Whittling wood is one of the most iconic hobbies involving working with wood. Having withstood the test of time is a good enough reason for to take a shot at it.
I used to do a very simple type of woodcarving (read: sharping up a stick) sitting around a campfire with my friends when I was a boy.
I took the chance to get back to the hobby of my past boyhood while writing this article, and I couldn’t be happier! I can now lose myself for hours with a piece of wood and a simple pocket knife.
If you think that carving and whittling is something you might be interested in, then keep on reading, and you will be making impressive wood sculptures in no time!
WOOD CARVING AND WHITTLING
Sidenote: while whittling and carving are two different types of arts (whittling is done with a knife only, carving utilizes mallets, chisels and sometimes power tools) I will be using the two terms interchangeably in this article. Please forgive me.
You can learn the basics to start with whittling in ten minutes, and yet keep coming up with exciting projects for years.
Whittling goes back for hundreds of thousandsof years; where there was wood present, there has always been someone trying to shape it. Either to use it as a tool or to give pleasure to the soul. In the last decades, it has slowly transformedfrom an occupation to a pastime.
Picking the best wood for carving is very important as it will either make or break your project. Fortunately, there is a long list of woods that were tested for generations and proven to be a great choice.
What you are looking for in a wood for carvingis softness, you can move to hardwoods after you’ve progressed a bit. The bestwood for whittling should also have straight grains. You’ll find out that whenusing a wood with grains going in multiple directions the quality will always be worse and the process less enjoyable.
Some of the most popular woods:
The best wood for beginners, it is both soft and cheap. For those qualities, it is the most used wood for wood models making and whittling. By its popularity its price decreased, making it all the more popular. Being grown in both South and Central America, it is very easy to obtain for people living in the USA.
This is the wood you should start with. Mostof the best historical wood sculptures are made of basswood, and for a reason! When you pick it up you will see that it has a very fine texture, which will transform to a fine texture of your masterpiece. It is easy to carve evenwithout using heavy force, but hard enough not to damage when it falls on theground for example. What I like best about it that you need approximately the same pressure when carving against and with the grain. Price and availability are also reasonable; your local craft store should carry it.
Another traditional wood for carving. Pine probably the most available of all of the woods. It is reasonably soft and very cheap. But unlike the previous two choices, it has some disadvantages.
If you are not using fresh pine, the detailsof your product will be worse than if you had used for example basswood.
And when you use fresh wood, the pine willsecrete sap making your work messy and time-consuming.
On the other hand, no other wood comes even close to the pleasing smell of freshly cut pine.
ANYTHING ELSE YOU GET YOUR HANDS ON
The beauty of whittling is you don’t need tolimit yourself to those above.
You can just pick any twig or branch you find lying around and get to work. While whittling a carefully planned project in your workshop is a very relaxing and productive hobby, for me nothing compares to picking a random branch while sitting around a bonfire with my friends and letting my hands work.
This is just as important as picking the right wood. While you can pretty much use any knife, always make sure it is sharp. The dull knife won’t cut into the wood and will slide, but while it isn’t sharp enough to cut the wood, it will still cut you!
If I feel my strokes are getting harder, I don’t hesitate to sharpen my knife right in the middle of a project, and I highly recommend you do the same.
The most versatile of tools, pocket knife, isthe traditional choice for the job. You usually have it on you when you findthe perfect piece of wood in nature, so you get used to it, and it becomes yourtool of choice in no time.
Another great feature besides easy portability is, that pocket knife usually has more than one blade, offering different types of cutting options.
While some would say that pocket knife is the only acceptable tool for whittling, the different types of whittling tools are more proper for the job.
The whole design of the knife is made to apply a greater force on the carving edge, and the handle has an ergonomic shape toreduce hand fatigue when using it for extended periods.
The drawback of the specialized whittling knife is that the blade is exposed all the time, making it awkward to have in your pocket without a special holster (which is usually not included)
I use a sharp knife on spontaneouswood carving in nature and a special whittling knife I have purchased recentlywhen I am at home working on “larger” projects.
For beginners, I’d suggest using a sharppocket knife in the beginning, and if you begin to like it, you can invest insome dedicated tools, although they are pretty cheap.
Before starting any projects let’s mentionsome safety tips on how to handle your first attempt at whittling without anyblood.
Keep your blade sharp
As I mentioned above, a dull knife is the most dangerous thing to a woodworker. While it might seem counterintuitive, sharp knife is much safer to operate, as dull blade won’t cut the wood but will cut you!
So be sure to sharpen your blade before every new project if possible and if you feel the need even in the middle of your whittling session.
Take it slow
There is no need to rush; the best resultswill be done with slow, precise and well-thought-out cuts. When you hurry up iswhen the accidents happen.
For anyone starting with this type ofactivity, I’d suggest wearing a pair of cut-resistant gloves, at least untilyou get comfortable with the knife. It pays to be extra careful, especially ifyou are manipulating sharp knife near your precious fingers.
Now you know the basics it is time to get to whittling. I recommend to start with an egg, while it might seem basic, it is better not to start with something too hard as it might put you off before you even properly start with wood carving.
Then you make a hearth, and then you can pretty much do anything, the sky’s the limit!
So good luck with your whittling and if you have something you made and are proud of I’d be delighted to see it!
Frequently asked questions
Q: What is the best wood for whittling?
If you are a beginner I would suggest you tostart with soft woods like balsa wood and work your way to the harder woods.
Q: What is the best knife for whittling?
You can use any pocket knife or special whittling tools. What matters most is that you are comfortable with that tool.
Q: Is pine good wood for whittling?
Yes and no. If you are starting with whittling then no, it is sticky when fresh and tears when it is not. After youget some experience with wood carving, you can give it a try, but there arebetter woods for whittling. Although I have friends that don’t use any otherwood than pine for whittling anymore, they say that it is the most naturalwood for it.