Guide to Wood Carving Pocket Knives: What Blade is Best?
In this article, we’re going to discuss the best pocket knives for carving wood that are available today on the market. Not only will I provide you with some of my favorite pockets knifes most adept for the task of wood carving, but I’ll also discuss why I feel they are worthy of your attention and even compare them to a couple of other knives that are similar in price, quality, and overall effectiveness.
Below, please take a look at a variety of noteworthy wood carving and whittling knives, as we will be discussing them in-depth today in this article:
|Flexcut Pocket Jack||$$$|
|Flexcut Tri-Jack Pro||$$$|
|Opinel Slimline No. 12||$|
|Flexcut Whittlin’ Jack||$$|
Carving vs. Whittling
First of all, lets address the difference between wood carving and whittling. Wood carving involves creating shapes, designs and structures in three dimensions, whether figurative or functional, from wood. To do this well usually requires dedicated tools, and maybe even a workshop or at least a work bench.
Wood carving is an art as well as a hobby, and can entail making anything from a bookmark to a 6-foot tall totem.
Now, to be fair, a pocket knife is not going to be the ultimate wood carving tool. Can you carve wood with a good pocket knife? Yes—absolutely. Any wood carver will tell you that carving is more about skill, vision, creativity, patience, and a love of the wood and the work than it is about the tool.
But in this article, we are going to focus on folding blade pocket knives and sidestep the entire world of fixed-blade knives and specialty blades, gouges, chisels, scores and more that serious wood carvers are sure to want to recommend.
Generally speaking, a good fixed-blade knife (like a Mora 120 Wood Carver) will be both cheaper and overall more suited to wood carving tasks than most pocket knives, but it’s also less likely to be with you on a hike where you decide to stop at the side of the stream and whittle down that beautiful piece of cedar you just picked up.
Below, please take a moment to view some of the best-selling knives currently for sale on Amazon:
|1) Mossy Oak|
|2) Ka-Bar USMC|
|3) Cold Steel Survivalist|
|5) Camp Lore PR-4|
|4) Cold Steel San Mai SRK|
Using a Whittling Knife
Whittling, on the other hand, is about shaping wood by removing small slices of it, gradually reducing a piece of wood down to some new form. This is not to say that whittling is any less of an art than carving, though you’ll find definitions of whittling that specifically refer to it as “non-artistic,” there are some amazing whittlers out there that would beg to differ! It’s worth noting that “whittling” is really an american term, and in other parts of the world it is all just wood carving.
- Click here to read our whittling-related article entitled: What’s the Best Pocket Knife for Whittling?
So whittling is really more the province of the pocket knife, though one can be used as a primary tool in more complex carving tasks. When you hear the word “whittling,” perhaps your mind conjures an image of grandpa on the porch, in the rocking chair, puffing on a pipe while idly shaving at a piece of wood with a bone-handled pocket knife, piling shavings on the floor as the sun goes down. It’s an image of peace and calm, and whittling is becoming more popular today as our increasingly frantic lifestyle is driving more and more people to make the time to work with their hands on repetitive but creative tasks.
Whittling can be a great way to relieve some stress — and make some holiday gifts at the same time!
There are a few primary factors to consider in choosing a pocket knife for wood carving and whittling, and here are the ones used for the selections here:
Factors you must consider for selecting a pocket knife for wood carving purposes:
- Locking/non-locking Blade
- Blade Design
- Blade Steel Type
- Handle Material/Design
- Specialized vs. General Utility
Within these categories, there is not necessarily a specific right or wrong for your knife. It’s all about preference and purpose. Generally speaking, I prefer locking blades, just because they are a little less likely to accidentally slip and partially close while you’re working and cut you. Some folks don’t care about this option because they know even “locking” knives can slip.
Blade design is a biggie, but here too it can be a preference. The rule of thumb here is you want as much flat blade surface as possible, with a strong spine but not too thick a blade. I decided to leave out the blade bevel as a factor here to keep it from getting too complicated, as this is meant more for a beginners guide.
Be aware there are different types of edge for a knife blade, and some are better suited to carving wood (I have found a “Scandi” or Scandinavian grind to be my favorite for both control and ease of sharpening) but this option is usually more the province of fixed-blade knives than pocket knives.
Blade steel is certainly a topic for many articles all on its own, but for our purposes here, it’s going to be the old tradeoff between hardness/edge retention and the ability to keep it good and sharp without too much effort. The one thing everyone will agree on for a wood carving knife is it needs to be SHARP. Not just “yeah, its got an edge on it” sharp, but as sharp as you can get it.
Sharpness equals safety. It’s always the duller blade that slips when you don’t want it too. Size is a matter of preference but a pocket knife used for carving shouldn’t be too small to fit securely in your hand. Materials, price and specialization all depend on preference, so I’ve included a range here.
