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How to Engrave Wood: Top 5 Ways Explained

by Winnie Li Posted on October 10, 2023

Wood engraving dates back centuries. As per historical archives, early artisans used it to create prints and illustrations for books – A wooden block was etched and then used as a print stamp for reproducing designs. Fast forward to today, the essence of engraving has evolved. It has become a popular choice for crafting décor pieces and personalized items.

The methods, too, have seen a revolution. With the advent of technology, CNC machines and laser cutters have taken the spotlight. They made the laborious engraving task a simple job. Now, we can achieve much more detailed designs with exceptional precision.

This article is aimed to guide through the top five ways that are being used to engrave wood. From the old-age hand carving technique to the latest laser engraving, you’ll learn all the methods along with the tools you need for each job.

laser engraving on wood

In This Article

  • Method 1: Wood Engraving by Hand (Carving)
  • Method 2: Wood Engraving by Power Tools
  • Method 3: Laser Wood Engraving
  • Method 4: CNC Wood Engraving 
  • Method 5: Wood Burning
  • FAQs of Wood Engraving

Method 1: Wood Engraving by Hand (Carving)

Wood engraving by hand, commonly referred to as carving, is the most ancient and traditional method of engraving wood. Unlike modern methods that may rely on machinery, hand carving is a purely manual process that requires patience, precision, and a deep understanding of the wood's grain and texture.

The tools used for this method are sturdy, typically made of high-quality metal, and have no moving parts. This allows woodworkers to remove wood in a controlled amount and etch intricate designs onto wood.

Despite modern methods, hand carving is still a popular choice for those who appreciate the authenticity and uniqueness it brings. It is commonly used in furniture design where carving of patterns is required.

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Tools Needed to Engrave Wood by Hand

Wood carving is a manual process that requires these tools:

  • Chisels: They come in various widths and shapes, from flat to rounded to angular. Their primary purpose is to remove wood in a controlled manner. If you’ve seen a chisel, it has two values imprinted on it, a sweep and width.
  • Sweep values range from 1 to 11, and define the curvature. Smaller values (i.e. 1) indicate a flat chisel while the later ones indicate a more rounded curvature. The width of the chisel determines the size of the cut.

  • Gouge: It is a kind of chisel with a rounded or U-shaped cross-section. This unique shape makes gouges perfect for hollowing out areas or creating rounded cuts.
  • Carver’s Mallet: Unlike regular mallets, a carver's mallet is typically round-shaped. This design evenly distributes the force when struck. The mallet is used to tap chisels and gouges, driving them into the wood. By changing the angle of the chisel and the force of the mallet’s strike, an artisan can control the depth and direction of their cuts.
  • Veiner: A veiner is a specialized type of gouge with a distinct V-shaped blade. It is designed to create veins or fine lines in a carving. This adds sharp and intricate details that emphasize certain design elements.

How to Engrave Wood by Hand?

To engrave wood by wood with a set of chisels, follow this procedure:

  • Prepare the Wood Surface: Sand the wood using progressively finer grits of sandpaper, starting from coarse to fine, to achieve a smooth surface. If it’s already smooth, skip this step.
  • Transfer or Sketch the Design: If you have a specific design in mind, sketch it onto the wood using a pencil. Alternatively, you can print it on paper, cut it, and glue it directly onto the wood.
  • sketch the design onto the wood for hand engraving

    ©WoodbyWrightHowTo – YouTube

  • Begin Outlining: Hold the chisel or gouge at an angle and use the carver's mallet to gently tap on it, following the design lines. Just outline the curves and straight patterns of the design.
  • outline the wood engraving's design
  • Remove the Paper: Once you’ve fully outlined the design, remove the design paper you pasted with a card scraper.
  • remove the design paper when the engraving outine is done
    remove the design paper when the engraving outine is done
  • Deepen the Engraving: Now, it’s time to engrave deeper. For a more pronounced design, go over the carved lines multiple times. Use liners for V-shaped cuts and gouges for curved or scooped-out designs. 
  • engraving wood by hand
  • Clean the Surface: Brush away wood shavings and dust using a soft brush. You can also wipe the surface with a slightly damp cloth to remove any remaining debris.
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Method 2: Wood Engraving by Power Tools

Much like the traditional hand carving method, this method follows a similar approach but with a modern twist. Instead of relying solely on manual force, artisans use electrically powered tools to engrave the wood. These tools, while maintaining the essence of hand craftsmanship, offer greater speed, precision, and ease.

