Introduction: Wood Whittling 101

Picture of Wood Whittling 101

This instructable covers basic wood whittling technique. You will learn a little bit about tools, wood, technique, and safety. Hopefully it will be enough to get you interested in learning!

Wood carving is not something you pick up over night; it requires a lot of patience and practice. What you will find, however, is that as you practice you will develop intuition that will allow you to tackle increasingly difficult problems on your own. It's an enjoyable and relaxing activity that I would recommend to anyone interested in learning a new skill.

Step 1: Tools

Picture of Tools

Let's start with tools;

You're going to need a knife. While you could conceivably use any kind of sharp knife, I highly recommend investing in something nice... I use the chip carving knife pictured here. High quality tools are going to be hand-made with tempered steel that will cut better and last longer than the low quality stuff. There are chip carving knives with different shapes that will make difficult cuts a little easier, although they aren't necessary for the beginner.

Sharpening Supplies

You'll be putting your knife/knives through a lot of stress and thus you will need to sharpen them. You can buy sharpening stones or you can use a combination of 600+ grit sandpaper and water or oil. Any piece of leather will work as a strop. I won't get into sharpening in this instructable, however there are plenty of resources out there for you to learn.

Step 2: Wood

So once you have your tools, you'll need something to carve. There are tons of different kinds of wood and they all carve differently. My recommendation (and the wood that I learned how to carve with) is basswood. It's cheap and you should be able to find it locally. The grain is small and the wood is soft.

However, it isn't crucial that you even know what kind of wood you have, so don't worry. Use what you have– that's part of the fun of carving wood.

Make sure the wood is dry; you'll have more control over it. Carving with wet wood adds a level of unpredictability, since as it dries it tends to warp and crack.

Step 3: Grain

Picture of Grain

Understanding grain is essential to wood carving... This is where your intuition will develop over time. While I will not go into the science behind the structure of wood, I will say that it grows in regular patterns that appear as grain. The orientation of the grain is going to determine how easily you can carve the wood. If you've ever had a splinter, you know what grain is and how its orientation matters.

You will want to start with straight-grain wood (which is exactly what it sounds like), where the grain runs in one direction. You can use the ends to determine what direction the grain runs in. The pictures below show you what to look for. Note that the grain can go down slightly... this will be important.

Basic vocabulary is as follows: when you are carving in the same direction as the grain, you are carving with the grain. If you are carving opposite the direction of the grain, you are carving against the grain. If you are carving perpendicular to the grain, you are carving across the grain.

Which way to carve:
You always want to carve with the grain or across the grain. The grain can also run up and down slightly, so make sure you are carving with the grain in the down direction. The next step contains pictures of carvings in each direction for your reference.

Step 4: Safety / Holding the Knife

Picture of Safety / Holding the Knife

Before we start, let's go over holding the knife correctly:
The picture below will show you how to hold the knife. When right-handed, my left hand is holding the piece of wood and my right hand is holding the knife. My left thumb is on the back of the blade and will be providing the cutting force. Never push the blade forward with your right hand; you will not be able to move the blade with precision.

Notice that my fingers are out of the path of the blade.

Don't be silly:
Never push hard on the blade. If it gets stuck (because you carved too deep into the wood or the grain orientation changed), stop and backtrack. If you try to force the blade, it could slip and cut your finger.

There's no need to go fast... Speed doesn't help you carve better. Take your time, at least until you feel comfortable carving.

Pay attention:

The sound and the feel of your cuts are important. You can hear the difference between carving with, against, and across the grain. This will be useful in developing intuition about the direction you are cutting in.

Step 5: Technique

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So let's figure out what actually happens when you carve:

You'll be making a scooping motion. First, the knife has to dig into the surface of the wood a little bit. The knife must then be pushed through the wood; it's all about the angle! As you push through the wood, angle the knife up ever-so-slightly and you will have shaved off a bit of wood. With many types of wood, the shavings will curl; this is an indication that you are going in the right direction.

You should remove the wood in very thin layers; if you go too deep, you'll end up tearing out on the way back up.

The pictures below will show you what it looks like when you go with the grain, against the grain, and across the grain.

Also, your shavings are fairly informative. Check out the difference between shavings going against the grain and shavings going with the grain.

Step 6: Practice

Picture of Practice

A good way to learn knife control is to try keeping the knife at a fixed angle; see how long of a shaving you can make in one cut.

The more you carve, the more you will understand the grain. It's somewhat difficult to explain in a paragraph with a few pictures, but it will make sense as you experience it first-hand.

Start with gently curving objects that allow you some room to make mistakes. As you get better, add details regardless of the orientation of the grain; there is always a way to make the right cut.

Most important of all, have a good time! (and don't hurt yourself)


emmakeo. (author)2017-04-11

I need to carve something long and cylindrical but I don't know what technique to use.

s7ylin (author)2016-08-09

Whittling utilizes several cuts like thumb brace(pairing) cut, Rough (push) cut, V-notching (V-cut), and thumb-push cut to achieve a shape or sculpture.

