Want to Work with Wood? Start with Whittling!

“I’ve always wanted to work with wood, but I never know where to start. There’s just so much to learn!”


It’s a common quandary, one we hear all too often from friend and patrons of Carriage House. Woodworking is a wonderful hobby that can bring its practitioners years of satisfaction and enjoyment. It’s true that there’s a lot to learn, but that’s half the fun! It’s time to embrace your status as a fresh-off-the-sawmill scholar of this fine discipline. But first, we have to address that all important question – where to start.


Well, with whittling, of course!


Many of us probably experimented with rudimentary whittling projects as children – sitting around a campfire and turning large sticks into smaller, pointier sticks.


Whittling requires a minimal investment in equipment, and it’s a great way to get a feel for the way wood behaves as we shape it. To get started, all you’ll need is a knife and a block of raw wood.


The Knife


Generations of handy craftspeople have used nothing but a trusty pocket knife to whittle. If you already have a favorite pocket knife, you’re halfway there. If, on the other hand, you’re more inclined toward using specialized tools, there are a number of fixed-blade whittling knives available on the market. Whatever knife you use, you’ll want to keep it sharp. This will not only make whittling easier, it will protect your thumb from becoming collateral damage. A sharp knife will glide easily through wood, whereas a dull knife is more likely to catch, snag, and jump toward your hand. If you’re especially concerned about the health and well-being of your thumb, you might consider investing in a leather thumb guard to protect your digit. As long as you keep your knife sharp, however, the risk of injury is fairly minimal.


The Wood


When you first start whittling, you’ll want to avoid hard woods, knots, and complex grains. Basswood, known for its softness and simple grain, is a favorite of many novice whittlers. Pine is another good candidate for beginners, however it is so soft that you might have a hard time carving fine details. Balsa is another popular option, as it is cheap, easy to work with, and readily available at many craft stores.


Perhaps the most important advice we can give to aspiring whittlers is to take your time. Two basic cuts – the push stroke and the pull stroke – will constitute the bulk of your early whittling work. The push stroke is likely the stroke you used when you whittled those tiny spears as a child. The pull stroke is similar to the motion of paring an apple. Practice these basic motions to get a feel for the way your knife moves through wood.


There are all sorts of great resources for beginner whittlers online. Veteran whittler Lawrence Spinak maintains one such site devoted to providing aspiring whittlers with all sorts of tips and tricks to help improve their craft.


Why wait any longer? It’s time to get whittling!