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with Don M. Leners, DonLeners@pennzoil.com


The Carving Knife
(General/Bench Knife)

The general purpose carving knife is one of the most used tools in woodcarving when carving anything from small animals to caricatures to sculptures. It is also one of the first tools a perspective carver will put in hand to create their first "masterpiece".

 Although for the many uses, it is often one of the most overlooked tools when it comes to creation and selection of one. Ask a carver what gouge or v-tool they use and you will get a detail description of his tools including the history of the tools, the materials used in them, the sizes, the angles, the sharpness, and the ease of using that tool for a particular type of cut. However, ask that same carver about the basic carving knife that they use and you will not get such a detailed answer.

When working on certain types of carvings such as caricatures or animals, the carving knife can be used for up to eighty to ninety percent of the carving with the remaining details and final touches being completed by a variety of other tools such as gouges and v-tools. With this much work being performed by the carving knife, it would seem only fair to give it an equal amount of consideration when purchasing one. During the selection of a knife, there are many areas that need to be given a fair amount of consideration. The areas that I like to consider are:

  • Comfort
  • Blade Design
  • Edge Maintenance
  • Materials


While carving, the knife should fit comfortably in your hand. If the handle is to small or to large, you will find yourself exerting more pressure than necessary when holding the knife during cuts. This can lead to fatigue and cramping muscles sooner than is necessary. In addition, if the handle has been finish with a glossy look or other relatively slick finish, you might find yourself gripping the knife a little more than usual in order to keep it from slipping out of your hand which will also lead to fatigue.

Blade Design

With a general purpose carving knife (as well as a detail knife) the blade design can vary. With a little experience, one can recognize the differences. The basic shape of the blade is the Sheepsfoot Style. Many experienced carvers will modify the overall shape of the blade to accommodate their own particular style however the basic shape is roughly the same on all knives. The length of the blade will vary from 3/4 of an inch up to 2 inches with the standard being 1 to 1 1/2 inches. The length should be the main concern of the blade design and will vary depending on personal preferences and the size of the carvings it will be used for. I prefer a 1 1/2 inch blade and therefore the knives that I tested contained a 1 1/2 blade with no added modifications.

Edge Maintenance

This would be one of the more important area of consideration. Included in this is how well the knife can take an edge (be sharpened) and how well it can hold an edge. The materials used as well as the process of forming the blade are the key elements to determining the edge. The harder the metal is the longer the edge will hold; however, the process of creating a smooth, polished, "sharp" edge will also increase in difficulty as the hardness increases. Therefore a compromise between the two must be met.


The materials used in the construction of the knife will affect the overall life of the knife. The handle itself must be constructed of a hard enough wood to where extended use pressure will not cause expansion around the contact points between the blade and handle resulting in a loose (and dangerous) blade. If rivets are used to secure the blade to the handle then they also must be of size and strength to accommodate the pressures exerted on the blade.

Looking at the Brands

For quite some time now I have been selecting several different brands of carving knives and testing them for these above conditions. While all of the selections were well recommended and each an excellent knife in its own right, there were distinct differences with each that placed each knife above or below the others in the overall ratings. The knives that were selected for testing are as follows:

    • Murphy Hand Carving Knife
    • Lamp Brand Bench Knife (German Made)
    • Swiss Made Carving Knife
    • Ken Helvie Knife
    • Rick Bütz Carving Knife
    • Cape Forge #1 General Carving Knife

Murphy Hand Carving Knife :


      Blade Material Chrome Vanadium Tool Steel
      Blade Size 1 7/8 inches
      Rockwell Hardness not available
      Handle Material hardwood
      Handle Size 5 7/8 inches

    General Comments: Nothing fancy about this knife, very much just a basic knife. The handle seemed to fit well in the hand although it seemed to place the hand a little to far back on the handle for a "paring" type cut. The blade needed to be sharpened on a stone first before honing on a leather strop. I found that the edge was quick and easy to obtain and held up pretty good in Basswood but did seem to lose some of the sharpness pretty quick in hard woods such as Honduras Mahogany. The finish on the handle was rather rough (unprofessional) looking with a slight gloss to it that caused it to slip a little in the hand. Although, I found that this was easily taken care of with a little sandpaper. The blade also appears to be a little on the long side and thinner as well as narrower giving it a slight bit of give in the harder woods.


