Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | May 17, 2009

Primer on Woodcarving Tools, Part II – Woodcarving Knives

Here we are at the beginning of summer and just weeks away from the 4th of July!  In thinking about summer and the 4th of July, I also think about picnics and outings to the mountains and whittling.  There is nothing like whittling your own souvenir of a wonderful outing.

Years ago, there was a television series titled Grizzly Adams.  Adams lived high in the mountains, hiding from the law for a wrongly accused crime.  In order to make a little money he carved animals and a mountain man friend of Adams took them to town to sell.  The tool that Adams used to carve out these nice looking animals was a large hunting knife.  TV is mostly fantasy but I had to laugh at Adams carving an elk with a hunting knife.  Now, I am not saying that one could not carve fine detailed animals with a hunting knife but I am saying that it would be highly difficult.  However, my Grandmother’s carving knife was a paring knife from the kitchen sharpened on an old fashioned wheel stone.  She did so amazing work with such a crude knife.

Carving knives, these days have come a long ways and are far better suited for carving than the knives of yesteryear.  As with everything, what carvers believe to be a good carving knife varies greatly and is a matter of personal preference.  Carving knives are manufactured or forged in a myriad of shapes.  Many carvers make their own specialty knives.  A friend of mine and an extraordinary caricature carver, Cleve Taylor, used a modified carbon steal butcher knife for years.  He tells me that he got the idea from Dave Stetson, the founder of the Caricature Carvers of America.  Cleve’s knife had a large handle and a stubby blade that had been thinned out considerably.

Today, I probably keep from 6 to 8 knives laying in front of me when I am carving, each with a different purpose.  However, there are just a few basic blade shapes.  And, those basic shapes come in varying sizes from large for heavy cutting to fine blades for detail work.  The most common shape is what I will call a modified sheep’s foot.  This is more often than not simply referred to as a “carving knife.”  It has a straight cutting edge of various lengths where the back of the blade drops down to the cutting edge creating a point.  A detail version of this knife would be smaller and the point would be finer.  One US manufacture calls there model a “cutting knife” which I find humor in as all knives are intended to cut aren’t they?  Another common name is a “detail knife” because of the extreme point.  Another common shape is a spear point.  The blade on this knife raises on the leading edge of the blade and meets the back of the blade about half way resulting in more or less of a symmetrical spear point shape.

There are also specialty blades such as a chip carving knife.  Chip carving is an art in its own right.  It is principally the removal of triangle shapes that create a pattern.  Some patterns are quite intricate.  If you are local, you have seen a lot of this in Leavenworth, Washington as it originated in the Tyrol region of Austria and in neighboring Switzerland.  I think it is safe to say that there are just two basic shapes to chip carving knives.

A knife pattern that I like a lot is the curved blade (sometimes called a hook knife).  Although, one can find these knives commercially, they are not common.  Years ago, I ordered a stout custom made hooked knife from Northbay Forge ( and I use it on virtually every larger carving that I do.  Recently, I visited the Northbay website (under the new tools tab) and noticed a new double forged knife that Jim Wester is now producing and they look real sweet and come in three sizes.  I ordered the two smaller versions but do not have them yet so I can’t make a final judgement but I am certain that they will be wonderful knifes.  I Also have bought knives from Drake Knives in Arlington, Washington and they have been kind enough to make some to my specifications at a reasonable price.  Now, they are adding a couple of them to their line and I am told it is referred to the hooked knife as the “Keller Hooker.”  I will take that as a compliment.  Drake knives can be ordered at  Be advised that Drake has a number of knives that are not reflected on their web site.  I suggest calling.

North Bay Forge Round Edge or Spear Point

North Bay Forge Round Edge or Spear Point

Drake Detail Knife

Drake Detail Knife

When I wrote about gouges, I stated that I thought the best gouges come from Europe or Japan.  I do not feel the same way about knives.  European knives, although good steel, have blades that are too thick and handles that are too small for me.  I would doubt that there is a skilled caricature or detail carver that uses a foreign, mass- produced knife.

Whittlers of yesteryear definitely used pocket knives to carve with and there is even a pocket knife model named “the whittler.”  I even own one but it is my opinion that using one to carve with would be like entering an automobile race driving a 1950 Dodge.  Another consideration is that most pocket knives are made with alloys that simply do not hold an edge very well.  As with everything, there are some exceptions.  Two such exceptions are the Oar Carvers (pocket knives) and Boker brand pocket knives from Germany.  The latest model of the Oar Carver has a lock mechanism which prevents it from accidentally closing.  My only complaint about the Oar Carver is that is made for a small hand, well smaller than mine and I am not a big guy.  If you want to use a pocket knife to whittle, I suggest a carbon steel blade.  Most others simply do not hold an edge and most commercial pocket knives can not stand the riggers of whittling.  Boker (Tree Brand) is an example of a good commercial pocket knife still in production.  I suggest either the whittler or the 4-blade Congress patterns.

Personally, I like blades to be from 7/8″ to 1 1/4″ in length.  I find I have better control with them.  But, many whittlers would disagree and prefer longer blades.

Flex Cut brand makes a combination carving/whittling knife that includes an assortment of gouges.  I am not a fan of Flex Cut but this is a pretty handy rig for packing around.

Forged knives a better that cast or cut knives for a few reasons.  The greatest reson is that a forged knife is much stronger and has much better edge holding capability than a cast or cut out knife.  Forges such as Savage Forge and Northbay Forge hammer their knives hundreds of times and each ping of the hammer adds strength.

I have always counseled folks to only use a carving knife for carving wood.  If you carve drift wood, I suggest using a dedicated knife that you will need to re-sharpen after use due to sand in the wood.  And never cut cardboard unless you want to re-sharpen.  Cardboard is brutal on a knife edge.  The last caution is don’t pry with a knife tip, especially a detailed tip as they will break.  Remember a good knife is hardened to Rockwell 58 and greater and they are much more brittle than a kitchen knife or the typical pocket knife.

Once I read a statement:  ”you shouldn’t carve with it, if you can’t shave with it.”  That statement may be a little strong but it is not far off.  I don’t have much hair on the back of my hand simply from checking to see if my knife is sharp (don’t try that yourself unless you are used to doing so).

Poor quality tools and dull tools can be very discouraging to use.  Not only do they cut with difficulty but they leave an unfinished surface.  I have had many a person visit my studio and use one of my tools only to say: “Wow, I’d like to buy one of those.”  On the other hand, I have also had people bring in tools that were good quality but simply dull.  Once sharpened, the carver thinks they have reached a new level in carving expertise when, in fact, they were already there.  Some time in the future I will be discussing sharpening.  Knowing how to sharpen is every bit as important as using the proper knife. For you bicycle riders, a good sharp knife compared to a dull knife is the difference between riding a “fat tire” up hill or riding a touring 18 speed up the same hill.

Keep sharp and happy carving.

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