How to whittle (or carve)

Created on Thursday, January 1, 1970.
Filed under Life Skills.

Whittling is a wholesome activity that can be enjoyed by most anyone. It should actually be called carving, though I call it ‘whittling’ because I reckon carving is done with a chisel.


Whittling is a wholesome activity that can be enjoyed by most anyone. It should actually be called carving (though I call it ‘whittling’ because I reckon carving is done with a chisel) and it requires only two things:

  1. A knife.
  2. Some wood.

All on a knife-edge

You should use a sharp knife.

The kind of knife you use doesn’t matter much. What’s important is that it’s crazy-sharp and is comfortable to hold. It’s usually better to use a knife with a fat handle so that your knife-hand doesn’t get tired too quickly. If you’re in Australia you should consider buying a $1.80 Kiwi Brand kitchen knife from your local asian or dollar store. It comes razor-sharp and can be used straight away. You can also use a handyman’s knife or an art scalpel. These are great because they have blades which can be replaced when they start to blunt so that you don’t have to learn how to sharpen things. The knife pictured above is a Kiwi Brand knife that has been cordwrapped for comfort and grip.

Wood is a stiff proposition

Softwood is superior in workability.

The kind of wood you use will most likely be a compromise. Hardwoods are tougher to work, but can hold more complicated shapes and patterns. Softwood is very easy to cut, but the wrong bits might break off if your knife slips. I was trying to hash the surface of my bit of wood before and the pattern chipped off when I dropped it. Here’s a good note to keep in mind:

  • For items that won’t have much detail (e.g. rough figurines) use softwood.
  • For items with lots of detail (e.g. Xtreme figurines, love trinkets) use hardwood.

Also note that if you want to whittle some crockery or cutlery, you should use hardwood, and only hardwood from a tree that doesn’t seep much resin when it’s cut. The pores on softwood are open, meaning little bits of food and liquid can get stuck inside it, making your eating utensil more appetising to bacteria than it is to you. I’ve also read that utensils whittled from resinous woods leave an aftertaste. But feel free to go for it if you’re not using it for eating. Or if you’re whittling it for someone you dislike.

Anyways, you have a knife. Now you need some wood.

Procure some wood

Be sure it's okay to cut the tree a little.

This tree should make a fine victim. Make sure that it’s okay to cut a sizeable chunk out of it, and that the bit you’re going to cut off is quite fat. You’ll see why later. Just go nuts on that tree’s ass with a pruning saw or an axe.

Of course if you’re a greenie, you could just pick up some fallen branches, but you’ll most probably get tough bits of hardwood.

Take off the bark and outer growth

Get rid of the outer bits.

On some trees like the one I took this wood from, there will be a moist, green outer section and a hard white inner core. You’ll want the inner core, so use your knife to cut away the green bits. This is why I told you to cut a fat limb: quite a lot of the limb’s width is made up of the green bit, and its removal will significantly shrink the limb’s berth. Once you have all that green crap off you should wash the branch to get rid of any resin or slipperyness that’s left.

Now you’re ready to learn some whittling techniques.

I can’t tell you how to whittle because everyone does it in different ways depending on the result they want to get, but I can suggest a few tips I can give you to start you off.

Whittling tips

  1. Know what you want. Have a clear-ish idea of the finished product in your mind before you work, or at least early in the whittling stage.
  2. Make small cuts. It’s important that you don’t go crazy with deep cuts. You might take off more than you wanted. This is especially important if you want to even up something.
  3. Go slowly. If you work too fast you could make a cut too deep, or cut yourself quite deeply.
  4. Use a very sharp knife. It might sound strange, but a dull knife is what will cut you. A dull knife needs to have more force behind it to cut, and if you slip it will bite into your hand.
  5. Relax your grip. Gripping your wood or your knife too tightly does give you a better grip, but it also tires your hands out much quicker. If your hand starts to hurt you should take a break, because it can escalate into a stress injury if you persist.
  6. Settle for second-best. Sometimes you’ll be trying to make one side of the work an equal length to the other. Once you get to a length that’s close enough, stop. If you want to make it perfect and keep cutting, chances are the new cut will make you think you should’ve left it alone.

And here are some whittling techniques you’ll find handy.

Whittling techniques

The Cut

This is the one you’ll use most, of course. Just cut a little chunk of wood away to rough out a design.

The Shave This is like the cut, but involves using the knife as a kind of plane to take small shavings away. This is used after you’ve roughed out the work and are working it to the desired shape.

The Channel Make a deep cut along the wood with the point of your knife, then make another one parallel to it, so that it slants into the first cut. This should take off a sliver of wood and leave a channel.

The Scrape Hold the knife perpendicular to the wood and drag the edge (the unsharpened back of the blade if possible) over the wood. This will smooth and polish it.

A good project for a beginner is a ball. Just grab a bit of wood and whittle the end into a dome before forming the other half of the ball.

That's all there is; there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2016.