Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | February 18, 2020

My Favorite Sharpening Stones

This post is about sharpening stones rather than sharpening systems.  More specific, it is about my favorite sharpening stones for carving and whittling knives.  We will discuss sharpening systems in another post.  Today, we have a choice of a myriad of sharpening stones for woodcarving knives and woodcarving tools in general.  There are a whole host of water stones, diamond stones, ceramic stones, and oil stones on the market.

My Sharpening Stone History

As a young man when I first got obsessed with “sharp,” I began with oil stones… I tried Arkansas stones, India stones and other stones that I don’t recall.  Being oil stones, they were kind of messy to deal with.  I liked the Arkansas stones as I was able to get a pretty good edge working my way up from a Washita stone to the black hard Arkansas…. followed by a buffing wheel.  However, the softer Arkansas’ wore fairly quickly.  Arkansas stones are natural silica “novaculite,” indigenous to Arkansas.

I am thinking it was roughly in the early to mid-1970’s that ceramic stones were introduced but the initial ceramics were “crock sticks,” not bench stones.  To the best of my memory, those first ceramics were from the Louis Graves Co.  They worked well but one had to be mindful of the angle and ensure that you held than angle free hand.  Even then, one needed to move on to a buffer. The first ceramics were all a fine grit… I’m guessing in the 1200 grit range.  Later, Graves partnered with AG Russell to make Russell proprietary crock sticks.  Due to Russell’s popularity among knife folks, it was likely Russell that put Graves on the map.  Graves Co. eventually sold to Arthur Lansky (Lansky Sharpeners).  Lansky remains in business today with a popular line of sharpeners.

I recall visiting a sporting goods store in Bozeman, MT in that era and seeing a ceramic stone by Browning that Browning was offering as a field stone to maintain their hunting knives.  It was much coarser than crock sticks and it was a perfect grit and size for field work.  I bought one and still own it today.  The Browning ceramic (roughly 500 grit) seemed to be the sole exception to the “all one grit” of ceramic crock sticks.  In researching this, regrettably, Browning ceramic does not appear to be currently offered.  Crock sticks, I am guessing were roughly 1200-1500 grit.

It was also about that time that Japanese water stones became popular in the U.S. as well as diamond sharpening rods (diamond stones came later).

Fail safe Small Knife Stones

Some years later, variations of the ceramic rods were introduced such as the popular Spyderco® Tri-Angle Sharpmaker® which has stones (rods/files) triangular in shape.  The Tri-Angle Sharpmaker® also has a slick mounting base that provides for two predetermined angles for knives (30° (15° each side) or 40° (20° each side)).  And the triangle stones can be removed from the base and used as files for gouges, chisels, draw knives and the like.  Not only was the Tri-Angle Sharpmaker® innovative because of the triangle stones but I believe, they were the first in the marketplace to offer multiple grits…. medium, 800 and fine, 1200 grit.  Some years later, they also introduced a diamond triangle (400 grit), and ultra-fine ceramic (2000 grit), and most recently a cubic boron nitride triangle (400 grit) each to fit the same Tri-Angle Sharpmaker®.  The Tri-Angle Sharpmaker® is a fail-safe method for sharpening knives, even for a beginner that produces a fine edge.  To learn more about how to use the Tri-Angle Sharpmaker® and its characteristics, the following link to a Spyderco® infomercial on the Tri-Angle Sharpmaker® that is pretty informative:

In my mind, the Sharpmaker is not for the dull knife but rather for a reasonably decent edge that needs to be brought to a fine edge.  It is really ideal for whittling knives unless they need to be re-profiled.  Even with the ultra-fine stone, I still strop my edges.

Spyderco Sharpmaker

Sharpmaker pictured here with medium and fine stones

These days, Japanese water stone, diamond and ceramic bench stones are commonplace.  My experience with diamond stones are that they wear quickly.  Given their cost, one would hope for a long-lasting stone.  I don’t seem to have much luck with diamond stones either.  I will admit that I have little experience with Japanese water stones but from what I hear, they require a fair amount of maintenance to maintain a flat plane and I am not looking for that.

My Favorite Bench Stones

While I love the Tri-Angle Sharpmaker®, my default stones are bench stones.  My favorites are still Spyderco® however… the Spyderco® ceramic bench stones that come in a medium grit (800), a fine grit (1200), and ultra-fine grit (2000).  These are each 2” X 8” X ½.”

I prefer the bench stone as I have much more control of the edge, they are not motorized, they are not messy, and they last a lifetime… maybe a few lifetimes.  I have a couple of costly sharpening systems and I will argue that I can produce, on the stones, an edge as sharp as either of the systems can produce.  Ceramic stones are mainly for maintaining an edge.  While I am suggesting them for carving knives, I use them on all my knives including kitchen and bush craft.  I will admit that use of a bench stone requires a learning curve in order to get and to maintain the proper angle.  In fact, I have heard said that sharpening with a stone is 90% skill and 10% tool.  That said, it is like learning to ride a bike in that once one learns it, it’s easy.  One can employ a guide as well, but my experience is, they just get in the way and take time to deal with.  I have been blessed with the ability to maintain a common angle from the get-go.

