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Friday 29 August 2014

Teaching woodcarving with a knife at my studio in Bristol, together with some thoughts about whittling

Yesterday, Jack came to my studio to learn how to carve with a knife.  We had a great day and he wasn't the only one learning new things. He told me about a very interesting video of a talk by Denis Dutton, part of which concerns prehistoric stone tools that were possibly made solely to show the maker's skill; very interesting to a craftsperson!

Jack sent me an email afterwards saying how much he had enjoyed the day and learning a new skill. It also made me think about whittling as carving. Some carvers can be dismissive of whittling with a knife, thinking that it is an 'inferior' kind of carving. This teaching session was a strong reminder of just how daft that view is in my opinion. 

The knife is one of the most versatile tools for a carver. It was clear from watching Jack's progress that the knife work taught many lessons in working with wood that are transferable to using all other edged carving tools: working with the grain, the importance of the slicing cut, sharp blades being vital etc. These points are fundamental to a carver, they certainly aren't trivial things to learn.

The use of a single carving tool to make a complete sculpture is also a good carving exercise. My friend Jo Seitfudem told me once about his father, a master carver in Bavaria, giving him a single gouge and telling him to carve an entire sculpture with it. Without a range of tools to use, the importance of working with the timber itself to achieve a finished piece is much clearer to a novice carver.

A look at the work produced in regions that regularly use knives as a basic carving tool (Africa, Papua New Guinea) also easily illustrates that carving snobbery about their use is just narrow-mindedness.

Here's a photo of the walnut pendant that Jack carved during the session, We agreed that it looks great and it seemed to capture just what he was aiming for, with the tooled finish and the delicately carved spiral that he achieved:

It's interesting how the process of teaching a skill can so often lead to the teacher learning and seeing their speciality with fresh eyes too!


  1. YES ! I've been carving with a knife for 30 odd years & it is a totally underestimated tool.
    I don't say it's the fastest way to remove wood but it is certainly , the most enjoyable !
    Carvings made with knives alone can be every bit as sophisticated as using other tools & for the carver offer a deep immersion into the grain & structure of wood .
    I wish there were more people promoting the use of knives as a look around the internet does not give an idea of the versatility & potential of this wonderful woodcarving tool.

  2. Hi Mike, good to hear from another fan of whittling!
    I think that one of the most enjoyable things about knife carving is the way that it brings the sense of touch into the carving process as much as the sense of sight, in a way that other techniques and tools often can't or don't. When making small carvings to be worn or used in the hand (like pendants or carved knife handles), that difference often really shows in the finished work.
    It's true, a lot of stuff on the internet doesn't really seem to explore the potential of knife carving. It would be great to see more work produced using whittling techniques and discussed online and in magazines. As you say, it's not the quickest way to get a carving finished, so maybe that's why a lot of professional carvers don't talk much about it. Outside of the fields of character carving and spoon carving (both of which, of course, can include some stunning work) discussion does seem a bit scarce. Perhaps it's time for another blog post!
    Do you have any of your own work shown online? It would be great to see it

  3. I'm afraid I don't know how to link a photo on photobucket to this blog .

  4. Ah, that's a shame. I don't know how either unfortunately. Great to see that others feel the same way about knife carving though.