Whittling Wood: Learn Whittling for Beginners

November 04, 2022 8 min read

man whittling wood in the forest

 

Whittling is not just a playtime activity children do with a pocket knife their grandpa gave them and sticks from the backyard. Whittling is a hobby, an artistic expression, and an exercise in self-reliance.


Whittling wood goes beyond just making homemade cups, bowls, and spoons. There are also scientifically proven physical and emotional benefits that come from a healthy pastime of whittling wood. 


Keep reading if you have always wanted to know how to whittle. We crafted a “Whittling for Beginners” guide to help get you started with a new whittling hobby. 

 

What Is Whittling Wood?

 

man is whittling wood like a horse

 

Whittling refers to the art of carving shapes from pieces of raw wood. Whittlers, or wood carvers, utilize sharp knives to repeatedly shave off small pieces of wood from a larger block or tree limb.


Wood carvings are one of the oldest forms of art, originating when humans began shaping pieces of wood with sharp stones. Since then, wood carvings have exponentially improved as the blades of whittling knives have become stronger, sharper, and more specialized. 


Whittling is used by many artistic and self-reliant individuals for its many benefits.

 

Benefits of Whittling

In addition to simply being a pleasant activity, many people also enjoy whittling wood for the benefits it offers. 

Stress Reduction

Believe it or not, hobbies like whittling are good at reducing your stress levels. Recent studies have shown enjoyable leisure activities to reduce total cortisol levels. 


Participating in creative hobbies has also been shown to enhance an overall feeling of wellbeing that lasts afterwards, even into the following days.

Fabrication of Tools and Implements

The practical benefits of learning whittling have always been well-known. The ability to fabricate something useful out of sticks and blocks of wood has been enjoyed by whittlers for centuries. 


Homemade wooden tools and implements, such as spoons, forks, bowls, cups, and other utensils have been an important exercise in self-reliance for individuals, families, homesteaders, and preppers.

Artistic Expression

Whittling does not only have to be about the practical creation of a tool that performs a task. Whittling has always been, and will continue to be, a way for people to artistically express themselves.


Popular wooden creations include:

  • Decorative animals
  • Wooden nativity scenes
  • Sculptures 
  • Wooden jewelry

What Makes a Good Whittling Knife?

 

man using his knife in whittling wood

 

One of the reasons whittling is such a fantastic hobby for beginners is the fact that you can get started with practically any knife. Chances are you already have a knife as part of your every-day-carry (EDC) items


With that being said, however, there are certain attributes that make up an excellent whittling knife:

 

  • A straight edge with a fine point instead of a serrated or curved edge.
  • A relatively short blade.
  • A large, ergonomic, and comfortable handle.
  • A thin blade without a micro-bevel 
  • A blade made of carbon steel that will not flex and that has a hardness score between 50 and 60. 

Types of Whittling Knives

Technically speaking, any knife is a whittling knife if you use it to learn whittling. However, some knives are better than others. Depending on where you stand with your whittling hobby, you may choose to keep things simple with an all-purpose knife or build out a complex quiver of purpose-built whittling knives.   

General purpose small knife

Practically any knife with a straight and sharp edge can be used to start whittling. If you have a general-purpose knife lying around the house or packed into your bug-out bag, all you have to do to get started is sharpen and hone the blade. 

Folding pocket knife

Folding pocket knives will be your best friend. Their versatility is virtually unmatched by other types of knives. They are perfect for the beginner whittler who isn’t ready to invest in whittling-specific knives. 


Plus, you can safely take your knife and whittling project on the go wherever you choose to sit down and whittle.  

Single-blade whittling knife

Specialty whittling knives are the tool of choice for well-seasoned whittlers. They possess all the best characteristics—a comfortable handle and a short, sharp, thin, and straight edge. 


Specialty whittling knives perform specific purposes, such as detailing and chipping.  As your whittling hobby grows, you may choose to invest in more knives so that you can carve more skillfully and efficiently. 

Hook knife

One example of a purpose-built whittling knife is the hook knife. Hook knives are designed for creating depressions, for example, in spoons. 


Hook knives come in left-handed, right-handed, and both-sided varieties. For beginners, the hook knife with edges on both sides is the most common, due to its versatility. 

 

Types of Whittling Wood

Besides your knife, whittling wood is the next most important item you will need to get started. 


Generally speaking, whittling wood is separated into two categories.

  1. Greenwood
  2. Dry wood

Greenwood comes fresh from a tree. Greenwood is soft, supple, and easy to whittle. However, as green wood dries out, it can be prone to cracking and warping. Because of its softness, greenwood is often the go-to choice for beginners. 


On the other side of the spectrum, we have dry wood. This wood has had time to dry out, shrink and harden. Dry wood is ready to go and will not crack or warp. However, it can be more challenging to carve because it is harder.


Down below, we’ve organized a table of types of wood, along with the pros and cons for each type. Our table is by no means a complete source, but it will help you begin to formulate an idea of the different woods available to you for whittling.  