Spyderco Ultra-Fine Stone (2)

Spyderco® Ultra-fine Stone Pictured here in its black box

The Medium Spyderco® ceramic stone, dark gray in color and is good for a reasonably dull knife.  While it is possible to reprofile a knife with it, it will take a lot of work and I recommend something well more aggressive for that. However, the medium stone will bring a dull knife back to a good edge/factory quite easily.

The Fine Spyderco® ceramic stone, white in color, will put a very fine edge on you knife.  I typically take 5 strokes each side (that’s 10 total) to maintain an edge.  As an aside, I also keep a Spyderco® Golden StoneTM in the kitchen which is a duck’s foot shaped stone with fine grit to keep my kitchen cutlery sharp.

The Spyderco® Ultra-fine ceramic stone, again, white in color, produces a razor edge.  Here again, for whittling knives, I do 5 strokes per side.  I like my whittling knives super sharp and this does it.

These stones come in a plastic box which has non slip rubber feet, but I like to remove the stone and place it on a pedestal block cut to the size of the stone with non-slip fabric glued top and bottom.

Following stone work, I strop my wood carving knives on a barber’s strop… 15-20 strokes which will put an even finer edge on a knife.  If you want to use a rouge and strop either with a wheel or a carver’s strop, I suggest Koyo-Sha K-1 Green Rouge Polishing Compound available at Woodcraft ( ).  Woodcraft item No. 156691.  It is priced in the $50.00 range but it is a large bar and will last a very long time.  I have been working with the same bar for roughly 20 years and I am not halfway through it.

Additional Ceramic Stone Facts

In using the ceramic stones, you will notice that each stone will develop a residue on the stone following sharpening.  The residue is the micro steel being removed from the knife edge.  This is easily cleaned up with a good cleanser like Bon Ami and a green scrubber pad.  I have found that if I apply just a little Windex to the stone as I am using it, this residue wipes off easily after each use… about 90-95% of the residue will wipe off the stone.  Another alternative is a little water with a bit of dishwashing soap in it while using the stone.  This does not work quite as well as Windex but it still will allow you to wipe off some 50-70% of the residue.  The stones are to be used dry, but a little Windex or soapy water does not interfere with the sharpening nor harm the stone and I will save on scrub time latter.  It also provides a much longer use time in between the stone’s cleaning.  You do want to keep the stone clean as the metal residue will build and eventually interfere with the cutting ability of the stone.

The trick with any stone is to keep the knife at a precise and constant angle while using it.  I am blessed with the ability to do that while I can find other tasks difficult.  Placing the stone on a piece of carpet padding and raising it off of a bench or table surface a few inches will make using them much easier and provide better control.

A word of caution –  While ceramic stones have a mohs hardness of about 9.8 (almost diamond hard), if you drop them on a concrete floor, they will shatter like glass.

Detail knives and knives that I will primarily use on basswood, pine, or butternut get a 15-degree angle.  Other carving knives get a 20-degree angle.  Edges used for chopping should get a greater angle.

In using these stones, you will learn the proper pressure for what you need.  I find that with a dull knife (using the medium grit stone), I want more pressure.  For simply maintaining a fine edge, I lighten up on the pressure.  With the fine or ultra-fine stones, I can literally draw the edge with little or no pressure to produce a razor edge.

These Spyderco® stones and others are available from lots of sources, but I buy mine from the Cutlery Shoppe ( ).  The Cutlery Shoppe prices the same as Amazon and they offer free shipping and dang fine customer service… not to mention that they are a small independent company, not a retail behemoth.  I try to avoid adding money to Bezos’ coffers.  By the way, no one is compensating me in any way for my review or recommendation.  These are my personal opinions on products and services that I found to be of quality and that I believe in and no one has gifted me any stones.

Important Add On

As I finish up this posting, I became aware of and purchased 3 small bench stones manufactured by Idahone, Inc. ( ).  These stones are very nice.  They are quite similar to the Spyderco stones but have a grit range of 500 (med), 1200-1500 (fine), and 2000 (very fine).  I absolutely love these stones and particularly the medium grit.  The small stones are ¼ X 1 X roughly 6.”  Small enough to carry around or use in the field but large enough to do the job and well more affordable (at the time of this posting about $21.00 each) than Spyderco.  I am thinking these will become my default whittling knife stones.

Thank you for reading.  Stay sharp and remain “carveful.”





Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | September 10, 2019

My Favorite Woodcarving/Whittling Knife

This post is the first of a series where I identify my favorite woodcarving tools.  The first will discuss my favorite woodcarving knife.

This is a dangerous article to write.  Note, the title is “My Favorite Woodcarving/Whittling Knife.”  Telling a carver which is “best” knife is like telling a grizzly what the best meat is to eat.  There are as many opinions on this as there are carvers.  In addition to endless opinions, there are a myriad of applications; many begging for a specialty knife.  So, what I am attempting to do here is after some 60+ years of whittling and carving is to present my favorite knives based upon my experience.  I will break this down into two categories; fixed blade and folders and offer a little history.

