Has modern life got you feeling dystopic and groundless lately? Are anxiety and stress gnawing at you? I’ve got a cure for you that won’t find at the pharmacy.
Dig out that old pocket knife, sharpen the blade a bit, find or buy a little piece of dry soft pine, turn off your phone, sit outside (it’s ok if it’s cold — wear that big warm sweater) and whittle!
There is something about repetitive tasks of attention and physical work that can just peel the burdens off your shoulders. Whether you’re going to make a duck decoy, or just reduce a stick to shavings (and maybe use them to start a fire), whittling is a supremely satisfying and soothing endeavor, and it doesn’t require much in the way of specialized equipment or space, nor does it require large amounts of dedicated time.
You can sit and whittle for ten minutes and pick the piece up a week later and work for two hours. It really doesn’t matter.
The object of your whittling is also largely irrelevant. Many who whittle will eventually realize that they can actual produce useful or interesting objects through their craft, but to get started I think it’s best to focus on the act over the end result.
Like any skill, mastering the basics is important before moving on to larger and more complex tasks. If you start out trying to make a wooden chain, you might get frustrated, and that’s not the point.
Below, please use our interactive guide to compare some of the best whittling knives available on the market against one another in a variety of categories:
|Flexcut Pocket Jack||$$$|
|Flexcut Tri-Jack Pro||$$$|
|Opinel Slimline No. 12||$|
|Flexcut Whittlin’ Jack||$$|
Without further ado, lets get started.
- Sharpening materials
- cut resistant glove
- leather pad
- cleanup equipment
There are really only two things you genuinely must have: a knife and a piece of wood. But there are a few more things that can really add to your experience, too.
First of all, you want your knife to be very sharp. Not only will your work be easier and cleaner with a sharp knife, it is also safer to work with a sharp blade — it is less likely to slip off the wood and go wild.
So you will want a sharpening stone and/or a strop. This kinda depends on the knife you’re using. It is also a good idea to have a cut resistant glove, or at least a thumb guard.
Whittling means working with a sharp blade, and safety should be a consideration, especially if it is an activity you want to share with kids. It’s also a good idea to have a piece of tough leather you can lay on your leg unless you’re working at a table or bench. You may also want to have a broom and dust pan ready for your shavings!
Below, please take a moment to view some of the best-selling knives currently for sale on Amazon:
|1) Cold Steel Survivalist|
|2) Ka-Bar USMC|
|3) Kershaw Cryo II|
|4) Mossy Oak|
|5) Kershaw Knockout|
We’re going to talk about pocket knives for whittling today, since that is really the classic way to whittle (and an article we’ve already written). If you get into the realm of serious wood carving, there are more specialized knives and a large array of chisels and gouges one might use, but to whittle, a slip joint pocket knife should do the job nicely.
We’ll include a few of our favorites later on in this article, but the basic criteria for a good whittler is that the blade should be of a good steel that isn’t too hard to resharpen or at least hone after use.
It should have a nice amount of flat edge on the blade without too much belly (the rounded part seen on many knives). It should fit comfortably in the hand, and the blade should stay firmly in place while you work.
It is often nice to have a smaller blade or two, perhaps with different tip designs, for making grooves or little details, but depending on the style of your main blade and your own ingenuity and skill, these aren’t necessarily required.
Of course a piece of wood is your substrate, the source of all you will create, so it is good to get to know your wood. For many people (myself included) whittling really begins with a love of wood — the variations in grain and color and properties, the smell of pine, the texture of smooth cut hardwood.
There are no specific requirements for the wood you use to whittle, though when starting out, the softer the wood the better! Pine, balsa and basswood are favorites for this reason (especially basswood), and because they tend to be easy to find and have consistent grain. But don’t overlook the satisfaction of making something from a stick you picked up on your evening walk.
One thing to keep in mind with your wood is that dry is better than wet. Wet wood can split unpredictably, and also will tend to crack as it dries after you’ve worked it, and that can be a bummer.
As you start whittling more, you may begin to notice wood more than you did before. Don’t blame me when you’re driving home from work and suddenly just have to pull over and throw a big chunk of that downed limb in your trunk!
If you’ve got a place to stash some wood (basement, garage, trunk of your car) you can make sure you’ve got dry wood to work with even if it is all “found” pieces. To me, the idea of buying wood blanks to whittle just seems to defeat the purpose. If I’m going to buy a pretty saw cut board, I might as well just buy a wooden spoon or walking stick or bookmark. But everyone will have their own feeling about the wood they use, and some value precision over rustic authenticity.
I will also add, do not necessarily avoid harder woods — they can be very satisfying and great learning experiences especially if you want to learn about keeping an edge on a knife! When I was quite young, I found a branch I wanted to make into a walking stick. The branch was a well dried piece from an old apple tree, and I quickly discovered it felt more like carving stone than wood! But that’s when I first really started to understand how to resharpen my pocket knife.
