Wood is a versatile material and can be shaped in different ways. It can be carved (or whittled), cut, joined, and bent – depending on the type of wood used. In this article, we look at traditional wood whittling and wood carving that can be done by hand.
If upcycling is more your thing, we have plenty of brilliant projects here on Gathered – we add new articles all the time, so bookmark our upcycling projects page to make sure you don’t miss anything. Check out these gorgeous sea glass crafts, or how about indulging in a spot of birding and make an upcycled bird feeder? And if you love to decoupage – check out this beautiful way to upcycle a table.
There are three types of wood, hardwood, softwood, and manufactured. Hardwoods come from slow-growing deciduous trees, so are more durable and come in a range of different colors, but they are often more expensive and harder to work with than softwoods. Softwoods come from quick-growing coniferous trees and are often grown in plantations specifically for producing wood for woodworking. The waste from softwoods is turned into manufactured boards and paper! Manufactured wood (or boards) are made from the waste from other types of wood – you’ll know the names: MDF, plywood, veneered, or blockboard.
For wood carving or whittling, softwoods are the easiest and most cost-effective to work with. Yellow cedar and pine are a good choice as they have a straight grain and lack of knots, as well as producing a nice finish with good color. If you’re looking for a good all-around softwood for whittling – basswood is one of the most popular choices: it’s food-safe, has almost no odor, accepts stain well, and you can choose to work with – or across – the grain.
Of the hardwoods, lime is excellent for detailed work as it’s soft to cut, close-grained, and has a very nice light yellow color which darkens with exposure to light. Walnut and Cherry are also popular choices, especially if you are looking to sell your work, and Balsa wood is a rather nice low-density hardwood to work with. Oak and mahogany are moderately difficult to work with – you’ll need to go with the grain – but if you have your heart set on making a homemade mahogany pendant, don’t let that put you off! Practice makes perfect after all.
Get into wood carving with this beginners wood carving kit!
This set of wood carving tools is a great place to start your wood whittling journey. The set includes a detail knife, with a thin pointed tip allowing for delicate wood cutting and working in tight areas of details; a hook knife designed for wood spoon carving, pen holder, carving bowl, cup, and any round edge carving; a whittling knife, safety gloves, knife sharpener and handy storage pouch.
Once you’ve chosen the wood you wish to carve, it’s a good idea to draw out your design onto the wood using a pencil. If it’s a straight-forward shape, waste wood can then be removed using a saw (a coping saw or band saw is ideal if you have access – otherwise a hand saw and some elbow grease is needed!).
Once you have the waste wood more-or-less cutaway, you can work the finer details using a chisel or a gouge. Gouges can remove quantities of material quickly and as such, are ideal for truing-up and rough shaping a piece.
Chisels are ideal for final shaping and fine finishing before going in with sandpaper (also called glasspaper). Start with the most coarse of sandpaper, and gradually work your way to the finest grade for a smooth, polished finish. Scroll down for some practical projects where you can learn how to carve wood.
There is a subtle difference between carving and whittling, and it mostly comes down to the tools used. Whittling uses just a single tool, being a popular type of bushcraft, while carving tends to make use of a range of tools including those mentioned above – the chisel and gouge, as well as mallets and lathes. However, for the purposes of this article, we will not be covering the use of lathes, but focus on handheld wood carving tools that can easily be used at home.
So – where to buy wood carving tools? Thankfully, there are plenty of outlets in both Europe and The States, as wood whittling remains a popular craft in many parts of the world. You can buy wood whittling tools from these places:
When looking for wood whittling tools, look for something that has a sharp, straight cutting edge.
The Swedish brand Morakniv is one of the most popular brands of wood whittling tools you can get. Morakniv has been making knives for centuries, so it’s safe to say they know a thing or two about making the best wood whittling tools. This particular blade has been designed specifically for chip carving – and will last you a lifetime.
Wood whittling tools: Carving hook
Use a carving hook for items like cups, bowls, spoons, or for any detailed relief carving. This carving hook from Morakniv has been ergonomically designed and features an oiled birch wood handle that is both comfortable and balanced in the hand. Just be sure to choose the correct-handed carving hook for you.
Keep your fingers safe with some whittling gloves. You’ll soon get used to the feel of holding your whittling knife with the gloves on – and it’s always best to be safe, especially if you’re just starting out. These whittling gloves are No-Cry (that’s the brand name), cut-resistant, and are a must-have for any sort of craft that uses knives.
Also known as a razor strap, a razor stop is a strip of leather (or canvas, denim, or other soft material) that is used to straighten and polish the blade of a whittling knife. Razor strops can be found as a hand-held paddle (above) or hanging strop. If you’ve ever been to a barbershop – it’s quite likely you’ve seen one there as they are also used with straight razors, hence the name.
If you’re looking to try wood whittling, you might like to consider a wood whittling kit to get you started straight away – most wood whittling kits contain wood as well as the tools needed.