First, A little History

I really don’t remember how old I was when I began to carve but I was pretty young.  I am an old guy and when I was a kid every boy I knew carried a pocket knife (no school stabbings either).  I am thinking my very first knife was an Imperial brand fishing style (pocket) knife.  It was a piece of junk, but the price was right… probably less than $2.00 in the early 1950’s.  I used that knife for everything including whittling.  Of course, my early whittling was pretty limited… putting points on hot dog sticks and carving wooden knives and swords.  From there, I had many a pocket knife that I do not recall… either the style nor the brand.  As a young adult when I had a little more money and was working more on skill, I purchased a JA Henckels Twin Brand.  I still own it.  It is a real vintage beauty with stag scales.  With this knife, I could take whittling seriously.   Also, as a young adult, I became obsessed with “sharp.”  A knife had to be sharp and few people that I knew could do a decent job of sharpening a knife.  My Henckels was good steel (Solingen, Germany) and I could get a good edge on it despite the fact that back then a decent sharpening stone or system was both rare as hen’s teeth and expensive.  So, with my fascination with sharp edges, I was on the constant look out for quality knives.  The original Boker’s were also a good knife.  The problem that I had with any those standard pocketknives was that after 000’s of miles of use, the blade pivots got sloppy.  I tried to tighten them, but they were never as good as new.

Somewhere in the late 1960’s I discovered a knife called Jak’s Knife.  It was very similar to the later introduced Warren Knife.  It had a selection of blades that fit inside the handle for convenient carrying.  It was Jak’s knife that introduced me to “small blades” and to a hooked blade… which became one of my favorites.  The steel in Jak’s knife was also the first high carbon steel that I experienced, and I could put a fine edge on those things that held for what seemed like forever.  In the 1980’s I was introduced to fixed handled carving knives.

Between then and now I have purchased knives made by or offered by:

Fixed Blade

Savage Forge (Retired)

Northbay Forge

Cape Forge

Deepwoods Ventures

Diobsud Forge (Closed)

Drake Knives

Kestrel Tool

Moraknil (Formerly Frost)


Folding Knives

Oar Carver


JA Henckel’s Twin Brand (the older originals)

Boker Tree Brand (the older originals); and

Rich Notto (now deceased) folders (Spear point and Wharncliffe locking blades)

Then, there are countless others that I have purchased and tried… some good, some not so good.  I found that all the knives listed above are or were all good knives.

What I Like in a Knife

Features that suit me include (1) High quality high carbon steel (2) A shorter blade.  I respect the fact that folks can carve with long blades, I just prefer shorter versions and I have better control with a shorter blade (3) A blade with a slight upward curvature… something akin to a clip blade; and (4) A comfortable strong handle.

A guy that marvels me is Giles Newman (  Giles carves exquisite, intricate jewelry and spoons using a 2 ¼” Moraknil Swedish knife.  Boggles my mind!  Then you have the late Dudley Carter that carved gorgeous statuary with an axe and adze.  Clearly, anything with an edge can be used by someone to create excellent carvings.

I tend to be a traditionalist.  I want a knife that looks like a knife… not a machine or something from the movie Bladerunner.

So, what’s my Favorites?… the Winners are….

Today, when I sit and whittle or “whittle carve,” as my friend Don Mertz ( describes holding a carving in your hand but using small gouges as well as knives, I find myself always going for same few default knives.  They are:

Fixed Handle Knife:  Northbay Forge Straight Knife…  I find this to be a high-quality knife that not only looks pretty dang cool, but also holds an edge like few others and is very comfortable to hold in my hand.  It is a strong knife with a perfect bevel.  It comes in three sizes for small and large projects and the price is very reasonable… plus it is hand forged and it looks hand forged.  I tend to use the medium and small the most.

North Bay Straight Knives

Folding Knife:  Oar Carver.  I have a few versions of this knife.  I bought the originals then followed up with attractive bone handled versions.  These are well made and are a true pocket knife.  Easy to carry.  While called an Oar Carver, named after the originator and designer, Ross Oar, they were made by Queen City Cutlery.  Sadly, Queen City has closed its doors, but Oar Carvers may be found in the secondary market on the Internet.  In the below photo, the bottom two are each locking blades.

Oar Carvers

Favorite Runners Up

Fixed Blade:

DeepWoods Ventures… good steel and edge holding, gorgeous handles.

Moraknil… Laminated Swedish steel, amazing edge holding and bevel.

Folding Knife:

Flexcut Spoon Carving Jack… good steel and great bevel, comfortable handle.

Flexcut Carvin’ Jack… even though these things are pretty strange looking and not so comfortable to hold, they offer a knife and several gouges all in one handy little package.  If you live on a sailboat or in a motor home and carve, these things are a must.  One needs both the right- and left-hand versions to accommodate push and pull carving strokes. Despite Flexcut’s being good steel they are stamped out and have very rough backs on the blades, so they need to be ground smooth for comfort sake.

So, the bottom line is, if I had to grab a couple of carving knives and run for the hills, they would be the Northbay Forge straight knife (knives) and the Oar Carvers.

When buying a whittling knife make sure it is good steel, blade and handle shaped to your liking, and comfortable in your hand.

I would enjoy hearing and I am sure readers would enjoy hearing what your favorite carving knife is and why you are choosing it.

Thank you for reading.  Remember, always be “carveful” and stay sharp!  No one is compensating me in any way for my recommendations or comments.  My recommendations and my comments are strictly my personal opinions.



Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | January 31, 2019

Choosing Wood for Woodcarving

It is often heard: “what wood do I choose for woodcarving?”  Clearly, there are times where we have an idea for a carving, or we get a commission for a specific carving and in those cases, we do need to choose a wood for the specific project in mind.  However, there are many times where we see a unique piece of timber that simply “grabs” us.  It may have a twist, knot or a seemingly imperfection that is striking or artistic.  In these cases, we have a couple of choices.  What I do is gaze at the piece for as long as it takes when something will pop into my mind that will fit perfectly.  Sometimes simply looking at the piece will produce an image in our mind.  In looking back at the hundreds or maybe even thousands of whittlings and carvings that I have done, the ones that folks, including me, have enjoyed the most are the ones that contain some wonderful and/or unique characteristic to it.  The alternative is to simply hold off doing anything with it until something does come to mind… and it will.

Of course, in those cases where we have an advance project in mind or have been commissioned to create something specific, we must select an appropriate piece of wood.  So, what I want to discuss in this posting is the process of selecting and the wood to select for our project.

The Wood

There are hundreds of woods on this fine planet of ours, but I will limit this discussion to a few woods common to woodcarving or that are my personal favorites.  Also, let me mention, here, that the quality of the wood is very important.  Taking basswood as an example, all basswood is not created equal.  It is no fun carving a poor-quality piece of wood.  Use caution in buying wood on-line or that you cannot physically examine.  One good source for woods are carving shows as there are often wood merchants and you can see what you are buying.

No discussion of wood would be complete without including Basswood (Tilia Americana).  These days, the wood of choice for beginner carvers, for detail, for caricature carving and many other applications is basswood.  While technically a hardwood, basswood is actually a softer wood… yet hard enough to hold incredible detail as it has fine, even grain.  It falls somewhere between pine and birch as far as ease of carving goes.  One reason that it is favored by caricature carvers is that it can be cut with a knife across grain fairly easily.  That feature is unique as compared to most woods.  Cutting cedar or pine across gain will likely result in crushing the wood, even with a sharp knife.  And, it is almost impossible to cut across gain on hardwoods due to their… well, hardness.

But, let’s face it, basswood is not the prettiest of woods and unless the final finish of your carving is to be blonde (or shades thereof), basswood is generally painted.  Generally, I do not like to sand my work, but basswood is hard enough to be sanded easily to a very nice finish.  I once took a class from Ian Norbury and carved a female bust.  Because of the fine features of a female face and the tone of her skin, sanded basswood was the perfect wood to choose.  An excellent source for basswood is Heinecke Wood Products ( ).  These guys are nice and friendly, reasonably priced, accommodating, and their basswood is premium.  FYI, it is the lightest natural basswood that I have ever seen.

Tip:  By applying a 50/50 mix of water and rubbing alcohol to your carving it will magically allow the carver to achieve a smooth, clean cut on soft woods, more easily allow for cutting across grain and even soften up hard wood for easier carving.  I often use it on knots, cutting end grain, cutting fine delicate detail, and in areas prone to splitting.  I put my mixture in a spray bottle and keep it close at hand.

Western White Pine/Idaho White Pine is a soft nice wood for beginner whittlers and carvers.  One can achieve some pretty good detail with it with a very sharp knife and especially by adding the above referenced alcohol mix.  I am told that in the early days of whittling in America, Western White Pine was the wood choice for carving mainly because it was plentiful, inexpensive or even free as it was used for everything imaginable at the time.  Ben Hunt used a lot of White Pine for his whittling and carving in the 40’s.  Sadly, disease all but wiped out Western White Pine and old growth or tight grained Western White Pine is quite rare today.

A very attractive and more affordable hardwood to carve is Butternut.  I have heard it referred to as “the poor man’s walnut.”  This is a gorgeous wood by simply adding a light oil finish.  Its natural light brown color does not require either painting or staining.  This is the wood of choice by the famous and gifted carver, Fred Cogelow.  Personally, I have not been able to achieve the level of detail Cogelow does but it is likely that Butternut I have carved was not of the highest quality.

Cherry is, in my opinion, the most beautiful wood on the market.  However, it is also seriously hard.  I find it too hard to carve with my aging hands.  Like Butternut, the only finish needed is a light natural oil.  Due to Cherry’s hardness, it is almost required that one roughout a Cherry project with a power cutter such as a Kutzall or Sabre Tooth burr/rasp and then finish up with a gouge.  While not impossible, it is extremely difficult to carve with a knife.

Birch is an almost white hardwood suitable for carving and achieving good detail.  It is harder than basswood but softer than maple and most fruitwoods.  It is about as hard of a wood as I like for knife carving.  Dur to its natural white color, your final finish will either need totally natural or painted.  My own experience has demonstrated that it does not stain well.

A wood that I have loved to whittle and carve for as long as I can remember is Diamond Willow.  I find the best wood comes from Alaska.  This is a fine-grained wood with a large salmon colored heart wood surrounded by a creamy sap wood.  Diamond Willow is often used for walking sticks.  An attractive feature of Diamond Willow are the numerous diamond shaped cankers that form along the shaft, generally around where small branches form.  This is my personal perfect wood for whittle carving.  The one drawback is that it is seldom larger than 3-4 inches and more often even smaller.  This is a wood that you will want to physically examine before buying… or have reviewed good photos.  I have seen a lot of trash for sale, even by reputable carving supply stores.


