Learning the finer points of whittling

When most people think of whittling, they usually think of an old man sitting on his front porch

When most people think of whittling, they usually think of an old man sitting on his front porch, his trusty old Schrade pocket knife in hand, whistling some vaguely familiar tune while cutting away on a piece of wood.

Such images remind us of simpler times. I remember trying to carve a wooden whistle with a folding penknife when I was a kid in Boy Scouts. I got booted out of the scouting movement before I was able to finish my project. Be that as it may, I recently found myself watching a group of whittlers gathered in Sorrento. Not only was I fascinated with the objects d’art they were producing from small pieces of wood, I was also impressed with both their sense of humour and the satisfaction they seemed to derive from their efforts.

As was explained to me, a fair amount of whittling is, indeed, done with a simple pocket knife. However, there is also a whole whack of highly specialized whittling and carving knives that are routinely used by more skilled whittlers – not to mention tools such as saws, chisels and awls. It was also pointed out, with a certain amount of subtle humour, that there is another tool, often overlooked in the whittling process – the common lead pencil. It is used before any cuts are made and enables a whittler to consider and help develop an overall picture of what the piece will look like when completed.

“It’s one thing to see an image in the grain of the wood,” said one fellow. “It’s another to follow lines drawn on that piece of wood that enable you to determine the depth and length of your cuts.”

In a matter of minutes, right before my eyes, a piece of wood was transformed into a small, bearded character that resembled something out of Lord of the Rings.

Another carver whittled out a dog that reminded me of my old dog Duff, while hardly looking at his hands. That little guy now sits on my window sill.

In talking to some of the other whittlers, it was also pointed out, with equal subtleness, that safety is of extreme importance when using sharp tools.

“Tools make no distinction between wood or flesh,” one fellow said. I could not help but feel he had used that line on a fair number of people.

“The first rule of safety, when it comes to whittling, is to keep your fingers, or any other body parts, away from the cutting edge of your tools.”

It was obvious from listening, that each of the gathered whittlers took great pride of ownership when it came to their tools. I learned that whittling tools are personal. They need to be stored with sharp edges wrapped and protected. Even the salt in the sweat from your hands can cause steal to pit and rust. Also, sharpening is as important to the use and maintenance of tools as it is to the safety of the person using them.

“The level of your sharpened edge is very important. If it’s too sharp, the steal will become brittle and break off. If its cutting edge is too blunt, the tool will be too dull to work with,” one fellow said. They all agreed.

Apparently, experienced whittlers have learned to tuck their elbows into their sides to reduce the amount of movement of the blade. The safest way to whittle is to simply make sure not to point a knife at yourself.

They also explained the type of wood you choose depends on your project. Soft woods, such as pine, can be carved more easily but lacks the ability to hold detail. Hardwoods such as ash, oak and maple are very difficult to carve but hold finer detail. Basswood, while soft and easy to carve, also has a fine grain and is considered an excellent choice for beginners as it can be found at most local craft shops for a reasonable price.

As it happens, I own a Schrade pocket knife, one that I’ve had for the better part of half a century. It has done me well over the years and still keeps a sharp edge. A small block of wood won’t cost much. I can whistle, so maybe I think I can really see myself sitting out on the porch of the cabin up at the lake, whiling away the hours whittling away on a piece of wood. Maybe I could try to complete that whistle I started so many years ago.


Salmon Arm Observer