Over the past 20 years, I have had the chance to whittle with several dozens of different types of knives. Some of these knives ranged from your basic every day pocket knife to specialized wood carving knives. But in the end, can you whittle with any knife?
You can whittle with any knife as long as it has a sharp edge and is comfortable to hold. The best knives to use for whittling will have a hardened carbon steel blade, a fine razor edge, and typically have a blade shorter than 2 inches.
I’m sure you are already thinking about what knife you already have available to you and want to get started. Keep in mind that your knife is the most important tool you will use while carving. While you can whittle most any knife, some of them will make the creative process more enjoyable while others may hinder you and slow you down.
Lets go over some great knife options so you can pick the right knife for you!
What Knives Can You Use for Wood Carving?
Whittling the the process of creatively shaping wood with just a knife, so picking the right knife for the job can make or break your experience.
While all knives will work for whittling if they are sharp enough, some knives will be easier to use than most because of their shape, size, or steel quality. There are several different knives that I have found to work well for whittling, like pocket knives, multitools, sloyd knives, and purpose built whittling knives.
Each type of knife come with their own benefits as they all differ in size and styles, it will be up to you what type you should get to fit your exact needs which will be highlighted below.
Pocket knives are available all over the world and just about all of you reading this probably have one in a toolbox or in your pocket right now. Since many people carry one with them wherever they go or have one while they are camping, this will be what the vast majority of people start whittling with.
Simply having a whittling knife that you can throw in your pocket is the biggest draw to why so many people use them. I myself have a specific pocket knife that I carry with me every day so I can sit down and whittle whenever I wish.
Here are several other reasons why you may want to use a pocket knife for whittling:
- Widespread availability
- Large variety
- Multiple types of blades in one tool
- Perfect for whittling on the go
- You probably already have one
There are some downsides to consider as well, and it would be wise to review them before making a final choice:
- Local laws may prevent carrying a pocket knife
- The handles may be small and uncomfortable to hold
- The better quality pocket knives are typically more expensive than an equivalent fixed blade knife
- You will need to properly sharpen the edge before use
We will go into more detail on what makes a knife good for whittling further on in this article, but here are a few great pocket knife options that should fit the majority of your needs.
– Swiss Army Knives
The amazing Swiss Army Knife (SAK) made by Victorinox is a wonderful tool that comes in a large variety of different tool combinations. From my experiences, the best combination for whittling is having a SAK with a large blade, a small blade, and a wood saw to cut off branches with. This results in a balanced and effective whittling knife you can just throw in your pocket!
A great and affordable SAK that covers all the bases you will need for whittling is the Swiss Army Hiker pocket knife. It comes with all recommended tools for whittling and extra every day tools that someone may want to use outside of whittling. Click here to check out the price on Amazon.
– Congress Style Pocket Knives
When many people think about a traditional pocket knife, the congress pocket knife is one that many think of. This style of knife has been around since the 1800’s and was made for shaping quills and whittling. Since it comes with 4 different types of blades, you have a wide variety of cuts you can make with the knife.
There are a wide variety of different manufactures who makes these knives, but the best option for whittling are ones that come with a carbon steel blade for better edge retention. My favorite one is the ones made by Boker as they make high quality tools at a good price and this their traditional congress available on Amazon comes with carbon steel blades.
For many of you, using a purpose made whittling knife may be a better option for you. These knives are designed specifically for the purpose of cutting through wood and typically perform better than your standard every day knife.
Many people who are serious about whittling will buy a purpose made whittling knife as they simply out perform any regular fixed blade knife or pocket knife when used for wood carving.
Here are several reasons why you may want to purchase a whittling knife:
- Shorter blades that are easier to control
- High carbon steel blades for better edge retention
- Blades are typically thinner and come with a proper edge grind for wood carving
- Handles are usually more comfortable to hold
- Come in a variety of different lengths and shapes to make the precise cut you need.
- Most come honed razor sharp for immediate use
There are a few downsides to consider as well:
- Carbon steel blades can be brittle and may break if used improperly
- Not ideal for every day use
- Harder to carry with you
- Carbon steel blades can rust if improperly stored
- Can be harder to find
There are quite a few companies that make these specially designed blades, but the two that I recommend to beginners are Beavercraft and Flexcut as they are easier to find and are affordable. If you want to see my complete list of the best whittling knives available, click here to see some other amazing options.
