Category Archives: Whittling

How to get started in woodcarving

This article will explain how to get started in wood carving (figure carving or whittling) it’s also sometimes referred to as carving in the round. I’ve been carving for 4 years and this is what I’ve found helpful to me. I’m a new enough carver to know what new carvers want, but experienced enough to speak to what’s available. A big thanks to my teacher Dale who has been carving for over 40 years.

Recommended tools

First you’ll need a carving knife. There are many brands to choose from. When I first started I used a recommendation by Gene Messer. He has many youtube videos and in one, he said all you need to get started is a knife with a 1.25″ – 1.5″ blade. The Scout is what I started with and I still think it’s a good knife. Don’t worry about what additional sizes to purchase at first. After you do a bit of carving you’ll know what you want to get next to suit your style of carving. The top knife has a 1.5″ blade and the bottom a 1.25″ blade. Either will work as a starter knife.

Higher quality carving knives
OCC Tools
Helvie Knives
Drake Knives
Deep Woods Ventures knives
Pfeil Swiss made

Lower priced knives
Flexcut Knives
Beavercraft knives

Specialty knives for flat plane figure carving
Pinewood Forge knives

Knives I don’t recommend
Sets like these (a single carving knife will serve you better)
Morakniv (From this Reddit post:  Morakniv aren’t really designed for figure carving. They’re Slöjd knives – for green woodworking (in the Scandinavian tradition). They excel at this purpose. Moras are good for spoons, kuksa, that kind of thing.)

Carving gloves

Next I recommend carving gloves. There are many brands out there to choose from. You’ll want to search for cut resistant gloves or woodcarving gloves. My only recommendation is that the fit is not too tight. I have a pair that’s too tight and it causes my hand to fatigue while holding the wood.

Some people use a glove on both hands like my instructor. I prefer to make a custom thumb guard with cut resistant tape. This wrap is called finger tape, it’s gauze coated with latex rubber. I wrapped this around my finger and created a form, it took several wraps to make this thumb protector. Once enough layers are built up it will keep it’s shape, and can be taken off and reused. Make sure it’s long enough to go below the main crease on the inside of your thumb.

Sharpening

This is what I use to sharpen, a 8″ leather strop attached to a piece of wood. The leather is coated with honing compound. That’s the green bar. It contains abrasives, (chromium oxide and aluminum oxide). You can also use aluminum oxide powder and sprinkle it on the strop. The bar is easier and less messy than the powder since the abrasives are bound in a waxy matrix. I just rub it over the leather like a crayon. Only a light coating is needed.

No, you don’t need to buy a sharpening stone

I’ve been carving for years and have not had to sharpen my knives on a stone. You don’t need to buy a stone at first. Sharpening on a stone is a precise skill and without a good deal of practice you’ll probably dull or create and uneven edge. That’s not a say it can’t be learned, but you can probably carve for a few years or more without ever needing to sharpen on a stone. Harely Refsal has said that in some cases he’s never sharpened some knives on a stone, only stropping.

Sharpening: How to strop a knife

Here is a good video by Harley Refasl that shows how to strop. Notice when he rolls the knife to the each side he rolls it over the heel, the back side of the knife, not the cutting edge. Here is a post that describes how to set the angle and pressure when stropping.

Wood

The wood most carvers use for figure carving is Basswood, in Europe it’s called Linden. This is because it’s softer than many other woods, but is hard enough to hold a great deal of detail.

Roughing out

Roughing out is the process of carving a block of wood down to the general shape of what you want to make. After the rough out smaller cuts are made to refine the shape and then smaller details are added. A block of wood can be roughed out using a knife which can be hard if you have to remove a lot of wood. The easiest way is with a bandsaw. If you don’t have a bandsaw you can use a coping saw. Below is a photo of a coping saw.

When I first started I used a coping saw, but found out quickly it doesn’t work well unless you can clamp the wood to something while you saw it. So consider the need to also clamp your wood to a firm surface when using this or any saw. A bench clamp or a couple ratcheting bar clamps would work if you have a sturdy table to clamp it to.

How to tell if your knife is sharp

The best way to tell if your knife is sharp is to cut end grain and see if your knife leaves a smooth clean cut. I believe this is better than testing on your nail, or shaving hair. My teacher tells me you’re not carving hair or nails.

Here is a video of carving end grain with a sharp knife. You can see that I get a clean and smooth cut.

Videos that teach how to carve

To start carving you’ll want to master the four basic cuts. Here is a video by Sharon My Art that explains how to make these cuts. I’d also recommend checking out her other videos. Here is a three part video by Grandpa’s Hands that I’ve referred to many times, he makes a person from start to finish.

Articles

I’ve written a series of articles of my woodcarving journey.

How to set the angle and pressure when stropping a knife

This post will show you in a visual way at what angle to hold the knife and how much pressure to use when stropping. Big thanks to TwinDog at bladeforums for this post.

A lot of people have noticed that stropping can make an edge duller as well as sharper. Some say you need a lot of pressure, some say you need no more than the weight of the knife. Actually, you need to get the right combination of angle and pressure.
I tried to capture this relationship visually:

The black string represents the surface of the leather strop. The wood represents the edge. It is cut to a 30-degree inclusive angle, a popular edge angle for knives with good steel. Ideally, you want the string parallel with the edge bevel.

First: Proper angle and very little pressure on the strop. With very little pressure, the leather is not depressed significantly and dragging the edge over the strop at the sharpened angle sharpens the entire edge bevel without rounding the edge. People who say you need little pressure are using the correct sharpening angle. Notice the string is parallel with the edge bevel.

Second: This shows the angle of the knife held too high on the strop, rounding the edge. This is wrong no matter what the pressure.

Third: This shows the edge held at too shallow an angle, with little pressure applied. This combination of angle and pressure rounds the shoulders of the edge bevel without affecting the edge.

Fourth: This shows the angle held too shallow, but with a lot of pressure. The pressure compensates for the incorrect angle and the edge is sharpened. Notice the string is parallel with the edge bevel. This combination will sharpen well. People who use a lot of pressure, are using a shallow stropping angle.

Finally: This shows the correct sharpening angle, but with a lot of pressure. The extra pressure causes the stopping leather’s surface to drag around the edge, dulling it.

A beginner’s woodcarving journey – Part 6

The Rabbit

Mr. Rabbit or Hazel as we call him was based on an image I found online. I printed it out and put carbon paper between the image and wood and drew over it with a pencil. This is the first carving I tinted with paint. I liked the look of the wood grain and wanted it to show through. I heavily diluted yellow ocher wet the wood and painted the entire carving. To finish it I used boiled linseed oil. This carving came out well, I could have gone a bit further with his nose and mouth, but I was afraid to. I could have carved his eyes, but they should stick out a bit and I didn’t leave room.

Because I cut the pattern of the rabbit on an angle I didn’t turn his head enough or turned it too much I didn’t have enough or didn’t leave enough room for his one ear. I just docked his ear, so it turns out he got in a fight.

I’ve gotten much better at removing excess wood with the knife. The bottom left area beside his leg needed to be removed. I was able to rather easily remove about an inch of wood. I was getting so good, I almost removed too much.

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