One hobby/profession that never really fades is that of woodworking. Whether you’re whittling away at a piece of wood as you wait in line at the grocery store, or working hard in a dedicated workspace, woodworking is one of those trades where your creativity and technical mastery can come together to create something great. But first, you need to learn the basics, which start with the cuts.
There are seven types of cuts worth mastering in woodcarving; while seven may seem like a lot to master, each one has a general and specific use that makes certain woodcarving projects easier to do. Some cuts may even be combined with one another to increase the effectiveness of both. In the remainder of this article, we’ll discuss how to perform each of these cuts in detail.
The V-Cut may be the most used cut in woodcarving. It involves taking your knife and making a cut at a 45-degree angle, then performing another 45-degree angled cut directly below the original. Make sure to cut up into the original cut so that a V is formed in the wood.
Tip: To keep these V-Cuts consistent, try and visualize where precisely the top cut ends.
This technique is generally combined with the Thumb Push Cut for the added control it provides. It has a variety of purposes when woodcarving or whittling. It can be used to form the faces or features of figurines or could be a connection point for two pieces.
The Sweeping Cut
The Sweeping Cut is nearly always done at the edges of the wood you’re using. It involves combining the Thumb Push Cut technique with a sweeping motion of the wrist. It is typically done at the edges of the wood to avoid running into the wood’s grain, which could alter the path of the blade.
When carving, this cut can be utilized to create an accentuated curve within a piece.
The Stop Cut
The Stop Cut involves cutting into your wood in a straight line and then stopping. After this initial straight cut, you take your blade and cut up to your original cut using either a Sweeping Cut or a V-Cut technique. The wood shaving show makes an audible pop and will fall or be easily pushed away.
This cut allows for sharp, near ninety-degree angles. Practical applications could include the creation of a forehead beneath a top hat or at the bottom of a pointed nose in figurines.
The Pyramid Cut
A Pyramid Cut involves cutting into the wood in the shape of a triangle. When the wood is removed, a small pyramid is formed.
- Generally, it is a good idea to start by physically drawing a triangle on the piece of wood you’re using.
- Switch your grip on your knife to a pencil grip.
- At the corner of the triangle you drew, push the tip of your knife into the wood. Softly trace the line down to the next point.
- Repeat this until each of the three lines are cut. The pyramid should generally be relatively easy to remove at this point.
The Pyramid Cut is used to add definition to carvings. Deep-set eyes and noses are popular formations of this cut when carving wooden figurines.
The Paring Cut (Thumb Brace Cut)
The Paring Cut has been likened to peeling potatoes. With one hand, you will hold the wood you’re going to carve. With your other hand—your knife hand—you are going cut towards the thumb pad of your knife-hand. This cut is also known as the Thumb Brace Cut.
This is a basic cut that is familiar to most; however, you sacrifice both power and control as you use one hand to hold the wood. Nonetheless, this cut is typically one of the easiest to master because most people already have some experience with it through its variety of uses.
The technique is generally used toward the edges of the wood. It is used to reduce the dimensions of the surface to make it more manageable.
The Push Cut
The Push Cut involves removing rough excess wood from the piece you’re working with. You simply hold the blade in one hand while holding the wood in the other. With your knife hand, push the sharp edge away from your body to remove excess or unwanted wood.
This cut doesn’t take much to master; it simply involves pushing the blade away from your body in a controlled manner. However, these cuts are generally made in rapid succession to one another, as the detail isn’t the goal of this cut. But, if detail does become the carver’s aim, then this technique should not be used.
Most carvers will use this cut when the Paring Cut isn’t feasible due to the distance one would need to move the blade towards the thumb. This cut is another way for a carpenter to reduce the dimensions of the wood.
It’s worth noting that this technique is not meant for detail. It also shouldn’t be used to make deep cuts, as the grains of the wood could potentially turn the blade inward towards the carver.
The Thumb Push Cut
The Thumb Push Cut is more of a technique that can be combined with other cuts to increase the power and control of a cut. The Thumb Push Cut is utilized by holding your carving knife in one hand. With the thumb of your other hand, press the back of the blade into the wood. This adds pressure and strength to the cut, which in turn grants more control.
Any time you are pushing your blade away from your body and have adequate access to your opposite hand’s thumb, it is generally a good idea to utilize this technique.
The Thumb Push Cut is like the standard Push Cut, with the main difference lying in the goal of the cut. While a regular push cut is simply to cut off excess wood while not requiring an abundance of control, the Thumb Push Cut lays on the opposite side of that spectrum.
It actually adds to the control of a cut while simultaneously increasing your overall power, making a great addition to cuts that require an element of pushing the blade away from your body if the need for control is present.
Tips for Mastering Wood Cuts
The following are a few general tips to keep in mind to ensure you can successfully master the cuts described above.
- Carry a small piece of wood with you so you can practice at various points of the day.
- Try to find a remote or quiet place with minimal distractions. Not only is this a safe practice, but it enhances the therapeutic properties of wood carving.
- Practice the various cuts on their own first, without attempting to form a figure until later. This will enable you to master the fundamentals and make the motions of the cut automatic.
- Read the grain! Avoid cutting against the grain when possible; when you cut along a wood’s grain, it is easier for the knife to glide across its surface and make seamless cuts.
Some other tips to remember include:
- Choose the right type of wood to practice carving on.
- Use a beginner carving knife if you’re new to wood carving.
- Keep your carving knife sharpened and stropped.
Use a Soft, Pliable Wood to Practice
While you can use any type of wood to practice your carving skills, Basswood has made its way to the top of most wood carver’s lists. Basswood is a softer, easy to manipulate wood that is inexpensive and accessible. It is seen as the best wood for beginners to practice and hone their woodworking skills, yet remains a favorite for experienced carvers for the same reasons.
Other Popular Types of Wood for Wood Carving
While Basswood remains the most popular, some alternatives have appeal to more experienced woodcarvers for a variety of reasons:
- Aspen: It has all the same qualities as Basswood, just to a slightly lesser degree. It is slightly tougher and somewhat more expensive, yet still readily available and soft enough to be used efficiently.
- Black Walnut: Black Walnut is more expensive than both Aspen and Basswood, yet its rich color and strong nature make it a popular choice for furniture and guns. Working with Black Walnut generally requires tools such as a mallet and a chisel.
- Oak: Oak is strong and has a very defined grain, which allows carvers to determine the direction of their cuts easily. It is a popular choice for furniture.
- Butternut: Butternut has the pros of Basswood and Aspen in its soft nature, but is darker than both. It polishes well like Black Walnut but doesn’t possess quite the same strength. However, it is still a popular choice for furniture.
(Source: Hardwood Distributors)
Start with a Beginner Carving Knife
Let’s start with the best wood carving knives for beginners and then work our way up.
As far as blade length is concerned, an excellent all-round starting point is a knife with a 1 ¾ inch blade (though this could vary depending on what you like to carve). Typically the bigger the blade, the bigger the piece or carving you’re working on should be.
Generally, a blade of this length will allow you to do the majority of your work as you can use the tip for detail work and the broader end for the bulk of the carving.
There are plenty of excellent brands when it comes to wood carving knives, and knives can be bought separately or as a wood carving sets.
When buying individual knives, the most recommended knives are a mix of BeaverCraft and Morakniv (popularly referred to as Mora) knives. These brands are some of the most popular brands of wood carving knives and tools, though whether they are the “best” for you will be based on your personal preference.
The “best” knife is typically determined by what feels comfortable in your carving hand. Because comfortability changes from carver to carver, no brand can boast it is the best, though some brands may attempt to accommodate a more significant number of carvers than others.
Carving sets will generally come with several knives of varying blade lengths, a knife pouch, and a stropping kit.
Keep Your Wood Carving Knife Sharpened (Honed)
There are various methods to sharpen your blade (also referred to as honing), but the two most common methods are through the use of sandpaper and whetstones.
The process of sandpaper sharpening requires several slabs of high grit sandpaper and water. The sandpaper is lightly lathered in water, which must be spread evenly across the portion of the paper in which you will be sharpening your blade.
Once the lathering process is complete, the blade is placed on the sandpaper. The blade must stay as flat or even as possible. Make sure not to lift back onto the spine of the blade. Once in position, the blade is lightly pushed against the sandpaper away from the body. Once the blade reaches the other side of the paper, flip the blade so that the spine is always facing you and pull it back.
This step is repeated between ten and fifteen times. Afterward, it is again repeated as you go through even higher grits of sandpaper (Source: Woodcarving Illustrated).
Using a whetstone to sharpen a wood carving knife is nearly an identical process as whetstones have grit similar to sandpaper: Start with the lowest grit and gradually shift to higher grits.
There are three types of whetstones for you to choose from:
|Types of Stones||Pros||Cons|
|Oil Stones||Affordable.||Cut slower than other stones|
|Water Stones||Sharpens faster than Oil Stones||Due to its softer nature, the stone itself can be worn down quickly, at which point it must be flattened or replaced.|
|Diamond Stones||Sharpens the fastest and maintains their shape the longest.||It is the most expensive option of the three.|
Keep Your Wood Carving Knife Stropped
Stropping is only useful after the blade has been sharpened. It is the practice of removing the latest imperfections (such as burrs) after sharpening to keep your blade’s edge keen and polished. If a burr is not removed, then the knife will tend to tear the wood rather than cut it.
Stropping a blade involves using a piece of leather, usually backed against a long hard surface. The blade is run along this leather strap, removing the burr. During this process, the blade is also visibly polished. A polished blade will generally cut cleanly without holding onto whatever substance it’s cutting.
A popular test to see if a blade is stropped enough is to cut through a sheet of plain paper. An adequate stropped blade will cut through the paper cleanly and will not have any bits of paper stuck to its edge.
Note: Remember that stropping does not replace the process of sharpening your blade.
Wood carving, like any hobby, takes time to master. Just like any other hobby or pursuit, the more time you put into it, the greater your skill will grow. Practicing these seven cuts and techniques alone without a clear end in mind is a great way to build your muscle memory and fine-tune your motor skills for when that shape begins to form:
- The V-Cut is used to make a variety of things such as joints, eyes, and noses.
- The Sweeping Cut is used at the edges of the wood to provide an accented curve to a carving.
- The Stop Cut involves cutting into the wood and then “stopping” and then cutting up into the cut, allowing for strong angles and precise separation.
- The Pyramid Cut is excellent for creating in-depth details and shadows in a carving.
- The Paring Cut helps reduce the dimensions of the wood.
- The Push Cut helps remove rough and excess wood.
- The Thumb Push Cut is a technique that can be combined with an “away from body” stroke to improve the control and power of a cut.
Often the first shape a carver carves wasn’t something they set out to cut when their blades met the wood. It is more akin to seeing shapes in clouds. You may start to see a form or a pattern evolving or growing from your wood.
The more you’ve practiced your fundamentals up to that point, the easier it will be to pull that shape out of the wood. It becomes an almost organic exercise, where your first few blocks of wood start as a mystery, and as you cycle through your techniques, everything gradually becomes clear.
Remember, the art of wood carving can be as easy or difficult as you want it to be. Some veteran woodcarvers and whittlers have dozens of knives, and hundreds of exquisite handmade carvings. But they all started the same way: with one knife and one block of wood.