Probably the most popular and common type of knife in the world today is what the knife industry folks would call an “EDC” knife (Every Day Carry). This is that one medium-sized blade, usually locking these days, that you just keep in your pocket along with your keys and your phone. It goes on the bedside table at night, and back in the pocket the next morning. And there is nothing wrong with using your EDC knife to carve and whittle! So we will include this category of general purpose knives that could also make a good whittler. However, there are much more specialized knives for wood working, and this is where we will begin.
The Best Wood Carving Pocket Knives
- The Pocket Jack by Flexcut
- Oar Carver version 2 by Queen City Cutlery
- Seahorse Whittler by Case
- 301 Stockman by Buck
- 581 Barrage by Benchmade
1) Flexcut Pocket Jack
The American company Flexcut makes serious carving tools, and the Pocket Jack is one. This is a folding blade knife, but in addition to having a straight blade which is designed for whittling and carving, it also has scorp and gouge blades. This really is a wood carving tool in the form of a pocket knife. The handle is cast aluminum which keeps the weight down, though some users have said they feel it is a little bulky for pocket carry, but weighs in at only 3 ounces, with a closed length of 4 1/4”.
The blades lock out, which is an important safety factor, using a clip lock system (similar to traditional lock back style). The blades are: a Detail Knife at 1 5/8″ long, a Straight Gouge, a Scorp and a V-Scorp.
If you’re not aware on the tool lingo, gouges and scorps are basically the same thing except that gouges get pushed and scorps get pulled — they’re both blades with curves or angles designed to remove material in an indent instead of flat along a surface the way a knife would.
The knife is designed in a pistol grip sort of pattern that makes it comfortable in the hand despite the somewhat squared-off edges of the outer casing. It’s like a little portable woodworking kit, though not an EDC by any means! Many users have reported that the blades are difficult to open and that it’s sometimes tricky to engage the locks. It’s also not cheap. That said, for the more serious bushcrafter who might want to carve a spoon out by the campfire over a weekend backpacking trip, or for someone who has a real interest in beginning wood carving but doesn’t want to start out by buying expensive tools and constructing a dedicated shop, this is a great option.
The blades are carbon steel and the flat blades can easily be maintained, usually just by regular stropping. The scorp blades are gonna be tricky to sharpen of course, but then, they won’t see as much or as heavy use as the flat edges. I should point out that Flexcut makes another tool, the Carvin’ Jack which is very similar but has even more tools on the one knife.
They also make simpler knives with just straight blades. I did not select the Carvin’ Jack for this recommendation mostly because of one small, but important critique that tool has received — if the blades aren’t closed exactly right, which can be tricky to accomplish, the user can cut themselves on projecting points. Safety has got to be your absolute first thought in any carving endeavor, and a tool with a known design flaw that can lead to injury isn’t going to make the cut (pun intended). The simpler knives are great knives too, but similar to other options on our list.
2) Oar Carver Version 2 by Queen City Cutlery
Designed by famed carver Ross Oar for Queen City Cutlery, the Oar Carver series epitomizes the carving pocket knife. There are currently three versions of the Oar Carver, and we’ve picked the Version 2 mostly just because of the greater difference between the main blade and the detail blade.
All of these knives are two-blade pocket knives on a canoe profile. The blades do not lock, but they do click in place soundly and satisfyingly to give the user assurance of stability. The blades are of quality D2 high carbon steel to provide great edge retention and hardness without being impossible to sharpen. Both blades are in a Wharncliffe pattern, meaning a straight cutting edge with a spine the curves down to the tip.
This is a pattern preferred for carving and whittling because of its strength and controllability and the durability of the tip. With an overall length of 3 5/8,” it is a true pocket knife; blade lengths are 1 3/4” and 1 3/16”.
You know it’s a knife-lover’s knife when you can purchase it in either “factory edge” or “extra sharp” — in other words, either buy it sharpened already, or basically unsharpened because they know you may want to do your own thinning, re-profiling, sharpening and honing on the piece! After all, sometimes it more about the joy of the process, and this knife is a joy to use!
3) Case Seahorse Whittler
The Seahorse Whittler from Case is another fabulous pocket knife designed specifically for working wood, and Case makes a great classic knife! Silver nickel bolsters over a variety of scale material options, from bone to buffalo horn to G-10 (a very tough and lightweight fiberglass resin laminate), give many options of style on this interestingly shaped knife.
The profile is a tapering dogleg with a large bolster on the main blade, and thinning considerably down to the two smaller blades on the other end. The main blade is a robust 5.5 cm long Wharncliffe with a 3 mm thick spine.
