There are several woods which I prefer to carve. Since I do commissions I use various woods for different carving projects. The next two woods are perhaps my most commonly carved woods and are perhaps the best woods for getting started with. These two woods are my carving mainstays. Any carving project could be accomplished with either of these woods.
Linden wood (Bass Wood) is an excellent wood for general carving as it has a relatively soft, tight, straight and perhaps boring grain. Which makes it an excellent wood to sink your knife or carving tools into. I like this wood for doing commissions of small figurines and reliefs. Since this wood will not hold up well to the elements it is not good for exterior sculpture or signs. This wood takes finishes well.
Sugar Pine or northeast white pine are good woods for most general carving projects which do not have fine details unless you have extremely sharp tools. Other then synthetic carving media, pine is a good choice for carved signs which are going to be painted or are going to be stained or finished naturally.
Some of my favorite carving woods include...
Walnut, this is an excellent wood and one of my favorites. It is an interesting wood in that it has a grain which is hard, has character, fun to carve, and takes to oil finishes. As far as I am concerned, this is what marble is to stone sculptors. Carving of walnut can be finely detailed or abstract with only smooth curves.
Teak, which a number of carvers tend to stay away from since it is renown to dull your tools is really a great wood. Teak has a rich grain that makes it interesting to carve.
African and Honduran Mahogany are good carving woods. However their grain can be tricky to carve and cause ripping if you are not careful. As with most tropical woods they have an open grain. Philippine Mahogany (Luan) is not a true mahogany and can be an okay wood some carving projects. Luan is actually any tropical wood that has similar characteristics and their grains range from soft to extremely hard and stingy. Luan really has nothing in common with a true Mahogany other then if stained with a mahogany stain they may appear to be Mahogany.
Eastern Cedar and Southwestern Juniper although both have a tricky grain to carve, do produce interesting carvings. Eastern Cedar comes from larger trees then the Southwestern Juniper. This means that the Eastern Cedar is mostly available as the reddish heart wood and also is known as Aromatic Cedar. Juniper has a reddish heart wood with a creamy sap wood and makes for some interesting carvings. The early Spanish settlers of the southwest used this wood for carving their Santos. There are about three different types of Juniper, some tend to have a more brownish heard wood. Juniper and Eastern Cedar are very similar and often mistaken for each other. I like Juniper because of its contrast between the heart wood and the sap wood and allows me to use this in my compositions.
Fruit Woods are always good for carving as they have a lot of grain characteristics which make for interesting carving. My favorites are Cherry, Pear, Apple, and Plum. I have a seen some interesting works carved in coconut and other types of nuts.
Other woods you may consider...
Oak can be used but it has drawbacks in that it has a heavy grain which can interfere with your design. With that said, if you keep your design simple or use the grain as part of that design you will be happy with this wood. American oak both red and white have a broader grain then English Oak which has been used for appliques on English furniture. So if you could acquire English Oak you could easily do more detailed work without having the grain interfering with your design.
Alaska Cedar which comes from well you can figure that out on your own. This wood carves much like Linen wood but is somewhat harder. It has a yellowish coloration and was used by northwest tribes to carve mask and totem poles.
Aspen and Cottonwood have also been used for carving but I personally have not enjoyed working with them.
There is a variety other woods that have been used by carvers from all over the world so there is no end to woods that you can use for carving. I have only mentioned some of the woods which I am personally familiar with. So find some wood and start carving.
Terry R. Wolff