If you’ve ever spent some time outside, chances are high that you’ve seen someone sitting by a campfire working away at a small piece of wood with a knife. Whether they were making a spoon or a cute little figurine, whittling is a time-honored outdoor tradition that many people love to this day.
People who try to get into whittling, however, quickly learn that it’s not as simple as it looks. Sure, you could just pick up a twig and start slashing away at it with a knife, but you’d probably hurt yourself before you made anything useful. To help you out, we’ve created the ultimate beginner’s guide to whittling. We’ll discuss the best wood, help you find the best knife, go over safety techniques, and the different types of cuts all to get you ready for your new whittling hobby. Let’s get to it!
What exactly is whittling?
Whittling, by definition, is the shaping of wood by repeatedly scraping small bits of it away. This is distinctly different from something like carving, where one uses a chisel and mallet. It’s a fairly simple activity to get in to, as one only needs wood, a knife, and a little creativity.
Many people enjoy whittling while outside on a camping trip because it is a great way to pass the time without adding too much weight or bulk to your pack. Since many people generally have a knife on them while camping, the only extra item you need is a small piece of wood that you’ve brought from home or a random branch you found while hiking.
Best woods for whittling
Although you could whittle with any kind of wood, softwoods are usually the best for whittling because they’re easier to cut. That being said, once you’ve mastered the art of whittling on softwoods, moving on to harder woods can add a new layer of challenge and keep you engaged.
There are quite a few different softwoods that you’ll likely find yourself whittling with as you start out. Many of these are easy to find at a craft store, lumber yard, or woodworking store and are quite affordable. Regardless of what kind of wood you choose, however, try to find wood with a fairly straight grain and minimal knots. Wood with grain in multiple directions and plenty of knots is a real pain to whittle!
Basswood has been a popular wood carving material for millennia because it’s fairly soft and has little grain. This made it the wood of choice for German sculptors in the middle ages who were tasked with creating elaborate wood carvings for alters and other church artifacts.
Balsa is a great wood for beginning whittlers because it is a soft, lightweight wood, which makes it easy to scrape away. Plus, it’s pretty inexpensive, so you won’t be distraught if you mess up on one of your early balsa creations.
A widely available wood, pine is great for the beginning whittler. As a soft and easily cut wood, it’s great if you’re just starting out, but it’s important to note that many experienced whittlers don’t think pine holds detail well, so it’s not the best option for an ornate piece. Plus, if you’re using a piece of fresh pine that you found on the ground, you’ll have to frequently clean sticky sap off of your knife.
Butternut is a lesser-known wood that’s great for beginner whittling. It’s a bit darker than basswood but has a nice grain texture that’s easy to whittle. Plus, it polishes nicely and is very soft, which makes it great for working with. Butternut does frequently have wormholes, though, so don’t be too surprised if you find one in something you’re whittling!
Random twigs and branches
The best part about whittling? You don’t need to buy any fancy, expensive wood to create something awesome. If you’re out hiking, you can easily pick up a twig or branch off the ground and whittle away around a campfire. Sure, you’ll be able to pick out a nicer block of wood at a craft store, but what’s more memorable than whittling a trinket in the evenings of a fantastic camping trip?
Best knife for whittling
Perhaps the most critical whittling tool is a knife because
Opinel Carbon Steel Folding Everyday Carry Locking Pocket Knife
A simple and sturdy tool, this folding pocket knife is a classic option for whittling and every day carry. The Opinel carbon steel is extremely hard and durable, which means it cuts well, resists wear, and is easy to sharpen. Plus, all Opinel knives are made with their signature Virobloc safety ring to fix the knife open while you’re whittling.
Durableblade that’s easy to sharpen
- Easy-to-use blade lock
- Carbon steel blade corrodes when wet
- Carbon Steel (X90) Blade
- Blade Length: 3 3/16x"
- Size Open: 7 1/16"
- Weight: 1.3 oz
Wood Carving Sloyd Knife
This wood carving-specific knife from Sloyd features a thin pointed tip for delicate wood cutting and detail work. The high-quality carbon steel blade allows for a good, straight, cut through both soft and hardwood, which is great from a whittler’s perspective. Plus, the ergonomically designed handle is made of oak and pressed with linseed oil for a comfortable grip after hours of use.
