Whittling is something of a lost art form, it’s been around for thousands of years. This backcountry craft can enrich your camping trips and make passing time out in the wilderness much more enjoyable. Skills such as whittling, foraging for edible nuts, and identifying poisonous berries make you a much better camper. They’re easy to learn and can help you to feel much more in touch with nature.
Simply put, whittling is shaving away at a piece of wood using a knife, with the goal of creating a particular design. It’s a little different from wood carving, which requires more skills, tools, and experience. Anyone can whittle, it’s easy to learn and you only need a few simple supplies. In this article, we’re going to share everything you need to know to get involved in the wonderful world of whittling. We’ll tell you about the tools you need, the basic techniques you can apply, and how to select the perfect piece of wood for your project.
An introduction to wood whittling
Whittling is a wonderful pastime for people who love to work with their hands. Perhaps you’d like to create something using natural materials, but don’t have the tools or space to get involved in full-blown carpentry. Luckily, whittling is highly accessible; it’s cheap, it doesn’t require much space, and it’s easy. Even the most simple of projects, such as sharpening a stick to a point, can be very satisfying to complete.
Like many outdoor activities, there are a handful of safety concerns regarding wood whittling. This hobby does involve spending a considerable deal of time with a sharp blade, so caution is required. However, if you approach this craft with respect then you can gain a great deal of enjoyment from it. Whittling can be very relaxing and therapeutic, it’s so satisfying to create something with your own two hands. The process of turning a natural piece of wood into a tool or decoration is something we highly recommend trying out.
You don’t have to go camping to whittle. You can do it in your backyard, or even inside on a sunny day. If you’re waiting for your next camping trip, a spot of whittling can help tide you over and give you the backcountry hit you desire. Almost anything can be whittled from wood; from spoons and knives to decorative flowers and other designs. This rewarding hobby is very easy to get started; first, let’s explore the different tools you could use.
Choosing your whittling tool
All you really need to whittle is a sharp edge; it doesn’t really matter what kind. However, we’re going to lay out the most popular options for whittling tools, so that you can make the best choice for your needs. Most people will already own at least one of these knives, so you don’t need to make any special purchase. We actually recommend beginning to whittle with whatever you have on hand, as it’s not necessary to buy any dedicated equipment straight away.
- Pocket knife: Your trustworthy pocket knife is a fantastic whittling tool! This is what most people use to whittle, it’s convenient and you probably carry it on every camping trip anyway. Pocket knives are an ideal option because they don’t require you to carry any special equipment, and they’re likely equipped with more than one blade so you have some choice. Most pocket knives, such as the Swiss Army Knife, have a larger blade which you can use for the bulk of your whittling, and a smaller blade that you can employ for detail work. There are a few downsides to using your pocket knife as a whittling tool. First of all, using it on wood will dull the blade very quickly, meaning it’s less useful for the other purposes you carry it for. That means you’ll have to sharpen it more often, which isn’t the end of the world. In addition, many pocket knives might be a little larger than the ideal whittling blade, making your project more difficult to complete. Finally, as a general-purpose blade, pocket knives aren’t as effective as specialist whittling knives, but as a beginner option, we think they are best.
- Whittling knife: There’s a huge range of specialty whittling knives on the market. Most of them have a fixed blade, meaning they don’t fold over into themselves. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. On the one hand, the reason for this is safety, as foldable knives have a change of moving while they are in use, which could potentially lead to injury. On the other hand, this sturdiness makes the knives less portable as they’re larger in size and will require a cover on the blade during transport. Whittling knives, as specialist tools, are unsurprisingly easier to use than pocket knives. They have ergonomically-shaped handles to reduce hand fatigue in a long whittling session. Because these knives are designed for use on wood rather than a general-purpose pocket knife, they’ll stand up to the task better and need sharpening less often. Whittling knives will also likely have a selection of different blades and tools which you can use for shaping and detailing your project.
If you’re just starting out whittling, there’s no need to buy any special tools. The expense (and additional gear to carry) of specialized whittling knives isn’t worth it for beginners, as you can achieve almost the same result with a regular knife. If you get more involved in this hobby, then perhaps a set of whittling tools is worth the cost, but to begin with, your trusty pocket knife is ideal.
Choosing a Wood to Whittle
After you’ve selected an appropriate blade, the next thing you need is something to whittle. Softwood is a necessity for beginners as it’s much easier to work with, and you’re less likely to have an accident than working with harder materials. Once you have some whittling experience and become more confident in your skills, hardwood projects last longer and hold their shape better. However, it’s best to start out with softer materials and develop your skills from there.
Another recommendation for beginner whittlers is to select wood with a straight grain. This makes whittling strokes much smoother, and the wood is less likely to chip and ruin your project. There are hundreds of different softwoods that fit into this category, so here are a few of the best and most popular types of wood for beginners in whittling to use:
- Basswood: Basswood is one of the oldest traditional woodworking materials. It’s very soft, and the grain is extremely fine, meaning a sharp knife will cut through with ease. Basswood is one of the best choices for beginners as you can achieve a great result without too much effort. However, it’s not a material you’ll come across in the backcountry so you need to buy basswood blocks from a craft or hardware store.
- Balsa wood: Balsa wood is very similar to basswood, except it’s darker in color. The straight grain and soft texture make it easy for beginners to carve, and this material is cheap to buy from craft or hobby stores. As you whittle balsa wood, it may turn to a yellow-brown color.
- Butternut: Butternut is another very popular whittling material. It has a slightly coarser grain than basswood or balsa but is just as easy to work with. You can buy butternut for whittling from lumberyards.
