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Ebony and New Zealand Timbers

One of the premises I have always worked under is

"It's not what can you carve, it's what can't you carve?"

The answer being pretty close to nothing. I've even seen some amazing things carved out of toothbrush handles! It's a massive task to give detailed information on everything that has ever been hacked into by someone with a chisel or a chainsaw ... but here goes!

The following is a brief description of what you can carve:


A black or dark brown tropical hardwood traditionally used for piano keys and elephants. These days it is protected from international trade and I only use recycled, broken statues. Carving it is similar to carving beef bone as it has a very tight grain and is able to hold good detail and polish.


Whilst not a timber expert, I will attempt to describe the common varieties carved in New Zealand and likely to be found in our gallery. These are either softwoods like kauri, kahikatea, totara, sapwood rimu and matai; "harder" softwoods like "heartwood" totara, rimu and matai; soft "hardwoods" like rewarewa, tawa, taraire and towai; and hard timbers like pohutukawa and rata. Some of their other characteristics are as follows:


Light coloured softwood similar in nature to pine. Very straight grain easily split.


Beautiful golden timber which often shows "lights" and attractive grains especially from "crutch feathers."


Strong dark reddish brown timber often used in carving of souvenirs due to its dependibility and finish.

Pinus Radiata

Very common wood in New Zealand, good for beginners. It is soft and flexible and able to be carved with detail. It also accepts preservation techniques easily making it useful for outdoor work. Best for chainsaw carving.


Very hard tough timber, beautiful red colour and difficult, tight, twisted grain. Not often available due to trees being protected.

Punga or Mamaku (tree fern)

This has a large, black fibrous trunk when mature and can be carved with large chisels and small handsaws. Very interesting garden sculpture is appearing made of this material.


Very attractive speckled timber (dark red with light spots) often used for "feature" work.


Tough reddish brown timber with attractive variations in colour between the grains.


Reddish timber, usually very straight grained and durable. Commonly used by the Maori for meeting houses and canoes.

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