What is the best knife for wood carving and whittling?

Woodcarving is so much easier if you have the right tools for the job and thankfully in this case the right tools need not cost a fortune.

  • So what makes the best knife for wood carving and whittling and what should you look for when buying one?
  •  It should be made of a good quality steel, reasonably hard and take a good edge, most knives on the market you can take this one as read.
  •  It should  be quite narrow from top to bottom in order to allow cuts in concave areas, anything over 15mm gets in the way, this is where most general purpose knives fail to make good carvers.
  •  It should not have any sort of hilt or blade guard, these get in the way and are not needed for carving. They are only needed to stop the hand sliding onto the blade if using a stabbing type cut which we never do in woodcarving.
  •  A relatively long thin blade without too much “belly” works much better for most cuts, the belly is that rounded bit of the edge toward the point on the general purpose knife pictured below, great for skinning bad for woodcarving.
  •  Beginners tend to favour short blades feeling they are safer but this does limit the cuts you can do, particularly long effective slicing cuts to create large flat planes are easier with a longer blade.
  •  The woodcarving knife should have what is called a “scandi” grind, that is the edge should be effectively a triangle coming down to a perfect point. Many general purpose knives have what is called a secondary bevel and this is not so good for controlled woodcarving. This is a general purpose “mora” knife and the secondary bevel which forms the edge is seen as a line of light.

A close up shows the big primary bevel created by rough grinding and the small secondary bevel forming the edge.

The woodcarving knife should look like this with no secondary bevel.

Now the reason you don’t want a secondary bevel is because we use the flat primary bevel to control the cut in carving work. It makes no difference when using a knife to cut leather or vegetable where the knife is at right angles to the work but for carving we lay the bevel flat on the wood and slide it along, a secondary bevel lifts the edge away from the wood as shown in this picture from Wille Sundqvists book, “Swedish carving techniques”

Now the shape of the knife and actually which knife should you buy?
My personal favourites and the tools I use on all my carving courses are made by Frosts in the town of Mora in Sweden. Industrial mechanised production allows them to make good quality knives at incredibly competitive prices. They make two nice birch handled woodcarving (or “sloyd”) knives the models 106 and 120. The longer model 106 is the best general woodcarving knife I have used and costs little over £10. The shorter 120 is popular and good though not quite as good for concave cuts because it lacks the thin tip area and long slicing cuts because you need the length for those.

Both these knives have laminated blades that is the steel is a sandwich of very hard high carbon in the middle with softer steel at the sides. This was traditionally done with quality knives to allow the central core to be harder (and hold the edge longer) whilst not becoming too brittle because it was supported by the softer steel at the sides. It also makes sharpening easier since most of the metal removed during sharpening is the softer steel at the side, this is easier to cut and gives more feedback that hardened steel.

These are not the only knives suitable for carving. I am a fan of Del Stubbs knives, particularly his regular sloyd and for readers in the US I would recommend them highly.

Pocket folding knives called “whittlers” are OK for peeling the bark off a twig or pointing a skewer for the BBQ but not for serious woodcarving.

The last thing to know about woodcarving knives is that a good tool will not make up for poor technique. When you see someone working effectively with a knife it is 80% down to technique, 20% to the tool.

This is me carving with a knife.

Here is master woodcarver Wille Sundqvist teaching our children safe carving technique, quite a few years ago.

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40 Responses to What is the best knife for wood carving and whittling?

  1. diy November 29, 2010 at 11:57 am #

    Inereting , but to each teir own. I've a few friends who carve well using pocket knives, a Ross Oar is a favorite. As for my weapon of chioce its changing slowly towarss using chisels. Regardless of choice if it lacks that scary sharp edge its no good to me.I'm a fan of Refsal and his knives but if the carving is small then I find them cumbersome.Thanks for an interesting opinion.rgdsJohn

  2. T.L. Cooper December 11, 2010 at 10:53 pm #

    Thanks this is a nice article. I just read this one and reread your post on waterstones from awhile back. judging from the picture on the one and the waterstone post. You don't hollow grind your carving knives. Is that right? Guess it doesn't really matter. Just wondering. Also I think your right about liking narrow knives. For the most I starting to agree with you. But I also have a Svante that is almost 7/8" by 4". I like using it for roughing cut and soothing the back of the bowl of the spoon. I like to use the convex edge to smooth the wide surface. I liken it to a plane iron having an cambered edge. Anyway thought I would throw that out there. Your right though because for the most part. I do about half to two-third of a spoon with either my Del Stubbs regular sloyd, and an a narrow Mora knife (one that because narrowed by sharpening more narrow than the 120).

