Getting started with wood carving – The Knife

A good sharp knife is the only essential tool you need in order to get started with whittling or wood carving.  Well, you’ll also need a way to keep the knife sharp.  Other than that, everything else is optional.  Just like the bike doesn’t make the cyclist, the toolbox doesn’t make the carver.  I’ve seen some beautifully intricate work done with “just a knife” that most carvers couldn’t duplicate even if they had the best tool collection in the world.  There is no substitute for experience.

You might be tempted to just grab any old knife, put an edge on it, and start hacking away on a piece of wood.  I strongly discourage that.  Although it’s possible to be productive with any kind of blade, you’re better off with a knife that’s designed for carving wood.  The handle is designed to fit comfortably in your hand.  The steel is selected for a good balance between edge retention and ease of sharpening, the blade is thinner than on most pocket knives, and it’s typically shaped for a specific purpose.  I have enjoyed carving a lot more since I bought my first purpose-built carving knife.

You can get a good carving knife for about $15.  I think you’re wasting money if you spend more than $30 for your first knife.  If you buy from a reputable supplier, the knife will come to you sharp and ready to go.  The first carving knife I bought was the Flexcut KN12 Cutting Knife, that I picked up at the local Woodcraft store for $15 or $20.  Although certainly not the best knife in the world, this one opened my eyes to a completely new world of carving.  The blade shape, its sharpness, and the way it fit in my hand improved my carving almost overnight and convinced me to use purpose-built tools.

Although I haven’t used one, I’ve had several people tell me that the Murphy bench knife is a great beginner’s knife.  At under $15 for this knife, it’s hard to justify using an old pocket knife for wood carving.

About two months ago, on recommendation from others, I bought a Shipley/Wells 1-3/8″ Detail Blade (item 50720 on that page).  I now use the Wells knife for all of my small carvings in basswood, and I’m using the Flexcut almost exclusively for my “found wood” (oak, mesquite, and random other woods I pick up) work.  My pocket knife rarely cuts wood these days.  No matter how sharp I make it, it can’t compare to either of the carving knives, and the handle is too small to be comfortable in my hand.

Sharp is good.  Dull is bad.  Or, as Chris Lubkeman says in his Little Book of Whittling (a great little book, by the way):

Ten Extremely Import Rules of Carving

  1. Make sure your knife is sharp.
  2. Your knife must be really sharp.
  3. Don’t try carving with a knife that isn’t sharp.
  4. Before starting to carve, check your knife to see if it’s sharp.
  5. Carving with a less-than-very-sharp knife is very frustrating!
  6. In the realm of woodcarving, sharp is good, dull is bad.
  7. Keep your knife sharp!
  8. If your knife is really sharp, it will cut better.
  9. If you missed the point of Rules 1 through 8, make sure the knife you carve with is sharp!
  10. If there’s any remaining doubt, refer back to Rules 1 through 9.

Unless you damage the blade, you shouldn’t ever have to sharpen your carving knife.  The secret is to maintain the edge so that it never gets dull.  The best way to do that is with a leather strop that has some kind of polishing compound on it.  Take a break every 15 or 20 minutes during your carving and strop your knife on the leather.  Strop more frequently if you feel the blade becoming dull or if you’re carving harder woods.  If you follow this rule, then your knife never has the opportunity to become dull.

Although you can make a strop from an old belt or other piece of leather, I recommend that you buy one or at least examine a few before you decide to make one yourself.

If you buy a strop, it’ll come with simple instructions.  Briefly:

  1. Put some of the abrasive compound on the strop.
  2. Place your knife blad flat on the strop so that the edge is pointing toward you.
  3. Push the knife back along the length of the strop.  DO NOT pull it forward as if trying to shave a thin slice off the strop.
  4. When you get to the end of the strop, roll the knife over the back of the blade so that the edge is pointing away from you, and pull the knife back towards you.
  5. Repeat the above steps five or ten times (that is, five or ten strokes along the strop for each side of the edge).

The compound you place on the strop is a very fine abrasive.  In a sense, it is “sharpening”, although it’s more like polishing.

Frequent stropping will prevent the blade from ever becoming dull and requiring you to perform real sharpening with stones or other equipment.

Always cover your knife blade when you’re not using it.  There are two reasons to cover the blade:  your own safety and protecting the blade.  You can make a blade cover from a piece of wood, or use cork or other material.  Don’t use a cork that was previously used for wine, though.  The moisture in the cork will rust your blade.

One last thing:  your carving knife is meant for wood carving.  Don’t use it to open packages, clean your fingernails, filet a fish, or anything else you’d use your pocket knife or some other blade for.  The carving knife will certainly do the job most of the time, but you risk damaging the blade.  Use the carving knife for carving, and nothing else.

Inevitably, you’ll damage a blade.  Even experienced carvers drop a knife from time to time.  If the edge becomes damaged or dulled, you can try to sharpen it yourself or you can send it off to be sharpened.  I recommend that you learn how to sharpen a knife yourself, but until you’ve gained some experience with other blades, you’ll probably want to send your carving knives to a professional.

I highly recommend Little Shavers Wood Carving Supply for all things carving related.  They have a wide selection of tools and their prices are competitive.  More importantly, they’re great people to work with.  Their customer service is first rate.  The tools I’ve bought from them have come in razor sharp and ready to carve.  If you buy a tool from them, they’ll sharpen it for free at any time.  All you pay is the actual shipping cost.  If you want them to sharpen a tool you didn’t purchase there, the cost is $3 per tool, plus shipping.

Almost all wood carvers are tool collectors.  I’ve met carvers who have tens of thousands of dollars invested in tools:  knives of all shapes and sizes, chisels, gouges, scoops, hook knives, and exotic blade shapes that I can’t even imagine a use for.  But ask them which tool they’d pick if they could only have one, and almost invariably the result will be a fairly common carving knife.  Everything else is nice to have, but optional.

As with any other hobby, my advice for wood carving is to start simple and build slowly.  Remember:  the tool doesn’t know how to carve wood.  Get a good carving knife and learn how to use and maintain it.  Start with simple projects and move on to more complex things as you gain more control over and comfort with the knife.  The time to buy other tools is when you find that there’s something you’d like to do that you can’t do with the knife or that would be more easily accomplished with another tool.  Don’t waste your money buying tools just to collect them or because you might need them in the future.  Doing so will just frustrate you.

Next time I’ll talk a bit about carving wood and some simple projects.

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