– Flexcut Tools
Flexcut has been making wood carving tools since 1992 and make a wide variety of different tools from knives to gouges. Their tools are easily found in most woodcraft stores and in major online stores like Amazon.
What sets this company apart from the others in their space is the quality of the tools for the price you are paying for them. You are getting a quality made tool that is designed to last you decades and slices through wood right out of the packaging.
Not only that, their tools have comfortable and well thought out handles that allow you to keep carving for hours with little to no hand fatigue! If you want to get into whittling, check out Flexcuts really nice 3 knife starter set on Amazon.
– Beavercraft Tools
Another great wood carving tool company that I regularly recommend to beginners on more of a budget is Beavercraft tools. They may nice quality tools at a very affordable price and are honed razor sharp right out of the packaging.
What really sets this company apart from everyone else the overall quality at such an affordable price and their complete whittling and wood carving kits. Even though there are cheaper kits available online, they just can’t compare to the quality that Beavercraft makes.
If you are ready to start your whittling journey and get the most for your money, check out Beavercrafts outstanding full whittling kit on Amazon! It comes with 3 knives, a leather strop to hone your blades, and a rolling tool bag to store everything!
Some of you, like myself, may find a traditional pocket knife or even a Swiss Army Knife lacking in overall utility. This is where the wonderful multitool really shines as it allows you to perform a multitude of every day functions and carry everything you will need on your hip or pocket.
While these tools are normally bulkier than an average pocket knife, the overall function for every day use more than makes up for the added size.
Here are some great reasons why you should pick a multitool for whittling or wood carving:
- Lots of tools with more usability than a typical pocket knife
- Bigger handles to get a better grip
- Many have locking blades for a more secure tool
- Lots of tool options available to reach beyond the typical scope of whittling and wood carving.
- More options on steel quality than a typical Swiss Army Knife
Even though multitools are great options, there are some downsides to consider:
- Multitools are heavier and bulkier than a traditional pocket knife
- Good quality multitools will typically cost more than a pocket knife
- You may need to properly sharpen the edge before whittling
When picking out the right multitool for me, I have to consider all of my intended uses. One of the big ones for me is whittling and wood carving as it can limit my overall options for the main cutting blade. If I intend to use the knife for whittling as well as my overall every day tool functions, there are only a select few tools that I will use.
Because of my own personal needs and desires, the only company that offers everything I need in a multitool is Leatherman. They have a great selection of tools available and some of those have their 154CM high carbon steel blades which are great for whittling! My two favorite Leatherman’s that I like to carry around with me are the Leatherman Charge Plus for all around general purpose use and the Leatherman Skeletool CX for a more simplistic multitool which can both be found on Amazon for a great price
Sloyd knives are a traditional Swedish wood carving knife that excels at shaping and removing both small and large sections of wood. They differ from a regular whittling knife in that they are typically much thicker and longer than a standard whittling knife. Not only that they will typically have a different edge grind and has a curved cutting edge.
You will see sloyd knives come in varying lengths, the longer versions excel at removing large sections of wood while the smaller ones are great for smaller, more controlled cuts. Most wood carvers who are working on projects that fit in their hands will find the smaller sloyd knives easier to hold.
Here are some popular reasons why many wood carvers have a sloyd knife in their toolbox:
- Great for removing large sections of wood
- Has a comfortable handle
- Easy to maintain cutting edge
- Many have a pointed tip for small detail work
- Has a thick blade making them very durable
- Most quality sloyd knives have a full tang construction
There are only a few downsides, but they are still a great knife to have:
- Thicker and longer blades reduce the overall precision of your cuts
- Some of the good quality sloyd knives are more expensive than a whittling knife
- Blade style and length may vary from manufacture to manufacture
One of the sloyd knives that I like to use and suggest to most people is the Mora 120 Sloyd Knife. These are wonderful knives made in Switzerland and easily slices through wood with their laminated carbon steel blade. You can find them in most wood carving stores for a great price, or on Amazon by clicking here.
What Makes a Knife Good for Carving Wood?
If you want an enjoyable whittling experience, you will need a tool that gets the job done. There are a few factors to consider when buying a knife.
