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Whittling, unlike other forms of woodworking doesn’t take numerous tools and the space to use them all. In fact, I bet most of you already have what you need to get started, and if not then here are a couple other guides for your other essentials:
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Like all great works of art, the tools are often behind something being easy or difficult to start learning. The exception for this is whittling. To whittle you’ll need just a few things to get started – namely a knife and wood. Once we’ve established the basic equipment I’ll give some examples of what you might want to spend your money on if you get serious about whittling. First, the basics:
- A pocket knife (1 – 1 1/2” blade) – I can hear the question now, any pocket knife? No, not any knife. The most ideal knife will have a high carbon steel blade that is either locked or folds. This Flexcut knife is a quality one to have for a number of techniques.
- A block of soft wood – Its recommended when starting out to use soft woods such as pine, basswood, and balsa. Choosing a piece of wood with a straight grain and free of knots is vital. The importance of the grain of the wood will become more apparent as we move on and should not be ignored.
These tools are the basic of the basic. As you can tell both are easy to access, ergo, why whittling is such an easy hobby to pick up. Should you decide to pursue whittling with more seriousness I’d suggest looking into more advanced equipment such as a knife kit specifically designed for whittling. The following equipment separates the boys from the men and while all of it isn’t necessary it will make whittling easier.
- Whittling knife kit – the average knife kit contains three blades each for a specific aspect of the whittling process: one for detailing intricate designs, one for roughing out the majority of the design (this blade is usually longer and thicker), and finally a knife which straddles the line between the two. In these three categories there are even more variations, such as curved blades or gouging blades.
- Sharpening stone – Not only does sharpening the knife make whittling easier, but one could argue it also makes it safer. A dull blade does far more damage than a sharp blade if and when you slip.
- A thumb guard – safety is paramount whenever blades are involved. An inexpensive thumb guard could save you some possible cuts – it’s not if, it’s when.
- Sand paper – Whether you’ve whittled a spoon or a figurine you’re going to want to sand it down to remove the rough edges. To truly finish a project proper its recommended to use 80, 120, 220, and 400 grit sandpaper.
- Mineral Oil or Beeswax Finish – The last thing you’ll need is a finish. Mineral oil is great for bringing out the grain in a project and adding a lasting sense of complexation and quality. You should not that it’s not recommended too use mineral oil on food related projects such as a spoon, knife, ladle, etc. instead use beeswax finish.
Well, now that we’ve covered all the tools you’ll need let’s dive into cutting styles and what not to do when whittling.
The Do and Do Not’s of Whittling
Remember, safety is first. I’ve already mentioned this once but it’s worth pointing out again. Do not ignore safety:
- DO sharpen your knives – not only is a sharp knife a safer knife it’ll also cut down on fatigue due to there being less resistance between the blade and wood.
Whittling is an artistic expression and while it’s a simple hobby to pick up it’s also important to follow some general rules. There’s the obvious things, such as not swinging your pocket knife around wildly and being aware of your surroundings. But also more specific things like going with the grain of the wood. Let’s examine these things closer before moving on to different carving methods.
- DO establish a blood circle (safety zone) – no, this isn’t some little know cult portion of whittling. This term comes from the Boy Scouts and is a way to establish a safety zone around your work area. Whether you’re inside or outside make sure there’s no pets or small children close by. Next, holding one arm out with your knife closed or no knife at all slowly rotate in a circle. If you hit something, move out of reach and spin again, repeat as necessary before you start to whittle. This is called your blood circle or, if you’d rather, your safety zone.
- DO NOT cut against the grain – when whittling it’s important to follow the grain of the wood. Not only does it make it easier to control the knife it too will give you much cleaner cuts. If you’re unsure of which way the grain is flowing an easy test is to start a diagonal cut along the edge of the wood, if the knife pulls deeper into the wood and snaps instead of splintering you’re going the wrong way.
As you can tell there’s not a huge amount of do’s and do not’s when it comes to whittling. The skill in whittling doesn’t come from following strict rules, instead, it comes from practicing over and over again. It’s 80% skill and 20% the knife. Hopefully the next section on cutting styles will give you a solid grasp to hone your already growing skill set.
Whittling Cut Styles
Cut styles are the bread and butter of whittling. We’ll cover these in a broad stroke but I’d recommend looking up some YouTube videos for each cut too. As a word of warning there many different names for each cut. The list will start with the most used cut and work our way down through the top four cuts you’ll want to use.
- Thumb Brace (Paring) Cut – The blade of the knife will face your body while your thumb on the same hand will be directly opposite of the edge of the blade. In this manner you’ll pull the knife towards your thumb, much like when hold a piece of fruit and cutting or peeling it. The thumb brace cut is important for smoothing and forming contours in your work.
- Rough (Push) Cut – All whittling projects begin with the rough cut. Holding your knife with the grain you’ll take off large portions of wood. Be careful to not get overzealous as deeper cuts have a tendency to break off instead of shaving off. The importance of this cut is taking large portions out of the wood in a quick manner.
- V Notching (V-Cut) – Notching can be used for delicate features such as hair, fur, etc. but also for deeper cuts you might need to form ears or the slender neck of an animal. To use notching place your piece of wood flat onto a table and make a cut at 30 degrees into the wood to the desired depth. Pull back the blade and make the same 30 degree cut parallel to the first cut and too the same depth. Depending on how deep the cuts were when you pull away you’ll either have a small groove or a larger chunk removed.
- Thumb Push Cut – is used when absolute control of the blade is necessary. With the thumb push cut you use the thumb of the holding hand (the hand which is holding the object you’re whittling) to push against the thumb of the knife hand on the back of the blade. To simplify, you’re using your knife hand to control the blade while your other hand supplies the pressure for the cut. The thumb push cut is key to little changes made to a project when only a smidge needs to be shaved off here and there.
With these four methods for performing cuts you’ll be whittling out beautiful sculptures, dishes, utensils, and whatever else you can think of.
Well, you’ve made it to the end. In this article you’ve learned a little about the history of whittling, about the tools that are required for whittling as well as tools that are helpful if you get more interested. We’ve demonstrated a few key do’s and do not’s, including some things to keep in mind for safety. Finally, we covered the various different cut methods for whittling. Now, since you know far more than before I say grab your pocket knife, a piece of wood, and get started on what I hope to be your next favorite hobby.