  3. Robin Wood December 12, 2010 at 9:37 am #

    Thanks for the comments. DIY.Pocket knives can be used for carving but they all have a secondary bevel which means you do not get the effect of being able to control the cut by running the big primary bevel on the wood. Refsal knives are great for what they are designed for flat plane carving in soft woods. I love the work of Axel Peterson but most flat plane carving done today I find a bit twee.Tim,No I don't hollow grind, I have a Tormek so I easily could. I sharpen Japanese style a single flat bevel on waterstones. I occasionally use a larger knife for roughing out and asked Del to make the large sloyd which is now part of his range. In practice though I find I seem to end up using a 106 all the time. There is no right answer, it's a question of what works for you and for me as often as not it is just the closest knife I lay my hands on and I have lots of 106's.

  4. T.L. Cooper December 22, 2010 at 6:35 pm #

    Okay well the reason I ask. Is that have try on and off over the past 7 or so years hollowing grinding knifes. The idea is to save time. But so far most of the time it doesn't. I often don't get a very good grind. Which takes more time to remove. And I often end up with a nearly flat grind anyways. So I guess I'm wondering is this same reason you do not hollow grind your knives.

  5. Robin Wood December 22, 2010 at 6:43 pm #

    I guess so, when anyone sharpens they want a good edge for the work they do in as short a time as possible. I am always experimenting with sharpening but currently I am liking using only waterstones.I can hollow grind on the tormek but I don't so much like using jigs and the wheel is too small to grind well freehand. I have recently bought an old wet waterstone grinder 2 foot in diameter which is easier to freehand grind on but won't leave much of a hollow on a small knife.I think most professional knife makers now are using belts and if they want hollow they us a contact wheel. This followed by a quick touch on the buffing wheel gives a good edge in very little time.

  6. T.L. Cooper December 22, 2010 at 7:06 pm #

    That's for sure. I think some people think I like sharpening as much time and thought I give it. But I really just want to have the best edge I can for my work. The faster I can get back to work the better. Okay. I don't like the jig either. But so far that given me the most consist grind. But you can even use the jig on narrow knifes. Sounds like I should maybe look into either an larger wet grinder or belt grinder.Also on another topic from reading all your stuff on hook knives. You don't have to spend much for an good sloyd knife. But for a good hook knife your going have to spend alittle more. My favorites right now are Hans Karlsson's (wish I could try those by Bo Helgesson). But what I'm not clear on is which frost hook knife you recommend to students that don't have much money to spend, but are willing to spend time sharpening and modifying them. The single bevel or double bevel (dulling one bevel of couse)

  7. Robin Wood December 22, 2010 at 7:09 pm #

    I recommend the 164 tight curve single edge. It is not ideal but it works. I like the Karlsson too.

  8. T.L. Cooper December 22, 2010 at 7:18 pm #

    Alright Thanks for all your help!

  9. Antiparaziten September 4, 2011 at 7:06 pm #

    Hei, man. Use russian knife from Vorsma (little town on Obi-river). I'm too many time use some knifes, and norvegian too, and can say – there is nothing better than Russian steel. Seek "Saro-Vorsma". I'm use now knife named as "Lisa-2" (Eng: "Fox-2").Be fun!

  10. Lewis Ward August 25, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    Robin, I think I understand your reasoning for favoring the longer Frosts knife.I prefer the 2-1/4" Frost's carver and the 2-3/4" Frost's sloyd knife to remove wood. For finer cravings I have many other smaller (under 2") knives to choose from for a specific purposes. The longer Frost's knife you prefer tends to not provide the power needed for larger cuts when using the end of the blade. It's a simple matter of physics.You have less leverage further out the blade, particularly with a narrow light point. I do use a 3-1/2" X 3/4" WWII Finnish Puuko and a Skookum Bush Tool 3-3/4" X 1" x 1/8" thick for processing wood. My newest is a Roselli UHC with a very short blade. I'm always searching for the "magical knife" and the small Frost's carver is my favorite for much of my carving. I my try the sloyd knives from Country Workshops (Drew Langsner) and Dell Stubbs.

  11. Robin Wood August 26, 2012 at 9:35 pm #

    Hi Lewis, if a short blade works for you that is fine. The reason I like the longer blade is that it allows more slicing action. I use the whole of the 3 1/2" edge to cut through 1" of wood. For power cuts I am working by the handle not at the tip. Wille and Jogge Sunqvist are fans of the 106 too though many folk do get on well with the shorter 120. I don't get as uptight as some chasing the perfect knife so long as the basics are there then technique is far more important than the knife. Many beginners feel if they had a better or more expensive knife then maybe everything would be easier. I have a very large collection of hand made and factory made knives I have forged many myself and worked with good knifemakers to design good carving knives and the Frosts 106 works as well as any of them.

    • Nathan April 2, 2014 at 5:07 am #

      What do you mean by “I use the 3 1/2 inch blade to cut through one inch wood, do you mean an inch deep into the wood or do you mean, the blade is moving an inch, also how deep can you cut into soft wood with a single stroke with the mora 106

      Thanks

      • Robin Wood April 2, 2014 at 7:23 am #

        Nathan what I mean is the blade is slicing in the same way that it is possible to use the whole length of a 10″kitchen knife whilst cutting through a 2″ tomato. I am not sure I understand the second part of the question. With the sort of carving that I do I would rarely push a knife straight into a piece of soft wood but if say I decided the handle of my spoon blank was too long and wanted to cut it off I can easily do that in one stroke even if it is 1″x 1″. That is more about having good technique than the type of blade I am using though.

        • Nathan April 12, 2014 at 12:51 am #

          What do you mean good technique, I didn’t know that pushing a blade through one inch of wood takes technique because aren’t you just pushing it through. Also why is the mora 106 better than a delstubbs, does it remove more wood, better steel. Speaking of which how much can a del Stubbs knife remove wood

          • Robin Wood April 12, 2014 at 7:02 am #

            I would not say that a 106 is better than one of Del’s, Del’s knives are great as I say in the article. If you are looking for an excellent and cheap knife to start carving however you can not get better than a 106. What I mean by good technique is difficult to describe in a few words but I do teach a 3 day course in using a knife which just covers the basics, Wille Sundqvist wrote a good book on the subject. Suffice to say it is not as simple as “aren’t you just pushing it through” when you learn good knife technique and how to get the best out of a range of different grips you can cut far more wood more quickly and accurately with less strain on your body. You end up thinking less about cutting and more about the design you are creating.

  12. adacosta September 5, 2012 at 7:56 pm #

    Great article, I use the Mora Knives as well and love them.I have also found a skilled craftsman located across the border from me here in Canada that makes his own knvies. I absolutely love them. It usually takes awhile (last order was 2mos) to receive my sloyd, but well worth the wait. Anyone else use Pinewood Forge knives? http://www.pinewoodforge.com/Loved your article on spoonfest! hope i can attend one day!

  13. Robin Wood September 5, 2012 at 8:01 pm #

    yep Pinewood forge is Dell Stubbs referred to in the article, great knives. He sadly had a bad accident since I wrote the article damaging his hand and has a backlog of orders but he is back in production now.

  14. chris October 15, 2012 at 2:58 am #

    hi, came across ur video looking at carving info. im a beginner and trying to choose a knife. im trying to find somthing i can use for fire wood processing as well as carving/whittling. i have my eyes on the Mora Force or the Mora Forest (2010) are those good or bad choices? the force is 2mm thick all the way thru the whole blade and is scandi, and the forest is 2mm scandi the first half, near the handle, and thinner at the tip with i think a flat or convex grind. any help appriciated, thanks.