Lamp Brand Bench Knife (German Made) :


      Blade Material German Steel
      Blade Size 1 5/8 inches
      Rockwell Hardness RC 61 - 63
      Handle Material European Hardwood
      Handle Size 5 3/4 inches

    General Comments: Out of the box, this was a simple, plain looking carving knife. The handle, rather light in color, darkened nicely with a little use. The overall shape of the handle fit very well in the hand except for where the thumb and forefinger gripped it (around the neck of the handle). The neck was a little too narrow and cause for some difficulty in holding the knife steady. For a person with a smaller than average hand, this would be a perfect fit. The wood appears to be birch and is shipped with a light oil finish giving it a soft sheen appearance which enable the knife to be held with only a slight amount of pressure needed. This blade also required a little bit of work on a stone before taking to a leather strop. The process of sharpening the blade took a little bit of work to get the right edge on the knife but after the initial sharpening on the stone, the only thing needed was a leather strop. The knife held the edge very well in basswood as well as in the mahogany. The back of the blade is a little thicker than standard knives giving it a little more strength for holding up in the harder woods.


Swiss Made Carving Knife :


      Blade Material Special Alloy Tool Steel
      Blade Size 1 7/8 inches
      Rockwell Hardness RC 57 - 60
      Handle Material European Hardwood
      Handle Size 5 1/2 inches

    General Comments: The handle had the right length to fit most hands comfortably but has rather flat sides which gives it a feeling of being too narrow. I found that when holding the knife, I was having to use a tighter grip and had to curl my fingers up under the knife. The overall shape of the base of the handle being somewhat larger than the rest of the handle allowed for it to fit nicely in the palm however with the gradual thinning of the handle up to the blade, it would shift in the hand placing the hand closer to the blade. The blade itself is shipped with a nice edge on it but did require a little work on the sharpening stones before moving to a leather strop. Once sufficiently sharpened, stropping it at the beginning of a carving session was all that was necessary. The blade was a little bit long on some of the smaller carvings ranging in the 3 - 4 inch range.


Ken Helvie Knife :


      Blade Material Tungsten Carbon Steel
      Blade Size 5 3/8 inches
      Rockwell Hardness not available
      Handle Material Multi-Colored Packawood
      Handle Size 5 1/4 inches

    General Comments: First of all, I would have to say that this is the best looking and most colorful knife I tested. I selected the knife I tested from a supply of about 8 knives; each of the knives (all Helvie knives) varied in handle and blade sizes. These knived contained the shortest handles of all that I tested but were also the thickest of all the others. They did fit very nicely in the hand and the thickness allowed for an easy grip. The only drawback to the handle is the finish. A very highly polished finish that called for a extra-tight grip to keep the knife from slipping right out of the hand. This led to a tired hand at the end of the carving sessions. The blade was one of the sharper blades out of the box calling for only a good stropping before getting started. The blade was strong enough to glide right through even the hard woods without losing the edge. The shape of the blade also gave an added advantage; the tip of the blade sloped back to the handle much quicker than on other blades allowing for the knife to reach into tight spots with ease. A leather strop was all that was needed for maintenance. There were several good ideas put into the design of this knife such as the thickness of the handle and design of the blade, however the "slick" glossy finish on the handle makes it more prone to slipping than other knives and can be a little dangerous to use.


