What do you do when you have some idle time and no pre-planned task with which to occupy yourself? Thanks to our smartphones, most of us browse social media, search the web, or play some small game. And while there’s certainly a measure of delight in learning about old schoolmates, the latest news, or how far you can fling that cartoon bird, we all know it’s a little shallow. Prior to the internet, people did things differently. They engaged in small talk, read books, journaled — or they whittled.
In this article, we’ll discuss what whittling is, the different kinds of wood used in it, various techniques, and how to best use your OTF while whittling.
What Is Whittling?
Whittling is an activity so common that many people think they understand it even before they’ve ever tried it. The simplest definition is that it’s the repeated removal of wood in small slivers from a branch, block, or limb. Think of a bored kid out in the country slowly paring away a switch with no particular end goal in mind.
However, there is another kind of whittling, and this discipline starts with a goal in mind, namely a finished artistic work. Think of it like the old apocryphal saying about how you carve a marble elephant: You start with a raw chunk of marble and then remove anything that isn’t elephant shaped! Of course, there’s a lot more to properly artistic whittling than that, and part of it involves learning the intricacies of what your blade can and cannot do.
Part of the way in which whittlers hone their craft is through picking a specific kind of knife. Most whittling knives have fixed blades with single sides and short lengths. This allows maximal control — and you can probably already see how using an OTF knife while whittling can prove challenging. After all, OTFs are typically dagger-styled and somewhat lengthy. We’ll discuss how to get the most out of your OTF while whittling in a section below.
There’s an additional factor to consider when whilttling: the wood itself.
What Kinds of Wood Are Most Often Used in Whittling?
Not every kind of wood is equally well suited for whittling. In fact, there are several commonly used types of wood that you’ll find amongst whittling enthusiasts. In this section, we’ll discuss them, including in detail their various pros and cons.
Before we get started, though, you should have some basic familiarity with the Janka Hardness Rating. This standardized scale provides universal measurements of just how soft or hard a particular type is. By knowing several Janka ratings, you get have a decent idea of how easy it will be to carve a specific project. Harder woods will generally prove more difficult to whittle while having finer grains and a lower chance of splintering or chipping. Softer woods will usually be easier to work, but can split or turn pulpy.
We’ll start with the most common kind of wood used for whittling, which is …
With a Janka rating in the low 400s, basswood is far and away the most popular wood used by project-focused whittlers. It’s widely available throughout North America and has a reasonbly fine grain, meaning that it runs less risk of accidentally splitting while you’re working it. It also has a pale coloration and yield pieces that are attractive for both use and display.
On the Janka scale, aspen rates at 380, making it an incredibly soft wood. However, in addition to remaining incredibly easy to shape, aspen also boasts a good grain. While it can create fuzzy offshoots if you use a dull knife, it won’t typically break or split. Aspens are most commonly associated with the state of Colorado, but they’re also found all across the United States, meaning that you could have an easily available source of wood if one grows near you.
Whilttlers of a certain age with definitely remember those do-it-yourself toy gliders built of balsa wood. This incredibly soft material (a 70 on the Janka scale) makes for easy and precise cutting. But due to its fragility, it’s prone to breaking and splitting. Nothing you craft with balsa wood is liable to last long. Additionally, it grows in South America and Central America, making it somewhat difficult to find in the United States.
This wood is slightly harder than basswood with a 490 Janka rating, and perhaps that why some old-time wood workers used it for decorations in buildings. It earned the nickname “White Walnut” due to its similarity in appearance to black walnut, only it’s much easier to carve. It’s found primarily in the eastern sections of North America.
Other commonly sought after whittling woods include cedar, black walnut, and black cherry. While they aren’t all technically classified as hardwoods, they do share the common characteristic of being at least twice as hard as basswood. They’re much more difficult to carve than the previous entries on our list — and they also yield far more attractive results.
A random stick on the ground. A broken bit of branch. A small log. Any bit of wood that you happen across can serve as the base for a project or just for some random slicing. However, you’re stuck with what you have, and know that green, sappy wood can create quite a mess on your hands and knife.
How to Get the Best Whittling Results With an OTF
As we alluded to in a previous paragraph, OTF knives don’t have the ideal characteristics for carving. Still, OTFs with shorter blades can work well with whittling. Here are some tips to help you get the best results:
- Prefer OTFs of more modest sizes.
- Don’t attempt highly detailed projects.
- Select softer woods over harder.
- Plan your project prior to beginning it.
- Take your time when whittling and remove smaller amounts of material.
- Don’t force a stroke if your knife gets caught.
- Know that OTFs work best with idle slicing and in survival applications.
- Remember that enjoyment is more important than end results!
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