Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | January 2, 2012

The Truth about Whittling Knives

To the passionate whittler there is nothing more important than his or her whittling knife.  It is not only an extension of their hands, but it is an extension of their very personality and creativity.  You might even refer to the whittling knife as the whittler’s paint brush.

So, why are so many whittling/carving knives on the market so crappy?

Many whittling knives found from suppliers are like store bought tomatoes – designed more for mass market and sturdiness than quality.  Hopefully, you have experienced the difference in the taste of a tomato out of your garden and those from the food mart – same with whittling knives.  Once you have used a great one, there is no going back.  Often beginners get disappointed in whittling because they are using cheap knifes and blame poor work on a lack of ability.

A successful whittler needs a good quality, well-shaped, SHARP knife.

Some whittling knife manufacturers and makers make a series of compromises with their knives calculated to keep the largest amount of folks happy for the longest period of time. That means they make knives that don’t rust, that hold an acceptable edge, and are soft enough to take some serious abuse without breaking and that will make it easier for most people to sharpen.   I don’t believe these compromises are to we whittlers benefit. Because of these compromises, very few whittlers and carvers truly love their knives once the shiny factory edge has worn away.

The first compromise is with the steel.  The fact is, steel is the heart and soul of the knife.  Most manufacturers use variations on a couple of basic stainless steels that are slanted more toward wear resistance rather than holding a razor-sharp, high performance edge.  These steels are generally further compromised by a heat treatment that leaves the steel much softer than it could be.  In general, the harder the steel, the keener the edge can become.  However, it is also true that hard steel makes it more difficult to get that keen edge in the first place.  So, many manufacturers leave the steel a little soft, which supposedly makes the knife easier to sharpen by the general population.  Of course, one will have to sharpen their knife a lot more often because soft steel won’t hold an edge very well or very long.

Many whittling knives and carving tools are treated to a hardness of between 52-56 on the Rockwell C scale.  That is pretty soft in my opinion.  Better whittling knives are treated to between 58 and 62.  Many Japanese tools are hardened to between 61 and 64.  That is dang hard… hard enough that I have experienced some chipping with Japanese gouges.  These very hard steels will not tolerate the slightest prying.  Also, these super hard steels are so hard that most are laminated between softer steels to prevent them from snapping in half.  Unfortunately, with knives being laminated, they become quite thick.

Another, compromise is often with factory edge angles.  Some new whittling knives come with a factory edge of between 22-25 degrees per side… and I have even seen some greater.  ACK!  Now, take those two sides and add them up and you get 44-50 degrees.

If those numbers don’t impress you negatively, take a look at a protractor and see what 45 degrees looks like.  Being a sucker for new tools, about a year ago, I purchased a nice looking folding whittling knife from a national woodworking/woodcarving chain (catalog sale, I did not get to see the real thing).  Beyond the glamorous write-up, the price was right, and the idea that it came with wood scales (handles), really caught my attention.  It turned out to be made in China and its edge probably totaled 45-50 degrees… what a joke.  I think it had been sharpened on a lawn mower blade sharpener.  I wrote a review pointing out that drawback but they failed to post it.  It was billed a “high-carbon” but it does not hold an edge very well at all.    I hate to say it but “you get what you pay for.”  This knife was just too cheap… Ooops, I mean inexpensive.

In my experience, a good sharpening angle is 17 degrees and 15 degrees for fine detail knives.  Of course, with keen edges like these, the steel has to be the highest quality because I don’t want edges constantly dulling down.  One caveat here… with a 15 degree edge, one must be careful to not pry or chip their wood.  That angle is purely for detail.

Of course, we can’t blame everything on knife manufacturers and makers.  The carving knives in many a shop are subjected to tremendous abuse and misuse.  I know one carver that routinely uses his knife for cutting cardboard.  Egads Man!  Other than rubbing the edge of your knife across a brick, cutting cardboard is about the worst thing you can do to a fine whittling knife.  Others sharpen their knives on course bench stones.  Eeeeks!

I find that generally speaking, that knives made the old fashioned way are usually good knives.  Quality forges know what they are doing and you are likely to get a quality knife.  If they don’t address the steels and methods they use on their web sites, then ask before ordering.  One possible negative with forged knives is that some can be a bit heavy.  Another negative is with the shapes of some forged knives.

In more recent years, new methods have been applied to stamped or machined knives that make them near-equal in quality or even better in a few cases.

While the steel in a whittling knife is of primary importance, the handle material, the handle shape, and the knife’s construction are also important.  In buying a knife, look for a knife that fits your hand.  Many knives that will fit a large hand will also fit a small hand.  The opposite is not true however.  If it’s a folding knife that you are buying, make sure it either locks or has a solid snap to it so it is not flimsy or loose in opening it or while it is open.  It is purely esthetics but I like folding knives with real wood or stag scales.  They are just plain classy and I feel good when holding them.

Assuming the blade shape works, good quality older pocket knives made from high carbon steel are usually pretty good.  The steel is good, the handles are usually made from quality material, and the workmanship of old time knife makers is generally with high standards.

I like some of the fixed blade whittling knives made by North Bay Forge, Savage Forge, Cape Forge, and Drake Knives.  I like some of the folding knives made by Queen City Cutlery (Oar Carver and others), Flexcut, and a few oldie but goodies like JA Henckels (“Twin Brand,” not their current versions) and Boker.  I don’t like that red, plastic handled, knife from Switzerland, that American made pocket knife with X’s on it that your grand-dad supposedly carried, and most European fixed blade knives.

If you are new to whittling and are in the market for a good knife, the best thing you can do is ask a seasoned whittler/carver what whittling knife they recommend.  Obviously, there are lots of knives that I have not tried and can’t judge… probably some very good ones.

A Note on sharpening angles:  Getting precise angles when sharpening is difficult.  The only way I can be precise with my angles is through the use of a sharpener offered by EdgePro of Hood River, OR.  This is a spendy little machine but well worth the money if you want precision.  I pay for mine by also sharpening salon shears for hair dressers in my area. 

Keep Sharp and shop for quality.

Please visit my website at www.WhiteEagleStudios.com .  The site’s gallery has been remodeled a bit and new photos have been added.


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