The above is a photo of a finished piece of Diamond Willow with an unusual number of diamond cankers.  For additional photos of both finished and unfinished wood, visit ebay.

Other woods – Truth is, one can carve in virtually any wood.  Found wood is both fun to carve and can be very attractive.  I suggest tying all woods.  I do suggest avoiding drift wood as while it may be quite unique, it may well also be impregnated with sand.  Sand and a fine edge do not mix.

I once found a gorgeous old growth Western Red Cedar fence post and proceed to carve a wizard crawling out the top only to find that when I cut into it with a prized gouge, I ran into a buried fencing staple.  I ended up grinding off 1/4 inch of my tool… enough said.

I have a friend that is a skilled spoon carver and he delights in carving a vast selection of different woods… all gorgeous.  Like me, he lives in fruit country where he collects trimmings from local fruit trees in the early months of the year for his spoons.

Wood Grain

In closing, let me mention a few things about wood grain.  First of all, wood grain is beautiful, and one should not be afraid of carving wood with a grain.  As mentioned above, carving across grain often requires the use of an alcohol mix or it must be green wood.

Some years back I heard a Native American carver tell a group of onlookers that the wood tells him which way to carve.  I initially thought… “what a bunch of BS.”  But, in fact, this fellow was absolutely correct.  When one is carving and the blade “bites” into the wood, stop.  Do not forge on… it’s time to stop.  The resistance or biting is, in fact, telling you to stop and carve in the opposite direction.  In most woods, the grain does not run straight, it is often “ribbony” and a carver must accommodate for that.

Thank you for reading, happy carving and keep sharp.

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | November 7, 2017

Spoon Carvin’ Jack by Flex Cut

Hi everyone.   It has been a very long time since I made a post.  Truth is, I kind of ran out of topics.  One type of posts that I have always enjoyed doing are product reviews.  Being totally independent and not accepting compensation, I can be completely honest with my observation.

Spoon Carvin' Jack

Flexcut recently released their newest knife… the Spoon Carvin’ Jack.  I hate to put the punch line first, but I must.  In my opinion, this may be their best knife yet.  Here is why:

Blades.  The Spoon Carvin’ Jack has three blades.  1.) A 1 3/8th inch straight knife blade… the same blade as is found in Flexcut’s other Jack knives that they call a “detail knife.”  In my mind it is a little large to get the “detail’ title but it is a good sized blade for hand carving.  2.) A 1 3/8 shallow bent knife that is unique to the Spoon Carvin’ Jack.  I like it as it is good for slightly concaved work that cannot be done with a straight blade. The shape of this blade is typical of many North Coast Indian bent knives.  For some reason, Flexcut calls this a Hook Knife.  It’s not a hook; it is bent.  And 3.) A 1-inch deep bent knife blade.  This is the same bent knife blade found in Flexcut’s Carvin’ Jack.  This, too, is a great blade for whittling and carving.   All blades lock solidly.  As with all Flexcut Jacks, the blade pivot is a little rough, but they do smooth out with use.  Although, my Detail Jack takes force to get it to completely shut and I have been using it for over a year.

Like all Flexcut blades, they come dang sharp with a low bevel… perfect in my mind.

The blades are mounted in such a way that if you hold the knife in your left hand, the blade edges are away from you, which is perfect for carving away from you (pushing rather than pulling).  So, obviously, if you hold it in your right hand, you will be making pull cuts.

Handle.  This is Flexcut’s first folder with an extremely comfortable aluminum handle.  The scales are ergonomic with deep and comfortable cross hatching.  This is a wonderful feature and I wished all Flexcut folders were fitted in such a manner.  By ergonomic, I mean, the scales have a light bulge to them.  I cannot over emphasize how comfortable this knife is in my hand.

Size.  The knife is 4 ¼ inches in length, closed… the same as the Carvin’ Jack.  It is 7/8” thick as compared to the 5/8” thick Carvin’ Jack.  Between the size and the handle material and shape, I find this to be the most comfortable folding carving knife I own.

Price.  The list price is $124.95.  I bought mine from Greg Dorrance Company ( for $99.96.  Not only is that a good price but Greg Dorrance provides expert advice and the best service that I have found anywhere in woodcarving land.  And, Greg actually answers the phone if you happen to call.

Bottom Line.  I love the Spoon Carvin’ Jack as I do the Carving Jack’s.  I highly recommend it for whittling, carving, and oh yes, spoon carving.

Be “carveful” and stay sharp!

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | January 3, 2016

Carving a Living Tree

The first of last month, a cousin of mine living in Utah sent me an article featuring a fellow that carves “tree spirits” and the like in living trees in a community located near my cousin. At first, I admit that I was attracted to the idea… partially because of a photo that was in included in the article and then “Googling” “carvings in live trees.” My imagination went off like a sky rocket and I pictured a cool wizard character similar to Gandalf with the bark of the tree growing back and framing the face.

