How to Engrave Letters on Wood

Engraving is best done by hand, with sharp tools. Contemporary woodworkers sometimes use power tools for large scale or production engraving. Engraving letters with a burner is another way to accomplish the task, but typically in a different category. Engraving letters by hand is affordable, traditional and shows craftsmanship.

Wood Matters

The wood you choose has a direct effect on the outcome of your engraving project. Softwood is affordable and easy to work with. Hardwood has more choices, but is somewhat harder to work with than softwood. It's also more expensive.

Softwood Options

Softwood such as white pine -- which ranks only 380 on the Janka hardness scale -- is considered one of the softest woods, one of the easiest to carve, and one of the most affordable. Fir, ranking 660 on the Janka scale, is slightly harder and more durable than pine, but remains easy to work with. If you're just starting out in engraving, softwood is a good choice to practice on.

Difficult Hardwoods

Hardwoods require more time and effort to carve than softwoods, but some hardwoods engrave easier than others. Hardwood such as oak, ash and maple, ranking 1,290, 1,320, and 1,450 respectively, are not impossible to engrave, but they present more challenges because of density, and tend to splinter and chip.

Workable Hardwoods

Several hardwoods stand out for engraving. Basswood, one of the softer hardwoods, ranks 410 on the Janka scale. Alder, a cousin of birch, ranks 590 and is ideal for carving. Philippine Mahogany, also known as Meranti, or luann, ranks 800 on the Janka scale. It's straight, tight-grain texture make it ideal for engraving.. Walnut, and cherry, ranking 1,010, and 950, are good choices because both of them have a certain supple quality. Expect to pay top dollar for walnut and cherry.

Create a Template

Download your letters. Choose a simple style, without excessive curves or flair. Printing them out on your computer allows you the luxury of sizing the letters appropriately. Trace the letters onto the wood with a pencil. If you're intrepid, you can draw the letters freehand onto wood, as well, and you're ready to start engraving.

Chip Carving

The most basic of all engraving techniques is done with a sharp chisel. Sometimes referred to as chip carving, it consists of two angled lines cut to a point in the middle to form a single line. More advanced chip carving calls for various shapes of chip knife blades to cut shallow engraving lines.

Add Gouges

Gouges are shaped carving tools. Some have a V-shaped end, others a curved end. Some are wide, others narrow. The gouge you choose determines the shape and size of the letters. Gouges are pushed or tapped gently to engrave lines.

Proper Angle

Even though the engraving techniques differ -- chipping is accomplished from the side, and gouges are used parallel with the lines -- the proper angle is similar. The tools should be held at a consistent angle of about 20 to 30 degrees to the surface of the wood. This is because the cutting edge on many woodworking tools is established at about 20 degrees.

Steps to Engraving

Step 1 Create a Template

Draw or use a template to create the letters on the wood.

Step 2 Establish the Angle

Hold the knife or gouge upright at 30 degrees to the wood. The first cut on any individual letter should always be perpendicular across the grain whenever possible. The top of the letter "T" for example. Cutting across the grain diminishes the possibility that you chip the wood.

Step 3 Make the Cut

Rock a chisel back and forth to make a cut about 1/6 inch deep, or no deeper than 1/8 inch to chip. If you're using a gouge, rock the gouge slightly while tapping it, or pushing it gently to make the first cut along the line, about 1/16 to 1/8 inch deep.

Step 4 Additional Chip Cut

Repeat the cut if you're chip engraving, cutting an additional line parallel with the first line to create a shallow V-groove line, and pry the small chip out of the drawing. If you're using a gouge, the material is removed on the first cut, and no additional cuts are needed.

Step 5 Finish the Letter

Cut the parallel lines on individual letters, to join the perpendicular lines, using the same angle and depth of cut.

Light Sanding Only

Too much sanding detracts from the engraving, by softening the lines too much. Fold a piece of 120-grit sandpaper into a short, thin strip. Bend it around your finger and sand inside the letters lightly to remove chips or light splinters. Finish with lacquer for interior use. Use weather-resistant polyurethane for an exterior finish.

Power Option

Engraving is also done with oscillating power tools. It's a fast, efficient way to engrave letters by switching out different sizes of bits, but lacks the hand-crafted look of other techniques.

Burning Option

Burning letters is another option. Engraving burners have a small tip that looks like a chisel. Use it like a pencil to burn the letters into the wood.