Wood carving is a highly rewarding and praiseworthy activity and is an integral part of several civilizations or eras, ranging right from the Native Americans to the Medieval Europe. It is an art that gives a carver an opportunity to nurture and hone the skills and craftsmanship with time and practice. Despite a fall in fame in the early 20th century, the art is still popular even today across the world. For a skilled carver, wood carving provides a myriad of creative opportunities, ranging right from the full-sized carvings to chip carved plaques. For these outcomes, it is essential to have a wood carving knife, which is an important tool found in any carver’s collection. This guide will help you find the best wood carving knife for you. We have also included a few wood carving knife reviews at the end of the guide for your reference
A wood carving knife is useful for different purposes such as general carving, whittling, letter carving and detailing, and chip carving. Such carving knives are available in a variety of blade shapes, each one made for a specific purpose. So, while selecting the right wood carving knife, there are many factors to consider such as the blade type and the kind of carving work. Let’s explore them in detail. However, before that, let’s start by understanding some basics, which are likely to affect your purchase decision.
- 1 Wood Carving versus Whittling: Same or Different?
- 2 Anatomy of a Wood Carving Knife
- 3 Know Your Carving Style and Wood for Carving: Two Factors to Consider before Buying a Wood Carving Knife
- 4 Factors to Consider while Selecting the best Wood Carving Knife
- 5 5 Best Wood Carving Knives of 2017
- 6 Final Words
Wood Carving versus Whittling: Same or Different?
Many wood carvers tend to use whittling and wood carving interchangeably. So, are both the terms same? Let’s find out!
Wood carving includes creating structures and designs in three dimensions, which can be either functional or symbolic. To do this, you need a set of dedicated tools along with a work bench at least, if not a workshop.
Wood carving is also a hobby apart from an art, which embraces making anything from a tall totem to a key chain. Any carver shall agree that carving is more about the creativity, vision, skill, and love for the woodwork.
On the other hand, whittling involves shaping a piece of wood by removing tiny slices. In other terms, it includes slowly reducing the piece to a new shape. Well, this does not mean that whittling is not as artistic as carving, although a few definitions convey it as non-artistic. Usually, whittling is just an American term for wood carving. There is no significant difference between the two.
Still, if you wish to differentiate, whittling is more the domain of pocket knives and can serve more complex carving jobs. Further, it is becoming more popular today due to the anxious lifestyle forcing people to work with their hands on stress-free, creative tasks. For example, whittling is preferred for making some holiday gifts with hand!
Anatomy of a Wood Carving Knife
While selecting a quality carving knife, you are likely to come across many terms that define or depict the different parts of the knife. So, it is wise to know these terms in advance. Doing so can help in comprehending some specific information about the handles and blades.
A carving tool is composed of two main parts namely, the handle and the blade. These two parts tend to embrace the other aspects.
- Sweep: Is the curved or straight shape starting from the blade’s cutting edge. From the sweep, the blade is either beveled on both sides or on one side. The former is associated with a straight sweep, while the latter is due to the curved sweep. If the bevel is on the curve’s outside, the gouge is out-cannel or else it is in-cannel.
- Grind: Is the shape of the blade’s cross-section, which determines the extent of sharpness and the level of good performance.
- Neck: Is the place where the blade is at its narrowest point after tapering to reach nearer to the handle.
- Bolster: Is formed when the blade flashes out from the neck towards the handle. It is a part that joins the blade and the handle. The bolster also protects the hand by balancing the knife.
- Tang: Is an invisible rod in the blade, which extends into the handle from the bolster. It provides additional support to the blade inside the handle.
- Scales: Refer to the material forming the handle on either side of the tang.
- Rivets: Are included to defend the scales.
- Butt: Is the handle end.
- Tip: Is the blade’s upper portion and includes the point.
- Point: Is the tip where the edge and the spine intersect.
- Spine: Is the blade’s blunt edge residing opposite to the edge and tip.
- Ferrule: Supports the handle near the bolster where the tang penetrates inside it. A ferrule is made up of brass or steel.
