Ever since man has had the ability to fashion wood tools and weapons they have been carving them to have designs and be unique from all the others. Wood carvings can be on almost any wooden object from pipe stems to furniture and even the more complicated: church doors. In the first 11 centuries or so in human history very significant wood carvings are very rare.
Wood is a very flexible and easy to manipulate material, but is very delicate and can be easily burned, warped or broken unlike stone, this is why old wood carvings are very rare. However the main doors of the Basilica of Saint Sabina on Aventine Hill in Rome date back to the 11th Century. The doors have several panels carved into depicting several scenes from the Old and New testaments from the bible. Wood carvers had several tools in their arsenal and go through a very long and tedious process depending on how complex and detailed their carvings get.
Wood that is going to be carved is usually cut and rough-hewed with axes, saws, and knives. They then use gouges, chisels, drills, and knives for the actual carving. Pieces are then finished with rasps, files, and sandpaper.
Carvings may be painted or gilded directly on the surface or over a layer of cloth or plaster, or the wood may be left in its natural state and polished. In northern Europe wood carving has been a very important art medium. It is especially important in nautical areas. Many warships had wood carvings all around the hull on the mast and at the front of the ship. They often designed their ships with violent images to strike fear into their enemies. This was very popular among the vikings. The Man-O-War ships used by Spain, England and France were not only deadly war ships but were an exemplary display of wood carving and design at its finest with many intricate designs all around the outside of the ship. In the Gothic Period most of the architecture was made out of wood. Not only was the exterior made out of wood but also the furniture on the inside was very intricate. Many of the carvings were found in churches most likely because they were the best preserved carvings.
Many of the sculptures depicted events that occurred in the new and old testaments of the Bible. In the 15th century wood carving and many other art forms artists were starting to be recognized and were no longer anonymous. Many notable wood carvers were prevalent in the 15th century such as Bernt Notke, Veit Stoss and Tilman Riemenschneider. Bernt Notke is most known for his Saint George and the Dragon Sculpture in the “Great Cathedral”in Stockholm Germany. Veit Stoss is most known for the enormous polychrome wooden altar in Saint Mary’s church in Krakow Poland. During World War II by the order of Hans Frank, general in charge of occupied Poland, dismantled the Altar and had it shipped to the Third Reich in 1941 and was rediscovered in 1945 in Bavaria in the basement of a heavily bombed Nuremberg castle.
The altar was restored and put back in the basilica only 10 years later. Veit Stoss also sculpted The Virgin and the Child which was a very well done and very detailed wooden sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. Tilman Riemenschneider was a Gothic wood carver and did the majority of his work during 1490 and 1525. In 35 years Tilman Riemenschneider completed many immaculate carvings in several churches all over Germany. Many of his carvings were very intricate and mostly were altars and tombs. During the renaissance wood carving became a less popular art form due to the advances in technology allowing stone carving stone to be easier to carve. Many different types of stones such as marble and granite became more popular in churches over the less durable wood carvings.
1.) autocww2.colorado.edu/~toldy2/e64contentfiles/decorativearts/woodcarvin.html Website with very basic information on wood carving starting from early human history up until recent eras
Various information on famous 14th century wood sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider.
Information page on German Wood Sculptor Veit Stoss.
Website containing information on Bernt Notke, another very famous german wood sculptor in 14th century Germany
Wikipedia page containing a very broad history on wood carving.