#1 Sharpening:

One of the most important keys to enjoying carving is to have sharp tools. Dull tools are dangerous, frustrating, and can ruin not only your carvings but also your enthusiasm.

Although my "carving mentor" tries religiously to change me to power buffing I still use coarse and medium grit stones to shape and sharpen my knives and tools and a hard Arkansas stone and a leather strop with jewelers rouge to hone them. I do not use water or oil on my stones, instead I wash them after each use with warm water and dish soap. I have even used this technique to shape and sharpen the carving knives I make from saw blades and have a razor sharp edge on all of them.

Whichever method you find best for you, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, and PRACTICE!!!

When you think your knife or tool is sharp enough, carve with it on a scrap piece of wood for a while and then if it doesn't hold the edge you want go back and work on it some more.


#2 Tools

Many carvers have started with only a good quality pocketknife and many still carry one as a "field tool" just in case the bug bites while they are away from home. I have also talked with people who started with Exacto, Excel, Warren, or Speedball interchangeable carving sets and have had good results with them.

For this tip I am going to suppose you want to get some "real" carving tools ie. chisels, gouges, and carving knives.

I would always recommend that you buy the best quality tools your budget will allow. Poor tools can be hard to keep sharp and lead to a lot of frustration for a beginner.

A good "starter set" for beginners is a bench knife with a 1 1/2" or 1 3/4" blade. Good quality, basic knives sell for around $10 and can be bought at most carving suppliers. You will also need a 1/8" 45-degree V tool, a 1/4" #9 gouge, and a 3/8" #6 gouge. Be sure to check to see if the supplier offers the tools already sharpened . Many will either sell their tools "ready to carve" or will sharpen them for you for only a nominal fee. With these basic tools you can get started carving for between $50 and $150 depending on the brand of tools you buy.

You will also need to buy and learn to use tools for honing and stropping your tools to keep them sharp. There are nearly as many ways to sharpen as there are carvers and I would recommend finding someone to teach you and tell you what you need to keep your tools sharp.

As you progress and learn you may want to buy more tools for different carving styles or to do different jobs. I would suggest that you not buy sets unless you are sure that they contain a number of tools you need. Often sets contain tools you will rarely use or that are duplicates of tools you already own and buying and not using these increases the price you pay for the ones you do use, eliminating the "savings" you get from the set. Again, buy the best tools your budget will allow. Saving a few dollars only to find that the tools are not giving you the results you want is very disappointing.


#3 Wood

Many types of wood are used by carvers. Basswood and Northern White Pine are both good woods for beginning carvings. They have fine straight grain, hold detail well with sharp tools, and are easily worked.

There are many sources for carving wood. It can be bought at hobby shops, craft stores, carving suppliers, and lumberyards. Many carvers enjoy using "found wood"; scraps, limbs, driftwood, etc. that can be found while walking in the park, on the lakeshore, or around town.

You can also sometimes find cheap or even free wood by contacting local pallet manufacturers and sawmills and asking about cut-offs.

I get 24 inch 4x6 basswood chunks from a local pallet shop's burn pile just by asking. The wood has cracks and is rough sawn but I get a lot of good sized pieces after I resaw them. There are also many sources for wood online.


#4 Stick Collecting

I harvest/ collect most of my sticks from local county parks. Living in North Iowa I have access to thousands of acres of public woodlands and river bottoms. All of my hardwoods are standing or fallen deadwood and the only living trees I harvest are fast growing/reproducing species such as willow, basswood, birch, sumac, and alder. I also go for walks in town after storms and collect from the piles people put out for the city to chip and haul away. Another good way to get sticks is by the "barter system" I have traded landowners a simple walking stick for permission to harvest sticks on their property.

I believe that the use of any ecologically friendly, sustainable harvest method is acceptable. Remember that if you are harvesting on private property that if you leave the woods looking as good or better than you found it you are more likely to get permission again than if you leave a messy pile of branches.


#5 Drying

Green wood peels easier and peeled wood dries faster but is more prone to checking and cracking. I cut all my sticks around 6 foot long and store them for 4-6 weeks minimum before peeling. I then peel one or two sticks and let them dry to see if they crack. If they do I leave the rest for another 4-6 weeks.

I then store them in my garage until I need them. I test each piece by holding it to my cheek, if it feels clammy/cool it is not dry yet. By cutting them long in the first place I have plenty of wood at the ends to trim to get rid of the cracks that might develop.

For some species that are very prone to cracking and checking like birch, oak, and diamond willow I have found that keeping the bark on for at least two or three months helps prevent cracking.

(UPDATE) I have begun leaving the bark on some of the smooth, tight barked species, I.E. apple, plum, cherry, etc. after seeing the beautiful work done by my European counterparts. These I only give a light sanding to remove and loose bark flakes and finish with a coat of poly.


Good whittlin, Cliff