  


Type of Wood

Pros

Cons

Basswood

  • Straight and fine grain
  • Soft wood with even texture
  • Poor durability

Balsa

  • Soft and lightweight
  • Easily available
  • Can be prone to breaking

Pine

  • Easily available
  • Smells fantastic
  • Contains knots

Cedar

  • Smells fantastic
  • More expensive than other woods

Birch

  • Easy to carve when it’s green
  • Dries very hard
  • May crack at the pith

Oak

  • Beautiful color and shine
  • Holds onto detail
  • Hard to carve
  • Time-consuming 

Butternut

  • Carves well
  • Has a distinct look
  • Contains a lot of grain

Cherry

  • Will not chip
  • Holds finer details
  • Hard to carve
  • Time-consuming


Beginner Wood Whittling Knife Maintenance

As you probably know from cooking and BBQing, a sharp knife is much better than a dull one. This goes for whittling, also. 


When whittling, a sharp knife is easier to control and more efficient. Sharp knives are smoother, faster, and more accurate. Plus, with a sharp knife, you have less chance of losing control of the blade and accidentally cutting yourself. 


That is why maintaining your whittling knives is so crucial. As your whittling hobby grows, you will learn what works best for you. Nevertheless, here is a maintenance guide to help you get started. 

Use stones to keep your knife sharp

Using sharpening stones can remove deformities and irregularities in your whittling blades. You can even change the angle of your edge profile should you choose. 


There are various kinds of sharpening stones. Most of them will come with two sides: coarse and fine grits.  

Lubrication is important

Lubricating your stones while sharpening and grinding your whittling knives is important. You can use water-based or petroleum-based lubricants. It’s best to pick one type and not switch back and forth. 


When sharpening, we recommend keeping a visible amount of lubrication on the stone. As you sharpen, you may need to add more lubricant.  

Use a leather strop or sandpaper

Leather strops and sandpaper are great for maintaining a fine edge. If you go with a leather strop, make sure to also purchase a stropping compound. 


We recommend using your leather strop (or sandpaper) every half-hour during your whittling sessions. 


If you choose to go with the cheaper option of sandpaper, we recommend using fine grit paper—1,000 grit or higher is preferred. We recommend gluing your sandpaper to a spare block of wood to make it easier to use. 


When using a leather strop or sandpaper, remember to move away from the edge when sharpening. Otherwise, you will be cutting into the material. 

Maintain a good edge

The best type of edge for specialty whittling knives is between 20 and 30 degrees. 


If the blade you use has a micro-bevel, we recommend grinding it out. Grinding out a micro-bevel is a hard skill that comes with time. For that reason, it's best to practice on cheaper knives.  

Hone your knife 

Honing your knife is a vital step in whittling. Hold your knife on the sharpening surface to hone your blade, but don’t push it down. Lift up the dull edge slightly, and pull towards the sharp edge. Repeat this process on both sides.


For best results, while honing your knife, use a strop with its respective compound or lubricant and a diamond or stone sharpener.  

 

Safety Considerations for Whittling Wood

As you can imagine, whittling wood can be a risky hobby. Before you become an expert, you are bound to cut yourself and accidentally get wood splinters. That said, even well-seasoned whittling experts periodically knick themselves if they lose focus. 


To protect yourself while whittling, we recommend investing in a few pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE).
 

  • Whittling tape – Sometimes, simply wrapping your exposed fingers with non-slip tape does enough to add an extra layer of protection.  

  • Gloves – Specialty gloves made of nitrile, kevlar, or even chainmail can protect your fingers and hands.
     
  • Thumb guards – Purpose-built guards cover just enough of your thumb to protect it but still allow for full mobility.

  • Glasses or goggles – Causing damage to your eyes while whittling is rare, but it’s a good habit to always wear glasses or goggles 

How to Whittle: Five Tips for Beginners

We would be remiss not to offer you some tips about getting started with your new whittling hobby. Here are five tips for whittling wood. 

     1. Start With Thinner Knives

The thinner the knife you use, the better. Thinner knives are known to glide through wood a lot easier. Thinner knives are also much easier to control than larger, thicker knives. 


Remember, sharp knives are more predictable and, therefore, safer than dull knives. So keep up with your maintenance and keep your knives sharp.

      2. Go With The Grain

One of the best habits for whittling wood is cutting with the grain of the wood, not against it. Going with the grain of wood guarantees easier and smoother cuts.

      3Use Pre-Cut Blanks

One of the cool parts about whittling wood is creating something from a random piece of scrap wood or a tree branch from the yard. However, until you build up your skills, we recommend starting with pre-cut blanks. 


Pre-cut blanks are pieces of wood that are already the correct size and shape for specific whittling projects. For example, a spoon blank already has the rough shape of a spoon. You just have to get to carving and finish the job.

       4. Invest In Multiple Knives

Once you are properly hooked on your new whittling hobby, we recommend buying more knives. Having a collection of whittling knives with varying shapes and sizes will ensure that you have the right tool for the job. 

       5. Practice How to Whittle Wood

Like most hobbies, practice makes perfect. The more time you can practice the fundamentals of whittling, the quicker you will improve. 


Start with small and relatively simple projects. Get lots of repetition and then move on to larger, more complex projects. 

 

Final Thoughts on Whittling for Beginners

If you have been looking for another fun and useful activity hobby to help fill your time, then we highly recommend whittling. You can get started today with a sharp knife and some scrap wood from the yard.


Before you know it, you will be enjoying the many benefits of carving wood. Plus, you will be building skills and creating tools to help you remain self-reliant. 


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