This blade means business!
The Seahorse additionally sports a small pen blade and a small coping blade (basically a straight clipped end on a slight bevel). These two small blades can handle any detail elements the larger Wharncliffe might find awkward. The blades are from 1/500 Tru-sharp surgical stainless steel, which means great corrosion resistance and decent edge retention but harder to reprofile and resharpen if the edge gets really beat up.
Total folded length is 4” and weight is 2.6 ounces. Though the design is a little unusual for a slip joint knife with a seeming imbalance between the two ends of the knife, it is designed for comfort in the hand when using either end for the tasks for which they were meant.
The taper away from the primary blade makes the grip controlled and solid for heavy work, while the taper toward the detail blades makes the knife easier to hold “pen style” for fine work. A fantastic knife for whittling and wood working, and many have found that robust main blade to make a great EDC knife as well. Also pricy, as your more specialized tools will tend to be.
4) Buck 301 Stockman
OK, so did I include a Buck knife because the first serious knife I ever owned was the Buck lock back my grandpa gave me when I was 14?
Maybe. But if so, that’s the point!
There is an aspect to Buck knives that inspires an emotional response to them, and the 301 Stockman is no exception to this. The dogleg shaped Stockman design profile comes in around 4” with handles of either injection molded plastic or rosewood and is comfortable in the hand. The three blades all have individual springs for strength and are made from 420HC steel, which is a high carbon high chromium steel that has excellent corrosion resistance and is easy to sharpen, but lacks the hardness and edge retention of higher-end steels like D2 or the CPM line.
The blades include: 3” clip point, 2 1/8” spey and 2 1/8” sheepsfoot. The clip point blade is a classic “hunting knife” sort of point, with a slightly curved “belly” on the edge, and a section of the spine “clipped” off to form a point. This one doesn’t have much belly, which is better for carving purposes.
The sheepsfoot blade is very similar to a Wharncliffe pattern with a more blunt down curve on the spine to a flat edge, making this an excellent whittling blade, and the spey blade (originally designed for spying animals) has a dull rounded end, which may sound pointless (unless you’re spying animals) but in truth makes a great edge for working on flat surfaces without having to worry about digging in a pointed tip. This is a simple and straight-forward knife that says “quality,” destined to be the pocket knife equivalent of your favorite pair of jeans.
Though the previous three knives really are dedicated carving/whittling knives, this one starts to move us into the Every Day Carry category, with a little more versatility in addition to being a great knife for working wood at about half the price of our previous recommendations.
5) Benchmade 581 Barrage
I simply had to include one all purpose EDC “dream knife” from the standpoint that any good quality blade can be used for wood carving, and it’s hard to find a better quality blade than Benchmade’s m390 steel 581 Barrage.
Benchmade folding knives have long been a gold standard in folders. This one is a single blade locking knife with an Axis lock system and spring assisted opening. The handle is a combination of aluminum and G-10. This knife has a closed length is 4 3/4” with a blade length of 3.6” and weighs 5.2 ounces, so it is significantly bigger than the others, but those were all what are known as “slip joints” meant to be slipped into a pocket, whereas the 581 features a clip to keep it up on a pocket or the outside of a waistband. It is not a whittling knife, it is an all purpose single blade locker.
So why did I include it in this list? Mostly steel! The blade is made from m390, which is one of the newer Ultra-premium steels with incredible hardness (on the Rockwell C scale it’s HRC 60-62), edge retention, corrosion resistance and wear resistance.
Of course, if you want the best steel available, be ready to pay for it! The 581 has a drop point with minimal belly giving it a fairly straight edge for wood working, while also having a strong point for detailing. The very securely locking blade is a nice feature if you are going to be removing heavy amounts of material, especially if you’re talking about harder woods that will put up a fight – you don’t want any weird twisting and catching to cause a blade to close on your hand while you’re making strong straightaway rough cuts.
Also, this is a great knife for that heavy work, again because of the quality of the steel. With m390, you are not going to wear down your edge very easily or quickly, so if you aren’t into the whole sharpening scene, and don’t have a set of various grit and material sharpening stones, this is an option that will need very little care.
The downside to that (because no knife or steel is perfect) is that when it DOES get dull (and anything will eventually) it will be harder to sharpen. If you have the right tools, it’s not impossible, and with a little practice you can get to where it is not going to be an ordeal. With careful use and regular stropping to keep its edge, you won’t really have to worry about sharpening unless you want to reprofile — and there are whole web forums out there about reprofiling m390 steel!
Remember, these are just recommendations. The important thing is to start doing some wood work and see what works for you. Every hand is different, every work style is different, and different tasks have different needs. So remember: keep a sharp blade, and let your love of the wood and the knife be your guide!
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