(Yes, it’s different than carving)
Whittling. It’s always had an almost romantic connotation. It calls up images of an older gentleman looking out over a farm, working away at a wooden spoon. A craft to bide the time.
For starters, it’s worth mentioning that although they are often used interchangeably, whittling is not the same as carving. They are two different art forms. Carving is done with chisels, gouges, and occasionally mallets. Whittling on the other hand is done using only a knife.
There are two forms of whittling. It either refers to the art of carving shapes from raw wood using a knife, or the time-occupying, repetitive act of shaving slivers off of a piece of wood. Many characterize this as “non-artistic”, but I actually disagree. Call me a radical, but I say any act of intentionally altering wood with hand tools is a form of art. How thick are the slivers? Which side are you shaving the slivers from? These are all conscious decisions, so for the sake of argument, both the object-creating and time-passing forms of whittling are art practices.
A Brief History of Whittling: An Idle Pastime Throughout the Ages
Whittling is one of the oldest forms of woodworking with hand tools. The Shigir idol found in Russia in the 19th century is the oldest known example of a wooden sculpture in the world. It’s 11,500 years old! It was carved shortly after the last Ice Age, during the Mesolithic period using sharpened stone tools (essentially knives) out of larch wood.
Whittling has historically been a pastime for soldiers with time to spare and knives in their pockets. It even became known as “soldier art” and was particularly popular among American soldiers. Europeans noted that the American habit of whittling was practiced throughout the ranks from the commanding officers down to the enlisted men. Civil War soldiers whittled a great deal, and many examples of their handiwork remain in museums throughout the country.
Another high time for whittling came during the Great Depression. It seems American whittling comes back into practice during hard times or war. It was dubbed “tramp art” although historians believe the number of wandering vagabonds actually whittling may have been less than later collectors would like to believe. However, the art did become popular as a pastime, mostly in small towns in the Midwest that suffered greatly during the 1930’s. The WPA (Works Project Administration) even published a whittling manual for amateurs.
Whittling (and more so carving) wood also has a long history in Scandinavian countries. You’ve probably seen examples of Scandinavian carved gnomes and fishermen. Whittling is a “folk” art, meaning that it’s a more of a quotidian type of art form, with its roots in laborers and tradespeople as opposed to practiced and trained artists. So, join the practice of unconventional art making and whittle!
As I mentioned before, whittling is always done with a knife. That’s what separates it from carving, which is done using chisels and other specialized detailing tools. Since it has to be held in one hand while the object is generally hand in the nondominant hand, a light knife with a smaller blade is preferable. A pocket knife is a good choice for beginners, but if you’re into specialized hand tools (and because you’re on this website I assume you probably are), there are specialized knives for whittling. Specialized whittling knives have fixed single blades and thick handles curved for a comfortable grip.
If you’re the outdoorsy type you may prefer having a pocket knife for whittling, so you can whittle spontaneously. Imagine you’re out camping or hiking and you take a rest on a tree stump or some such romantic natural seat. At the edge of the woods you spy a perfect piece of fallen branch or even a stick. You can begin whittling a spoon since you had your pocket knife handy. Be ready when creativity strikes! Fulfill those survive-in-the-wild dreams you’ve had ever since you read My Side of the Mountain in school.
Top 4 Tool Picks for Whittling
Buy: A Pocket Knife for Whittling
Mid-range Price, Reliable: The Case Chestnut Bone CV Peanut Pocket Knife: $36 on Amazon
Now, this isn’t really a cheap pocket knife, but it also isn’t nearly the most expensive. My motto is always safety first, especially when it comes to something like whittling, where your hands are getting very up close and personal with your tools. So, I usually don’t like to recommend buying tools that are too cheap just for the sake of it. That’s not to say that some hand tools are great and just so happen to also be cheap—a happy day for all when that’s the case. But those tools are few and far between.
This is a good, solid pocket knife with working hinges (sometimes the cheap one’s hardly want to open or close up again), that will hold up well under pressure, stay sharp, and feel nice in your hand. It has a clip blade, which acts a good multipurpose blade, and a pen blade for light whittling, but both blades will make do for light whittling.
Buy: A Jack Pocket Knife for Whittling
Mid-to-High Range Price, nice to look at and reliable: The Flexcut Whittlin’ Jack: $46 on Amazon
This one’s just slightly nicer than the first pocket knife, but between the two it would probably just come down to personal preference. Jack (from Jack of all trades) pocket knives are what American soldiers generally carried around and used for their whittling. This one has a detail knife and a 2-inch roughing knife. The handle is metal inlayed with walnut. Very reliable, sturdy, and sharp—an all-around good choice.