- Pine: Pine is a very popular whittling wood that can be found almost anywhere. It’s easy to recognize when you’re out on a camping trip, making it ideal for impromptu projects. Fresh pine contains a lot of sap, but dead and dry wood is soft and easy to whittle.
- Apple and cherry wood: Apple and Cherry wood are both easy to find out in the backcountry, and both have a wonderful smell which adds some additional enjoyment to the whittling process. Ideal for making cutlery or bowls, these fruit woods are a fantastic choice for your wood carving project.
- Ash: Ash is a good choice for sturdier carving projects, such as knives or wooden stakes. The wood from an ash tree has a straight grain which makes it fairly easy to whittle and is an easy material to find out in the field.
- Birch: Birch is one of the most common trees across the northern hemisphere, you can find it almost anywhere. This wood is soft and often drops branches to the forest floor so your materials are readily available. Birchwood can be used to whittle whether it’s green or dry, making it a reliable option for any woodworking project.
- Sticks and Branches: Although it may seem obvious, all the random twigs and branches scattered around in nature can be turned into a whittling project! They’re soft and easy to work with, and there’s a surprising number of things you can create from a simple fallen twig. Look out for a reasonably straight branch without too many knots, and you could make a knife or many different decorative items.
Dry vs green wood
If you pick up a fallen branch in the forest, it’s most likely to be wet, or green. The higher moisture content of green wood makes it easier to work with, and of course, you can find it everywhere in the wild. The downside of working with green wood is your project will be less durable and is unlikely to last long under pressure. Green wood is ideal for beginners because it’s easy to achieve a high level of detail, but more advanced whittlers may choose a longer-lasting material.
Dried and potentially treated woods are more challenging to whittle, and you’re less likely to come across them in the field. If you want to work with cured wood, you’ll probably need to buy it from a shop, adding to the cost of your project. However, the price is worth it if you’re creating a piece you want to withstand the test of time.
As well as a carving knife and a block of wood, there are a few other supplies you might want for your whittling project. It’s very important to use a sharp blade when whittling, as not only will your work become much harder as the knife dulls, but the change of accidental injury also increases. To keep your carving knife sharp, you’ll need a sharpening stone. This will help you keep the blade as thin and accurate as possible, allowing you to achieve a better level of detail and keep whittling away for a longer period of time.
You may also want to invest in some protective gear designed for whittling. This art form requires the use of a very sharp blade throughout, so cuts are a real danger. Work gloves, particularly cut resistant gloves, are a great idea to wear while you whittle. You could also use a thumb guard which allows for more maneuverability while protecting the part of your hand most likely to meet the blade. Safety should always come first, so be careful anytime you use a whittling knife. Broken wooden projects can be very disappointing, but it’s more preferable than losing a finger. One alternative to a thumb guard is to wrap your working thumb in duct tape. It’s a clumsy solution, but a few layers of duct tape is better than no protection at all.
How to whittle
So, after you’ve selected the best wood for your whittling project, and are well supplied with an appropriate knife and protective gear, it’s time to get started! The first thing you need to know regarding how to whittle is to always go with the grain. Trying to carve perpendicular to the grain can result in splitting and tearing wood, while cuts along the grain will be smooth and clean. Examine your material carefully to figure out which direction the grain is going. With practice, you will be able to identify it much more easily.
There are many different styles of whittling, and over time you’re likely to develop your own preferred techniques. However, there are several basic whittling cuts that every beginner should learn. With these in your arsenal, completing most wooden projects should be easy. In all techniques, the knife is held in your dominant hand while your wood is held in the other. Here are the cutting techniques you need to know to start whittling:
- Straightaway rough cut: When you begin a new whittling project, the first cut you’ll need is the straightaway rough cut. Use this technique to create a rough shape of the design you want to produce. It’s difficult to create detail with a straightaway rough cut, but it’s the best option to carve away the majority of unwanted material. To make this cut, you use a long, sweeping movement away from your body. Don’t cut too deep; the idea is to shave away at the wood one thin layer at a time to create a smooth and neat surface. If you try to go too deep with a straightaway rough cut you could ruin the peace of wood, so have patience, take your time, and enjoy the meditative nature of slowly peeling away layers of material.
- Pull stroke: The pull stroke, or paring cut, is the same cutting technique you’d use on an apple. If you’ve ever noticed an old-timer whittling, they’re probably using this cut. The pull stroke is the most common and most useful whittling cut because it allows for a great deal of control and accuracy, but it’s also dangerous because you pull the blade directly towards your thumb. To use this cut, brace the thumb of your dominant hand against the wood, using your opposite hand for support. Then, carefully pull the knife blade towards you in a short and controlled stroke. Try to keep your thumb out of the blade’s path; it’s highly recommended to wear protective gear when whittling wood using this technique.
- Push stroke: Sometimes the location of a cut means you can’t use a pull stroke. In this case, a push stroke is the next best option to maintain control and a good level of detail. Hold your project in your non-dominant hand, and place the knife where you need to cut with the blade facing away from you. Then, use your thumbs on both hands on the back of the knife blade to push the blade forward. Your non-dominant thumb should do most of the work, while your dominant thumb and hand guide the blade and provide control.
With these three basic cutting techniques, you should be able to carve most easy whittling projects. Newbies should start with a simple project, as you need to get a feel for the skill before moving on to more complicated tasks. Items such as a wooden egg, garden gnome, or knife or spoon are a great place to start. Learning to whittle wood is incredibly rewarding, even if the most complex thing you can produce is a pointy stick. There are so many DIY projects you can make by whittling, the possibilities are endless. All you need is a little time and patience, and soon you’ll be a proper wood carver!
Bonus tip: Check out this video tutorial for step-by-step instructions on creating your very own wooden spoon!
Related article: The 4 Best Fishing Knives Reviewed.