If the thought of carving seems a bit too daunting, you might want to give whittling a try. Carving is about shaping a piece of wood – typically into some preconceived design – with a variety of knives, chisels, gouges, rasps and files. Whittling is also about shaping a piece of wood, but with less of a focus on conforming to any preconceived design and mostly with a knife.
Whittling is a wonderful stress reducer and it’s a great way to introduce children (or the young at heart of any age) to the craft of working wood in general, and to the use of knives in particular. It can be done almost anywhere – on the couch or back porch, at the park while Rover hangs out with friends, or sitting around a campfire. Like many simple pursuits, it can be a path to the quiet zone, a place where you’re absorbed in what your hands are doing, lost in the moment.
For generations the basic tool for whittling has been a pocket knife. So long as the knife is sharp, you’ll be able to make shavings. However, you might want to avoid knives with wide or long blades as there is a tendency to choke up on the blade when making slicing or detail cuts, which isn’t the safest way to hold a knife. As well, pocket knife blades typically have very narrow bevels (compared to specialty whittling knives) that make them more difficult to hone.
Pocket knives with short, thick blades that are less pointed and lock into position when opened are preferable and safer for children. A good example is the Boker Carver’s Congress Whittler (Bokerusa.com #115465, $78US), which has blades for slicing, digging and scooping tasks. If you do plan to introduce a child to whittling, the most important thing you can do is provide instruction and guidance. And expect a few cuts along the way.
Regardless of your proficiency with knives, cut-resistant gloves, like the HyFlex (Ansell.com #11-541, $20) that are light in weight, thin enough so they don’t compromise your sense of touch, and provide high cut protection in areas with the highest cut risk, are a good choice for some folks. Another reason for wearing gloves is that applying pressure on the spine of the blade (particularly if the blade is fairly thin) with your thumb can be quite irritating over the long term. If you find gloves too cumbersome, there are various finger and thumb guards available (LeeValley.com #33K9112, $19.50). Because a lot of whittling takes place with the wood cradled in your lap, you should also consider wearing a shop apron or leather bib. Having said all that, some folks prefer the more natural feel they get from holding a knife in their bare hand. There’s no true right or wrong when it comes to protecting your hands while whittling or carving.
While you can use any wood for whittling, softwoods such as basswood, butternut, cedar and pine are much easier to work. And, of course, found wood is ideal. Greenwood is much easier to carve than dried wood. You can scrounge around for deadfall branches any time of the year, but if you plan to cut a branch or small tree the best time is in winter when sap isn’t flowing. Just remember to ask permission before collecting on private or municipal land.
For an aspiring whittler who wants to make more than shavings, a specialty whittling knife with a fixed blade is a better choice. It makes the craft easier, safer and more enjoyable. Whittling knives come in a wide variety of blade styles; we’ll look at several basic styles from four leading brands to help you get started.
Knife blades suitable for whittling are typically short (up to about 2-1/2″ long), narrow (5/16″ to 1/2″) and thin (3/64″ to 7/64″). The cutting edges are most often straight, but sometimes curved. Typically, there’s no bolster (a thick junction between the handle and the blade), and the blade tang is fully inserted into the handle, sometimes pinned in place as on Ramelson knives. Longer blades might have a ferrule to prevent the handle from splitting.
A longer blade is ideal for quick removal of material using a power stroke, which is typically cutting away from the body. Shorter blades can be best for controlled slicing cuts, often made toward the body. For detail work, the tip of a knife is often used; for these cuts, a detail knife with a narrow blade works best. Regardless of the direction of cut, you always want to keep your fingers away from the cutting arc of the blade.
Make a habit of using gentle pressure, letting the knife do the work. You’re generally much better off to take small, controlled, shallow cuts, rather than trying to hog off too much at once. Whenever possible, make your cuts with the grain, or across the grain, using small steps, being careful not to split the wood. Skewing the blade makes a shear-cutting action that helps keep the knife from cutting too deep. When cutting against the grain, keep those cuts small and make sure your knife is razor sharp.
Companies like Flexcut offer a wider variety of unique blade designs. You may find many of these designs more useful for carving than whittling, but there’s nothing wrong with blurring the lines, too, and using carving and whittling techniques in the same project.
