How to Whittle With a Pocket Knife Like Your Old Man

Whether you need a new spoon or a spear or just want to pass the time, whittling is the perfect solution. It’s easy to pick up and can be a great way to wind down.

It has some risks, but if you keep your projects simple at first and make sure to follow safety precautions, you’ll be fine. 

Chances are, you’ll have everything you need at home in order to start whittling, so let’s jump right in and find out how to whittle with a pocket knife.

What You’ll Need

Before you can whittle anything, you need a knife and some wood. Things other than those can help the process, but they won’t be necessary. Below, you’ll find what to look for when deciding what knife to use on what type of wood.

The Knife

The best pocket knife for whittling will include multiple blade lengths and will be made of a metal that’s easily sharpened. However, almost any knife will work, it just might not do exactly what you want it to.

Aside from the blade size and metal, you should also consider the grip of the handle and whether the blade locks. If the blade doesn’t lock, you’ll just want to be a little more careful.

Swiss Army knife would be good to start out with since it’s cheap and versatile. You can also find knives that are made for whittling, but they aren’t usually folders.

You’ll also want some sort of sharpener or honing device whether it’s some hundred-dollar doohickey, a leather strop, or a brick you found in your backyard. If you don’t know how to sharpen a knife, be sure to check out this guide so you don’t break your blade.

The Wood

The ideal wood for whittling will be anything that’s soft and has straight grain and no knots. It’s also better to use dry wood because green wood will likely crack when it dries and ruin your sculpture (however, green wood can be easier to carve).

Specific types of wood include basswood, balsa, and pine. You can get various sizes of these woods from many stores and websites, but that takes away some of the fun. Whittling is partly about taking useless pieces of wood you find lying around and turning them into something else.

I say if you’re going to buy a piece of wood to make a nice bowl out of, you might as well just buy a bowl. Of course, you’ll likely get better quality wood from stores than from anywhere else, so it really depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

As for the size and shape of the wood you’ll be attempting to whittle, you should keep in mind how you’ll be holding it and whether the piece will be too awkward to handle.

Other Things That Could Help

If you want to whittle but feel like you’ll just cut yourself, there are some things you can do that will help reduce some of the risk. 

Wearing a leather glove or a thumb pad will help keep your hand from injury and will allow you to apply a little more pressure when drawing the knife towards your thumb. You can also put a wood board or some leather in your lap to reduce the risk of stabbing yourself in the leg.

How to Whittle With a Pocket Knife

At this point you should have some wood and something to cut it with. If that’s the case, then you’re ready to start carving away.

If I were to summarize the entire process of whittling, it would be this: very slowly and tediously removing the parts of the wood that don’t look like your finished product. And if I were to reduce that into a single word, it would simply be slow.

In general, you don’t want to remove big pieces at once or cut deep into the wood. You almost just want to nick the wood over and over. Whittling is more about the process than the end result, and if you want to get a result quickly, then you should just break out the power tools.

That said, let’s jump into some different cuts you can use to get your wood shaped up with ease. (If you’re left-handed, be sure to reverse the directions or you’ll have a bit of trouble.)

Straightaway Rough Cut

This is the cut you’ll use to get the rough shape of your sculpture. While holding the wood in your left hand, move the blade across the wood in a long sweeping motion. Because you’re moving the knife away from your body, you can be a little less careful, but you still don’t want to make any big cuts.

Push Cut

You’ll want to use this cut for when you need more precision in your whittling. It involves holding the blade with your right hand and pushing it into the wood with your left thumb. The wood will be held in your left palm and the blade should be facing away from you.

This technique is good for getting into tight spaces and for cutting small grooves. If you are making a groove, it’s important to work at it little by little instead of trying to cut the whole thing out at once.

Also, try to keep your left thumb away from the tip of the blade so it doesn’t catch and ruin your day.

Pull/Pare Cut

If you’ve ever pared an apple by pulling your knife towards your thumb, then you’ve already mastered this cut. This is probably the technique you’d see most people using if you went around watching people whittle.

You’ll want to hold the wood in your left hand and position the part of the wood you want removed between the blade and your right thumb. Then, simply draw the blade towards your thumb to make a cut.

This cut is very simple and will give you a lot of control, but it can be risky. If you want to stay on the safe side, now would be the time to whip out a thumb pad or put on a glove.

Things to Keep in Mind

Before you start cutting any piece of wood, it would pay off to note the behavior of the grain and which way it goes. You’ll want to cut parallel to the grain as cutting perpendicular to it will probably cause the wood to crack. Plus, it’s just easier to cut with the grain.

