Making Things out of Wood with a Knife

The art of whittling

I liked the idea of sitting in a chair in front of your house
for hours,
doing nothing but wearing a hat and drinking cola.
What's wrong with that?
Drawing on a cigarette from time to time.
Making things out of wood with a knife.
Where's the harm there?

From Shiftless, Raymond Carver.

It’s harder than it sounds to do nothing, really nothing. You need to call it meditation, or have a book in your hands, maybe music playing. Some slight distraction. I’d add whittling to this list. A perfect excuse for hours spent doing not much but listening to the slow flick flick of wood shavings falling to the ground. You might even end up making something.

All that’s needed is a knife, a piece of wood and a verandah. Although for that ideal beginner’s project, the wooden spoon, you may also want a gouge to hollow out the bowl. While almost any wood will do, macrocarpa, pine, rimu, totara or kauri all make good whittling timbers, and just a scrap should suffice.

Mark out the shape you’re aiming for and then go to work. Cut away from yourself, and with the grain. If the wood splits instead of cutting away cleanly, you’re probably cutting in the wrong direction. And make sure to sharpen your knife from time to time.

When you’ve more or less got the shape you intended, you can sand it smooth before applying a finish. Oil is easiest and looks good, and there are food safe varieties like tung if you’ve made something for the kitchen.

There’s a lot more to say about it than that, but like a lot of things whittling works best if you figure it out as you go along, taking your time and concentrating on nothing but the knife and the piece of wood in your hands.