An Annotated History of Wood Whittling

Woodcarving enthusiasts understand the difference between carving and whittling; however, someone with no knowledge of the subject might not understand the distinction. Carving involves the use of a knife, a chisel, and a mallet in order to create a figure or sculpture; whittling is easier than carving because it requires the use of a knife and a piece of wood to make artistic creations. Whittling ranges from shaving the tip of a tree branch to turning a block of wood into a toy boat. Many woodcarvers criticize whittling as an amateurish hobby that only old men do to 'whittle away their time.' However, whittling can produce outstanding results like the wooden mallard duck decoys that appeal to the general public.


The History of Wood Whittling

Wood whittling originated when humans learned how to shape a piece of wood into a different forms, making it one of the earliest practices of artistic expression. Whittling, however, did not become a prevalent hobby in the United States until the Civil War in 1865 when soldiers with skilled hands and idle hours whittled to pass the time. Whittling became a popular pastime that enlisted men, commanding officers, and even General Ulysses S. Grant partook. Some soldiers that had the habit of carrying around folding jack knives became proficient whittlers. They turned wood into walking sticks, figurines, sculptures, smoking pipes, fans, whistles, and ball in a cage. After the war, these same men taught soldiers, enlisted in the Indian and Spanish-American wars, how to whittle.

Some of the Civil War veterans became migrant and itinerant workers that worked on railroads, ranches, farms, and construction sites. Anywhere they found work, migrant farm laborers, also known as 'Hoe boys,' or 'Hobos,' carried their hoes with them to cultivate crops. Many traded items they made from whittling in exchange for food, clothes, and shelter.

Wood whittlers speculate that a hobo taught Ernest "Mooney" Warther, a famous whittler, to whittle a pair of pliers. The Smithsonian Institution appraised Warther's carvings as 'priceless works of art.'

Whittling carried over from the Great Depression, which enabled boys to continue making things with their pocket knives. After World War II, the G.I. Bill allowed veterans to receive a college education to gain employment in industries like manufacturing and construction. Consequently, whittling began to lose its ground as an applicable skill. However, the Boy Scouts incorporated whittling as one of the skills members needed to learn in the 1950s. The Boy Scouts also sponsored whittling contests.

Whittling petered out in 1965 with the advent of the electronic age when consumers shifted their attention to entertainment instead of hands-on activities. Also, the public schools discontinued its industrial and hands-on classes, limiting exposure for students who may have found interest with these skills.

Woodcarving grew slightly in the mid-1970s with the rise of woodcarving clubs appearing here and there across the nation. Many of these membership organizations sponsored woodcarving seminars that taught the basics. Woodcarving enthusiasts continue to strive for an upsurge in whittling interest, but so far they have yielded minimal results from younger generations.

How to Whittle

Whittlers need a block of wood and a pocket knife to get started. Experts recommend softwoods for beginners before experimenting with hardwoods. Choose a wood with a straight grain to avoid carving in different directions. Do not use wood with flaws in the grain like large knots. Popular wood used for whittling are basswood, pine, and balsa. Choose a pocket knife for first-time projects. Special knives for experienced whittlers are available to purchase; and it's recommended to sharpen these knives with a stone and strop before starting a project.

Approach whittling with caution, wear gloves or use a thumb pad to protect yourself from cuts and gashes. Whittlers that rush through a project stand a better chance of injury than those who take their time.

Examine the wood and find the direction of the grain to determine its usability. Whittlers can make small shallow cuts into their wood if they cannot decipher the direction of the grain. Whittlers who cut into the grain will notice that the wood peels away smoothly. Conversely, cuts made against the grain are harder to peel without the wood splitting.

Whittlers have the option of choosing between different cuts. For instance, the straightaway rough cut consists of making long, sweeping cuts with the grain. Avoid cutting too deep to save the wood from splitting. The pull stroke cut resembles the act of paring an apple. Whittlers hold the wood in their left hand while bracing the wood with their right thumb. Next, they make short, controlled strokes while keeping their thumbs away from the knife's blade. The push stroke cutting technique requires both thumbs placed on the back of the blade followed by pushing it forward through the wood. The push and pull stroke gives the whittler greater control over the knife.

Whittlers can find books with ready-made patterns at the library or they can look for project ideas on the web. Whittlers can advance their skills by joining a local or national membership club that will introduce them beyond the basics.

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