Whittling has been a hobby for men since the first carving knife was invented. The sculptures made from whittling tend to leave knife strokes visible, giving a rugged look to the final piece. Whittling stands on its own as a carving art form – it’s different than others because rather than carving detail into an existing wood piece, like relief carving, the end result is a standalone sculpture.
If you’re interested in whittling as a hobby, we’ve got a quick introductory rundown that will get you to first base. With enough patience and practice, you’ll be carving your own sculptures in no time.
There are two main types of wood: softwood and hardwood. Both can be whittled, but beginners should focus on softwood until they get their techniques down.
Basswood has a fine grain and is simple to carve. It’s cheap and easily available at hobby shops. We recommend starting with basswood before moving on to other types.
If you can’t find basswood for some reason, balsa is another great beginner wood. Like basswood, it has a fine grain. It’s less creamy in color than basswood, being more of a paper bag brown.
Pine is very common, very soft, but has a courser grain which makes it easier to chip. You can find pine in shades from white to yellow. Try carving the same thing in basswood and pine and notice how different they look because of the different grains.
Butternut is the best wood for transitioning from softwood to hardwood. It has a coarser grain, like pine, and is usually only available at lumber yards.
Back in the day, men just used their pocket knives to whittle but there are now better options available. For as little as $20 you can find a decent carving knife. Notice that carving knives tend to have very long, comfortable handles and very short, sharp blades. This is tremendously easier to use than a longer bladed pocket knife.
You’ll also want to pick up a ceramic sharpening stone for your knife. You can find some great videos on how to sharpen your knife safely – be sure to watch one before attempting yourself.
Keeping a very sharp knife actually makes whittling safer. When you’re using a dull knife, you have to use more pressure which increases the chances of a slip up. So, keep that knife sharp!
You can also buy special whittling gloves that are designed to be more comfortable than your standard leather hide work gloves. We highly recommend picking up a pair.
Take your time when you whittle. Rushing through a project will lead to careless mistakes (read: blood).
Trace out your design on the wood lightly in pencil to give you some guidelines. Work in stages from very rough to less rough to basic form to detailing.
Lastly, but potentially most important, cut with the grain. Keep the movement of your blade with the dark streaks running through the wood. Cutting parallel to the streaks will lead to chipping. Light shallow cuts away from your body with the grain are the best way to cut.
Watch some videos on the types of projects you’d like to tackle. Learning from other whittlers is the best way to observe techniques and get ideas for how to carve what you want.