Then, I came to my senses and reality set in. I seriously thought through carving a living tree. It took only a matter of seconds to consider that this would be similar to carving a wizard on ones forearm. It would seriously hurt and while it may heal, the arm would never be the same and would for sure be impaired for life. Another comparison might be made to carving a face on the back of your dog. Not at all cool.

A tree is a living thing. It is bad enough to kill one needlessly but I can think of no excuse to mutilate one. We can only imagine what feelings a tree may have but it has been proven scientifically that all plants have feelings and react to even the thought of being harmed.

I suppose that there may be an argument for carving on a previously damaged area but even then I am not so sure. But introducing a wound to a healthy tree will surely introduce pathogens or insects. Please do not suggest that all would be rectified by applying a wood preservative. Would you paint that on an open wound on your body… I think not.

The fellow featured in the article stated that he “never lost a tree.” Well one may not die from carving up his or her arm but s/he may well wish for death due to the pain. So far in my life, I have not met a talking live tree but I am certain that they would scream at the thought of being carved up.

I know of no way to stop rot in a living tree. According to an arborist friend, a damaged area of a tree will never heal. The tree will attempt to save itself by isolating the damaged area and putting its life force into the areas surrounding the wound but the wound will remain and will likely rot… and rot spreads. It may or may not kill the tree depending upon the health of the tree, its age, the species of the tree, and its location but it will impair the tree forever.

Imagine, if you will, an 8 inch diameter tree and a carving is made in it roughly one half its circumference and 1-2 inches deep. The tree will attempt to segregate the wound leaving roughly one half of the trunk to provide nutrients to the balance of the tree. Its chance of survival has been reduced to half and it is scared for life. Even if a tree does not die in a short period of time, its life will have been shortened.

One may also argue that you can look at photos of tree carvings and see no visible signs of damage. I assure you, there is damage… the carving itself is damage and other damage will lie behind the carving out of sight… but it is there. Ask an arborist.

One last thought. Certain trees such as Western Red Cedar, Big Leaf Maple and others often have hollow areas within the trunk. Carving such a trunk will greatly reduce the strength of the trunk.

Let us stick to carving dead trees. There are plenty of those around that we don’t need to inflict mayhem on a living tree.

Happy New Year to everyone. I wish you a truly amazing year. Keep sharp!

Please visit my web site at

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | March 14, 2015

Woodcarving with Files and Rifflers

Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend about a dozen evenings working in the shop of a Swiss Master Carver that had learned his trade in the canton woodcarving school in Brienz, Switzerland. Walter was an exceptionally fine woodcarver but he had a real issue with using rasps and files, etc. He would not allow them in his shop. I took on his attitude regarding such things and would never use them either. On top of that, I have always liked the looks of wood carvings to be obvious so for years I was careful to leave a clean hewn look to the wood surface. I stayed as far away from sand paper as I possibly could. We all have “weirdio synchronicities” (my made up term) and NO files and sandpaper have been one of mine for many years.

You can teach an old dog new tricks…

Then in an Ian Norbury workshop, working on a female face, I knew that a hewn finish was not going to be acceptable. A workshop mate (John Culver) had a fancy file that he let me use. John explained the virtues of the file and I borrowed it to smooth out my lady’s cheeks… then I went to fine sandpaper. Well, right then and there the clouds parted and I was converted to using not only a fine wood file but also good sandpaper.

But, neither files nor sandpaper are created equal. I set out to find a file as nice as John’s. Since this article is about files and rifflers, let me only quickly mention that the best sandpaper that is readily available, in my opinion, is Lowe’s proprietary 3M brand. Nice stuff. Less available but also very nice is Swiss sandpaper carried by some woodcarvers supply sources. I’m sure there are others as well.

Okay, back to files and rifflers.

I searched the web and found some Iwasaki brand wood files. They come in flat and half round and in a couple of sizes. These files are a woodcarver’s dream for shaping, sculpting, easing hard edges & eliminating chisel and gouge marks. They remove material quickly like a rasp, but leave a very clean surface finish like you’d get from a plane. The teeth are curved and are arranged like a single cut file. The wood shaving breaks off & is forced up & away from the face of the file so the teeth are less prone to clog. The tailings created are not dust, but ultra mini-shavings and look as if they came from a tiny plane! The teeth are both danged hard and sharp efficient cutting & long life typical of good quality Japanese carving tools. They come in “medium,” “fine,” and extreme fne” cuts. I highly recommend the extreme fine cut for carving. They also come straight and curved. There are merits for owning both but I do suggest the small 8” size for carving. The curved file allows for getting into areas that a straight file simply will not. The 8” file comes with a comfortable handle and is a pull cut allowing for better control. The larger ones are “push” cuts and less convenient for carving… at least for me.

I also found a Chris Pye, Auriou (French) riffler that I love. I suggest the “Thumb and Laurel” version. Auriou also makes the same riffler without Chris Pye’s endorsement but it is coarser than the Pye version. It is also a bit less money. You do want the finest cut possible. These Auriou rifflers (and their files) are seriously “pricy” but in defense of their cost, they are hand cut. The Pye version is roughly 7” which is perfect for handling. But, rifflers are rasps, after all, and the leave a rougher cut requiring more sanding. I wish Auriou would not only find a way to reduce their cost but also make a finer grain for wood carvers.