That's pretty important information to leave out of your technique step. Failing to have the proper grip style for a cut can result in an accident.

ChickenGnocchi (author)2016-03-17

How long did it take you to make tthat dinosaur?

mooner77 (author)2011-08-01

Could you possibly use a x acto knife. And what tpe com wood would be the easiest Tony work for beginers. Thanx for any answrs d:

TimothyJ999 (author)mooner772016-03-13

You can certainly use Xacto knives, but you have to be very careful not to exert much sideways pressure or they will snap. They are very sharp but quite brittle. I would suggest using Xacto blades only for very soft woods like bass, balsa, and poplar; maybe white pine and mahogany.

Also the handles aren't very comfortable. If you look at a good detail knife like a Flexcut or Helvie, you'll see a lot more "meat" in the handles, which allows for more control. Xacto knives are a good way to get started for not much money, but after a while you'll probably want to upgrade.

You're right about the handles. I buy the cheap X-acto knives, cut them down, and epoxy them into wooden handles. Much better.

nancyjohns (author)mooner772014-02-24

Cedar is a good soft wood and you can find it at a hardware store.

Also it smells good :)

Salea (author)2016-03-13

A Kevlar glove is a great safety item.

TYtheParacordGUY (author)2012-05-31

Im having a harder time understanding the "Grain". Im new and would like to try whittling as a new Hobby. I have many because i like to keep occupied and to try things new. Do you have any more tips for a beginner? -Tyler

Wood grain is one of those things that's hard to explain but is pretty obvious in practice. Find a piece of straight-grained wood, and try carving it with a sharp knife from all angles; in about 10 minutes you'll have grain figured out. Some directions will be difficult and the wood will want to split instead of cut; other directions you'll get an easy, smooth cut. You'll soon learn how to avoid the first and achieve the second.

Grain, you see the lines in the wood. Always try to carve with the grain. When you must cut across it, go slow and make little cuts. As for what direction the tree grew, it makes a difference when you carve. If your knife or chisel starts to bite into the wood deeper than you want, turn the piece of wood 180 degrees and try it from that side. I've saved
many carvings from this tip.

ronnietucker (author)2016-03-13

Are there any other types of wood you guys can recommend? I'm in the UK and having trouble finding basswood/lime. :(

Look for a Linden tree, or whatever else the Brits call it. Here it is Tilias Americanus and is a linden tree, or basswood , there it is more likely known as a lime tree. Once you see one in bloom you never forget it. Some people pick the flowers and dry them for sleeping draft, (draugh?) , Spanish name Tilo. If you go to an herbalist/spice store and ask to see it you will not forget it. You can also carve sycamore or English the plain tree, It drops wood all by itself. I learned to carve linked chain on it as it is free all over NYC. There are thousands of them, all donating carvable wood on a yearly basis.

Look for a Linden tree, or whatever else the Brits call it. Here it is Tilias Americanus and is a linden tree, or basswood , there it is more likely known as a lime tree. Once you see one in bloom you never forget it. Some people pick the flowers and dry them for sleeping draft, (draugh?) , Spanish name Tilo. If you go to an herbalist/spice store and ask to see it you will not forget it. You can also carve sycamore or English the plain tree, It drops wood all by itself. I learned to carve linked chain on it as it is free all over NYC. There are thousands of them, all donating carvable wood on a yearly basis.

serious? lime trees? in UK........COME ON........

MaxwellS2 (author)2015-05-11

Hey great article. Lots of information. If anyone is looking for more info on the topic you can check out this website dedicated to whittling

Bodygard1117 (author)2010-02-15

that is cool i don't have the patients for wood but it looks like you do good job

SwanRonson (author)Bodygard11172012-02-20

It doesn't make sense that you would have patients for wood. Unless you were a doctor for trees or something of that sort. Have a good day, be well.

This is great woodworking project. I will to try it

My woodworking project

rawro_alina (author)SwanRonson2015-03-22

haha I think he meant he is not patient enough to carve in wood, not that e doesn t have patiens for wood

JohnnyJ4 (author)2015-03-22

Nice tutorial, is that your TRex? It be nice to have some videos demonstrating the techniques. I found some here:

mikew5 (author)2014-10-19

Certainly you can use a pocket knife, they're my standard tools, curved blades of various sizes are the most useful.