Buy: A Whittling Knife for Whittling
Cheap, but Well-liked: Wood Carving Sloyd Knife for Whittling and Roughing: $15 on Amazon
This is a knife made specifically for whittling. It has a bigger blade than a pocket knife and a chunky, curved grip. The blade is made of carbon steel, and the handle is made of hardwood oak. It’s about 5 inches long. If it begins to dull with use a little time with a leather strop should do just fine to sharpen it. It does not come with a sheath, so make sure to buy one online or have somewhere safe to store it with your other tools. I don’t like the idea of knives hanging around the shop bare-bladed. Sloyd makes some very high-end tools, so I trust their quality even on the cheaper end of things.
Buy: Your Sunday Best Pocket Knife
Cream of The Crop: Case XX Curly Oak Wood Seahorse Whittler Stainless Pocket Knife: $170 on Amazon
And now for the fancy stuff, because who doesn’t like a little tool-inspo? (That’s a thing, isn’t it?) This is a nice pocket knife. It would make a great gift for a skilled whittler, or maybe a gift for yourself once you become that skilled whittler. Sometimes I set prizes for myself years down the line. “If I ever get really skilled at this and end up doing it all the time, I deserve a fine tool.” It has Tru-sharp surgical stainless-steel blades and the handle is made of a lovely, rich curly oak wood. It also comes in a black velvet box like fancy jewelry.
I know I’ve already said it, but safety is key! Don’t start whittling without a thumb guard or cut resistant gloves! These are often made of Kevlar and really work! Probably the safest way to go about doing this is to wear one full glove on the hand holding the piece of wood you’re carving, and a thumb guard on your hand that’s holding the knife. I wouldn’t recommend give a whittling knife to children under 14. Even though I’ve heard some boy and girl scouts learn it, I don’t think it’s a good idea considering how deeply they could cut themselves. Whittling is more dangerous than other types of wood working with hand tools because it requires jerky, difficult to control motions with very sharp knives.
To Buy: Full Gloves
These gloves aren’t as flexible as some less sturdy gloves, but they are safer. If you’re just wearing one of these to hold what you’re working on and whittling with the other hand wearing only a thumb guard, then a little stiffness should be fine.
The Kevlar part of the glove is cut resistant and the leather adds some flexibility and abrasion protection.
To Buy: Thumb Guard
Does its Job: WoodRiver Thumb Guard: $8 on Amazon; Comes in Child Size + 2 Adult Sizes
This split leather thumb guard has an elastic cloth backing and the end is closed for extra safety. Perfect for wearing on your dominant hand as you whittle, while wearing a full glove on the hand holding what you’re working on. Reading through the horror-story reviews of different woodworking knives and tools online, you really see the importance of wearing safety gear every time you work.
How-To: Basic Steps
(For Sticks + Branches)
Choose A Nice Stick
As an only child who mostly played outside alone, this was a game I played a lot. So, I’m pretty good at it. Choose a stick that has a decent amount of body to it, something that doesn’t look too scrawny, but also won’t fight you when you try to whittle it. Make sure it’s not too bug infested or old or its structural integrity may be too compromised to hold up to your whittling. Try to choose a smooth one with relatively few knots. Birch is usually a good option.
I also recommend you choose a stick that looks like something. I know this sounds odd but hear me out. If you want to carve a fish out of a piece of wood that kind of looks like a fish, it’s going to be a lot easier. Sometimes a stick will look like something right away and you’ll be inspired to whittle by the form itself. Other times, if you’re not having any luck just try to choose a stick that has enough space to carve within. Then you can whittle it into anything you please. Before you know it, you’ll be bringing home more sticks from your walks than a golden retriever. Believe me, they’ll start piling up so try to whittle one at a time. Or at least label them because a stick that looked exactly like a brontosaurus one day can look like absolutely nothing the next.
If You’re Not Using a Branch or a Stick
Just make sure the wood you’re buying is straight-grained and relatively soft. As with all hand tool woodworking, once you become more skilled at whittling you can attempt to use some harder woods. Balsa wood is often used in wooden crafts such as model airplane making, you’ve probably encountered it. It’s very lightweight and available widely at craft stores and even Walmart. Pine is a traditional choice, plus it’s also soft and easy to buy.
If you took my advice and went out into the wilderness in search of your childhood and (some nice-looking sticks) you’ll need to remove the bark before you start whittling your shape. Begin by holding the branch in one (Kevlar glove-covered) hand and holding your knife in the other hand with the blade facing away from you. Find a good lifted edge or simply make a small cut and create one yourself. Begin peeling away the bark in thin, deliberate shaves. Don’t take off too much below the bark or you won’t have very much stick left to whittle!
