This section is from the book "Spons' Mechanics' Own Book: A Manual For Handicraftsmen And Amateurs", by Edward Spon. Also available from Amazon: Spons' Mechanics' Own Book.
The easiest of all woods to work, being soft and equal under the tool. But it is of little use for delicate work, as it does not "hold" to fine details; for that reason it is only used for frames, or at most for coarse undercut work, which has neither to bear heavy weights nor sustain much wear. The tint of this wood is something like that of fresh butter. It is less liable to split and splinter than almost any other wood, which qualities render it of great utility to carvers for carrying out designs when lightness and boldness are equally required. It takes a stain well, and a fair polish, or it may be varnished without greatly altering the colour of the wood, but giving to it a very agreeable boxwood appearance. It is suitable, as well as for large festoons, for smaller works, such as book-stands, miniature and portrait frames.
Mahogany, owing to its tendency to chip, when reduced to thin edges or angles, is only used for carvings having a bold outline, in which fine projecting lines are not requisite. There are two very distinct kinds. That suited for carving must not be confounded with the common soft wood known as cedar mahogany, used for ordinary furniture, but is hard and dark, and known as Spanish. This wood is well suited for basso relievo, as is also the Spanish chestnut, the two woods, when polished, being much alike, though the mahogany is of a somewhat richer colouring.
Oak is so well known as not to require description. Its strong fibres and coarse texture render it unfit for the finer kinds of sculpture. The most adapted to the purposes of the carver is perhaps the variety found in the Vosges. Those trees which grow in the heart of the forests produce a softer, more brittle wood, more exempt from knots and other irregularities than those which grow on the borders. Foreign oak is much to be preferred to home-grown wood, which is of a hard, tough nature, and liable to knots, which are a great impediment to the carver, and from which the American and Norwegian forest-grown oak is comparatively free. These oaks may be known by the close and smooth grain, and somewhat grey tinge, the English wood being closer grained and of a yellower colour. Oak is especially useful for decorative work in library or large hall, and, above all, for ecclesiastical purposes.