Know Your Carving Style and Wood for Carving: Two Factors to Consider before Buying a Wood Carving Knife
Well, when it comes to selecting the right wood carving knife, it all comes down to what you intend to carve and how you wish to do so. Because these two factors tend to vary from one person to another, you will find different types of carving knives made for handling distinct wood carving styles. So, let’s explore the wood carving styles, each yielding totally different outcomes yet being equally fulfilling.
Types of Wood Carving Styles
- Hand Carving/Whittling: Is what most people start with for mastering the art of carving. It is also known as knife carving. In this technique, a carver carves the desired shapes and objects by using a single knife or a variety of knives to get the specific details.
Suggested Whittling Knives: Usually, a folding knife with a locking blade or a fixed blade knife is suitable for this type of carving style. Those with a lock are safer to use, as for most, it is the first time to cut wood with a knife. There are many blade shapes available to accomplish different whittling tasks. However, if you were to begin with a single knife, a short blade (cutting blade) with a drop point and a flat cutting edge is the way to go.
- Chip Carving/Chipping: Is a kind of relief cutting in which the symmetrical and small pieces are discarded or chipped out of wood. Its outcomes are stunningly rewarding, due to the charming and complex patterns.
Suggested Chipping Knives: These knives may differ a bit from those meant for making figurines. However, the chipping blades are useful in a myriad of assignments. Most chipping knives have a draw-type blade, which indicates that you should draw the blade in the user’s direction. Some chipping knives are like small chisels. Nevertheless, all chipping knives aim to remove small bits at dramatic angles. For chipping, the essential tools required are a stab knife and a primary carving knife.
- Relief Carving: Is a technique for drawing images in wood.
Suggested Relief Carving Knives: Although smaller pieces are still attainable with a carving knife, chisels and gouges are used for several other relief carving tasks. A chisel is usually a flat blade having a different angle for cutting wood. A gouge is just like a chisel but has a V or a U shape. The degree of the V’s curve is referred to as the sweep. Each shape offers specific types of cuts. Gouges are essential for shredding off long lumber marks.
Now that you know the carving style to use, it is time to know the wood that you will be cutting.
Type of Wood to Cut
While you can use any lumber for carving as a hobby or as a profession, it makes sense to know the best wood for your carving project. For this, it is essential to consider a few relevant factors such as wood details and demand of wood type by different carving projects. Broadly, you choose from two types of woods namely, softwoods and hardwoods.
Making up for the maximum share in the world’s production of timber, some of the famous softwood species are conifers, fir, and pine. A softwood is the most suitable wood for the beginners, as it is easier to carve than a hardwood. However, a few seasoned experts choose hardwoods. Well, this preference is based on the type of project that is undertaken. Below are some of the most recommended softwoods to consider:
- Basswood: Has a density ranging from 0.3 to 0.6 and appears pale cream to light brown with every grain straight and fine enough to carve easily. It is the most recommended wood for whittling or hand carving. It also glues and finishes well with detailed work due to which it is excellent for whittling, painting sculptures, and toy making projects.
- Butternut:Has a density of .38 and appears golden brown with a unique pattern and a medium fine straight grain. It is suitable for making furniture and performing fine detailing and high relief carving.
- Soft Pine: Has a density of .42 and appears with a yellow tint on a resinous surface and visible grain. It is readily available and affordable for the starters willing to perform an outdoor project. Soft pine resists rot well although it is brittle at times due to occasional knots.
Recommended Tools for Softwoods: Hand-held tools, as softness results in less resistance as well as less force for carving: a chip carving knife, a set of chisels, a set of gouges (u, v, bent and spoon), and a mallet
Recommended Carving Projects: Whittling, fine detailing, low and high relief carving, small sculpture/figure carving, and turning
As the name indicates hardwoods are denser or harder than softwoods although there are some exceptions. Exceptionally, some softwoods are denser than some hardwoods and some hardwoods are softer than most softwoods. The difference is usually due to a more complex structure and consequently a much slower growth. Visually, the presence of pores helps in distinguishing between hardwoods and softwoods. Below are the recommended hardwoods for carving:
- African Mahogany: Has a density of 0.53 and appears with a red tone that slowly darkens. It has even and straight grain. This strong and light wood embraces finest detailing and cuts or trims well. It is used in carving, turning, and furniture making.
