Last week in Traditional Wood Crafts it was observed that old people don't whittle, people get old whittling. What you think is a simple exercise of a stick versus a knife becomes much more than that, and our unpracticed hands had to take their time with it. Let's take a look at some of the stuff we covered:
Wood selection for whittling is a battle between ease of carving versus timelessness. Softer woods are easier to carve - you can whip something out of balsa very easily (there was at least one teacup), but it's likely to dent before it's out the door. Harder woods will stand up against abuse but will take a lot longer to carve. If you're using wood you buy at a store, a good middle ground is basswood.
The alternative to store-bought wood is sticks are branches. The main benefit of tree wood is that you can get it green, which means it hasn't been dried out yet. When a branch breaks off it has about 85% water content, but after it's been sitting around outside the water leaches out and it drops to about 15%. By starting with something green, you get the benefit of easy-to-carve wood. Once it dries it'll be tougher and more resistant to damage. Fruit trees are the standard tree for found-wood whittling - try 5th Ave in Park Slope after a storm, those pear trees love to give up their branches.
Branches are also neat because they can have forks and knobs on them which can easily translate into elements of your design - arms, legs, and animal ears are all easy pickings. Thin bark can also also be carved into patterns or design elements.
Now that you've got your wood you need to plan out your design. Secret tip: draw all over your wood! Seriously, you're going to be carving it up anyway, that wood isn't going to stick around. For the knife-in-progress above, I drew a line down the middle on the top and the bottom so I'd make sure to stay in-line as I cut away wood. More complicated pieces get multiple dimensions drawn on at multiple times.
Time to cut! There are a few main strokes to use when whittling. The first is the rough cut or straightaway cut. It's the same motion you use for peeling carrots. It's used for take off large chunks of wood so you can get down to the detail work. Watch out you don't bury the knife too deep in, though - you're liable to end up prying the wood apart and damaging your piece.
The next cut is the paring cut, or drawcutting. This is the motion you use when peeling an apple, where you brace the piece with your right thumb and pull the knife toward you with the rest of your hand. The secret is to keep your right thumb below the plane of your cut, so that once the knife breaks through you have no chance of cutting yourself. This is used for finer details.
The slicing cut is similar to how you use an X-Acto knife. It ends up being 2 or 3 cuts - the first one goes straight into the wood, then you make secondary and tertiary cuts at an angle to make a bit of a trench. You end up with a (possibly long) V-shaped line.
Another V-related cut is "V"-notching or thumbpushing. You use this to attack corners. You hold the knife like you're giving a thumbs up, then use both thumbs to push down at the same time, making a cut into the wood. You then make a similar gouge at another angle, and voila, the V falls out. It's a lot like the slicing cut, but with a different hand position.
Whittling is a skill that you need to see and practice in order to learn - this blog post sure isn't going to set you up with anything! Hop on over to Tools for Working Wood down in Sunset Park to get a wicked whittling knife and then check out YouTube for some videos, and you'll be all set!