And I have to say, though that walking stick sat in my parents house for decades, I get more joy out of taking it out on walks and hikes now than I would have ever imagined when I was 13! It even saved my life on a snowy mountain traverse once, and I was sure glad I had chosen such a hard piece of wood!
If you are starting out, don’t take on any projects that are too large or too small. Large pieces are fun, but can be tricky to hold and move and balance. You don’t want to be applying your cuts in awkward positions if you aren’t really confident in your control of the blade with every cut.
Likewise, if a piece is too small to hold comfortably with your hand well away from where you are cutting, that too can be unsafe. Start out with pieces maybe one to three times the size of your hand.
Type of Cuts
There are many ways to use your knife in whittling, and practice is what will show you which method to use and when, but there are some basic ideas that you want to start with, for safety as well as effect.
If you have even a passing interest in whittling, you have surely heard to never cut toward yourself.
Never, never never!
Well, this is not strictly such a solid rule, but it is a good general practice, especially with a knife-hand push cut. That’s the type of cut where you are holding the knife handle in your dominant hand, blade extending up from your fist, edge outward, and you are pushing it along the wood.
I said push, not pull!
This sort of cut really should never ever be made toward any part of your body. Don’t do this down toward a leg (even if you are wearing a leather guard). It’s just too easy to have the blade slip and jump forward with too much speed and force. This is a cut you will use a lot, so you want to get used to doing it safely. This is how you shave down large amounts of your piece to get the basic shape you are working towards. You need a firm grip on your wood with your hand well behind where you will begin the cut.
Keep your knife blade at a very slight angle off the wood (play with angles — the best angle will depend on the bevel of your edge grind and the wood grain) and cut along the grain or across the grain, but not against the grain (going against the grain like this can split the wood and make your blade catch or fly off).
Understanding wood grain is also a skill that will improve with practice, but you can start by looking up some resources to get you familiar with how grain works.
Thumb Push Cut
Sometimes you need more control, precision and/or power in a small area. This is when you will use a thumb push cut. This is where you apply for on the spine of your knife with the thumb of your hand that is holding the wood. This is a very useful cut, but one with which you should take care. It must be controlled and in small cuts. I use this most for rounding curves (especially convex rounded ends) and also for working off miniature knots where small twigs were protruding (if I’m working on a found stick). It is good to keep the pushing thumb well back from the blade tip so you don’t slip and catch part of your thumb on the tip.
Here’s the one some people don’t like — the paring cut. This is a pull cut, and yes, it goes toward you! But it is a very useful type of cut, and when done properly doesn’t have to be dangerous. This is one you for sure do NOT want to do against the grain of your wood, but is especially useful for working across the grain.
You use your thumb on your knife hand to support the wood, placing the blade edge facing toward you just a little past where your thumb holds the wood in place as you use your knife hand to lever the blade toward you. Do not go toward your thumb! Keep your thumb below the level of the cut. Be very careful, slow, and cautious. And if you have any doubts, just don’t to it at all.
These are most of the techniques you will use in whittling. Occasionally though, you will find yourself wanting to make a groove or notch in a piece. In this case, there is a special form of thumb push cut to use. You lay the blade edge against the and using the thumb of your supporting hand, gouge the blade down into the surface of the wood. The only trick to this it to do it in very small increments. Don’t try to make a long or deep groove in one go. Make small indentations from one side, then turn the piece around and repeat from the other side, thus wedging out small slivers until you’ve worked down to the groove you want.
Here’s a few real tried and true whittling pocket knives (this style of knife is referred to as a slip joint). These are all similar styles — the traditional whittling type.
Right now, you can get this knife online for about $16. Given that it is a trusted brand, a classic design and blades of good 7Cr17 high carbon steel, this is kind of a no brainer. It has 4 blades perfect for whittling: larger clip point and sheepsfoot blades, and smaller Wharncliffe and clipped pen blades. It’s a good pocket knife for opening boxes etc. Then, when it’s time for whittling, you will have it handy.
For a step up in overall quality and materials, there’s this gem from the Buck Knife Company. A very similar size and design as the Old Timer, the Stockman has brass bolsters and rosewood handle scales, plus the blades are excellent 420HC steel, which is strong and sharp, but basically stainless.
This one has only three blades, but they are perfect for whittling: a long clip point, and 2” sheepsfoot and spey blades. This model has been around forever and is a consistent favorite. At around $38 on Amazon, it is still very affordable.
- Click here to read our article entitled What’s the Best Buck Knife?
To finish off the list of great classics is the Seahorse from Case. Also about the same size as the other two, also there blades, this one uses Tru-Sharp surgical stainless steel. The Seahorse has a large main blade that is a fantastic Wharncliffe, balanced out with small coping and pen blades. It’s available in a variety of handle scale materials, including G-10.
The smaller blades are small compared to the other knives. This can be good for detail work, but some prefer the larger blades. The dog leg pattern makes a good grip for whittling. This is a knife you will feel good about, and that Wharncliffe blade is fantastic for whittling.
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