- Comfortable handle
- Durable carbon steel blade
Fixedblade is more difficult to transport
- Carbon steel blade corrodes when wet
- Sloyd Knife for General Carving: this tool will become an irreplaceable helper in your work because the pointed tip will help with the details and the rounded blade allows you to make slicing cuts.
- Whittling Knife Ergonomic Handle: the shaft is made of hardwood oak and protected with natural linseed oil. The design of the handle allows to carve comfortably for a long time without hand fatigue.
- Wood Carving Knife Cutting Edge: is very sharp, allows you to cut softwood. The cuts are very smooth. The cutting edge of sloyd knife is durable to also cut hardwoods such as oak or walnut.
- Wood Carving Carbon Steel Blades: the razor is made of high-carbon steel and is hardened to proper firmness. Our wood carving tools are sharpened and polished so you can use them right from the box.
Morakniv Wood Carving 106 Knife with Laminated Steel Blade, 3.2-Inch
The Morakniv Wood Carving Knife is a quality precision whittling knife that’s been made in Sweden since 1891. With an ergonomically designed handle made of oiled birch, this is the kind of knife that feels great in your hand after hours of whittling. The knife also has a 3.2 inch long durable laminated steel blade, which is favored by greenwood workers around the world.
- Super durable laminated steel blade
- Comfortable oiled birch handle
- Fixed blade comes with a sheath
- Fixed blades aren’t the most practical for backpacking
- Wood carving knife with a durable laminated steel blade
- Oiled birch wood handle
- Limited lifetime manufacturer’s warranty.
- Blade Thickness: 0.08" (2.0 mm), Blade Length: 3.2" (82 mm), Total Length: 7.4" (188 mm), Weight: 2.0 oz. (58g)
Flexcut Right-Handed Carvin’ Jack
If you know that one tool just won’t be enough for all your wood carving and whittling needs, the Flexcut Right-Handed Carvin’ Jack might be the multi-tool for you. This jackknife is built with 6 different carving-specific edges and is designed for right-handed whittlers. It includes a chisel, a carving knife, a hook knife, a v-
- Multi-tool for different carving needs
- Includes a sharpening tool
- Made in the USA
- Right-handed only
- Heavy and bulky
- Jackknife with 6 carving specific edge tools built in for right handed carvers
- Chisel - Carving Knife - Hook knife - V scorp - gouge Scorp - Straight Gouge
- Includes sharpening strop and Flexcut Gold polishing compound
- Razor-sharp and ready to use right out of the included leather pouch
Flexcut JKN88 Whittlin’ Jack, with 1-1/2 inch Detail Knife and 2-inch Roughing Knife
If you want the flexibility of having multiple whittling tools but don’t want the weight, bulk, and expense of a large multi-tool, the Flexcut Whittlin’ Jack might be what you’re looking for. Build with two whittling-specific blades, including a 1.5-inch detail knife and a 0.5-inch roughing knife, the Flexcut Whittlin’ Jack packs a lot of whittling prowess into a small package.
- Whittling-specific multi-tool
- Hard carbon steel blade is durable and retains sharpness
- Made in the USA
- Carbon steel blade corrodes when wet
- Handle isn’t very comfortable.
- Jackknife with two whittling specific blades
- 1 1-1/2 inch detail knife and 1 2 inch roughing knife
- At just over 4 inches long it fits nicely into your pocket or pack
- Razor-sharp hard carbon steel blade is ready to use right out of the package
How to whittle safely
As whittling involves a knife, it’s probably apparent that there is some level of risk involved in the activity. Even expert whittlers are known to slip up from time to time, so it’s important to understand the basics of whittling safety. Regardless of your knowledge of basic whittling safety rules, however, complacency can easily cause an accident to occur, so we need to be sure to follow these rules at all times.
