what is the best whittling knife for a child?

And the other question is what age is it OK for children to use knives?

I am a great believer in teaching children the safe use of knives as tools. This is best done with one on one supervision in the home, starting with food preparation. Our children started before the age of 3 helping make a fruit salad using a blunt table knife to cut up banana. Even though the knife was blunt we would teach them how to hold it safely and effectively. Once they were very comfortable with this they could use a sharp knife again supervised for cutting up say cucumber. By age 5 they were comfortable with sharp kitchen knives and a good help in the kitchen.

This was about the time we introduced whittling knives, they had already proven they could use knives responsibly as useful tools.

When our children were aged 6 and 9 we were staying at the National folk craft school at Sateglantan in Sweden and visited the knifemaking town of Mora and had a guided tour of the Frosts knife factory. Mora knives are world famous as high quality but good value woodcarving knives. We went round the factory with the owners and with Wille Sundqvist a woodcarving teacher who has been a great inspiration to me. At the end of the tour the owners turned to the children and said “would you like a knife of your own?” and gave them one knife each. One of these. 

Shortly afterwards Wille gave the children lessons in carving the famous Darlana horses

So what makes a good childs whittling knife? I like fixed bladed knives for proper woodcarving and the little frost knife above is good although the blade guard can get in the way and is not needed. This frosts classic mora knife is also excellent and has small handle suitable for children.

The handle size is important small hands need small handles another nice little knife is the Brusletto balder made in Norway. This has the benefit of a nice leather sheath and a stainless steel blade that won’t rust if put away wet.

 All of these are excellent little knives and vary between £10 and £20. Now some people recomend a round tipped knife as a first knife and this one is popular.
Whilst the point at the tip is responsible for more than it’s fair share of cuts I find this degree or rounding unnecessary and it makes a knife which any child can see is not a proper knife. Instead I would recommend simply taking some coarse emery paper or a rough old carborundum stone and just blunting the tip a little.
Finally I would not rule out a folding knife, our children both love their Swiss army knives and it is very hard to beat.
This is not serious adult style woodcarving but is full of great inspirational and achievable little projects for children of all ages.

As with adults carving with knives safe technique is of the utmost importance. Teaching the correct way to hold a knife, always thinking if the knife slips through what I am cutting faster than I expect where is it going to travel? Does it stop safely due to the correct body stance or does it swing out of control into a leg or another person? Our children always enjoyed taking a frech hazel or willor stick and whittling it into a walking stick, magic staff or spear. Hope this is helpful. Happy carving.

10 Responses to what is the best whittling knife for a child?

  1. sam_acw December 14, 2009 at 9:06 pm #

    Very nice post Robin, definitely food for thought.I've read that the first guardless knife is seen as something of a milestone in some areas.

  2. R Francis December 14, 2009 at 10:31 pm #

    Here's a vote for the Balder. Very successful with a friend's son.

  3. The Great Ethan Allen December 14, 2009 at 10:41 pm #

    Swiss army all the way! I have one even now and they can do everything! As far as whittling goes, the small blade is wonderful and stays sharp. As for the other knives, My father had one that I used to 'Borrow' for small carving projects but the length of the blade was too long, I almost lopped off a finger! ( still have the scare and the story to tell!) Kids are gonna mess around with knives eventually anyway, it would have helped if an adult would have guided me instead of telling me "NO! NEVER TOUCH ONE!" That just does not work on a kid that wants to lern how to carve. Even with a cut finger I continued to carve.

  4. Richard Law December 15, 2009 at 7:41 am #

    Hear, hear! It is vital that children learn early how to handle knives as tools. I was recently asked to do a half hour basic knife skills with a 6 year old who had received his first folding knife for his birthday. I was amazed at the skills he had already. As always the adults need to be educated so that the child learns too!Back in the bad old days all the kids in our village had sheath knives, but we never seemed to be shown how to use them. The major use was playing "splits" – I still have a scar on my ankle from that!

  5. Stewart December 15, 2009 at 9:26 am #

    That's a really good article Robin.It comes at a very good time for me as I have just been looking into project ideas for my Scouts and thinking about what knives to use. Funds are limited so I was wondering if a Swiss Army knife would be an acceptable first choice as I have quite a few or if we should spend out on some Moras as fixed blades are a much more sensible choice.As far as I am aware, none of them have done any carving/whittling before.I'm guessing that the amount of knifework required for the piece will have a significant effect on which is the best choice?Any suggestions for first time whittling?I've had a brief google and I have seen suggestions for soap carving.