- Walnut: Has a density ranging from 0.65 to 0.7 and appears deep reddish brown changing slowly to creamy white. This durable hardwood has a straight, medium, and coarse grain. It is ideal for relief carving, turning, and furniture making.
- Oak: Has a density of 0.74 and appears red. It is a commonly used lumber in furniture and floors. You can make anything using this wood.
Recommended Tools for Hardwoods:
Hand carving tools that demand power tools and mallets: A chip carving knife, a set of chisels, a set of gouges (u, v, bent and spoon), and a mallet
Power tools:Rotary tool for attachments used for polishing, trimming, cutting, and carving; belt sander, drill press, and chainsaw
Recommended Carving Projects: Furniture making, low relief carving, and turning
Of all the woods discussed here, pine is preferable for wood carving. This is because of its relative cheapness, versatile applicability, and good strength. However, you can choose any of these woods as per the project undertaken.
Factors to Consider while Selecting the best Wood Carving Knife
For getting to the right wood carving knife, it is important to know its basic and relevant aspects in detail. Doing so helps in setting the right path to it when you know the wood carving style and project type. These aspects are nothing but the primary factors to consider once you know the type of blade to choose.
Well, the blade can be either fixed or folding. The blade type is the main factor that distinguishes one carving knife from the other. For knowing which is the right blade type, you need to know the pros and cons.
Folding: Is more portable and much smaller than a fixed one. In most states, it is illegal to roam with a long, fixed blade in public even if it is sheathed but it is easy, legal and more comfortable to roam with a folding knife if it fulfills the local laws. A folding size is half of the fixed blade size due to which it easily fits into a pocket.
So, the pros are the convenience of being discreet, pocket fitting, versatile to perform most tasks, and legally allowed to carry.
On the flip side, the folding point is a weak spot, as it is a break in the metal, which a fixed counterpart does not have. In case the bevel gets much pressure, it makes the folding or locking mechanism vulnerable to damage, specifically if it is smaller (common in most folding blades). It is also difficult to clean these knives on a regular basis, particularly if you use them daily. If left unclean, the debris is likely to jam the locking mechanism to make it insecure.
So, the cons are weakening tendency, tough to clean and maintain, and risk of lock malfunctioning.
Fixed: Has its own benefits over a folding one even if it seems to be more alarming to the public and illegal to carry if the length is more than the allowed one. A fixed blade is quite strong just as a knife, as one solid piece is obviously more difficult to break that a piece of two joined pieces. Further, it is longer than a folding blade. Well, the longer, the better is a wood carving knife. This is because such a length is likely to accomplish more, particularly in making flat and longer edges. Moreover, it is also easier to clean as well as maintain this kind of knife.
So, the pros are more usability for larger carving tasks, easier to clean, and least chances of breakage. On the flip side, such a knife is less portable and could be illegal to carry or use in public (check local laws first). Further, you should always use a sheath to carry it no matter where you go.
Lastly, even your preference plays a role in selecting the fixed or folding blade. Most people prefer a locking blade, as it is less likely to slip inadvertently and close partially while working to avoid cutting the fingers. However, it is possible that even the locking knives can slide. This encourages many users to choose a fixed blade knife and remain alert.
Overall Knife Size
It is important to consider this factor, as it affects the level of ease when it comes to controlling the knife. If you are a beginner or a carver with small hands, a medium-sized knife is a better option. This is because such a size delivers more control than other sizes while cutting.
Such a knife also has a smaller handle and a shorter blade than a full-sized one. A smaller tool always gives maximum control in the easiest manner and is preferable for linoleum and very fine carving.
Indicated by a number, the sweep of a carving knife conveys the degree of the curve its edge has. The number is higher in the case of gouges (2 to 11) and least for straight chisels (1). As a rule of thumb, the higher the number, the more is the curve, which is beneficial for cutting deeper grooves and channels. A lower number is for having a smooth, mild curve.