The use of power tools doesn’t diminish the skill required; rather, it enhances the woodworker’s capabilities. With the added power and efficiency, intricate designs can be achieved in a fraction of the time it would take with manual tools.

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Power Tools for Engraving Wood

Some power tools commonly used for engraving into wood are:

  • Power Chisel: It is an electrically driven version of the traditional hand chisel. It doesn’t require manual force, instead, it operates using either a motor or pneumatic pressure. With interchangeable tips and adjustable speed settings, the power chisel can make quick work of both broad cuts and intricate details.
  • Dremel Rotary Tool: A versatile electric tool known for its high-speed rotation. It comes with various attachments, including engraving bits, grinding stones, and sanding drums. The tool’s compact size and precision make it ideal for detailed wood engraving, especially in tight or hard-to-reach areas.
  • Router: It is primarily used for hollowing out an area in a piece of wood. However, with the right bit, it can also be used for engraving. It is particularly used for creating large engravings or patterns on wooden surfaces.

How to Engrave Wood with a Dremel?

Dremel is a common power tool for engraving wood. Here’s how you can use it to etch patterns:

  • Preparation: Opt for a smooth, flat piece of wood. Softer woods like pine or basswood are ideal for beginners as they engrave more easily.
  • Get a Printed Design: You need a black and white printed design to serve as the blueprint for engraving.
  • printed design searving as the blueprint for wood engraving with a dremel

    ©Log’s Engraving Club – YouTube

  • Transfer the Design: Place the printed design on the wood where you want the engraving. You may use carbon paper to transfer the sketch or directly use the Dremel with a fine-pointed bit for outlining. Create small holes to outline.
  • outline the wood engraving's design with a dremel
  • Pen Outlining: Once you have made the initial outline with the Dremel, go over it with a pen. Connect all the holes and form a design that looks similar to the one you printed on paper.
  • go over the wood engraving's outline with a pen
  • Engrave with the Dremel: Return to the Dremel and carefully engrave along the pen-outlined design. The depth of the engraving is up to you, but ensure it’s consistent.
  • engrave the wood with the dremel
  • Sand Inside Engraving: Once the engraving process is complete, replace the existing Dremel bit with a sanding bit. Gently sand inside the engraved areas to smooth out rough or uneven spots.
  • sand inside engraving using the dremel with a sanding bit
  • Surface Sanding: The outside does need to be smoothened. For that, use a fine grit sandpaper. Once you’re done, invert the piece and shake it a bit to remove that wood dust.
  • sanding the area outside the engraved area
  • Add Acrylic Paint: Select an acrylic paint color that complements the wood (brown paint would be a fine choice). Carefully paint inside the engraved design. Don’t worry about being too neat; any excess will be sanded away.
  • add acrylic paint to the engraved area
  • Remove Excess Paint: Once the paint is dry, take a fine-grit sandpaper and gently sand the surface. This will remove any paint that’s outside the engraved areas, giving a clean look.
  • remove excess paint outside the engraved area

Method 3: Laser Wood Engraving

Laser wood engraving represents the pinnacle of modern engraving techniques. With a concentrated laser beam, you can create incredibly intricate designs, including detailed 3D engravings, with unparalleled precision. The laser burns or vaporizes the wood's surface, resulting in clean and precise cuts or marks.

3d laser engraved wood ornament

©xTool Projects

In the past, laser engraving machines were designated for only industrial applications due to their large size and upfront cost. However, with tech advancements, the landscape of laser engraving has dramatically transformed.

Today, the technology has evolved to such an extent that compact desktop laser engravers are readily available. These smaller machines pack power and precision as their industrial counterparts but in a more user-friendly and accessible format.

