Beginner Advice

by Kenneth Bingham

Woodcarver Ezine
Back Issues
Carvers' Companion Gateway

Hi I'm Ken Bingham. I am a novice woodcarver with little or no discernable artistic talent. But I never let that stop me. I don't carve for competition or profit, but because it is relaxing and a release. I love the smell of the wood and the feel and sound of a sharp tool, making little curl chips in the wood. I have been involved with carving about 3 years, but with 3 preteen children(I'm a soccer Dad) I haven't been able to find consistent carving time.

I hope to be able to provide some new carvers with some useful
information and ideas from my limited experiences.


Check your local television listing for wood carving shows usually on PBS. I got started by watching Rick Butz on my local PBS station. A wonderful series loaded with information.

Visit your local library. Most libraries are now part of a regional system so that if they only have a few wood carving books they can compile a list of books that they can obtain from other associated Libraries. Get the list and have them order a few of the books for you every week or so. Take some time to look over each book. Get a notebook and keep track of the books you have looked at. Make note of the books and authors that you like, for future reference.

Some books will provide a lot of information about tools and sharpening, some will discuss a lot about woods for carving, some will show different styles, some will have various patterns and others provide very detailed step by step instructions. The books will cover topics ranging from pocket knife whittling to fine wood sculpture. Start out by looking quickly through many books then go back later to the ones you liked. A lot of the books maybe old, from the 40's through 70's and long out of print so libraries will be the only place to find them. After reviewing 30 or 40 books you should have a good idea of types and styles of carving people have been doing and some ideas of what you might like to try.

Now you need to come up with a list of the books you would like to own. Your first book should have information about carving tools, sharpening, wood selection and some patterns and detailed instructions. A very good choice for a first book would be "How to Carve Wood" A book of projects and techniques by Rick Butz. He covers tools , sharpening woods and various types and styles of carving. Buy 1 or maybe 2 books to start with then look for sales when buying more. Also look at used book stores for out of print books some times you can find some very good ones at reasonable prices. When ever I go on vacation I like to check out some of the used bookstores in the area.

Magazines can also offer a wealth of ideas and information. A good magazine is WOOD, which usually has a carving article in each issue along with wood profiles of various trees and tool reviews. They have an index of their carving articles at their Web Site Fine Woodworking and American Woodworking also have carving articles from time to time. Two great Magazines, Wildfowl Carving and Collecting and Chip Chats maybe found in some libraries. WC&C is almost a must have for> bird carvers. Chip Chats its the publication of the National Wood Carves Association and the $11.00 annual membership, which includes a subscription, is one of the best investments you can make. Libraries may have back issues of these magazines which can be requested.

Some libraries may also have a few wood carving videos which can be an excellent supplement to directions from a book.


Once you have hit the books you now need to find some tools and supplies. You will need a knife, a way to sharpen it and carving material. My favorite knife is a Swedish Sloyd. They come in 3 sizes but the best is the short 2 inch one. The knife is very sharp and is able to remove a lot of wood in a hurry. But it will also shave a very thin chip when needed. It costs about $12 and is available from Woodcraft (1-800-225-1153).

The basic carving knife would be a woodcarver's bench knife. The blade should be between 1 to 2 inches long with a straight cutting edge with the top of the blade curving down to form the point with the bottom cutting edge like a sheepfoot blade. I like the Rick Butz knife with the 1 7/16" blade and costs approx.. $15.00. The thin grip is nice when you read instructions telling you to hold the knife in a pencil like grip for doing detail work.

Camillus # 72 Whittler pocket knife.

Above top: Butz carving knife, middle: Swedish Sloyd knife, bottom: Whittlin Jack knife.

Folding pocket knives will work well also and are very convenient to have with you to help whittle away some time waiting for any reason. X-acto knives will work for some carving and detailing. The replaceable blades are sharp and reasonably priced but are not designed to remove lots of wood.

An alternative and a somewhat better choice would be Warren Tools Interchangeable blade knives. The blades come in a multitude of shapes are sharp to start with and can also be honed and sharpened many times. A lot of bird carvers and some relief carvers use the Warren blades as their main carving tools. They like the different shapes and low prices. Besides changeable blades they also have various different handles to chose from. The company also makes interchangeable gouges and fixed handle gouges. I've seen people make their own handles for the knives blades and gouges as a cost saving measure and to save time not having to switch blades.