Files 2

My File Selection

With the curved Iwasaki file and Pye, Auriou riffler mentioned above, I have added a whole new dimension to my carving process. I found all files mentioned here at Highland Woodworking. In fact they offer a huge selection.

Also, an invaluable little file… if you want to call it that… is to place a diamond or ruby burr in a pin vice or the like and use it for the finest of work. I have also used carbide burrs in a pin vise for more aggressive cutting. Burrs come in a myriad of shapes, sizes, and grits so one can get into cracks and crevices where a knife simply cannot. The best pin vise that I have found is at Cascade Carvers Supply at a very affordable price (their product number 60-6145). I highly recommend this… in fact, get two. This pin vise is double ended so you can place a burr in each end which helps with having to constantly change them around. Cascade Carvers also carries a nice selection of burrs and Swiss sandpaper. Oh, and a little bonus here… as Cascade Carvers mentions on their web site, one can insert a fret saw blade in this pin vise and have a micro saw… pretty “slick” for tight spots with softer wood like basswood.

I am sure there are other fine files that I am unaware of and I welcome suggestions and experiences from readers.

Thank you for reading and…

Keep Sharp!

Please look at my web site at

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | February 8, 2015

The Other Woodcarving Glove

It goes without question that when one is whittling or whittle carving¹, one should be wearing a good quality carving glove. The best kind have a micro steel wire, often stainless, sewn into the fabric. Also, avoid those bulky ones… look for a good fitting glove. But, here, I want to mention the “other carving glove.”

I am one of those folks that like to have their work fastened securely in a vise or attached to a work positioner. Doing so, keeps my hands out or ‘harm’s way” and as my hands have aged… it’s just plain easier on them.

Often, when using gouges I tend to use the palms of my hands as a mallet to provide that little extra nudge. I know, not too smart… especially for aging hands but its fast and easy. To help cushion the blow, I wear one of a couple of bicycling gloves that I have. One has a minimal amount of padding in the palm (but they are suede and cool looking with a woven back) and the other pair has a generous gel pad on the palm. I use the latter for heavy work. The suede pair is pretty much for lighter work and for when I want to look cool. Although cycling gloves come with and without fingers, my gloves are both fingerless so I have good control and can pick up small things easily.

Gloves also provide a better grip both on gouges and mallets and being leather, I don’t get sweaty with them. I have seen folks wear those rubber or neoprene faced gardening gloves but they do get sweaty. I’ll take leather any time.

While they do not replace a “real” carving glove, simply because they provide a layer of leather on top of my skin they do offer slight protection. However no protection for the forward part of one’s fingers. I am proud to say that my gloves are many years old and neither have no slices or blood stains on them.

If you are holding your work in your hand and carving or whittling with the other, put on a real carver’s glove.

L1060421Suede (makes me look “Cool”) Gloves

L1060422Heavy Gel Gloves

Thanks for reading, always be “carveful” and stay sharp!

Please visit my website at

¹ “Whittle carving” is a clever and well-aimed term coined by Don Mertz, an excellent “whittle carver.”

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | January 30, 2015

Why do Woodcarvers Carve?

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are carvers. Here are some of the most obvious reasons that come to mind for me:

To Create – Creation brings us a great satisfaction. It brings us joy to have added to the world in a positive way;

To Manifest our Passion – Not only do we manifest our passion simply by carving but also by reproducing our dreams in a very tangible form;

To leave our Signature on the World – When we leave this planet, we will leave behind not only whatever memories others might have of us but also little relics of what was important to us and others;

To Bring Happiness to Ourselves and to Others – Clearly, carving brings us happiness but we also bring happiness to others to whom we gift our carvings… something pleasing to the recipient;

Introduces Relationships – Carving introduces us to a vast group of artisans who are also great people. We seldom meet a carver that we don’t appreciate and like;

Form of Meditation – We find that carving is a form of meditation. While carving we often find ourselves in a trance like state… introducing us to unlimited moments of enlightenment and clarity;

Income – If we sell our products, we are generating a bit of income from doing what we love.

Challenge – When carving a piece that challenges us, it helps us grow to new level of creativity and skill;

Helping Others – We can all agree how rewarding it is to teach others and helping them with woodcarving;

And the list goes on. Anyone reading this is probably adding many more items to this list which have quickly come to their mind.

I have a friend who is constantly reminding me that “there is so much wood and so little time.” We better get back to work.

Keep Sharp

Please visit my website at

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | January 28, 2015

The Best Steel for Woodcarving Knives

Asking “what kind of steel is the best for carving knives” sounds like a simple enough question. Good question maybe but not a simple question… at least not a simple answer.

When one goes to the sales material or “tech” information of a knife manufacturer and explores what kind of steel they use, it is usually found that the manufacturer simply states they use “high carbon steel.” Not really much help with that description as “high carbon” can mean almost anything.  And, one can’t simply walk up to a sales counter and ask for this knife in D-2 and that knife in W-1 steel. Each maker has their unique steel and generally they don’t tell you what that is.

Here we are talking about carving/whittling knives and not kitchen cutlery. The best steel for carving is not the same as the best steel for the kitchen. Kitchen knives spend a lot of time wet… carving knives should be kept dry at all times.

