Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | June 22, 2009

Whittling or Woodcarving?…an article on whittling

What is it that I am doing anyway?  Is it whittling or is it woodcarving?

Whittling is a form of carving that is done generally by using nothing more than a knife.  And a purist would argue that whittling is done by using nothing more than a “pocket” knife.  Whittling is an American term which, as I state above, means to carve using a knife.  It is kind of a sub-category of woodcarving.  Elsewhere in the world, if you were to carve using a knife, it would be referred to as woodcarving.

The history of whittling really begins in early Americana where crafty folks could whittle just about anything, anywhere.  During the early years, a pocket knife was inexpensive, it could be easily and safely carried, and it could be easily sharpened.  And, good soft wood was readily abundant… mostly pine or willow back then.

I recently read an article that stated that items whittled were/are “crude and lack detail.”  I have no idea where the author got that idea but it could not be further from factual.  While it may be true that some whittled items are simple in nature or lack detail, there are many more examples of intricate work that is really rather remarkable.

Originally, whittling seemed to be more a man’s past time than a woman’s but notwithstanding that fact, my grandmother whittled a Chinese figurine with remarkable detail using only a kitchen paring knife back in the 1930’s.  She probably would have used a pocket knife but in the early days women did not carry a pocket knife and she probably could not get grandpa to give his up.  I think it is fair to say that even today men whittlers outnumber woman by many fold.  However in carving that is not true; there are nearly as many women carvers as there are men.

In days of yesteryear, a pocket knife was often pulled out of the pocket and a whittling begun while engaging in great philosophical discussion sitting on the bench in front of the hardware store… or any store for that matter.  It’s the same today but we seemed to have lost the benches in front of the hardware stores.  Now it’s done around campfires, fishing boats or a workshop, either alone or with a group of your buddies.  One can easily whittle just about anywhere.  Whittling is also a great way to meditate, think or contemplate some pressing issue.  Today, I hardly go anywhere without a whittling knife and a small piece of bass wood.  I often find myself waiting for my wife in a store or elsewhere so I go outside and get into a whittling project takes the pain out of waiting and time flies by.  In fact, sometimes I am down right disappointed when my whittling session is over.

Four major aspects to whittling have changed in modern times.  (1) The first is the quality of the knives available is much improved (of course, the cost has changed as well); (2) The blade shapes available today include specialty shapes not available in prior years in a pocket knife; (3) Most whittling knives are now fixed blade (meaning they do not fold); and (4) Whittlers today, myself included, often use a small number of miniature gouges, etc.  In fact, Flexcut makes knife/gouge combination folder (“Carvin’ Jack”) that contains a knife blade and five assorted gouges or chisels.  It even comes in a left hand version as well as the right.  This gadget would make the pant legs of any old time whittler roll up and down.  My Ohio carving buddy Don Mertz, the “Woodbee Woodcarver,” refers to this form of extended whittling as “Whittle-Carving.”

Fixed blade knives and gouges

Fixed blade knives and gouges

The tools above include 3 small pocket gouges made by Savage Forge and fixed blade knives made by North Bay Forge (top) and Savage Forge (bottom).

Traditional Whittling Knives

Traditional Whittling Knives

The four knives above are traditional whittling knives.  They are, from top to bottom: Boker Tree Brand 4 blade Congress; Oar single blade Carver; Oar two blade Carver; and JA Henckels (forged) 4 blade Congress.

A few things that have not changed over time is the fact that whittling is still done by hand holding our work and our knife in our hands; there is no holding device; there are no mallets, no power tools and generally no sanding.  And, most importantly, whittling knives are to be kept sharp… razor sharp.

Let me make a note about sanding; I rarely sand anything simply because I like my whittlings and carvings to look like they have been hand carved.  A sanded and painted creation could be a piece of plastic for all the observer knows.  And, as an aside, once a piece has been sanded, taking your knife back to it can dull your blade simply because residue of the sanding material will be embedded in the wood.  Remember, this is the same stuff that is used to sharpen the knife in the first place… it can certainly ruin your edge.

While whittling in public, I have lots of folks stop and want to know what I am making.  All have their own whittling stories and many of the stories involve a beloved grandfather, other relative or a neighbor.  They are always fond memories.  The other thing that many people say to me is something like “gee, I wish that I could do that.”  When I ask them if they have ever tried, they usually sigh with a “no.”

Whittling is wonderful on many, many levels.  It’s a great past time that taps ones inner genius.  The more you whittle the deeper the genius is uncovered.  Do not become discouraged by a first attempt.  I have been whittling for over 50 years and I still make mistakes.  On the other hand, I have created some wonderful pieces as well.  I have given away literally thousands of carved pieces.   So, pick up a good sharp knife and select your own subject… something that is meaningful to you.  Go to work.  Try to find others to whittle with but don’t be afraid to whittle on your own either.  Both have their merits.

After all of this on whittling, I have to mention woodcarving.  Woodcarving is “moving” wood with just about anything that is available; including gouges and mallets, power tools, and woodcarvings are often held in place with a hold-down device of some sort.  Clearly, we have more options with woodcarving than with whittling simply due to the number and types of tools available to us.  My most satisfying pieces are woodcarvings but I would argue that my most fun pieces are whittled pieces.

If you have not tried whittling, I suggest you do.  No discussion of whittling would be complete without the advice to wear a safety glove while whittling.  A carvers safety glove is worn on the hand holding the piece being carved (knife in the opposite hand).  Such a glove will not stop a stab type cut but it will go a long way toward protecting you against a slash type cut.  Gloves have saved my fingers and hands many a time.

Some great whittling resources include:

A great article by Don Mertz on the Century of Whittling at:

Any book by the late EJ Tangerman;

Ben Hunt’s Big book of Whittling (out of print but available at Amazon and others) by the late Ben Hunt, and

The Little Book of Whittling (modern fun book) by Chris Lubkemann

Happy whittling and keep sharp!

Please visit my Web site at for more information and tips.


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