Flexcut & Pheil are a good brands of knife if you prefer a fixed blade type of knife.

ckerr5 (author)2014-08-29

could you give me a specific brand or type of knife used? I tried searching for what was suggested and couldn't find it. I'm interested in picking it up as a hobby and the information was super helpful!

mwevre (author)ckerr52014-09-11

Get a knife from flexcut. I love them.

squidcraft (author)2014-09-04

could you use a pocket knife?

mikewhittler (author)2014-07-06

I've been whittling for 30 odd years & I would differ from the author in his choice of a straight edge blade. I have found that a curved edge allows many more types of cuts to be made & more easily with less force. This allows for much more sophisticated whittlings to be made, using gouge like hollow cutting making convex & concave surfaces. The image below is 4" tall & carved with a curved bladed knife alone.

biptybop (author)2014-05-31

if you made more you could play a really big dinosaur chess game

SwanRonson (author)2012-02-20

That's a pretty nice kangaroo you carved, but you forgot that Kangaroos also have ears. Unless this piece was meant to not have ears then you nailed it. Good work, be well.

emallow (author)SwanRonson2014-05-19


kevsauce (author)SwanRonson2012-03-03

its a dinosaur :|

Sonata85 (author)kevsauce2013-01-06


Craftwright (author)2012-06-23

Hand carving tray a must have for all whittlers and wood carvers.

Check it out!

luminiferousether (author)2010-02-15

"It's cheap and you should be able to find it locally".

You know this internet thing is global, right? Could you possibly explain what properties of basswood make it good for carving and suggest alternatives?

don't know about basswood but when I was into carving Lime was the wood to have. Very even and fine grain and also relatively soft to cut, but hard enough to wear well. Guy in our joinery had an epic eagle he'd carved from an old lump of lime. This is wittling (whitling? sp?) though so it may be different. We carved with fine chisels and gouges.

As for dry wood is best, I know wet wood will warp and crack as it dries but wood is just sooo easy to work when its green off the tree. Totally different though, I agree.

Thetis (author)lasersage2012-03-26

Lime is the same as linden and basswood, so you are talking about the same wood, although the exact species might be different. All three are names for various trees of the Tilia genus. Check out Tilia on Wikipedia if you want to know more.

EmmettO (author)lasersage2010-02-15

 Now I'm curious. I'm no expert but I've done some carving and some projects, especially those that call for carving initially with an axe (my favorite part) call for using green wood.

Maybe it's just to make the initial rough work easier?

When he says find it locally he means at a nearby hardware store, not youre backyard

Hi Everybody and especially Schroeder8!

Basswood is a light colored,straight. even grained wood that is exceptionally easy to carve. In many parts of the world, it is called Linden. It is recommended as a beginning wood for most carvers. The grain is not pronounced and it will not conflict with the design of the carving. The structure of the wood is very consistent and that means that the cuts made find uniform resistance when the blade cuts through the wood. To understand the importance of this, think of pine. Pine has noticeable lines of harder, resinous wood that alternate with softer wood in between. When carving pine, the blade glides through the softer wood and has to be urged harder to go through the harder bits. Linden, or basswood, often has lengths that are free of knots which are another obstacle in the beginners carving experience.

As it was explained to me some time ago, any wood can be carved but some lend themselves to the process better than others. Basswood, pine, and butternut, all carve fairly easily and well. Butternut has a very noticeable grain [dark and light sections that look like lines] and so will compete with the overall lines of the design. This means that the carver must choose his or her project carefully.  Mahogany carves easily but along the grain and tends to leave a powdery deposit along with any chips. It is a sturdy wood but resists fine detail.

Hard woods, like walnut, hold details well but are harder to carve and darker so that the design often is harder to see. For woods like walnut or oak, gouges and chisels are often necessary to achieve what the artist is aiming at.

One interesting bit of information that seems to be counter intuitive is that your blade or tool must be sharper to carve soft woods than it needs to be to carve hard woods. Softer woods must be sliced through the grain and, if the tool is too dull, the grain simply gets crushed and detail is lost. Hard woods resist the cutting action of the tool and thus the tool slices through them more cleanly.

I do hope that this helps!


SwanRonson (author)2012-02-20

Good Information regarding the Basswood. I found it locally and it's a pleasure to work with

littl3d00d (author)2011-12-10

ruffly how tall is this figure?

Ray from RI (author)2011-12-10

I like to carve myself I use a different set up in the form of a carving knife... However I am more interested in what you have carved. What kind of critter/creature are you carving?
Very cool!

staylor25 (author)2011-10-31

wow! thanks man i really neede those pointers you are really good at explaining to 5 stars young man

dirt action julian (author)2011-10-04

it looks preagnint

TYtheParacordGUY (author)2011-09-24

You should DEFINATELY make an instructable for the dinosaur!

kcls (author)2010-02-13

You should enter the dinosaur contest!

kylestetz (author)kcls2010-02-14


i didn't even know about it! i most certainly will, thanks

what wood did you use to make the dinosaur???

mooner77 (author)2011-08-01

Com: of. Tony: Tony.

Aaron Hoffenberg (author)2010-03-18

You should post an instructable specifically for the Dinosaur

dombeef (author)Aaron Hoffenberg2011-06-23

I agree

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