The most common material used for whittling knife handles is hardwood, mainly birch and ash. When cared for and not subject to constant moisture, there’s no reason these handles shouldn’t last a lifetime.
While handles are largely a matter of personal preference, those with large hands might find barrel-shaped handles more comfortable, while for children and those with smaller hands, thinner handles, as on the Ramelson, or contoured handles, as on the Flexcut, would likely be better choices.
You’ll quickly lose interest and patience in whittling when your knife becomes dull. It’s important, almost critically so, to keep your knife razor sharp at all times. After every whittling session, or intermittently during long sessions, hone your knife on a leather strop using a honing compound. Flexcut, Lee Valley and BeaverCraft offer reasonably priced strops and compounds.
Fortunately, honing most whittling knives is quite easy, assuming the blade is in good condition and is only in need of some fine tuning to create a razor-sharp edge. Rub compound across the strop. Lay the blade flat on the strop, tilt it upward ever so slightly, so the bevel lays flat on the strop. Next, drag the blade away from the bevel. On long blades, rest a finger on the tip of the blade to keep it flat against the strop. Eight to 10 times in each direction and you’re done.
If the blade is in rough shape, and you need to remove a decent amount of steel to properly sharpen the blade, some time at a sharpening stone or with a wheel sharpener is likely in order.
If you’re new to whittling, a good place to start is with pre-cut or shop-made wood blanks. Stick with wood species that are relatively easy to work with, such as aspen, basswood, butternut, mahogany, pine and walnut. Look for blocks that have straight grain and are knot-free. I avoid balsa wood because it’s just too soft, dents easily and doesn’t hold details well. If you can’t find a local source for wood blanks, check out our online Lumber Directory.
Begin with a simple shape or figure, such as a heart, egg, bird, fish or spoon – anything that doesn’t have a lot of fine details. Leave those for later as your whittling skills develop. I like to start by tracing a side and end view of the design in pencil on the blank. You can use a frame saw or band saw to remove some of the waste. Don’t rush your cutting. Go slow, taking light shallow cuts and working in the direction of the grain whenever possible. To become familiar with the basic grips you use for whittling, check out Rob Brown’s “7 Great Knife Grips to Get You Started” in the Aug/Sept 2020 issue.
Basic Set of 4 Knives, #S07
$65.95US + 11.36 shipping to Canada
Established in 2014, BeaverCraft is based in the Ukraine. They sell direct to the consumer online and through Amazon. The company offers a large selection of carving knives along with chisels and strops. Their basic set of four knives consists of a stabbing knife (or beveled chip knife) with a 3/4″ cutting edge, a small carving knife and a detail knife (both with 1-5/8″ blades) and a whittling knife with a 2-1/4″ blade. Blades are 1.9mm (about 5/64″) thick and come sharpened, ready for use.
BeaverCraft uses 1095 high-carbon steel for its blades, heat treated to Rc 58-62. This is quite tough steel that’s easy to sharpen and holds an edge reasonably well. Except for the stabbing knife, these knives feature a small notch (the choil) at the base of the blade, which allows the blade edge to be sharpened all the way to the end of the blade.
Lightly oiled ash handles are similar in style to Flexcut handles (though narrower in thickness), except for the whittling knife, which has a straight handle.
The whittling knife is ideal for making power cuts – typically away from the body – when you want to remove a lot of material in short order. The small carving knife is basically a shorter version of the whittling knife, but one that affords better control. The detail knife has a Wharncliffe blade design, which is good for basic carving, while the absence of a pointy tip makes it a safer choice for children. I didn’t get much use out of the stabbing knife, as it’s primarily for chip carving, not shaving wood. However, it’s handy for making vertical cuts in tight spots that you can’t get at with a detail knife.
For approximately $100 CAD ($25 per knife) you get four knives plus a handy jute tool roll. You’ll find several useful instructional videos along with some project videos on the BeaverCraft website.
3-Knife Starter Set, KN500
Flexcut has been producing knives in the U.S. for about three decades and is widely considered to be one of the premier manufacturers of woodcarving tools with about 300 products on offer. Their 3-Knife Starter Set consists of a roughing knife (#KN14) with a 1-3/4″ blade, a cutting knife (KN12) with a 1-1/4″ blade and a detail knife (KN13) with a 1-1/2″ blade. Plus, you get a small block of sharpening compound that should last quite a while. The knives are also sold separately.
