Getting started with wood carving – Safety

Before I move on to wood and beginner projects, I should talk a little bit about safety.

Unless you’re a chef or a surgeon, or have some other job that requires you to play with sharp implements, your carving knife will most likely be the sharpest knife you’ve ever had. A year ago I thought I knew how to sharpen a knife. And in Boy Scout circles, I did. Yes, I could shave hairs off my arm with my pocket knife. But even that’s dull compared to the edge you’ll find on a good carving knife. If you’re not careful you can do some serious damage to yourself with that knife.

You’d be well served to get a carving glove and a thumb guard when you buy your carving knife.  The glove is made from Kevlar and will usually prevent a cut when your knife slips.  It can’t stop all cuts, and it won’t prevent a stab (i.e. hitting your hand with the point of the knife).  But it will stop most slices.  You wear the glove on your holding hand:  the one that’s not holding the knife.  The thumb guard is for your knife hand, to protect the thumb when you’re pulling the knife towards yourself in much the same way you’d peel an apple.

There are carvers who don’t wear a glove or thumb guard.  There are also carvers who will tell you that they wish they had worn them.  I haven’t cut myself when wearing the glove and thumb guard.  I have, however, cut myself when not wearing them.  That’s good enough reason for me to make sure I have my safety gear.

You’ve probably heard that you’re more likely to cut yourself with a dull knife than with a sharp one.  That appears to be true, even though the idea seems counter-intuitive.  Consider:

  • A dull knife is more likely to slip off the wood.  When the blade slips, you lose control of it.
  • It takes more force to push a dull knife through the wood.  If it slips or if the wood splits, you have more force behind the blade.  You have less control when applying heavy force, so again you can lose control of where the blade goes.

The knife is designed for cutting, not prying.  If you try to pry with the knife, you’re likely to break the blade.  Not only does this ruin the knife, but that tip can become an eye-seeking projectile.

The old Boy Scout rule I remember was to create a “zone of safety” around myself whenever I was holding a knife.  Whenever somebody came within arm’s reach, I was to stop whittling and close the knife.  It’s a good idea to keep that in mind when you’re carving.  If somebody approaches, stop carving and put the knife down.  Or put the blade cover on the knife and hold it.

Never take your eyes off the blade when you’re carving.  Yes, there are blind carvers, but the rest of us depend primarily on our eyes to tell where the blade is.  If you take your eyes off the blade, it’s as likely to cut your hand as it is the wood.

Don’t put your hands or other parts of your body in front of the blade, and when you catch yourself thinking that a particular cut you’re about to attempt is a bad idea, stop and think about what you’re doing.  As always, the most important part of safety is using your brain to keep yourself from getting hurt.

2 comments to Getting started with wood carving – Safety

  • logan

    great article, just got back from ER, first time carving, no safety glove oh holding hand, pushed to hard on a large cut, and it went right through my thumb, and thumb nail, and hit the bone. got 5 stitches, kinda wish i would have read this article before, but a good lesson regardless!

  • Jim

    I’m sorry to hear about your injury, Logan. I hope it’s not so serious that it will stop you from carving in the future. Carving is a very rewarding hobby, but you have to be careful.

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