There are probably 50 (plus) steels available today. They each have unique properties that make them subtly different.

Steel Element Basics

Basically, steel is a mix of carbon and (principally) iron that is often enriched with other elements to allegedly improve certain characteristics depending on the desired application. These other elements are called “alloys” and the more prominent ones are: chromium, molybdenum, manganese, nickel, cobalt, tungsten and silicon. Let’s discuss the primary elements:

Carbon – Carbon in every form of steel. Essentially, it’s the element that turns the basic metal iron into steel and enables the hardening process. Generally with increased levels of carbon you get a harder steel, improved tensile strength, edge retention and overall resistance to wear.

Chromium – Chromium increases the resistance to oxidation and corrosion in general. To be classified as “Stainless Steel” there is generally 13% plus or minus chromium content. Still, every steel is going to corrode if left out in the elements for any length of time.

Molybdenum – will improve the strength at high temperatures and overall hardness. This helps with how easy a blade is to produce in the factory.

Vanadium – Vanadium produces a very fine grain during the steel’s heat treatment process which improves overall toughness. Ultra-premium steels often contain relatively high levels of vanadium and allow for a super sharp edge.

The other elements are typically so minor that they really do not need to be addressed here.

So what do we want in a Carving/Whittling Knife?

Let’s look at some common properties:

Strength – This represents the ability to resist deforming when subject to stress and applied forces. This is more important on hard woods;

Hardness – Similar to strength this refers to the ability to avoid any permanent deformations. Hardness is generally measured by using the Rockwell scale. I like hard knifes in the 58 to 60 range. The harder the steel, the more difficult to sharpen but more importantly, the harder the steel the longer lasting the edge is and the edge can likely be maintained by simple stropping;

Toughness – Similar to strength, above, the ability to resist damage like cracks or chips when being used in heavy duty applications. This also defines the steel’s ability to flex without breaking. Note that the stronger or harder the steel the less tough it will likely be as

Corrosion/Rust Resistance – This is the ability to resist corrosion such as rust caused by external element. Note that a high resistance to corrosion does involve a sacrifice in the overall edge performance. This should not be an issue with carving knives as they should not be used in a corrosive environment;

Edge Retention – Represents how long the blade will retain its sharpness and not require re-sharpening. For carvers, this is a biggie.

The best carving knife steel is not simply a case of maximizing each of the above properties. We need to find some balance in the above and we need to remember our use… carving, not chopping, whacking, cutting cardboard or skinning a deer or the neighbor.

As a carver, I am of the belief that I need a steel that is HIGH carbon (1% to 1.5%). I don’t care so much about corrosion so I don’t want chromium content. (My belief is that a stainless steel knife should be relegated to kitchen duty… and stainless steel knives with above 14% chromium should be thrown away.)

My Steel Recommendations

My choice for carving knife steels are: W-1 and W-2 and if you want a bit of corrosion resistance, O-1 (that’s “oh one”). With these you will get dang good edge holding abilities that can easily be maintained through stropping. And, with W-1 you will get a beauty in the knife as it will develop a natural patina that brags of its carbon content.  If I could only pick one, it would be W-1.

I have no idea what steels Flexcut, Queen City and other big name knife makers use but I do know they each have good edge holding properties.  Cape Forge, Northbay Forge, and Savage Forge each use W-1 and either W-2 or O-1 steels. These later are my favorites hands down.

Thanks for reading and keep sharp!

Please visit my website at

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | November 30, 2014

Carving an Eagle in Brazilian Walnut

It is difficult to remember when I became infatuated with Eagles. But suffice it to say, it was a long, long time ago… maybe even a previous life, if there is such a thing. Way back in the mid-70’s, I carved my first real Eagle accomplishment… first real woodcarving accomplishment, for that matter.  Part of the accomplishment was the fact that it was my first material sale.  But, probably the best part of the accomplishment was the fact that the buyer loved the Eagle as much as I did.  Many years have passed since then but in early 2013, I made the decision to do a similar Eagle to the first. It took me over a year… the feathers got to be a challenge after a while.  I don’t have a lot of patience and the feathers took well more than I had.

Blocked Out Eagle

Blocked Out Eagle

Early Gouge Work

Early Gouge Work

Eagle Finished

Eagle Finished

Another view

Another view

One of the blessings in my life was a good friend of mine, a banker, had a client that was in the lumber Import business. This lumber broker had mentioned to my friend that he had a shipment of Brazilian Walnut destined to become veneer. Well, my friend told me about it and off we went to the broker’s lumber yard. There, before my eyes was a monstrous stack of gorgeous Brazilian Walnut cants. This took place in roughly 1972. I bought 2 cants of the walnut and a couple of other woods and the amount of the bill was in the neighborhood of $125.00. Today, the wood is priceless. My friend and another fellow had also purchased a cant or two. Over the years, I traded things with these guys and ended up with most their walnut as well. I have been pretty selective as to where I use the stuff but two projects were the two Eagles discussed above. And, I still have several feet of 8” X 8” material that I am saving for another wonderful project. There are benefits to being an older guy and buying this wood forty some-odd years ago at a dirt cheap price is one of them.

Thanks for reading.

Keep sharp!

Please visit my web site at

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