Rick Bütz Carving Knife :


      Blade Material not available
      Blade Size 1 1/2
      Rockwell Hardness not available
      Handle Material Cherry wood
      Handle Size 5 5/8 inches

    General Comments: This is a genuinely good looking knife. The cherry wood on the handle darkens very nicely with use. In comparison with all the knives tested, the handle on this one was the favorite. The shape and size allowed for a perfect fit in the hand with the base being just thick enough and round enough in shape to maintain a good grip with very little pressure being needed. As the handle approaches the blade it thins down and expands right before the blade to create a notch allowing for the hand to get closer to the blade than any other knife and also keeps the knife from slipping in the hand. The finish is of an oil type which gives it a smooth look without being to glossy and slippery in the hand. The blade did require being sharpened on a stone first before the initial use but has only required stropping after that. The blade performed very well in both soft and hardwoods while maintaining a good edge for quite a lengthy time. The only drawback for this knife was that the blade is loosely set into the handle being held in place with two brass rivets allowing for a visible gap between the blade (tang) and the handle. After a little use, the blade wore on the rivets enough to result in a loose blade. The blade, while ever so slightly, is loose enough to be able to grip the handle and blade and move it back and forth. This is an excellent knife for a beginner to start with due to the safety in the shape of the handle, but once the blade begins to get loose, the safety and accuracy of the cut are lost rendering the knife useless.


Cape Forge #1 General Carving Knife :


      Blade Material High Carbon Tool Steels
      Blade Size 1 1/2 inches
      Rockwell Hardness 62c
      Handle Material Black Walnut
      Handle Size 5 1/2 inches (style: Standard)

    General Comments: This knife was by far the favorite. The handle, being of black walnut, is a very durable handle which will hold up to years of carving. The length and thickness fit perfectly in the hand. The handle was less thick than the Helvie knife but was shaped to allow for a fit that made the knife feel like an extension of the arm. The handle come in two basic styles, the standard (traditional) shape and a teardrop shape; the knife used for testing had the standard handle. The finish was a basic finish allowing for protection of the wood while not being to glossy. Upon receiving the knife, the edge was sharp enough to use as is but was put to a leather strop before the serious carving began. Compared to the other knives tested, this knife maintained it's edge better than the others. The only maintenance required was a quick stropping at the beginning of each carving session. The blade glided equally as well through both soft and hard woods. This knife was above all the best in quality and performance. As an added bonus to the knife, the service provided by the creators of this knife is unmatched by any other knife company. While the knife I used in testing was on loan to me by a fellow carver, I will be ordering the first of many Cape Forge knives for my own collection.



210 Wood County Industrial Park
P.O. Box 1686
Parkersburg, WV 26102-1686
web site:

Smokey Mountain Woodcarvers Supply, Inc.
P.O. Box 82
Townsend, Tennessee 37882

Wood Carvers Supply, Inc.
P.O. Box 7500
Englewood, Fl 34295-7500
orders: 1-800-284-6229

Cape Forge
P.O. Box 987
Burlington, VT 05402-0987
web site:

The Author:

Don M. Leners was born in Indiana and spent much of his early youth traveling amongst military bases within the USA. Finally settling in Houston, Texas after his father's retirement from the Air Force, he obtained and education in Computer Engineering and has achieved a successful career working with computer systems for the oil industry. Married to his wife, Heather, in 1992, they and their two children live in Spring, Texas, a small community outside of Houston, Texas, and are active members of the Catholic Church. Don spends most of his spare time with his family, supporting his wife's craft business, and of course in his workshop.

Don began carving at the age of 10 with a basic carving set and whatever wood he could find laying around. Most of the early carvings were of small animals and a few relief carvings; all with a strong southwest accent to them. At the age of 14, he began working on other wood-working projects in addition to the carvings. After a few years, he put all wood aside to begin a career. He has since returned to shop in 1991 to continue woodworking and carving as a hobby. The types of carvings that Don likes to do are caricatures, realistic sculptures, animals and relief scenes. The subject of most of the carvings is centered around the history and culture of the Old West and Native Americans. While a few of the carvings and other woodworking projects are sold through his wife's craft business and to private individuals, most of the work is given to family members and friends.