If you are handy and adventuresome you can make your own knives and tools from various items. Hacksaw blades, files, old straight razors and broken kitchen knives can be ground down, shaped, tempered and sharpened it very useful knives. Some people make their own knives to save money, some just for the challenge and others because they wanted a special shape or size that they couldn't find elsewhere. I have a couple of knives that my grandfather had made from hacksaw blades and kitchen knives which I still use from time to time.

There are also many different hand crafted knives available, that range in price from $25.00 to $60.00 or more, and other specialty knives but wait awhile until you really know what your looking for before buying one of those. Anyway wood handles feel better than a metal ones

When you look through some catalogues for knives some will say honing required some may say pre-sharpened ready for use. If you don't know a lot about sharpening ordering a pre-sharpened knife could be a good choice. You may also see phrases such as, steel edge is hardened to Rc 62 or blades are tempered to Rc 58 - 60 . The Rc refers to the Rockwell scale of hardness. The higher the number the harder the steel is, the harder the steel is the longer it will hold it's sharp edge, and a longer time before it gets dull and needs to be sharpened again. However the lower the number the easier it is to sharpen, the higher the number the more effort that is required to get the tool sharp, a classic trade off. I like the harder edge. Once you get it sharp it is easy to keep sharp.

In order to enjoy carving you need very sharp tools. A sharp tool sort of whooshes through the wood leaving a neat clean curl. A less than sharp tool sort of rips it's way through the wood leaving crushed and splintered wood fibres instead of a clean cut. A sharp tool is generally a safer tool. It requires less effort to move it through the wood and the carver therefore has more control over the tool. However if you have been working with less than sharp tools and get hold of a very sharp tool be careful. If you use the pressure as with the dull tool the sharp tool may get away from you. I read a posting on the woodcarvers list that a carver went out an bought a new Sloyd knife. To try it out he made one slice through a piece of * " bass wood. Went through the wood, through the thumb guard and into his thumb.


This brings us to subject of safety and safety equipment.

Wood carving knives and tools are by necessity very sharp and are capable of inflicting serious injury if misused, abused or used carelessly. Please do not leave knives out where young children can find them and play with them. To be safe you should wear a Kevlar type glove on your non knife hand and a leather thumb guard or similar protection on your knife hand thumb.

Here are some basic guidelines for carving safety:

  • Wear eye protection whenever using power tools.
  • Use dust protection when power carving, sanding or grinding.
  • Use hearing protection if using loud tools or pounding with carving
  • mallet.
  • Avoid holding carving block in your lap.
  • Avoid holding carving block against your chest or any other body parts.
  • It is a good idea to use a carving vise.
  • Keep your thumb out of the way of the knife path.
  • Make small controlled cuts.
  • THINK if the tool slips where will it go and what's in it's path. Then
  • move what's in the path.
  • Avoid holding the carving block if possible.
  • Avoid alcohol when carving.
  • When you get tired quit.
  • This is far from an exhaustive list of safety ideas but just a few to help you enjoy carving. Little nicks and cuts happen from time to> time to almost all carvers. But you want to avoid those careless mistakes and slips that can result in the cutting of nerves and tendons, which can take weeks, months, or years to heal. Please if you are just starting out carving get into the habit of using the safety glove and thumb guard. Hopefully they'll be like seat belts once your use to them you will feel uncomfortable without them.

    Join a Club

    If possible visit or join a local carving group, guild, or club. The carvers there will probably have information available for new carvers. Some groups may have a beginning kit available at a reasonable price. Most carvers are delighted to show their latest project or new tools. It would be hard to find a nicer, friendly group of people than carvers, If the woodcarver listserver is any indication. A list of Carving Clubs is available at:

    The following are suppliers I have dealt with in the past.

    Fox Chapel Publishing
    Box 7948L
    Lancaster, PA 17604-7948
    1-800-457-9112 E-mail

    Mountain Heritage Crafters
    601 Quail Drive
    Bluefield, Virginia 24605-9411
    1-800-643-0995 E-mail
    Books, Tools and Safety gloves

    210 Wood County Industrial Park
    P O Box 1686
    Parkersburg, Wv 286102-9929

    Good luck with your carving. Next time I'll try to cover
    sharpening stones and wood.

    If you have any questions or comments contact me at or

    Ken Bingham