The woods used vary greatly in hardness and grain. The most commonly employed woods include boxwood, pine, pear, walnut, willow, oak, and ebony. The tools are simple gouges, chisels, wooden mallets, and pointed instruments. Although they were universally one of the earliest art media, wood carvings have withstood poorly the vicissitudes of time and climate. A few ancient examples have been preserved in the dry climate of Egypt, e.g., the wooden statue of Sheik-el-Beled (Cairo) from the Old Kingdom.
The carving of wooden masks and statuettes was common to the African tribes (see African art), and totem poles were used for the basic religious rites of the tribes of the Northwest Coast of America (see North American Native art). The wooden objects of Oceania include animated designs, incised and in relief, on canoes and large standing figures (see Oceanic art). In Japan and China wooden carvings have long been used to decorate temples and private dwellings (see Chinese architecture; Japanese architecture). The Muslim countries of North Africa abound in intricate architectural carvings.
In Europe wood carving was highly developed in Scandinavia, and examples have been preserved of 10th- and 11th-century work. In England the Gothic period produced extremely fine carving, especially on choir stalls (see misericords) and rood screens. Although the Puritans destroyed much of this, enough has been preserved to show its beautiful workmanship. In France wood carving was also a part of religious art, and there the carved altarpieces were especially notable. Italian wood carving flourished during the Gothic period in Pisa, Siena, and Florence, as well as in the southern monasteries; during the Renaissance it remained an adjunct of Italian artistic development.
Many of the 15th- and 16th-century artists in Germany worked in wood, creating monumental sculptures and altarpieces; among the greatest were Hans Multscher, Michael Pacher, Veit Stoss, and Tilman Riemenschneider. Fine retables were also created in Flanders and Spain. After the Renaissance wood carving went into a slight decline. It had a revival in the early 18th cent. when Grinling Gibbons in London carved for Sir Christopher Wren's buildings. In colonial America fine ships' figureheads and many other pieces now considered important folk art were executed in wood.
The 20th cent. has seen a resurgence of interest in the medium of wood. Notable modern sculptors who have used wood include Archipenko, Barlach, Henry Moore, and the Finnish Tapio Virkkala. An appreciation of the basic material—the grain and texture of wood—led many figurative artists including William Zorach, Chaim Gross, Robert Laurent, and José de Creeft to work with wood. Wood has also held a fascination for some abstract artists, notably Louise Nevelson who created large, intricate sculptural compositions of carved and turned wood forms.
See D. Z. Meilach, Contemporary Art with Wood (1968); C. C. Carstenson, The Craft and Creation of Wood Sculpture (1971, repr. 1981); E. J. Tangerman, The Modern Book of Whittling and Woodcarving (1973); Jack C. Rich, Sculpture in Wood (1977).