super easy to carve and in other places it would be almost impossible.

I think this project really helped me learn to take advantage of that push and pull relationship with the medium to create something super cool.”

Christina Wu

I’ve worked with wood before, but this was my first time using balsa wood and I was really surprised with how soft it was to carve, as well as the fact that I didn’t need any fancy sharp wood-cutting tools but can rely on just a heavy utility knife.

This project was definitely a risk for me since I always like to plan things out in a sketchbook before I start, so it felt really weird to just start carving with no idea what I was trying to accomplish. I found one side of the wood to be harder to carve due to its graininess, while the other side was extremely soft, so my sculpture actually turned out rather flat and not as aesthetically-pleasing on one side.

I was also uncertain with how chippy and uneven the wood was after carving, especially since I was aiming for more spherical and curvy shapes, but after using the various grits of sandpaper, the sculpture suddenly became really smooth. The final result looked nothing like what I imagined from the beginning, but it was fun to go out of my comfort zone and work on something 3D for a change.” 

Partial Video Transcript

Prof Lieu: “This is a really fun sculpture project because students have the opportunity to work reductively. If you think about clay, clay is really mushy. You can always add more clay, or you can take the clay away, it’s super flexible. This is different because you’re starting with a block of wood and you’re taking a knife and you’re carving away so you can’t add to this, you can just remove.”

Annelise: “How does working reductively change your mindset?”

Prof Lieu: “Well, it’s different because first of all, it’s a rigid material. f I carve something that maybe hangs over I don’t worry about it falling off, whereas if I have clay and I put something that comes out it’s probably going to fall off because it’s so mushy. So there’s a lot of things you can do with the structure of the sculpture that’s a lot more flexible.”

Annelise: “How are students choosing what form to make?”

Prof Lieu: “Well, it’s funny because I’m such a planner most of the time. When I have a drawing project, I’m really into thumbnail sketches and really knowing what I’m doing in advance. This is such a different project because we don’t plan at all.

I literally just give them the hunk of wood and say, ‘just start carving,’ because I find that with this particular technique, it’s challenging enough to work reductively. I think sometimes students draw these really intricate pencil sketches and then they feel really frustrated when they can’t reproduce that sketch in the balsa wood.

I find it’s really an engagement with the balsa wood, that you just see what the balsa wood can do instead of trying to get the balsa wood to behave in a way that’s unnatural. The students really like that and it’s also a nice surprise. You just don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

Annelise: “I’m noticing that all your examples are really rounded, there are no sharp edges. Why is that?”

Prof Lieu: “The balsa wood sands really well, so you can get these gorgeous surfaces. For example, this is one that has been carved but hasn’t been sanded, and if you look at the cuts, they’re really messy looking.

It’s really hard to make a clean cut, I think it’s pretty much impossible. So if you make a rounded form and you sand it, you get these beautiful, soft surfaces, so to me the organic form really shows the talents that the balsa-wood has.

One thing I like to do with students is whenever we work with a new material, especially in sculpture, I say to them, ‘Make friends with your sculpture, make friends with the material. Don’t fight it, don’t try to make it do something it doesn’t want to do.’ And that’s something I’m trying to do here. I’m saying, ‘Well what is the balsa wood really good at, and how can I exploit those qualities?’

So here we have four different stages of the project I think if you’re going to teach this in a classroom situation, this is a really important visual to show the students. When you give them a hunk of wood, how are you supposed to visualize anything on it? So this is the beginning, which is just a piece of balsa wood.

This is where you can see the edges and the corners have been removed, which is the first stage. You have to just get rid of all those edges and corners. This is one where you’re starting to shave more specifically. You’re starting to build out the form.

And then this is a piece which has been sanded. So there are multiple stages, and I think it’s important for the students to feel that they’re making progress. I think the leap from this to this is the most difficult to make, because just initially shaving it takes a while.

So what I found with this project, is that students will work on it for a while and feel like nothing’s happening. And then they’ll get here and it looks great all of a sudden. So you have to really egg on the students in the beginning. You have to really convince them that it’s worth doing this because it pays off in the end.”

Annelise: “What if you’re working with a really big class- having a lot of blades around sounds like it could get kind of dangerous. Is there anything safety wise you should keep in mind?”

Prof Lieu: “Yeah, I mean one thing you can buy is kevlar gloves, and these are really good because they’ll protect your hand.””

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