  6. Robin Wood December 16, 2009 at 6:40 am #

    Glad folks found this interesting. Stewart some folks say to avoid folders as they can close on fingers whilst opening and closing. Personally I have no experience of this but it is a good idea to show a child how to open and close a folder properly. Too often we just leave folk to learn by trial and error. I would advise thinking carefully about how you do it safely yourself and showing that. The little whittling book has lots of good stuff for your scouts but just giving them a freshly cut hazel or willow rod to decorate and "practice whittling" on is a great start. I tend to play down the "making something" and play up the "we are learning to use the tools". I would practice what you are going to teach with one or two first. Going straight in with a group would be very hard work and potentially dangerous.

  7. JRC December 18, 2009 at 2:43 am #

    Very nice review, Robin. I totally agree with "the earlier the better" provided size of hands is taken into account. I learned to handle a knife age 11 (Boy Scouts). Whether one goes for a fixed-bladed knife or a folder depends, in my opinion, on what your're doing. "Real" carving? Fixed blade. Camping/woodcraft/Scout stuff? Swiss army or equivalent. And make sure you teach 'em how to sharpen the thing! One drawback of the Swiss knives is that they are very hard; you need to use a diamond hone on them. Or I do, at least. I have a Swiss knife in my pocket every day, although I graduated to a model with a saw on it, useful for collecting odd-shaped branch stock.

  8. chriscp September 8, 2010 at 8:33 pm #

    Sounds like you did a good job teaching your kids how to use knives properly. Re: JRC and Swiss Army Knives–I've seen some people say they're too hard and others say the steel is too soft to be useful. Go figure. :)In any case, one useful tool in keeping just about any knife sharp without going to the stone every other day is a strop.

  9. King Lemmiwinks December 5, 2010 at 2:53 am #

    I know I'm hitting this up a bit late, but I rolled on up to this post today and decided to offer my two cents.As an Eagle Scout with about a bajillion years of being the subject of education on knives, your post is fairly spot on. It's fairly common for Scouting programs here in the US to encourage use of the Swiss Army models, partially because they're cheap and effective and partially because they're often mid-range rewards for things like popcorn and wreath sales, which allows scouts to get a knife they can keep forever versus some plastic toy that will break and get chucked. A fixed blade, if able to find one of comparable price and quality, is probably superior, just given the tendency of scouts to pinch fingers in bending knives. Someone looking to have beginners break into carving with Swiss Army knives: It'll work fine, but if your knives are fresher, make sure to break them in a little bit in terms of the mechanism, as they can be quite strong and annoying to open at first (and potentially more dangerous should they snap close). Other than that, they're fine starter knives.Soap bars are also a cheap and easy way to have kids train, though the smallish size of soap bars is sometimes restrictive, and they're more brittle than you would desire (for example, you can wedge the blade under a ledge of soap and pry upwards, twisting the blade. This may encourage this shortcut in soap where it's not really possible in most woods). Otherwise, a softer wood like pine is quite good for starters; many an hour at scout camp was spent whittling spears out of pine branches and sticking them into the ground to make a mini-fort.Also, re: ChrisCP, I can illuminate that whole "soft versus hard steel" thing a bit more: Swiss Army knives were actually made by two companies, Wenger and Victorinox. While the models (as well as the insignia) they used were nearly the same, personal experience makes me think there's some variation between the two. My Wenger models usually were easier to use out of the box, with less force on the mechanism required to open. My Vixtorinox knives, on the other hand, were much more difficult to break in, taking at least a year of irregular use. With regards to the softness of the metal: The Wenger models were definitely a softer mix, while the Victorinox were on the harder end; I think I sharpened each of my Victorinox knives maybe once (barely needing to) while the Wenger knives take sharpening more often. Overall, it's kind of a moot point; apparently, Victorinox absorbed Wenger in 2005, so I'd assume they'd be closer to that nowadays. I haven't bought one recently to check, though. Hope this helps, and great article!

  10. katie December 14, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

    Thanks for this great post. I just bought a bruceletto balder and the whittling book for my 9 year old for a Christmas gift. He has been working with a folding knife for carving twigs and has really been wanting a non-folding knife so i appreciate your reccomondations.