The blades, which hold their edge exceptionally well, are 3/64″ thick and made from high-quality spring steel tempered to Rc 59-61. They have a Wharncliffe blade design with a Scandi grind (a long single bevel) with no micro-bevel. The bevels are highly polished and razor sharp. Like the BeaverCraft knives, they include a large choil at the base of the blade that makes it easier to sharpen right down to the heel.
The ergonomically shaped 4-1/2″ long ash handles are by far my favourite. They’re super comfortable and allow for excellent control. Initially, I found them slightly too slick, but a bit of dressing with 180-grit sandpaper gave them a wonderfully comfortable and functional grip.
The roughing knife is a real workhorse, especially when working larger blanks and removing a lot of material. The cutting knife can perform the same tasks as its larger sibling, and the rounded nose makes it a better choice for novice users or children. It’s safer to use and the tip is less likely to break if inadvertently used to pry rather rather than slice. The detail knife with its narrow blade is ideal for reaching into corners and undercuts.
At around $30 per knife these are a tad more expensive than the other knives I looked at, but worth every penny.
120 and 122 Wood Carving, #M-106-1600, #M-106-1654
Morakniv (a.k.a. Mora Knife) is a classic Swedish design that’s been produced in Sweden since the late 1800s. The #120 is a straight back knife with a gentle curving belly (similar to the BeaverCraft whittling knife), while the #122 has a straight cutting edge with a curved spine. Both knives come with a polypropylene sheath.
The blades, which are roughly 2-3/8″ long and 7/64″ thick at the spine, are made of laminated steel – inner layers of rolled high carbon steel hardened to Rc 61 with an outer layer of softer alloyed steel. Like the Flexcut, they have a Scandi grind with no micro-bevel. The tang (shank) runs the full length of the birch handle. A bright steel ferrule prevents the top of the handle from splitting. These knives are razor sharp and don’t require honing prior to use.
The barrel-shaped handles are just shy of 4″ long and about 7/8″ × 1-1/8″ at their widest. I find they afford a firm grip, though anyone with smaller hands (particularly children) might find them more difficult to use, particularly for long periods of time. The thick spine enables you to provide plenty of thumb pressure when making power cuts to remove a lot of material. For making detail cuts and fine shavings I have a slight preference for the #122.
3-Piece Roughing Whittling & Chip Wood Carving Knife Set, #B1-VG5A-IP98
$45.95US + $15US shipping to Canada
This company has been making high-quality hand tools for more than 80 years. They have a wide range of carving knives, chisels and gouges to choose from, most made in the U.S. The kit I tried consists of a narrow blade detail knife (often referred to as a “bench knife”) with a 1-1/2″ blade, a round neck chip carving knife with a 1-1/8″ blade, and a double-sided curved edge knife with a 1-3/4″ blade. The blades are 1.8mm thick (just under 5/64″) and, like BeaverCraft’s blades, are made from 1095 high-carbon steel. The blades are factory sharpened, nicely honed and ready for action.
The handles are among the nicest looking handles you’ll find on carving knives. They’re made from Pakkawood, which looks like real wood but is an engineered wood/plastic composite. They range from 4″ to 5-1/2″ long, are 1/2″ thick and just a bit wider. I have medium-size hands and find these handles comfortable and easy to control. The detail knife, with its small narrow blade, is extremely easy to control for precise cutting of small details. The curved knife is useful for peeling cuts and making oblong shapes. Like the BeaverCraft, the curved knife features an integrated choil. The chip carving knife is great for making straight or curved lines and V-cuts.
This set is well priced at about $85 CAD with shipping which works out to about $28 per knife.
If you’re looking for a folding pocket knife specifically designed for whittling and carving, then you’ll want to check out Flexcut’s “Carvin’ Jack” line. Of the six models on offer, two are ideal for whittlers: Tri-Jack (#JKN95, $109.34) and Whittlin’ Jack (#JKN88, $76.64). Tri-Jack has roughing, detail and mini-cutting blades, and all lock into place. Whittlin’ Jack has roughing and detail blades that don’t lock. Both knives are made of aerospace-grade aluminum with a wood inlay. Flexcut.com