Whittling is one of the skills many of us think we don’t have. Maybe we haven’t spent weeks in the woods on scout trips and have never met a circumstance in which carving a wooden spoon seemed life or death or even called for. More realistically, maybe we’ve just never had the time, inclination, or means to develop these skills.

Seriously, without a porch, rocking chair, and a rural setting with a wily grandparent sprung from the earth, how does one go about acquiring the necessary know-how for whittling? Sure, it would be amazing to carve a little face in a stick. That would totally impress friends and family. It might even be fun. But…isn’t that really hard to do?

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Without a doubt, there are some whittling projects that require serious skill, patience, time, and equipment. On the other hand, like anything, there are also beginner woodworking projects that take nothing more than a pocket knife, a chunk of wood, and a YouTube video. In other words, today—isolated, indoors—might be the day to learn to whittle wood.

Tools

Source: Syman Woodcarving/Youtube

Start investigating whittling equipment and the implements on offer soon become overwhelming. Whittling has a specialty piece for every task imaginable, but in reality, beginners can make do with a sturdy, sharp pocket knife. If it has a long blade and a short blade, those might be useful, though one blade will certainly work.

For those who want to go out into the forest (or backyard) and source their own whittling wood, a pruning saw could come in handy as well. The three projects at the end of this article can all be carved from fresh, windfall branches found in the park or neighbor’s garden. A pruning saw can cut these branches to an appropriate size.

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Aside from physically cutting and shaving the wood, safety is important, and there are two major players here: a sharpener and finger protection. A sharp knife is crucial to whittling as it makes cutting easy, helping us avoid putting undue pressure on a cut. Even so, finger protection is the wise choice, and there are many options: a full glove, friction tape, or even finger sleeves.

Materials

Source: Carving is Fun/Youtube

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While not entirely necessary, choosing softwood makes a huge difference as to the ease of the project. Chopping into a piece of oak is much more daunting than, say, cedar or pine. Craft stores will have options, particularly balsa wood (a few bucks for several blocks of wood). Fir, poplar, basswood/linden and paulownia are other good species to play with.

The general idea for high quality whittling wood is to find hardwoods that are soft to cut into. Balsa wood, basswood, poplar and maple are examples of this. These woods are easy enough to cut but stout enough to hold carving details well. Furthering those details, straight grains and minimal knots are desirable qualities for carving wood.

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All that said, a piece of 2X4 from the hardware store can be carved, and if this is just an experiment, a chunk of scrap pine lumber is probably good enough and easy to find.

Cuts & Techniques

Source: How To Carve Wood/Youtube

Another reason many people avoid whittling is that it seems to be a surefire way of cutting a finger. To avoid this, there are a few standard ways of cutting and important safety techniques used when performing the different cuts. Taking a moment to become acquainted with some of the cuts and how to perform them safely could mean the difference between whittling wood or whittling a thumb. Here are some basic cuts:

  • Rough Push Cut: The knife blade is pushed away from the whittler. This is used for shaping the wood before adding details.
  • The Paring Cut: Using a thumb for leverage, the knife blade is pulled towards the whittler. The thumb must be kept out of the blade’s path.
  • The Stop Cut: The knife blade is pressed down into the wood. Then, a second cut is made at an angle, stopping at the first. This takes a little chunk out of the wood.

Without getting too far into more of these descriptions, suffice it to say, watching the video above is a good idea for learning how to make these cuts and several others before endeavoring on a whittling adventure.

Great Beginner Projects

With the right tools, materials and a few techniques, it’s the right time for taking on a beginner’s project, and there are some whittling classics. These are fun and, while fairly simple, impressive. They all take less than an hour, and they feel great to finish, even better to show off.

Spoon:

Source: David’s Passage/Youtube

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Faces:

Source: David’s Passage/Youtube

Owls:

Source: FoxChapelVideos/Youtube

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