Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | April 5, 2009

Woodcarving and Whittling – Getting Started

Woodcarving and Whittling – Getting Started

This posting illustrates some suggestions in getting started with wood carving or whittling.  My friend Donald Mertz (see the Guest Contributors tab), has a stated philosophy of “Would be carvers would be carvers if they would carve wood.” That is a great philosophy and a pretty easy one to follow.  Let’s get started:

Take a Class.  Taking a class is probably the best jump start into carving.  In a class, you will learn about woods, tools, safety and tricks of the trade.  I have always enjoyed classes as I enjoy carving with other people.  Carvers are nice folks and I like being around them.  A class will more times than not, provide a student with a project blank from which you can begin working.  With a blank, step-by-step instruction is provided through the entire project until completion.  An instructor will have usually mapped out a good course to follow and will walk you through each step.  You will find it much easier following direction from and instructor that knows what he or she is doing and who has already completed the project than taking it on by your self.  A good instructor will coach you on how to hold a knife or gouge and will teach you about grain direction and appropriate wood cutting methods.  Once you have taken a few classes, you can apply what you have learned in the various projects to anything else that you desire.  Even then however, it is nice to carve with an instructor that can answer questions and provide direction through tricky spots.  I have been carving for about 50 years and I still take classes and I still learn things.

Of course, classes also provide for a gathering of like-minded folks out to have a good time creating pieces of art.

Beginning on Your Own.  In rural areas it may be difficult to find a class or maybe you are one of those that simply does not like classes or group settings.  In those cases, just pick up a knife or a gouge and go to work.  There are a myriad of books on the subject of carving.  In fact, today there are more carving and whittling books published than ever before in history.  It used to be that you could by a general book on how to carve.  Today, you can buy a book on carving gnomes, on carving Indians, on carving angels, on carving Santas… you name it – there is a book on how to carve it.  It seems as if anyone that owns a carving knife has written a book on the subject.   It’s a little ridiculous but then again, books can be wonderful resources for the carver – beginner and experienced.  However, as good as many books are, they are a lot like a map in that “a map is not the territory.”  You can look at a map but it does not tell you that the highway that you are on is either spectacular or desolate.  You usually have to see it yourself to know those facts.  Same with wood carving books… it is a lot better to experience it first hand.

Other great resources are woodcarving magazines.  Magazine often have projects, will offer assessments on tools and woods and will offer tips.  Visit my website at for direct links to several woodcarving magazines.

“Practice Makes Perfect.” Well, I don’t know about “perfect” but it sure helps.  While I believe everyone has the ability to be creative and artistic, I also believe that it is important to practice.  Practicing does not necessarily mean that one should attempt to carve a dancer with hair flowing as a first project.  I suggest simply getting used to your knife and gouge by carving simple things such as spirals, balls, boxes, etc.  Carve things that provide a selection of turns, right angles, and holes.  Work to master the cuts.  Once you do, you can apply them to any project.  With my students, I always suggest a few simple shapes that provide good variation like a cowboy boot, a snake, or a knife (letter opener variety).  Practice, practice, practice.

Using Proper and Sharp Tools. While you can carve with your grandfathers old whittling knife, you can also ride your grandfather’s old bicycle.  Neither are probably a good choice as quality and technology are each important factors.  There are few decent pocket knives suitable for carving in my opinion.  I suggest getting yourself a good-quality fixed-handle knife made from quality steel.  Such a knife does not have to be expensive.  Good knives can cost anywhere from $25.00 to $50.00 and more.  I suggest starting with a $30.00 version.  Again, my web site has links to a few good tool resources.  It is usually difficult to sharpen a knife made from poor quality steel.  Even if you can get it sharp, you will probably not be able to keep it sharp.  Carbon steel is always a good choice.

Sharp tools are an absolute must in my opinion.  Contrary to popular opinion, a sharp knife is also safer to use.  A dull knife is prone to slip from wood and chances are pretty good that it will slip right into your hand or leg.  There is also nothing more discouraging than to use dull tools.  Dull tools take a lot more pressure to push and they tend to leave unclean cuts.  I once read in the Little Book of Whittling, a list of ten requirements for whittling.  Each of the ten points listed each stated to use a sharp knife… written in ten different ways.  I could not agree more.

Safety. Safety is a huge subject but I am going to keep it very short in this posting by simply and strongly suggesting that you use a wood carver’s glove when whittling or doing hand carving.  The glove should be worn on the hand holding your project.  Woodcarver’s gloves are made from Kevlar fabric with a stainless steel wire inside each thread.  Of course a pointed object can find its way through a weave but the glove will go a long way to prevent a slash cut or a cut from a chisel.  I have been saved a number of times by such a glove.

Great Beginning Project

Great Beginning Project

A Simple Beginning Project. A great beginning project may bring back some good memories for the old Boy Scouts reading this.  When I was a kid, I went on several Boy Scout and church outings.  Back then most boys carried a pocket knife and I was one that was never without it.  A popular whittling project for any camping trip was a fine wooden knife.  I carved hunting knives, daggers, and swords.  I probably ruined more swords than I finished because the blades were so long.  But I managed to get at least one done to perfection and used it to roast marshmallows.

The thing about a wooden knife is that you can do it in just about any stick laying around and you can put some rather artistic handles on them.  Spirals, cross hatch patterns, grids, and simple contours all adorned my campground knives.

The blade is a little more tricky because of its thinness.  It is much easier to carve in green wood and woods such as willows and other soft woods are usually easy to find.  However, these soft woods each have pith in the center of the branch and this pith can either weaken the blade or make it unsightly.  So, you can either find a stick large enough to carve the blade on one side of the pith (thus removing the pith on the blade portion of the knife ) or you can leave the blade thick enough so that the pith is neatly hidden within the blade.  Since these camp carvings are just for fun, I suggest not making your blade too thin or too sharp and simply leave the pith centered and hidden.

Also, it you think ahead of time, you can grab a piece of pine or basswood and take it with you on the camping trip to carve your knife from. The knife that I have done for this project is such a piece of pine.  It provided for a little deeper knife than I would have been able to make out of a stick and I have no pith to contend with.

It is simple projects like this that set the stage for more complex caring.  The beauty of carving simple things like this is that you do not really have to give much thought to it… just whittle and enjoy it.  I think you’ll be surprised at the outcome.

Be carveful and enjoy it!


%d bloggers like this: