Have you always wanted to find a hobby that allows you to be one with nature and express your creative side? If so, then whittling could be the perfect new pastime for you.

Whittling is a simple form of wood carving that, at its most basic level, only involves a knife and a piece of wood. With these two things, you can carve whatever you please. Bowls, spoons, figurines, and chess pieces are all popular among whittlers.

Wood carving is an ancient art that humans have been practising for millennia. In fact, the oldest known wood sculpture, the Shigir Idol, is thought to have been carved around 11,000 years ago.

Over the centuries, people have not only used wood carving to make practical objects, but to express themselves creatively too. It’s also an incredibly mindful activity that’s been proven to relieve stress and help you focus on the present moment.

If you’re interested in this ancient art and you’d like to give it a go, then we’ve got you covered. Read on to find out about what supplies and techniques you’ll need to start creating your own whittled masterpieces.

1. Get your whittling supplies together

Like origami or macramé, one of the main reasons why people love whittling is because it’s very accessible, and you don’t need too many tools and materials. As we’ve said, at its most basic level, whittling involves just wood and a knife.

So below, we’ll take you through the best knives for whittling, what wood is best for beginners, and a few other items you should pick up.

Whittling knives for beginners

As far as knives go, you’ve got three basic options:

Pocket knives

If you want to go for a rougher, more old school approach (or you already own one that you’d like to use) pocket knives are great for whittling. In fact, many traditional whittlers claim that pocket knives are the only way to go.

The main advantage of using a pocket knife is how portable and convenient it is when you aren’t actually whittling. Because they fold up, they’re easy to take on camping trips, where there are plenty of opportunities to get crafting. Pocket knives also often hold multiple knives, which will save space.

There are some disadvantages to using a pocket knife for whittling, though. Often, the folding mechanism means that the blade is less secure, therefore giving you less control. Pocket knife handles can also be quite uncomfortable for whittling, meaning your hand will get tired or start to hurt after a while.

There are loads of different pocket knives out there. You can even use a simple Swiss Army Knife, which many people have knocking around somewhere in their house or garage already. Just remember to make sure it’s nice and sharp before you begin. For tips on how to sharpen your knife, why not take a look at this guide from Carving Is Fun?

Whittling knives

If you’re an absolute beginner to wood carving and you don’t have much previous experience using knives, then a whittling knife is probably your best bet. Whittling knives are specially made for wood carving. They often come very sharp and are ready to use straight out of the box. They also have fixed blades – meaning they don’t fold up. While this makes them less portable and convenient than a pocket knife, they’re a little easier to control.

Whittling knives are also designed for hours of use. They usually have ergonomic handles which are much more comfortable to hold than pocket knife handles. So, your hand should get tired less frequently.

As far as choosing a whittling knife is concerned, you can’t go wrong with the Mora 120. Mora is a trusted brand among the wood carving community and this knife is not only comfortable and sharp, but it’s great value for money too.

Or, if you’re serious about getting into wood carving, why not consider buying a wood carving knife set? This one, again from Mora, includes two different basic knives; one for shaping and one for fine detail. It also includes a few hooked knives so that you can use it to carve things like bowls and spoons with ease.

Pocket whittling knives

If you’d like to mix the handy convenience of the pocket knife with the specialist design of a whittling knife, then why not consider a hybrid of the two?

Knives like the Opinel No 6 (a beginner’s pocket whittling knife that comes recommended by many seasoned whittlers) not only fold up but have locking features that keep your blade nice and secure while you whittle. So, you’ll have greater control when trying to create fine detail.

Note: Remember that there are strict laws surrounding knives in the UK. So if you’re planning on taking a knife intended for wood carving out of the house (on a camping trip, for example), make sure that you adhere to these laws. You can read all about them on the government website here.

Whittling wood for beginners

After you’ve decided on your knife, the next thing to think about is what wood you need. When it comes to wood carving, there’s a wide range to choose from – and wood is generally split into two categories: softwood and hardwood. 

Different types of wood are suitable for different projects. For instance, you might prefer the colour of one type of wood for one project, but you may need a particularly durable one for another. Though, when starting out on your whittling journey, it’s best to choose a wood that’s easy to carve.

It’s also worth remembering that just because a type of wood is classified as a ‘softwood’, it doesn’t mean that it’s easier to carve. The reverse is also true, so bear in mind that ‘hardwoods’ aren’t necessarily difficult to carve. 

Let’s take a closer look at three great types of wood for whittling beginners…

  • Basswood – probably the most popular whittling wood, basswood is great for beginners. Although it’s technically a hardwood, it’s very soft and has a fine grain, which makes it easy to carve. It’s also widely available at low prices, making it an attractive option for beginners who just want to dip their toes in.

Amazon sells a range of blank basswood blocks that are sold with carving in mind – your local arts and craft shop will also most likely have some in stock.

  • Balsa – another favourite among whittlers, balsa is also a hardwood. But like basswood, it’s soft and very easy to carve. It’s also a little less durable than Basswood because it absorbs water more easily. Again, you can find a wide selection of balsa blocks on Amazon, or head down to your local arts and craft shop.

  • Pine – pine is technically a softwood and it’s a little more difficult to carve than basswood and balsa. This is because it has a rougher grain which, in inexperienced hands, can cause splitting or chipping. On the other hand, pine is quite durable, so you might want to consider it for any projects that might spend time outside. Why not take a look at the selection available on Amazon?

While these are a few of the most popular types of wood for whittling, this list is by no means exhaustive. There are plenty of other types of wood out there that beginners will get along well with. If you’d like to find out more, it’s worth popping into your local craft store and speaking to a member of staff.

Of course, it’s also worth remembering that you can source your own wood. Searching for wood is a great activity to combine with nature walks and hikes. There’s something extremely satisfying about finding your own wood and carving something beautiful out of it.

When searching for your own wood, it’s best to find big branches that aren’t dead and dried out- though this doesn’t mean that you need to start hacking off the limbs of trees. Try to look for freshly fallen branches.

As for the type of wood, silver birch, willow, sycamore, alder, and lime are all great for beginners and can be found all over the UK. To help you identify species of tree, why not check out this great app from the Woodland Trust?

Other items you’ll need

Again, the art of whittling traditionally only involves a knife and a piece of wood. However, when working with knives, it’s always best to remember that this can come with dangers. And no matter how experienced you are at whittling, or how careful you may be, accidents can always happen. Luckily, there are some items you can pick up that’ll help you stay safe.

  • Safety gloves – as you can probably guess, the main cause of injury when whittling is cutting your hands and fingers. Safety gloves might be a bit bulky and you may have a little less control when whittling, but they are heavily recommended for beginners as they’ll greatly reduce your risk of injury.

Safetygloves.co.uk has a great range of gloves that are all ideal for wood carving. When looking for safety gloves, make sure to take a look at their cut resistance score. This will tell you how good they are at protecting your hands from cuts. It’s also worth keeping in mind that many of these gloves won’t protect you from punctures, just cuts – so you’ll still need to carve with caution.

  • Finger guards – when you’ve had a bit more experience and you become more confident in your whittling skills, then you might want to swap your gloves out for finger guards. These are usually made of cut-resistant material like leather or suede, and they typically sit on the thumb and forefinger of your knife holding hand.

Although finger guards still protect the areas of your hands most prone to injury, they’re definitely not as safe as gloves. They do, however, afford you a little more precision and control when carving.

  • Sharpening stone – and finally, a sharpening stone is another very important item if you’re planning on doing lots of whittling. It might seem counterintuitive, but in wood carving, the sharper your knife, the safer you are.

With a sharp knife, you have better control and are less likely to injure yourself. Dull knives, however, can frequently catch on the wood, slip, and cause you harm. So try to keep your knife nice and sharp with a sharpening stone.

2. Learn the basic whittling cuts

Now that you’ve got your knife and made sure it’s nice and sharp, picked up some soft carving wood, and bought your safety gloves, it’s time to start carving!

Most seasoned whittlers will tell you that when starting out, it’s best to take your time getting to know the basics of whittling before starting any specific projects. This means that when it’s time to carve something, you’ll have greater control over your knife, resulting in a better carving and a safer experience.

So before you get going, consider having a go at and getting comfortable with these three basic cuts.

Straightaway rough cut

Straightaway rough cuts (or rough push cuts, as they’re sometimes known) are probably the most commonly used cuts when whittling and typically the first ones you’ll make on any project. They’re normally used to carve out the general shape of whatever you’re sculpting.

To make a straightaway rough cut, grip the wood firmly in your weak hand (or support hand) and your knife in the dominant hand (cutting hand). Then, going in the same direction as the grain, make long sweeping cuts that go away from your body. Always make sure the fingers of your weak hand aren’t in the trajectory of the knife.

When making straightaway rough cuts, don’t cut too deeply. Instead, gradually cut off thin layers of wood until you carve the shape you want. Remember that in whittling, you can take wood away, but you can’t add it back once it’s gone.

Thumb push cut

With this stroke, just like the straightaway rough cut, you’re cutting away from your body.

However, when performing the push cut, you place the thumb of your supporting hand on the back of the knife blade to add extra pressure. This allows you to cut through stubborn wood more easily while giving you greater control over the knife.

You can use this stroke when you need to make short, accurate cuts, for instance, when adding detail.

Pare cut

Often referred to as the ‘pull cut’, the pare cut is also used for accuracy and detail. To perform a pare cut, you hold the wood in your weak hand and turn the knife in your dominant hand, so the sharp side of the blade is facing you.

Then, anchor the thumb of your cutting hand against the side of the wood that’s closest to you and draw the knife towards you by squeezing your hand together.

When performing a pare cut, it’s important to make short, careful cuts. Because the blade is coming towards you in this stroke, you’ll also need to be extra careful (it’s now you’ll be thankful for your glove or thumb guard!). As with all cuts, try to go with the grain of the wood.

For a demonstration of the basic cuts, as well as a few more specific ones, why not take a look at the video below?

3. Explore other learning resources you can use to get started with whittling

Once you’ve collected all of your supplies and you’ve become familiar with the basic whittling cuts, there’s no reason why you can’t begin sculpting your first masterpiece.

However, it’s worth remembering that this article isn’t an exhaustive guide on all things whittling – rather an introduction. So if you want to find out more about whittling before you begin, or you’d like to learn along the way, then there are plenty of resources available.

Firstly, we’ve got a great selection of wood carving courses available on our website. Although not all of these are limited to whittling, and some involve tools like chisels, these courses will still help you hone your whittling skills and create beautiful sculptures with ease.

Alternatively, if you learn well by reading, then there are plenty of books out there to help you along on your whittling journey. Complete Starter Guide to Whittling: 24 Easy Projects You Can Make in a Weekend comes highly recommended by the wood carving community. Not only does it have lots of great tutorials, but it also contains some excellent advice when it comes to tools and materials.

The Urban Woodsman by Max Bainbridge is also highly coveted. In this book, Bainbridge walks you through some useful projects and shares some wisdom on topics like knife sharpening and the different finishes you can use on your creations.

And finally, one of the best and most comprehensive resources out there for learning to whittle is probably the internet. You can search for project-specific tutorials on sites like YouTube, which means all you have to do is follow along. And you can also find other information and advice on dedicated wood carving websites, such as Make From Wood and Best Wood Carving Tools.

4. Choose your whittling project

When faced with a blank, uncarved piece of wood, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all of the possibilities. Though, the great thing about all art is that you can create absolutely anything you want.

Nonetheless, when first getting started with whittling, it can be helpful to follow some tutorials for appropriate beginner projects, so you can focus on sharpening your skills.

To give you some inspiration, here are some easy projects for a newbie whittler…

Animal figurines

Probably the most popular project for newcomers to whittling are animal figurines because you can make them as detailed or as plain as you like. There are hundreds of tutorials on YouTube for all kinds of animals. Why not take a look at the one below, which teaches you how to carve a simple owl?

Chess pieces

Chess pieces are really popular projects in the whittling community. Making a whole set will give you some variation and allow you to practise lots of different cuts. It can be helpful, when starting out, to make some larger than normal pieces. These will be less fiddly and will help you to get to grips with the basics, before moving on to smaller versions.

Check out the video below to find out how to carve a simple pawn.

Wood spirits

We all know the phrase “knock on wood”, but have you ever wondered where it came from? According to ancient German legend, there’s a deity that lives in every single tree. And in medieval times, when travellers needed to cross through forests, they’d knock on trees to alert the wood spirits of their presence, and to ask for safe passage.

Nowadays, carving the faces of these spirits into wood is a popular project for whittlers of all abilities. Why not take a look at the video below to learn how to carve one?

Wooden spoon

A wooden spoon is a simple and functional object for beginners to start with. In the video below, the man uses a gouge tool to carve out the bowl of the spoon, but you can use a spoon knife or even just your regular knife.

Because a wooden spoon has a long and thin shape, it’s relatively easy to find your own wood for this project. Just remember to use a food-safe finish on your project before using it. Take a look at the video below to find out how to make a wooden spoon.

Final thoughts…

Now that you’ve collected your supplies, learned the basics of whittling, and chosen your project, it’s time to get carving! Just remember that when working with knives, no matter how careful or experienced you are, there’s always the possibility of injury. This is why we recommend having a first aid kit on hand just in case you cut yourself.

If you’d like to take your woodworking skills further, then we also have an introductory guide to carpentry, which takes you through everything you need to know to get started on creating larger and more complicated projects. You can also check out our article 12 practical things to make from wood to find some inspiration for your projects.

And if woodworking isn’t for you, we have guides for lots of other creative skills in the learning section of our site.

Are you a whittling enthusiast? Or are you looking to try it out for the first time? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.