Wood carving tool set
This wood carving set includes a wood carving hook knife, a whittling knife, a chip carving detail knife, a leather strop, a polishing compound, presented in a handy hanging pouch.
Beavercraft comfort bird whittling kit
Comfort birds bring comfort to people who need it, and in this wood whittling kit, you get your wood whittling knife, wood (Cherry and Basswood), polishing & wood finishing supplies, a step-by-step video tutorial as well as a short guide on how to proceed with bird carving.
Koi Carp Fish Pendant Carving Kit
This lovely wood whittling kit comes with a pre-traced wood block of a beautiful koi fish. The kit also comes with sandpaper, instructions and jewelry-making supplies so you can turn your little fish into a pendant. The block comes with the koi fish already drawn onto the block, ready for you to shape and bring to life with your wood whittling tools. It’s a brilliant option for the complete beginner – or for anyone wanting to get back into wood whittling after a break.
JJ Care Basswood carving set
This wood whittling kit on Amazon is a best seller – and it’s easy to see why. It comes with 10 basswood blocks, eight carbon steel whittling tools, and a grinding stone to keep them sharp. At under $35, it comes in at a great price – and you can also use this wood whittling kit for soap carving and pumpkin carving, too.
Just the wood
This 5 piece set of wooden carving blocks is ideal for the beginner wood whittler. Made with all-natural basswood, each piece features smooth surfaces for carving, whittling, and crafting.
Get a head start
These wood blanks has the shape already cut out, which helps a great deal in preparing to carve the actual spoon – ideal for beginners. This kit contains two blank spoons made from beech wood and two from walnut.
Starks Wish whittling kit
These corrosion-resistant wood carving tools are made of vanadium steel, so they last longer. This wood carving kit has a black wood round grip, allowing for smooth and comfortable woodworking.
Inspired to start woodworking? Check out our pick of the best woodworking projects that you can try today, all with step-by-step tutorials to ensure you have all the information you need:
1. Whittle a spoon
Ever wanted to run off to the woods and whittle a spoon? This spoon whittling project is a great place to start – and at the end of it, you’ll have a chunky spoon ideal for general kitchen use. And – it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to learn how to whittle a spoon before making a new life in the bush?
2. Whittle a whistle
Learn how to make a traditional whistle out of willow. This is an ideal project for late spring and early summer when the willow bark comes off the easiest.
3. Whittled garden bird
This whittled bird is made from a forked garden branch, a pencil, and a penknife finished with sandpaper and some clear varnish.
4. Whittled fancy bird
Paint your masterpiece with acrylic paint before adding a glossy varnish to finish. Find this tutorial, and others for owls, fish, bears, and elephants over at Wood is Wood.
5. Man in the moon
Make this simple man in the moon carving with a scrap of basswood and a carving knife. There’s a PDF to download for this project – so you can print out the tutorial and go off-grid – perfect.
6. Whittled bear
Beaver Craft Tools have a number of free patterns on their website, including this brilliant whittled bear design – there are also video tutorials to help you get the best results.
This simple whittled bookworm is made from a garden stick! It’s painted with acrylic paint and sealed with a semi-gloss finish. Get the full whittled bookworm tutorial over at Instructables.
8. Carve a flower
Learn how to carve a flower out of wood with this easy step-by-step wood whittling tutorial. It’s made with just two tools – a chisel and whittling knife (plus a pair of compasses to plan and a pencil to mark out).
9. Whittle a chess set
Fancy a challenge? Start small by making a pawn (and then 15 more pawns to complete the set of 16) and work your way up through the pieces until you reach the King and Queen. Then whip your homemade chess set out at Christmas to impress friends and relatives! The pieces are round, so you could “cheat” and use a lathe to help you out – hey if you’ve got it – use it!
In order to keep your masterpiece clean and protected, as well as improving appearance, wood must be finished. Generally speaking, softwoods are painted, while hardwoods are polished or varnished (to enhance the natural features of the grain). Wood can also be stained before polishing in order to improve its color and show off the features of the wood itself.
If there are holes (like nail holes) or cracks in your piece, then applying some Wood Stopping will sort them out. Wood Stopping is a natural, cellulose-based solvent that can be used to fill in small holes. It’s a clay-like material that forms a paste, which can be pressed into place with a blade. Once dry it becomes hard, and can then be rubbed down with sandpaper. Once painted – you’ll never know there was a hole!
If you have a knot in your piece, there is a technique called knotting which can be used to seal the knots. This stops the resin in the knot from discoloring the paintwork at a later date, so if you want your piece to have longevity, it’s important to do. You can buy knotting solution (sometimes also called knotting paint) from most DIY outlets or online, like this Ronseal knotting solution from Amazon.
We hope you’ve found our summary of the best woodworking tools useful. If you’re thinking about upcycling, we have plenty of projects here on Gathered, too. Why not repurpose some old wood pallets, make your own DIY birdhouse, or how about organising your seeds with our seed storage box?