A professional carver who gives internet lessons on carving commented online to a student that pine was not a suitable wood for carving, get some good basswood was the advice. I laughed at this. Pine was the go-to wood for several generations of New England ship carvers, and the lines of many a schooner hull were carved first in our regional white pine, not to mention figureheads and much of the work of John Haley Bellamy. Pine is terrific to carve is you are mindful of its character and use sharp tools.
Here is a pine paradox: southern yellow pine can be harder than many hardwoods, and was once widely used for pattern making and shipbuilding. In the ’70’s I was gifted with a section of southern yellow pine that had been a beam in an old factory. Cutting it up into carvable pieces was challenging. In that case, the sample was old-growth cut in the 1890s.
Regional variation, the environment in which the tree grew, how the sawyer cut it ( quarter sawn or plain), how fast it grew, how it was seasoned, and other factors all contribute to suitability for carving. For example, the transom eagle on the USS Constitution is ponderosa pine. These days ponderosa is better known for its use as structural wood and not for its use in carving. In 1910 the old-growth ponderosa selected by a Philadelphia shipyard carver was not exceptional. The ponderosa chosen was sturdy, hard for a “softwood” and tight-grained. Until the Constitution maintenance shop carpenter told me about the carving as he worked on it, I’d never have thought to select ponderosa for a project.
Another pine that you might be interested in trying is western sugar pine. It has a clean tight grain and a distinctive sweet odor. You may need to shop around for this, but won’t be disappointed in the real deal. I carved this little eagle out of sugar pine and loved the experience.
A few words of caution on technique while using pine: it can seem like a good idea to try to “hog out” wood fast with a large gouge and a mallet. If you are hollowing the wings of an eagle for depth and shape, this can be a temptation. In fast grown pine, this is a mistake. Your gouge will tend to dig into the grain, and if you attempt to wedge it out, the grain will tear out deeply, leaving you with a rough and deep tear in the wood. Be gentle. Remember going fast is not always going to get you there sooner.
Another issue can be cuts that run on a bit further than intended. The answer to this is less force and more finesse on the cuts, If you are using a mallet switch to a lighter one or use your palm. Some years ago, I took a knot of elm from the firewood pile and fashioned it into a palm mallet. The palm mallet protects my hand from impacts while allowing me to get a bit more force into a cut.
Pine is a worthwhile wood for carving: It’s readily available in a variety of species; many times, it will be the economical choice of wood, and with sharp tools can yield a rewarding carving experience.