Well, this factor is much a matter of personal preference. Most people prefer a carving knife with as much flat blade as possible. This blade should also have a strong spine and least thickness as possible
Rather, it must be narrow from top to bottom for facilitating proper cutting in the concave spots. Anything over 15mm is obstructive, which is the reason why most general-purpose knives fail when it comes to wood carving.
A long thin blade with not much belly is ideal for most cuts. The belly refers to an edge’s rounded part toward the point, which is seen in a general-purpose knife. This is ideal for woodcarving. Beginners prefer a short blade for safety purpose but this also restricts the cuts. For example, a longer blade makes it easier to cut long slices for making large flat planes.
So, the best option is to choose a thinner and a longer blade. It is wise to strike a balance between the length and thickness for retaining the desired strength. This is because an irrationally thick blade gets in the way of a few cuts, while a too shorter one is unable to perform some cuts.
Beginners usually do not bother for the bevel, as it is the factor that intermediate and advanced users consider. You should also consider the grind type, as some of these are just perfect for carving wood.
For example, for wood carving, the Scandi or Scandinavian grind is considered ideal. It ensures ease of sharpening as well as control while cutting. However, this grind is more common in folding pocket knives.
The primary grinds are convex (hollow), flat, and convex, of which the hollow one is suitable for carving a wood. However, the Scandi grind is recommended the most, as it is the edge is effectively a triangle tapering to a perfect point.
Avoid buying a general-purpose knife with a secondary bevel, as it does not facilitate controlled woodcarving. Usually, a flat primary bevel is sufficient for wood carving.
If you choose fixed blade, ensure that there is no hilt or blade guard. These utilities get in the way of some cuts and are not required for carving. They are only required to prevent the hand from gliding onto the blade when implementing a stabbing type cut (not done in woodcarving).
Blade Steel Type
Well, there is a tough competition between stainless and carbon steel. The latter is stronger than the former and is often the choice for survival knives and machetes. However, a carbon steel blade rusts more easily due to high carbon content. However, a carbon steel construction allows the user to cut harder woods more easily.
On the other hand, stainless steel is less likely to rust. In fact, rusting is avoidable if you clean it regularly. It is also a cheap material.
Well, this factor indicates how sharp the blade is. If edge retention is good, the sharpness is also good and that the knife is ready for carving. For wood carving, sharpness is one of the most important factors to consider. The edge should be as sharp as possible. Sharpness equates to safety, as a dull blade is likely to glide, especially when you do not want it to react in that manner.
To know whether a knife has good edge retention, just take an ordinary paper and scrape its side against the blade. This should cut the paper. If the cut is clean and smooth, it indicates a good retention level. On the other hand, if the result is uneven or the slicing is not well, it means that the blade needs honing or sharpening.
The tang determines the extent to which the blade drags into the handle. It can be either full or partial.
A full tang blade is an ideal aspect of a knife. It boasts a narrowed end with two handle pieces put together around its tang. Such a blade never becomes loose or come out of the handle.
A partial tang blade only extends to some degree into the handle. The construction differs in the sense that instead of being put together, it is glued. This has a drawback of slipping out of the blade due to high tension and pressure on the handle.
So, go for a full tang knife.
The method used to make a carving knife affects three factors namely, the price, durability, and the weight. A carving knife is created by implementing one of the two common methods namely, forging and stamping.
A forged carving knife is made using a heated steel bar, which is then hammered into the desired shape. Such a knife has a thick blade with a heavy feel along with a bolster between the blade and the handle. It provides superb balance, easy slicing due to a heavier weight, and more durability than a stamped one due to least risk of bending with time. However, it is costlier for its better performance.
On the other hand, a stamped knife is made by implementing the hydraulic press process. Here, a sheet of steel is molded into the blade shape with the help of a machine. Then, many processes are implemented for refining and sharpening the blade. While such a blade is more affordable, it is thinner and less balanced than a forged counterpart.
While the ability to cut is the most vital aspects of a knife to consider, it is unwise to ignore the handle. This is because a handle affects the balance of a blade and the weight of a knife. It also determines the ease of use and knife’s durability. For experiencing these benefits, it is essential to choose the right handle material.
- Wood: Has a bold visual appeal and ensures ease of use as well as comfortable hold. On the flip side, its porous surface makes it tough to clean due to which it tends to lock different bacteria. Further, to prevent drying and cracking, a wooden handle needs more maintenance.Hardwoods with slow growth and straight grain are ideal for handles, which includes beech and ash. They are dense and less likely to split because of the intrinsic knots.
- Plastic: Is easy to clean, durable, and affordable. Some of the most common variations include resin and nylon.
- Stainless Steel: Is the most durable and easiest to clean material for a handle. It also contributes to the weight for boosting the blade’s balance and making it easier to use. However, steel is less comfortable than plastic or wood when it comes to holding. Further, it is likely to slip when wet.
Note: You can even choose an Every Day Carry (EDC) knife, which is the most popular and common type of knife. It features a locking mechanism and a medium-sized blade. The size is small enough to fit inside a pocket filled with other comfortable stuff. There is nothing wrong with carving with an EDC knife. However, they are general-purpose knives. It is wise to look for more specialized knives for wood carving.
5 Best Wood Carving Knives of 2017
It is a specialized knife for detailed wood as well as spoon carving. It comes with a single-edged blade made up of carbon steel that boasts a hardness level of 59-60 on a Rockwell (RC) scale. This blend makes it handy for all push cuts with the left hand as well as all pull cuts with the right hand. The full tang ensures superior strength and sturdiness. The handle is made up of oiled birch wood handle, which is comfortable to hold and delivers greater control than other wooden handles. Its performance is matchless! The overall weight is 2.1 ounces (59 grams) and the length is 6.3 inches. The blade is 2 inches long and its thickness is 0.1 inches. There is no sheath and the knife is made in Sweden.
It is the most affordable knife in this list, with a flexible but razor sharp blade that gives more control over different cuts. The blade is made up of high carbon spring steel. It is alone enough to follow the carving’scontour, which removes the need of using the traditional tools for completing a single profile. This steel also adds to great edge retention, as the shaft is hardened like a spring and the tip is toughened to RC 59-61. The ash handle boasts an ergonomic design for boosting the ease of use as well as comfort. The overall weight is 2.1 ounces.
It is a small knife made for the small beginners such as teens. It features a thin carbon steel blade, oiled birch wood handle, and a single-finger protection guard. The overall weight is 0.13 pounds. While the length of the blade is 3 inches, that of the handle is 4.25 inches. With a truly sharp blade, this knife is meant specifically for detailed wood carving. This tool comes with a plastic sheath in black.
It is a pocket knife featuring a multi-tool design and the highest price tag in this list. It is a smaller version of the original Carving Jack. There are four blades that tend to fulfill the diverse needs of wood carvers and woodworkers alike. These blades are 1-5/8-inch long detail knife, 1-7/8-inch long straight gouge, 1-inch long V scorp, and 1- 1/16-inch long scorp. With a weight of just 3 ounces and a closed length of 4.25 inches, it hardly gives a feel of its presence when kept in a pocket. Yes! It’s that lightweight! The tool is ready for use when removed from its package.
It is another affordable pocket multi-tool knife suitable for wood carving. It comes with two carbon stainless steel blades namely, the primary and secondary one, each measuring 1.25 inches in length when opened. When the blades are closed, the overall length is 3.5 inches. The top-grade stainless steel retains the sharpness of edge even after using it for several years. The handle is ergonomic and ensures both control and comfort while holding and using it. The overall weight of this knife is just 0.3 ounces, which means it hardly gives a feel of its presence when kept inside a pocket.
With all this information, it is easy to bring home the best wood carving knife. Just do a thorough search to identify a quality tool. While many of the above factors are associated with a personal preference, being a bit objective by considering the type of project and wood to be carved helps in selecting a more effective cutting tool!