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 .  The site’s gallery has been remodeled a bit and new photos have been added.


  1. What is the best steel? The steel with the highest rc? I don’t care about how long it takes to sharpen

    • That is kind of tough. But, clearly anything made bt Savage Forge and Northbay Forge are very hard. I also find that many, if not most, Flexcut’s knive are danged hard but they are not consistant. I have a couple that are hard and a couple that dull out quickly.

      Typically, any forged knives will be hard but I find that not all are. One famous forge’s knives dull out very quickly.

  2. What should I get. I bought a case seahorse and it felt like the smaller blades would snap off. Sending it back asap.

    • Robert, therre are several good choices out there. I mention many of them in my blog articles. If you are wanting a folding whittling knife I suggest one of the Flexcuts or one of the Ross Oar knives.

  3. The question was, what is the best steel? Look for Chrome Molybdenum, Carbon Stainless Steel?

    • “What is the best steel?” Seems like an simple question but it is not. “Best steel” for what? There are a zillion good steels on the market but dang few carving and whittling knife manufactures use them. One can’t go to a carving knife store and request a particular knife in 154CM or D2. We pretty much have to take what is offered… picking the best available, of course. If I were going to a forge to have a knife made, I would ask for 01 tool steel. The question here actually begs for a blog posting on steels so I will add doing such a posting to my cue. Both Chrome Moly and high carbon stainless would be good choices.

  4. I’ve been whittling for 30 plus years & have used a number of brands as well as making my own knives.
    I have found Mora/frosts to be good & a recent stainless steel Opinel to be very good, I have a Rogers pen knife in high carbon stainless which has been kept going on the strop alone for what must be well over 1000 hours of carving in hard woods & it still shaves hair off my arm! however the steel is very hard & when it does come to sharpening it really is a chore.
    I don’t mind stropping a softer steel every 5 or 10 minutes so I’m happy with many “lower quality steels” if the blade is thin & of a good shape.
    I’m not interested in Japanese steels pushing 62/3 on the Rockwell scale – ridiculously brittle even in the hands of an experienced carver.
    Basically there is no such thing as the ultimate steel or knife because a really good knife is a series of compromises – not too hard & not too soft ,not to thin & not too thick, the blade geometry of the flat grind suited to the size of the blade & its’ intended use. Then when you add in the varying hardness of different wood species & the different carving styles & techniques we all have no one knife or steel type could be called perfect.
    As you can imagine I’ve been through a number of knives over the years & find that each has it’s own personality that you can feel as you use it , no two the same & sometimes you might wonder why I pick up a different knife with a blade shape which is nearly identical to the one I’ve just put down !
    It is in fact that many things that go into making a good knife but just in a slightly mix in the second knife , probably it couldn’t be quantified by objective science & measurement BUT you can really feel the difference.

    • hi mike,
      I was going to buy the Mora #122, I saw an interview with Harley Refsal who does flat plane carving; his knife blade looks like the that Mora but slightly larger blade which looks perfect but I can’t find any info on where he bought it. he says he uses hand made knives. I want to just have one knife, and the steel quality and hardness seems to be key because you want to be able to sharpen it easily yourself and I don’t want to use a machine. you mention you use a Mora. any advice?

      • Suzy, I am not the guy to answer you. I don’t use Mora’s myself. I tend to go for blades in the area of 1″ to 1 1/2″. You might look at the knives made by Northbay Forge… very nice work and great steel. Good luck.

  5. I’ve been strictly a pocketknife whittler since 1994. I have to say that while I loved your article, I personally don’t agree with your dislike for the “plastic red handled” folder. While I myself prefer my vintage folder, which sadly has NO markings, so I can’t say who made it, I find that after re-profiling the small blade & tweaking the large blade on my red handled folder, like Chris Lubkemann explains in his great whittling books, It’s a super good whittling knife, with very good steel that holds an edge just dandy. Not as nice to hold as my oldie with the bone handle with the tree bark or peanut shuck looking design to it, but still a worthy whittler in my book. Happy whittlin’ 🙂

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