The Whittling Boy by Winslow Homer, 1873, oil on canvas.
Whittling is a great pastime, and it’s easy to get started—all you need is a knife and a piece of wood. Follow these simple tips and you’ll be on your way to a satisfying summer project.
Soft woods are the best—white pine, sugar pine and basswood are good choices for beginners. Find a piece of wood with straight grain that can fit comfortably in your hand, avoid wood with lots of knots.
Your knife should have a sharp 1-1/2 to 3 inch blade, a standard pocket knife will do in most cases. Keep your knife sharp throughout your project. A dull knife is more dangerous because you will need to push harder to make a cut, with less predictable results—if you slip the added force can do some damage. You can also use a special woodcarving knife, specifically designed for whittling, available at most hobby stores.
Here are some common whittling cuts: The pare cut or pull stroke, one of the simplest and most common, is like taking a paring knife and peeling vegetables. The push stroke is made by pushing the blade away from you, this technique can be used in roughing out your project’s general shape and, later, with smaller shaving cuts to achieve finer detail. The V-cut or channel is used to show detail in your carving in the form of hair or scales and uses the point of the knife.
- Take it slow and concentrate. Though whittling is a relaxing, meditative activity, it requires focused attention. Carelessness can cause accidents!
- Make small cuts that you can control. Remember, it’s easier to remove wood with a series of small cuts than to add it back once it’s removed.
- You generally want to cut with the grain of the wood, for ease and best results.
- Relax your grip, holding your knife too tightly will quickly tire your hand out, and may lead to stress injury.
- Consider wearing a glove to start in order to stave off cuts and injury. If this is too cumbersome, try using a thumb pad or protector—the thumb on your knife-holding hand tends to get the brunt of the nicks and glances. A little duct tape around your thumb will also do the trick.
- Be prepared, keep a first aid kit handy just in case you need it.
For some fun patterns of dogs, see these examples from the 1945 how-to manual Whittling Is Easy, made popular by generations of Boy Scouts. When you finish your project, we’d love to see it—take a photo and e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out the wonderful, miniature world of whittler, Steve Tomashek, in this video: