Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Whittling Knives

Whittling is one of those nebulous terms that can imply a range of activities from carving figurines and geometric shapes to nothing more than sharpening a stick.  As in a lot of things the definition rests more with the skills of the doer than with the word itself.  There’s nothing wrong with that since whittling is meant to be a solitary experience.  One sits down with a sharp knife and a piece of green wood and, assuming proper technique, shaves and cuts and otherwise whittles.  Years ago I saw a man whittling with a piece of glass and I suspect the first whittler used stone flakes or sea shells.  Venus sunray clams were used by Indians along the Texas Gulf Coast in pre-Colombian times for scraping and woodcarving.  Nowadays people use knives.  The classic whittling knife is probably a slipjoint (pocket knife) with from one to three blades.  Assuming sufficiently hard steel a slipjoint makes an excellent whittling tool and I use pocket knives more than any other knife.  Even so, I’ve made fixed-blade woodcarving knives and now and then I’ll toss one into my shoulder bag and find a quiet spot and then sit down and begin whittling.  It’s as much a moment spent in contemplation as anything else.  Mind you, my whittling endeavors do not amount to anything fancy.  I might throw in a hook knife and make a spoon and, in fact, I could use the “hook” for the entire process; but being an aficionado of the knife I like carrying more than one cutting tool.  Life should be eclectic in that sense.  And besides, one should do things incorporating more than a singular mental or motor pathway.  If you work on a computer all day, for example, then perhaps you might crochet at night.  But then I don’t crochet so I make knives and selfbows, spoons and bowls.  I also enjoy playing the guitar.

Please allow me to show you some photographs of a couple of whittling and woodcarving knives I made a few years ago.  They are very sharp and they work very well.  In fact, I’ve thought about making some more of these knives since there is a satisfaction in having made the tool that was later used to whittle a piece of wood and thus form something else.

The steel is 1095 and the wood is Texas ebony.  Softer steels will work but not as well.  You can buy a nicely made Chinese slipjoint pocket knife for less than fifteen-bucks but invariably they are made of 440A stainless steel.  If the wood is green and soft then 440A works okay.  If the wood is hard then 440 of any sort works poorly.  There are other steels but 1095 is easy to cook and pound and I see no reason to experiment with anything else.

Blade lengths need not be more than a couple of inches.  With the two knives pictured I can make an impromptu walking cane or fashion a trigger for a snare.

Beauty is something humans enjoy incorporating into their tools whether a small whittling knife or a 16 gauge double made in the Basque country.  Thus a well-shaped blade and pretty wood make for an attractive knife.

I have to be in the mood to make a knife.  Sometimes I’ll go for weeks and not make anything.  In the interim I’ll spend my time doing other things.  Of course, there is always woods roaming.  The excitement of the long walk does not fade.  Day before yesterday I surprised a big boar hog while on my walk and two days before that I took note of the leather-stem (Jatropha dioica) now covered in leaves which is rare.  Sometimes I can’t sleep and so I’ll get up and grab a flashlight and go for a hike.  A while back I spotted two amber eyes looking at me.  I stopped and stared and the eyes stayed fixed.  I moved closer and the eyes held still.  I began making the sound of a rabbit in distress and noted an abrupt change in the eyes…as if through the amber reflection a new found interest emerged.  I moved closer but the eyes held.  This went on for at least five minutes until I was within a few yards of those beautiful eyes.  It was then that I was able to make out a round face and long body and a tail as long as or longer than both.  It can’t be, I thought.  But it was.  And that’s all I’ll say on the matter….


  1. These are little beauties Arturo. I agree, there is indeed much pleasure in making the tools and then using them to make other things with. I have made knives with the blade pretty much the same shape as your top one. I really like the look of your woods! May I ask how you finish your knives handles? They always look very polished and shiny on your photos. I use all sorts of woods, including Ivy. That makes really nice handles, particularly if the wood is spalted, and finish with either linseed oil or danish oil.

    Your story about those eyes is mouth watering! I wonder what creature they belonged to! Ah, well the speculating is sometimes better than the knowing. Nice to know there are still wild animals in the wild.

  2. Arturo - beautiful knives.... I've made most of the carving knives I use... I buy the blades and make the handles. Like Joel said, that wood is beautiful, I don't think I've ever seen it before. Being here in the northeast we don't see the many wonderful woods you have down in Texas. Enjoyed the show-n-tell...

    1. Doug:

      Please look below for answers to your questions.


  3. Thanks, fellows, for the comments.

    I am putting together a post on the woods I use for knife handles and spoons etc. Just need to get a few more photos.

    As for the finish: The two knives in the above post were given a couple of coats of a clear polyurethane after the wood was smoothed down in progressive stages from 80 grit to 600 grit. I don't do that on the larger knives because I prefer better gripping qualities. The large "Woods Roamer" knives get taken down to about 80-100 grit and then finished either with polyurethane or Tung Oil depending on the wood used. I use either Tung Oil or polyurethane on my crooked and hook knives. Some woods work better with polyurethane, particularly the woods with a specific gravity over 0.90. The really hard woods with SPs over 1.0 do not work well with penetrating oils like Tung Oil.

    Thanks, again.

  4. I really like this knives. Thanks for sharing with us great blog.
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