This one is both a safety rule and an artistic design rule. Whittling too quickly can easily cause a knife slip to occur and at a high speed. Plus, if you whittle too quickly you can mess up your potential design before you really even get started. Thus, we recommend starting slowly and continuing to whittle slowly throughout the process.
Keep a sharp knife
Although you might think that a sharp knife is more dangerous than a dull one, dull knives actually take much more force to use and thus pose a higher risk of injury than a sharp knife. Especially when it comes to whittling, a dull knife will be very difficult to cut with and it’ll feel like you’re trying to carve away at a brick.
Keeping a sharp knife is a great way to help prevent accidents and to make your whittling as precise and effortless as possible. Whenever you start to feel that the wood you’re whittling is getting harder to cut, stop and sharpen your knife.
If you’re a new whittler, we highly recommend that you wear a pair of gloves when you start out. This is a great extra safety precaution for when you’re getting used to the different kinds of knife strokes and general knife handling. The gloves may feel a bit cumbersome at first, but you’ll surely appreciate them should your knife slip.
Use a thumb guard
If you choose not to wear gloves, the next best alternative is a thumb guard. Due to the mechanics of whittling, the thumb on your dominant hand (the one you hold the knife in) tends to suffer the vast majority of nicks and slices while whittling. A thumb pad is a cheap way to protect your thumb without having to wear a full glove. Sure, the thumb pad isn’t as protective as a glove, but it’s better than nothing.
Go with the grain
Whittling with the grain is a great way to make the entire process easier. When you whittle with the grain, your cuts will peel away smoothly. On the other hand, cuts made against the grain will tear, split, give you a lot of resistance, and look ugly.
The first step to cutting with the grain is to identify what the grain direction actually is. Sometimes this is as easy as just looking at the wood and looking at the way the grain runs. Other times, you need to do some shallow test cuts and get a sense of how the wood peels away in a given direction.
Types of whittling cuts
While you could just start slicing away on a piece of wood, you’ll get better results if you take the time to learn about the finer points of different whittling cuts. There are several different cutting styles out there for whittlers to use, but we’ve identified a few of the most common methods.
A quick note: Our directions are for right-handed whittlers. If you’re left-handed, just flip our directions around!
Straight rough cut
This is a great cut for the beginning of a project to quickly carve out a general shape. To make a straight rough cut, hold the wood in your left hand and make a long sweeping cut with the knife in your right hand. The cuts should move away from your body and should go with the grain. It’s best to make an abundance of shallow slices instead of a few deep cuts to shape the wood.
The pull stroke (pare cut)
The pull stroke (also known as the pare cut) is one of the most popular whittling cuts. You’ve likely seen experienced whittlers using this cut to expertly craft pieces of wood with ease. It’s a great cut if you need a lot of control over your blade while making detailed cuts.
To use the pull stroke, you’ll want to hold the wood in your left hand and have your knife in your right hand with the blade facing toward you. While bracing your right thumb against the wood, you’ll squeeze your right-hand fingers toward your thumb to pull the blade closer to you.
As this cut involves moving a knife toward your body and toward your hand, it’s important to keep your stroke short and controlled. You should try to keep your right thumb out of the blade’s path as much as possible. We also recommend wearing a thumb pad for extra protection.
The push stroke (thumb pushing)
When you can’t use the pull stroke, the push stroke is a viable alternative. Like the pull stroke, the push stroke also gives you a good amount of control over the knife when you want to make detailed cuts.
To perform this stroke, you’ll hold the wood in your left hand and hold your knife in your right hand with the blade facing away from you. Then, you’ll place both of your thumbs on the back of the knife blade. Using your left thumb, you’ll push the blade forward, while with your right thumb and fingers, you’ll guide the blade as it moves through the wood.
Whittling is an art form, and like all art, you need to find a technique and style that works best for you. Every piece of wood and every knife will feel different in your hands and what you do with these objects will certainly be unique.
Our recommendation? Start slowly and simply. Choose a soft wood that’s easy to cut and a knife that feels comfortable in your hands. Get a pair of gloves or a thumb guard for some extra security while you’re learning the different cuts and be conservative in your movements. Over time, you’ll build up the confidence you need to try out new techniques and make more elaborate designs.