A good knife consists of six things. These are the steel quality, blade design, edge grind, sharpness, blade thickness, and the comfort.
There is ‘no one knife is the best kind’ of principle. Each aspect of a knife gets designed for its purpose. Apart from that, it is also a personal preference.
The steel quality is how good the steel is on the blade. When discussing this factor, steel hardness is usually mentioned and is measured in Rockwell Hardness (HRC). The ideal steel hardness for whittling knives is between 58 and 62 HRC as it is the perfect balance where the steel isn’t too soft and looses its edge quickly and isn’t too hard where it becomes brittle
Usually the blades themselves are made with a high carbon steel like O1, W2, and 1080. When properly hardened, these create a durable cutting edge perfect for whittling.
There are different kinds of blades—for example, a curve blade or a straight edge blade. The blade design you choose is often a personal preference and may vary from the type of cut you are trying to make.
Keep in mind that the blades are designed for different uses. A pointy tip is easier to make small detail cuts in small carvings while longer and wider blades are great for removing large sections of wood.
Edge Design and Edge Grind
The overall cutting edge angle of the knife blade should be between 12 and 20 degrees. When the angle is larger than 20 degrees the knife will be harder to push through the wood. If this edge grind angel is too small, then you risk the cutting edge rolling or breaking while carving
This might speak for itself, but sharpness is a significant factor when it comes to having a good knife or a bad knife. The sharpness will determine how much pressure you have to put on the blade and how cleanly the blade slices through the wood.
Many of the quality make knives you buy are sharp when you get them, Like Flexcut, Beavercraft, Drake, Helvie and Deepwoods Ventures. If that is not the case or have you used your knife for a while, you will need to sharpen the knife using the right sharpening stones and honing sharp with a leather strop.
It does take some practice to sharpen the blades properly, but is an extremely important skill to learn. To learn more about how to sharpen your wood carving knives, click here to see my knife sharpening tutorial.
Every knife will have blades with different thicknesses, and this can effect how well the blade slices through the wood. Thinner blades will glide easier through the wood while thicker blades may require more force to slice off the same chunk of wood.
However, if the blade is too thin the blade has a higher chance to flex or even break! Picking the right knife for you to use in different circumstances will require some hands on experience.
If you don’t have much experience with carving wood, then a thicker blade can work to your advantage. This is because if you make bad cuts or accidentally bend the blade in the wrong direction, it is less likely to break and will have a more durable edge.
When we talk about comfort, we are talking about the handle design and how well it fits in your hands. When carving wood, you are probably going to be holding your knife for hours at a time and finding a knife that suits the palm of your hand is worth the search.
The main difference between the handles is the shape and the thickness. If you have a smaller hand, you are more likely to want a handle that is not too thick while those with larger hands like myself will require a thicker handle.
If a knife is light or heavy, this will also make a difference in the comfort level. If your knife is heavy and you’re holding it for a while, you can imagine that your hand will get tired, making it harder to carve with precision. Some people like it when the knife is a bit heavier, so they have more control, but in the end his comes down to a personal preference.
Best Carving Wood for Beginners
There are multiple different types of wood that many enjoy carving with like Pine, Basswood, and Butternut. Some woods are easier to carve than others and beginners will want to start with wood that is easier to work with.
The best woods for beginners to carve is Basswood and Pine as they are both easy to shape with just a knife and are easily found all over the world.
Basswood is the most common wood used for whittling by both beginners and experienced carvers. This is because the wood is soft enough to be easily carved with a simple knife while being hard enough to hold small details. Not only that, it has a fine woodgrain that is easy to work with and doesn’t split easily.
Pine is slightly softer than Basswood but can be just as easy to work with as basswood. The only real difference between the woods is that pine will sometimes have and inconsistent wood grain pattern that can throw off beginners. However, this wood is very easily found at local hardware stores and is very affordable.
For more great wood options, check out my complete list of the best woods to carve with by clicking the link below:
Some Last Thoughts
As the saying goes, your knife should be an extension of you. This is not only because you are the one controlling it, but you are also the one picking the knife you wish to use for your own reasons.
Just about every knife will work for most people, but in the end only a handful are going to be ideal for your intended carving as you will have your own personal preferences on how the tools need to perform.
If you are ready to start whittling, feel free to check out my complete whittling guide for beginners by clicking the link below!