Don’t force a cut by putting all your strength into it. Making a cut is almost like pulling out a weed—yank too hard and you’ll break something.

Finally, be sure to keep your knife sharp. A blunt knife will skip easier and that’s just asking for injury. Whenever it starts to get difficult to make a cut, give your blade a good honing.

A Little Bit of Inspiration

In case you have no idea what to carve, I’ve compiled a list of things to whittle from easy to not so easy. Of course, you don’t necessarily need a goal in order to start whittling—sometimes it can be fun to just grab a stick and chip away at it until it’s no longer a stick. 

But assuming you want some purpose to your whittling, here are some ideas.

A Spear – This is about as simple as you can get, but it’s pretty fun and useful, especially when camping. If you need something to hold your marshmallows, just bring the tip of a stick to a point and you’re good to go.

A Sphere – Not exactly the most exciting thing, but a simple ball can be good practice. Once you’ve mastered making a sphere, you’ll be ready for anything.

A Whistle – If you have access to a willow tree, you can easily make a whistle from one of its branches. The inside of the branch will slide out, which can then be carved in a whistle-like fashion.

An Animal – This is a common thing to whittle, but it can be fun, whether you’re attempting to carve your neighbor’s dog or your pet goldfish. You’ll definitely want some smaller blades for sculptures like this.

A Ball in a Cage – Now we’re starting to get pretty complicated. The concept behind this tricky device is that you carve a ball while also carving a cage around said ball. The result is something that will leave anyone baffled.

A Wooden Chain – If you thought the ball in a cage was tricky, then this is the next level up. It’s basically taking that same “impossible sculpture” concept and doing it over and over until you have a chain. 

Some Helpful Tips

-If you’re not a seasoned knife user or don’t feel confident enough to carve a block of wood, it can never hurt to practice a bit on a bar of soap. It’s a lot safer, it’s easier, and it will give you a good feel of the movements before you begin whittling wood.

-At some points in the process, you may have to make a small indent or carve out the inside of a hole. If you’re not sure what to use to get the job done, the can opener on a Swiss Army knife would be perfect for any concave carving.

 

You should now be knowledgeable enough to make a decent sculpture or two. And with enough practice, you’ll be able to venture on to more demanding projects. I bet that, before long, you’ll be whittling picture-perfect portraits, functional instruments, and puzzles that put the Gordian Knot to shame. I might even venture to say you could have yourself a working phone or a flashlight—maybe even a laser cannon or a portal gun. But I’m going to have to draw the line at a time machine.

Hopefully you found this article helpful. If I missed anything or if you have any questions (or just want to type something), then be sure to leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

6 thoughts on “How to Whittle With a Pocket Knife Like Your Old Man

  1. Wow, great detailed article for my husband to follow. He asked me to help find instructions online to whittle with some wood.  He has always tried but not successful and gets frustrated and quits his projects. If you do not mind would also like to share your instructions with friends and family of ours that love to Whittle as well.

    1. Hi Jannette,

      I think the biggest turn off for beginning whittlers is how hard it can be to cut the wood. It’s crucial to have a sharp knife and soft wood or else whittling will be a pain. So, if your husband finds whittling frustrating, it might worth it to give the tools a good check up.

      I’m glad you found this article detailed enough for your needs.

      Isaac

  2. Hi Isaac,

    This post makes me want to sit on the porch on a rocking chair and whittle away. The ball in the cage idea looks great, but I bet it takes a lot of time to do and it pretty tricky. How long would it take the average whittler to create something like that?

    1. Hi Tom,

      How long it takes to whittle something depends on how fast you work, how detailed you want the finished product to be, and how easy it is to remove wood. A skilled whittler could probably carve an eight-inch model in five hours.

      But assuming we have an average whittler using an average knife using an average piece of wood, I’d say at least double that time plus the planning, experimenting, and correcting. So by my estimation, probably twelve hours.

      I’ve never been brave enough to try a ball in a cage, but I’ll probably give it a go someday.

      Isaac

  3. Hi This is the same website that I gave my opinion too. I love your website. It is very nice. The topics are very interesting and I love how you explain everything about topics. The layout of everything is beautiful all that I can see is, like i already said, you have to put in more images and on the About Me page. That is the only fault that I can see on your website!

    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      I’m glad you like my website! I try to put extra emphasis on clarity and understandability and I guess it’s working.

      Also, I definitely need to give my About Me page an update. I’ll be sure to add some images too–last time I gave it an update I didn’t even think about pictures!

      Anyways, thanks for your comment. I always appreciate some good feedback.

      Isaac

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