Best Wood for Carving Detail

This might seem like an odd question, but bare with me… I’m carving maps with contours into wood for displays and wondering how to get a better finish. I initially tried birch ply but decided it would look better in solid timber. So now using Ash and cutting with a 5mm downcut bit, but it still needs quite a bit of finishing mainly on the contours across the grain. At the moment a 12"x6" piece can take an hour to finish! However, the grain of ash looks brilliant once done.

Any recommendations on timber that would give a better finish off the cnc? There is very limited supply here so I have to order in, so I can’t just go and try several types unfortunately. Oak is easy to get so might try that.

My settings for ash are 1.5mm dpp, 1750mm/min, 5mm downcut on Makita trim router.



  • Avoid plywood. The differently oriented laminates make it hard to get
    smooth results.
  • Solid hardwood like beech is much better suitable but you need to be careful with your rpm settings because it tends to burn at high rpm settings.
  • Solid softwood is easier to machine but sometimes tends to splinter, especially if the tool is a little dull or of dubious quality.
  • If it doesn’t have to be “real” wood you should consider MDF - it is very nice to carve and the surface is usually quite good.


Also you may want to try Poplar. Easy to cut, you can go higher feed rate. Downcut bits are very good for clean surface.

Ok thanks for the tips. I’ll try a bit of beech and see how I get on. Not sure if I can get hold of poplar though.

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Wow, some effort! Yeah I was making the layers match the elevation but it’s still a bit dull-looking when finished, much ‘cheaper’ than a solid block of Ash, and if you get it wrong by .5mm you expose the glue between the layers and ruin it. Fluid, true 3d carving does look excellent on ply though so it has it’s place.

I would suggest medium woods like cherry and soft maple for detailed carvings…I’ve had pretty good success with those two. Alder also does fairly well for me. Soft woods like pine and poplar tend to tear out with finer detailed projects.

Are you using a ball endmill?

Yep, I’ve been using 1/4", 1/8", 1/16" and 1/32" ball endmills.…the issue I run into with soft woods is where the parts of projects that come to a sharp point tend to get “ripped off”, and I’ve tried adjusting speeds with no noticeable improvement. I use aspire, so i try to use the smoothing option to make points less sharp, and that tends to help.

Oops, I believe you were asking Al. lol

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I agree with the cherry and maple, I’ve done a few carvings in both and they hold details very well.


2x for poplar for ease of machining. Might try walnut or mahogany if you want the wood to “pop” with just a clear coat. Not sure where you’re located, but the big box home centers have poplar in the same aisle as red oak and other “appearance lumber”. Walnut and mahogany usually require a specialty hardwood/woodworking store.

Make sure to share your maps! This is one of my favorite applications. My original thought was to cut out each contour from a separate thin layer and stack them using registration, but that would be the ultimate 3D puzzle during assembly/glue-up.


Poplar is a great wood for carving, it is pretty inexpensive, easy to find (Home Depot carries it), stains very nicely. Soft Maple is also another good choice, it is a little more expensive but really looks great when finished.

I was just trying to figure out what wood would hold up best to detail carving. I’ve been using poplar and am finding that it tears out or chips away in places I don’t want it to. I’ve used standard end mills as well as V carve bits and see portions of the wood that I want to remain get blown away. On a side not:My last poplar plank milled like an orange. Meaning that the 1/4 bit I was using was throwing saw dust that looked like wet pulp. I don’t think this board was dried adequately. I usually get my wood from Home Depot.

@AlWhitworth Your post is timed perfectly - I’ve been considering doing something similar myself. The company I work for transports ore from it’s several inland mines to the coast and I’d like to be able to produce a model showing the topography and the route we use.

Do you have any tips, tricks or links to assist me in learning how to do this? I’ve done a fair amount of bush-walking and navigation and i’m pretty sure I’ve got both topo maps and elevation data for the area in question - I’m just a little unclear on the process of turning the data into a carved model.

Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

I recently carved this out of pine. In fact it was a very inexpensive pine panel glue up from lowes:

I use a rough and finish path from aspire, using 1/4 inch bits. I did zero finish work to the map portion itself. Just stained and poly’d.


Wow, great design and detail there, and surprised by the finish from pine. I will try some maple and see how I get on. It’s the tear out I’m trying to reduce as it’s taking so long to finish. I’m using a 5mm downcut spiral flat bit.

For David, your process will depend on what data you can get. You ca trace (digitise) paper maps in inkscape as a one-off, but there is plenty of free DEM (digital elevation model) data out there, especially for the US. I’m in the UK and there’s far less available for free.

My method for layered topography is to use Easel’s greyscale feature where you fill each layer with a different shade of grey. Easel cuts the depth dependant on the % black. I use inkscape to create the svg then import to Easel. For editting the topography I use QGIS whch can handle any map data and export to svg.

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I think someone should make an Easel app that takes the topology data from Google Earth and makes an Easel file.


You will need a 4 axis X-carve model to carve Google earth :smile:

We live in Chicago…it looks like the world only needs 3 axes.



That would definitely be worth $100! :sunglasses: