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 (update 2017: now around £19). 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.