With intuitive software interfaces, engraving with these modern lasers is as simple as printing on a piece of paper. Just design, set, and let the laser do its magic.

laser wood engaving

Tools Needed for Laser Engraving

Laser engraving requires only a few tools:

  • Wood Laser Engraver: A desktop laser engraving machine, ideally between power 10W to 40W is perfect for wood engraving. This machine is compatible with design software that allows users to design or import graphics, adjust settings like power and speed, and preview the engraving process.
  • Air Assist Set: This accessory is particularly useful as wood usually gets burnt marks with laser. The air assist set uses a stream of compressed air to blow away debris and smoke from the engraving area. This not only ensures a cleaner engraving but also reduces the risk of flare-ups or fires. 
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How to Laser Engrave Wood with xTool D1 Pro?

Laser engraving is a simple process as most of the work is done by laser engravers, yet you need to be prepared to fully utilize its potential. Here are a few steps to engrave wood through a desktop laser, such as xTool D1 Pro:

  • Get A Design File: For a normal cutting operation, you require a laser cut file, ideally a vector image. However, for engravings, particularly 3D engravings, you need a grayscale image. The laser interprets varying shades of gray to engrave at different depths, with darker shades representing deeper engraving.
  • Select the Right Wood: When working with a laser, you need a quality wood compatible with the laser. Different wood produces different engraving results. You may check out the characteristics of different wood and then choose the best wood for engraving, based on your requirements.
  • select the right wood for laser engraving

    ©TheClackShack – YouTube

  • Wood Preparation: Wood usually gets burnt marks with laser, so we recommend wetting it a bit. Or you may apply masking tape to reduce those burnt marks.
  • Set Laser based on Manufacturer guidelines: Laser engraving is a mix of power and speed, which is further a function of the wood and machine you’re using. Always use the recommended manufacturer setting when engraving wood. For xTool, we have defined a setting for wooden materials; employ that.
  • xtool laser machines' settings for engraving wood
  • Position the Wood in the laser machine: Position the laser head over the piece of wood and adjust the module’s height. To raise the height, you may need a riser. Also, for great engraving results, an air assist set is a must.
  • postion the wood in the laser machine
  • Run the Machine: The laser engraving a framing job first, as you run it. This gives you an idea if the workpiece is positioned correctly. If it is, just initiate the engraving process.
  • laser engraved wooden charcuterie board
  • Finish and Protect: Apply a wood finish, like linseed oil or a clear varnish, to protect the engraved design and enhance the wood's natural beauty.
  • apply a wood finish to the engraved design

Method 4: CNC Wood Engraving

CNC (Computer Numerical Control) wood engraving is a fusion of traditional woodworking and modern technology. Although it shares similarities with laser engraving in terms of computer-controlled movement, the CNC process is distinct in its approach.

It is a contact process, in which a specialized tool sinks into the wood to carve out designs. The depth, speed, and path of the router bit are all precisely controlled by computer software.

The machine is particularly useful for industrial wood engravings or detailed 3D carvings. However, it is also available as a tabletop desktop machine, which hobbyists and artisans can use to craft on a more personal scale.

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Tools Needed for CNC Wood Engraving

  • CNC Machine: The primary equipment that uses computer-controlled movements to guide the engraving process on wood.
  • Router Bits: They are specialized tools that come in various shapes and sizes for different engraving effects. They carve designs into the wood as directed by the CNC machine.
  • Clamps & Hold-Downs: Clamps are used to securely hold the wood in place during the engraving process to ensure precision and safety.
  • Safety Gear: This includes safety goggles, ear protection, and dust masks to protect the user from potential hazards during the engraving process. 

How to Engrave Wood with a CNC Router?

A large CNC Router is typically used in industries for creating those complex 3D carvings. It is a complex process as it requires a thorough understanding of the CNC machine, its operation, and tool bits. However, here’s a simple breakdown of the process:

  • Design Preparation: Begin by using CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software to create your design. This software allows you to create detailed and intricate patterns suitable for engraving. Save the design in a format compatible with your CNC machine, typically a .dxf or .svg file.
  • Setting Up the CNC Router: Secure the wood piece onto the CNC bed using clamps. Ensure it’s perfectly level to prevent any inconsistencies during engraving. Then, choose the appropriate router bit for your design. V-bits are ideal for detailed engravings, while straight bits are suitable for broader cuts.
  • ©RogerWeb – YouTube

