Laurie Sproul whittles and sculpts locally-sourced wood into realistic flower sculptures at her home in Canton in this 2016 file photo. Credit: Micky Bedell | BDN

Whittling is a classic craft to pass the time. Even if you are not roaming around the woods looking for a way to keep your hands busy, learning how to whittle this winter will not only help you fill the long days, but it might just be your gateway to woodcarving.

Whittling is the simple act of carving shapes with a single tool.

“When you pick up a knife and work with just that knife, you’re a whittler,” said Wayne Edmondson, owner of MDI Woodcarvers Supply. “If you start using multiple tools, gauges and a mixture, then you’re carving.”

Jonathan Leach, a woodcarver and owner of Chrysalis Carvings in Augusta, said that whittling is the basic style that almost every carver starts with.

“What is nice about whittling is its zen approach,” Leach said. “You get so focused at looking at the piece of work you’re looking at.”

Get your tools

Whittling requires a few simple tools — namely, a knife.

“A pocket knife can be used, but I recommend a fixed blade knife designed for this purpose,” said Bob Perry, a woodcarver based in Sumner. “It is much safer than a folding knife.”

Leach said to start with a knife that is about an inch or an inch and a half long. Most importantly, your knife should be sharp.

“With a dull knife, you try to push it too hard, and that’s when it’s likely to slip,” Leach said. “It’s worth investing in a good tool from the get-go to save yourself some aggravation.”

Edmondson said that beginner whittlers should consider a bench knife, which has a straight blade, usually about an inch and a half long. It is easier to sharpen than a curved knife.

“Sharpening chases more people away from the hobby than anything else,” Edmondson said.

Or, Robbins said you could consider a knife with an interchangeable blade system, like an X-Acto knife, with blades that are “razor sharp and replaceable.”

Carving gloves made of a material like kevlar are also highly recommended for beginners. Robbins said he will also put tape or bandage around his students’ thumbs on their carving hands to discourage them from using their thumbs as a stop when making small cuts.

Also, Robbins said that over time, you might want to invest in “cut-proof clothing.”

“I use a leather apron because I do a lot in my lap,” Robbins said. “Denim is not at all cut-proof, and leather gloves are not cut-proof.”

Get your wood

Certain types of wood are easier to shape than others. Experts say that basswood is the best and most commonly used both by beginners and seasoned carvers, though butternut is another good choice with a slightly nicer grain.

Pine is even softer and easier to carve — plus, it is readily and easily available — but it might splinter.

“I find pine breaks easily along the grain, so it can be kind of frustrating for people to work with,” Leach said.

Leach said to avoid hard woods, like hickory, which are frustrating to carve. You can even look around your yard for wood to whittle.

“With whittling, everybody is starting with a stick that came off a tree somewhere,” Edmondson said. “Cedar would be a nice wood to carve. It does tend to dull your knife out [though].”

Pick a project

Once you have your materials, you have to figure out what you want to whittle.

Edmondson said that many beginner whittling books start with fun, quick projects (think 20 minutes or less) like “wizards, gnomes and little animals.”

Leach said that it can be useful to have a real-life 3D model when you pick a project. One of his first whittling projects was a pretzel, which he modeled from one he pulled out of a snack bag.

A seasonal project with a simple shape might also be a fun way to begin.

“Another intro project that I did when I started was a snowman,” Leach said. “A pine tree — that would be a good place to start, too.”

Leach also recommended a project called a comfort bird.

“I give them to people who have suffered a loss or who are ill,” Leach said. “They fit nicely in the hand and are soothing to hold.”

Whittled comfort bird. Credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Leach

Though it depends on the project you choose, Leach said that a block of wood that is one inch by one inch would be good for beginners. You can use a power tool to cut a rough outline of what you want to whittle to help you save time. Leach said that tracing the project out with a pencil on the wood will also help you figure out where and how to cut.

Tips for whittling

There are three basic whittling cuts: push cuts, where you are pushing the blade away from you; pull cuts, where you are pulling the blade towards you; and stop or cross cuts, where you cut directly into the wood.

“The best way is if you can cut away from yourself, but you can’t always do that,” Robbins said. “I use my thumb on the non-knife-holding hand to push on the back of the blade away from me. It gives me a lot more control.”

Robbins said to make small cuts when you are starting out.

“Don’t try to shave off a great big slab,” Robbins said. “That’s taking too much pressure. The wood might slip, your hand might slip and that’s no fun.”

Figuring out how to work with the grain of the wood is also important for first-time whittlers.

“Wood is basically a series of fibers that go in a straight line,” Each said. “You want to cut in the direction of those lines. If you feel it pulling or feeling uncomfortable, turn the piece of wood in your hand and go at it from a different angle and see how that feels.”

When you are just getting started, Leach said that perhaps the most important thing is to take your time and go slow.

“Stop and look at the work and take a breather,” Leach said. “Don’t carve when your hand is too tired, or you’ll lose your grip.”

Leach warned that inevitably, you will get cut at least once while whittling.

“I’ve gotten cut lots of times,” Leach said. “The important thing to do safety-wise is to make sure you don’t have to spend time looking around to where the Band-Aids are.”

Find a mentor or teacher

Whittling is much easier to get the hang of if you have some sort of guidance.

“There’s a heck of a subculture with carving, and there’s usually people all over the state [of Maine],” Edmondson said. “It doesn’t even need to be a class situation, it just needs to be somebody who sees when you’re doing something wrong or dangerous.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic eases up, Perry recommended contacting a carving club in your area, or if you know a woodcarver, approach him or her. There several carving organizations throughout the state of Maine. The Maine Wood Carvers Association, Top of Maine Carvers, On the Border Carvers and Mid Coast Carvers are some he recommended.

In the meantime, consider turning to YouTube, and asking your questions to experts via email as they come up.

Leach said that when you are starting out, the most important thing is to make sure you are having fun with whittling.

“Don’t get discouraged,” Leach said. “All of these things take practice.”