  15. Robin Wood October 15, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    @Chris once you have finished your firewood processing your woodcarving knife will not be in the best shape and more than if you did firewood processing with a chefs knife then tried to cut tomatoes. A good woodcarving knife will do a few feather sticks and so on but I think better to buy a 106 and a cheap general purpose knife, the ones you mention are good general purpose knives but there are cheaper ones too eg http://www.clasohlson.com/uk/Morakniv-%C2%AE-Craftline-Q-511-Knife/Pr407804000

  16. chris October 16, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

    lets say the mora force was kept sharp, is the blade on that model too thick and wide to be usefull as a primary general shaper in wood carving paired with a another knife(knives) more suited for wood crafting for the detail work? it is 2.4mm thick and 23.5mm wide and scandi. thank you.

  17. Maarten January 21, 2013 at 8:32 am #

    Thanks for the tips!Best regards, Maartenhttp://blog.mjvanderwielen.com

  18. Alistair Park October 3, 2013 at 11:40 pm #

    Hi Robin,it’s very interesting reading your experience with woodcarving knives. Your choice of knife blade shape for carving is certainly very different to mine!

    I’ve been using a four-inch bladed Opinel for nineteen years. Even now that I’m woodcarving all sorts of stuff for a job, it’s still my favourite bladed tool. It’s got a slightly bellied blade and a pretty steep secondary bevel, but i wouldn’t have it any other way.

    The bellied blade means that slicing cuts can travel through the wood far more efficiently, in the same way that a slightly rounded cutting edge on a carving gouge can do. I know Chris Pye calls a slicing cut the ‘carver’s cut’ as it is so handy for cutting against grain etc.

    As for the bevel, it means that the blade will ‘jig’ itself out of cuts, very handy when cutting back towards the hand to create the far side of grooves and furrows and also carving fine detail. I keep the very tip more of a single bevel, but can’t get along at all with a scandi grind, as the blade jigs itself to just cut straight ahead, not back to the surface of the work.

    Bit hard to explain the techniques I use without a vid, but there’s picture of my detail knife carving technique on this web address:
    http://www.carvings-with-stories.co.uk/knife%20handles.html
    It shows the carving knife being used to carve the handle of a new Opinel of the same size (so you can compare the blade shapes). All the woodcarving work on the page was solely done with that knife and a bit of sandpaper, as was most of the carving on these wooden insects: http://www.carvings-with-stories.co.uk/insects.html
    I hope that they show what kind of detail carving I’m talking about.

    It’s true that a lot of people who write about knife carving seem to agree with your thoughts on blades, but I just wanted to show the blade shape that works for my carving techniques and how different it is from that. It works for me though.

    However, it has to be said that that double-bevelled carving blade is absolutely useless for chopping onions!

    Thanks for the very interesting blog and site Robin and all the best,
    Alistair

  19. Lisa March 6, 2014 at 9:06 am #

    Hello,

    What wood should a beginner use to carve with?

    I’m just starting out and would like to know the best wood to use in the Uk?

  20. Garrett April 13, 2014 at 11:40 am #

    If you had to pick between a mora 106 and del Stubbs sloyd which would you choose and why? Which one can remove more wood.

    • Robin Wood April 13, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

      I regularly have that choice to make as I have several of Del’s knives and lots of 106s around the house I pick up the nearest one they are both good.

      • Garrett April 14, 2014 at 10:30 am #

        Which one can remove more wood?

        • Robin Wood April 14, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

          Removing a lot of wood fast is about technique more than the knife, either knife will remove wood fast and accurately in skilled hands and be slow and inaccurate in unskilled hands.

  21. Garrett April 19, 2014 at 3:48 am #

    Aren’t the 106 and sloyd (delstubbs knife) identical except the blade style is different? Also is the mora made out of 01 high carbon steel like the delstubbs?