You probably have a plan in mind for this particular stick. Maybe it resembles a bird or your uncle Gerry. Either way, as I said above, always try to use the natural features of a stick to your whittling advantage. Now, once you had the bark off you should be left with a smooth, light base. Get a pencil or a pen (I recommend a fine-tipped sharpie), and draw your shape on a piece of paper. Never draw straight onto your wood before you’ve decided you’re happy with how it looks. I recommend loosely tracing your stick onto the paper first so you can make sure it fits and everything.
Once you have a finalized blueprint then use the sharpie to draw your design onto your stick. For me, planning and sketching is half the fun so take your time with this! No two sticks are alike and if you find a really good one you want to be sure you’ve chosen a design you’re happy with. With whittling, I say the simpler the better. There’s a certain charm to the lack of detail you can achieve with whittling. The marks of the knife and gestural shapes look natural and handmade.
Put your glove and thumb guards back on. I know you’ve been drawing for hours now, so I wouldn’t want you to forget! Hold the wood in your hand with a little more grip than when you were removing the bark, with the other hand hold your knife with the blade facing away from you. Then the process sort of becomes like planing. You want to start out with rougher scrapes that take away bigger chunks of the wood, but as your shape starts coming together and you get closer to your pen lines, take it easier. Press more gently into the wood and hold the knife at an angle so that you can achieve thinner shavings.
A bird sitting on a branch is a classic whittling project. It’s one of those low-effort, big effect projects—it really looks great in the end.
- Find a forked branch and remove the bark using push-strokes.
- On the thicker part of the branch draw the shape of a little bird, with some slight indentation to indicate the head, a little beak, and a long, pointy tail.
- Use push-strokes to whittle out the shape of the tail. Next, use delicate pull-strokes to whittle out the little beak and head.
- When you’ve gotten the shape of your bird how you want it, use push strokes to taper off the branch a bit so your bird has a whittled twig to perch on. Leave the rest of the branch natural or break it off and taper the end clean.
The tree is another classic whittling project that requires little effort or skill but looks great. A perfect project for beginners.
- Find yourself a small, sturdy twig and remove the bark using a push-stroke.
- Then use a push-stroke to create a tree-shape (which shouldn’t be too hard considering you began with a twig), with a tapered end.
- Once you’ve got a shape that you’re happy with and no rough edges, it’s time for the fun part. Beginning at the tapered end, use a controlled push stroke to create a decently thick shaving, but don’t finish shaving it off. Leave the shaving curling up from the “trunk”. These are your leaves! When you’re done, it should look like an evergreen (sort of). Either way, at the end you’ll have a very attractive little tree. Every half inch or so, make a series of these thin shavings around the circumference of the trunk. Stop an inch or two up from the bottom so it looks like a tree. And you’re done! If you’re into dioramas or holiday villages, these would add a great handmade accent.
This project is a little more advanced, but still essentially a beginner’s project. I wouldn’t choose this as my very first project however. Some people think you need a rounded spoon knife to carve a spoon, but you really don’t! You can whittle yourself a spoon using just a knife.
Get yourself a good-sized piece of straight-grained wood and draw the shape of a spoon on it. Or, if you’re a real outdoors person, chop yourself a large branch and then cut it in half with your knife, using a mallet or even another branch to halve it.
- Draw a spoon on the exposed half of your wood. Go for something really simple. Even if it’s not exactly perfect at first, you can make a display spoon— hang it in your kitchen it’ll have a great cottage-in-the-woods look.
- Now once you have your spoon drawn, begin to rough-cut large pieces off the sides and work your way closer to your lines. For rough cuts like this you want to hold the blade away from yourself and go for deeper cuts and thicker shavings. This is called a push-stroke.
- After you’re decently close to the drawing, cut two notches down by the neck of the spoon so you can begin rounding one end. Hold your knife steady and roughly begin rounded push-cuts on either side of the bowl of the spoon (that’s the part you put food in, it seems intuitive, but I actually had to look up what it was called). Eventually it’ll begin to look a little more rounded and you can make more shallow shaves, working your way along the edge of the bowl. For this part, begin with push-strokes and when you’ve gotten closer to your line, begin using a mix of gentle pull and push-strokes to whittle the shape of the spoon.
- Now to make the bowl hollower. Make a healthy notch in the middle of the bowl and start from there. This is definitely the most tedious part. Make rounded motions with your knife to make round cuts to the best of your ability. It’ll get easier as you continue working.
- Once you’re done with the bowl, use push-strokes to finish the handle. After that, just do your best to make it look finished. Trust your instincts and use different whittling strokes until you’re satisfied with the shape.
Considering its thousands of years of history and our tendency to take it up again every century, as humans it seems whittling wood is just a part of our nature. Something we turn to cope with hard times or simply to pass calm ones.