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Whittling: So You Want to Whittle Wood

Whittling has been around for many hundreds of years. All the way back to the days of cavemen. One could say that it is because we began to whittle that technology began. It was the shaping of wood, after all—after the discovery of sharp edges—that sparked human imagination to make carts, cooking implements and clothes, weapons for hunting and methods of food gathering. Who would’ve thought?

So you want to whittle wood. Good for you. Whittling is the simple removal of pare shavings or cutting small bits from a piece of wood with a knife or a similar wedge-edged tool. No more, no less. So what does it take to become a good whittler?

To become a good whittler, you’ll need to know several things. You’ll need to know how to choose the right wood and the right knife. You’ll want to know some basic whittling techniques and just a bit about maintenance and storage.

Choosing the Wood.

◦ Soft woods are best for whittling. Pine cuts very easily but isn’t able to hold detail well. Basswood and Balsa are also very popular.

◦ Birch, cedar and maple aren’t considered to be soft woods but they are often used for whittling.

◦ When selecting wood for whittling, rely on two things: a straight grain and uniform color. A straight grain is usually a softer wood than crossed grains. Because changes in color usually mean changes in hardness, you’ll want to avoid this. When all else fails, press down on the wood with your thumbnail and rely on that to tell you how hard it is.

◦ If whittling wood is difficult to purchase, you could check your local lumberyard for a scrap bin. You just might find a treasure trove.

Choosing the Knife. There is no one specific type or brand of knife that is best for whittling. Mostly, it’s a matter of comfort.

◦ Avoid stainless steel knives. It isn’t easy to sharpen them correctly. Even when you do, they usually can’t hold a very sharp edge for too long. This makes them highly inefficient.

◦ Most whittlers like small knives that fit in the palm of your hand. Others like pocket knives, switchblade knives or folding knives (with lockable blades) that can be opened with one hand. Comfort and portability rule.

◦ Special whittling knives have short plump handles that give you an easier grip and better control. And because whittling involves extended periods, this is really great for precision and control.

◦ Some whittling knives come in kits. These kits may have several knives, each with a different edge shape. Or the kit might have a knife handle and several differently shaped blade edges that are interchangeable. Different edges allow for much better maneuverability.

◦ When you’re ready to buy one, shop around. Test them out. Give yourself time to find the best fit and comfort for your hands.

Safety Tips.

◦ You’ll be working with a small piece of wood and a small knife. First thing then is the knife. It should be balanced and have light weight. More than anything else, it must be comfortable in your hand. If it isn’t, you shouldn’t use it.

◦ Wear gloves. Think of it this way, if you cut your hands or fingers, you’re done. You won’t be able to whittle at all until it heals. Wear them, at least until you’ve developed some real skill at handling the knife.

◦ Be in a good frame of mind. Or at least a reasonably good frame of mind. If you are the type of person who becomes aggressive when upset, it’s probably not a good idea to whittle at that time. (Imagine losing a finger!)

Basic Whittling Techniques. It goes without saying but you’ve got to be sure. Keep fingers and all other body parts away from knife edges. Take no chances.

◦ When gripping your knife, your thumb should be against the spine with the edge facing your fingers.

◦ Each knife stroke you make should be away from your body. Never stroke towards your body. You know you’re just asking for it.

◦ The hand holding the knife should be further from your body than the hand holding the piece of wood.

◦ Lock your wrists for better control.

◦ Tuck your elbows into your sides to limit free movement.

Whittling Recommendations.

◦ Use a wide-beveled knife edge to cut soft wood or semi-soft wood. Conversely, use a narrow-beveled knife edge to cut hardwood. A narrow bevel means a higher cutting angle which means a stronger edge.

◦ When you’re done for the day, clean and dry your knives. A light coating of lubricant is recommended for your knife blades. Linseed oil is recommended for your wood handles. Take care of your knives and they could last your lifetime.

◦ If your knives don’t already have a case, store them in a way that protects their edges. Be sure that wherever they are, it’s safe and secure. Only you should be able to get to them.

◦ If you decide to use more tools than just a knife, you’ll be entering the world of detailed wood carving. Just clarifying that for you.

Sharpening Your Knife. Factory-made whittling knives are often unsharpened. This is preferable to a sharpened knife because dedicated whittlers prefer to make their own sharpening angles.

◦ You can use any of various coarse grade sharpening stones or a ceramic steel to create the cutting angles.

◦ A diamond slipstone or a diamond pocket file are great portables for times when you’re on the go. Or you can use them for quick touch-ups on your edges.

◦ A well-sharpened knife edge will need a strop to remove the burr and all other micro-bits from the edge. This improves the whittling process and delays further sharpening. If you prefer, a honing compound and honing board will also get that edge smooth.

◦ If you haven’t learned how to sharpen a knife and maintain its edge, these are among the first things you should learn. You’ll be more independent and as efficient as possible.

Whittling is an ancient craft. It’s wonderfully contemplative and could even be spiritually meditative. It is the journey that matters more than the end result. If you have no care to rush, if you want to take your time and see what happens, what’re you waiting for?

Len Q. is a master blade sharpener. If you would like to learn more about ª Knife Sharpening: How to Sharpen Knives, Maintain and Store Them ª Sharpening Other Edges (i.e. Chain Saws, Lawn Mower Blades, Gardening Tools, Axes) Find it at

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Whittling: So You Want to Whittle Wood

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