    • Robin Wood April 21, 2014 at 10:34 pm #

      They are different, the 106 is laminated, hard steel in the centre, soft steel on the sides. They are both hardened to around 61 rockwell. They are very different in shape, the 106 is longer and has less belly. The 106 is far cheaper, the Stubbs nicer finish, the rounded back is kind to hands if you do thumb push cuts and the handles very nice. You also have the pleasure of supporting a craftsman rather than buying a largely machine made knife. Both are excellent knives.

      • Borbon October 16, 2014 at 12:15 am #

        Does the finish affect performance

        • Robin Wood October 16, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

          Not sure what do you mean by the finish?

  22. Jonathan April 21, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    Is the mora 106 made out of 01 high carbon steel like the dels stubs sloyd knife also what are the differences of the mora 106 and the delstubbs sloyd

    • Robin Wood April 21, 2014 at 10:36 pm #

      No the 106 is laminated not O1, I set out the differences in the answer to the previous question. Hope that help, they are both great knives you would not be disappointed if you bought either…..or both.

  23. Rene May 5, 2014 at 10:24 am #

    Thank you Robin for this short and pointed article. I know the aspects from Wille’s book. And here you added some detailed facts/experiences.

    But you write:
    “Pocket folding knives called ‘whittlers’ are OK for peeling the bark off a twig or pointing a skewer for the BBQ but not for serious woodcarving.”
    I think, the term “serious” is not very clear in here.
    Only one example: I would call whittler Chris Lubkeman a serious woodcarver. In fact he uses small folding pocket knives for his small sized figures. It works. Sure, it is not the “swedish” or “bushcraft” tradition, but his figures are well designed and at a highly skilled level.
    And another “whittler” is a professional carver, too: Steve Tomashek. He mainly uses knives, that you would use for engraving. And he produces beautiful carved animals.

    Just another point of view.

  24. Mike July 18, 2014 at 5:51 pm #

    With respect Robin, I too must take issue with you presenting a scandi ground knife as being the ultimate grind for a woodcarving. I have been carving wood for 30 plus years ,made my own knives & used probably all the commercial offerings in my time & I am in little doubt as to the total superiority of using a secondary bevel on a flat taper ground blade with a degree of curve in it along the length.
    Our difference may stem from the differing types of carving that we do- If you do mostly spoons then most of the cutting is of pretty large flat arcs where as I am cutting realistic nudes ,horses etc & they require many different radiuses of cuts to be smoothly & cleanly cut. With my knives I can replicate the cut of a 1mm veiner up to a 2″ alongee Gouge & every thing in between.
    The same can not be of a scandi ground knife – no way! I do possess such knives but they are limited to roughing out the blank.
    Then there is the whole American tradition of whittling to take into account – Nobody ever used a scandi grind in it’s whole 150 year history !
    It seems to me as if this myth of the superiority of a sandi grind has largely grown out of the recent bushcraft fad & is repeated widely on the net & blade forums, but it saddens me to think of a novice coming afresh to woodcarving with a knife being hampered with a less suited knife from the outset. Yes of course you can carve with a scandi grind but if you want subtly , safety & free artistic expression a carefully chosen secondary bevelled knife will take you so very much further.

  25. Nate October 5, 2014 at 10:11 pm #

    So does that make the del Stubbs knife at an advantage to the mora because of the steel difference?

    • Robin Wood October 6, 2014 at 6:15 am #

      No the steel of the mora and the hardening and tempering are both excellent Dell’s knife is a different size and shape with a different grind which does other things well.

  26. Nate October 9, 2014 at 2:01 am #

    That’s interesting what grind does the del Stubbs knife have. Thanks for your help

  27. Borbon October 16, 2014 at 12:10 am #

    So the best general woodcarving knife you’ve used is the mora 106 sloyd knife? (Stated above)

    • Robin Wood October 16, 2014 at 5:15 pm #

      I have several thousands of pounds worth of knives and yes the £16 mora is as good as anything else I have used. I have prettier knives but none that work significantly better.

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