  • Machine Calibration: Set the starting point by moving the router bit to the wood's surface and setting this position as the 'zero' or starting point in the CNC software.
  • Dust Collection: If your CNC machine has a dust collection system, activate it to collect wood debris during the engraving process.
  • Starting the Engraving Process: Load your design file into the CNC machine's control software and start the engraving process. The machine will follow the design, carving it into the wood.
  • Post-Engraving: Once the engraving is complete, remove the wood piece from the CNC bed. Brush away any wood chips or dust. Lightly sand the engraved area to smooth out any rough edges or raised grain. Finally, apply a wood finish or sealant to protect the engraved design and enhance the wood’s appearance.

Method 5: Wood Burning

Wood burning or pyrography is the art of decorating wood by burning designs into its surface using a heated tool. From intricate patterns to portraits and landscapes, wood burning allows for a wide range of artistic expressions. The resulting designs have a rustic, etched appearance that highlights the natural grain of the wood.

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Tools Needed for Wood Burning

  • Wood Burning Pen: It is the key tool used in pyrography. It heats up to different temperatures, allowing artists to burn designs onto the wood's surface.
  • Interchangeable Tips: These are attached to the wood-burning pen and come in various shapes and sizes. Each tip creates different effects, from fine lines to shading and textures.
  • Sanding Paper: It helps in preparing the wood surface as the process requires a smooth surface, free of any splinters or rough patches.
  • Cleaner Brush: A small brush to clean away any residue or charred wood particles from the engraved design.

How to Perform Wood Burning? 

  • Use sandpaper to smoothen the wooden surface, Make sure it’s free from any coatings or finishes and devoid of moisture.
  • sand the wood for burning

    ©Hobby Hoarder – YouTube 

  • Decide on a design and lightly sketch it onto the wood using a pencil. This will serve as a guide during the burning process. Alternatively, you can print a design on sticker paper and transfer it directly onto the wood.
  • the printed design to be burn onto wood
  • Work in a well-ventilated area, as wood burning can produce smoke and fumes. We recommend you use an exhaust fan. Also, wear safety goggles to protect your eyes from any flying debris and a dust mask to avoid inhaling fumes.
  • Plug in your wood-burning tool and allow it to heat up. Most tools will have an indicator light to show when they're ready. 
  • Choose the appropriate tip for your design. There are various tips available, from fine points for detailed work to broader tips for shading.
  • Hold the wood-burning tool like you would a pencil, but ensure your hand is steady. Apply consistent pressure as you trace over your design.
  • engraving wood with a wood-burning tool
  • Use a combination of dots, lines, and shading to bring your design to life. The longer you hold the tool in one spot, the darker the burn will be.
  • wood burning
  • Some wood-burning tools allow you to adjust the temperature. Use a lower setting for lighter shades and a higher setting for darker shades. For deeper shades, go over the same area multiple times.

FAQs of Wood Engraving

How to Etch Wood?

When it comes to wood, ‘etching’ is often used interchangeably with ‘engraving’. To etch wood, you may use any of the methods listed—be it hand tools, laser machines, or CNCs. It depends on the design intricacy and precision you aim for.

How Strong of a Laser You Need to Engrave Wood?

Cutting wood demands higher power, but for engraving, even a modest laser can yield impressive results. For instance, a 10W diode laser like the xTool D1 Pro can produce detailed and quality engravings.

Which Wood is best for Etching?

For etching, light-colored woods such as pine, alder, and balsa are top choices. These softwoods are not only visually appealing when etched but also easier to work with, whether you’re using hand tools or machines.

How to Engrave Wood at Home?

Engraving wood at home can be done traditionally using hand tools like chisels and gouges. For a more modern approach and precision, a compact desktop laser cutter is a great option. It’s as simple as using a printer.

Conclusion

Wood engraving is an art that has revolutionized over the years. The engraving which once took hours to complete with the traditional tools is now more precise and time-saving with laser machines. Whether it's crafting décor pieces or designing personalized items for your loved ones, the smart laser engraving machines make each craft simple and fun.

As with any craft, patience, practice, and passion are key. So, pick up your tools, let your imagination run wild, and dive into the rewarding world of wood engraving.

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