Whittling and Woodcarving Knives

I recently wrote about finding a whittling knife for a 10 year old girl.  While researching that article, I ran into a lot of good information.  It was more than I could include in that article without the length getting out of hand.

In this post, I am reprinting all of  Chapter 2 from E.J. Tangerman’s book Whittling and Woodcarving (1936) titled “Knives – Selection and Care”.  Enjoy!

whittling knives fig25 26 Whittling and Woodcarving Knives

(Top) Razor cutting edges, penknives, a barrel, and two jackknives. (Bottom) Several utility knives, a homemade hunting knife, and three more penknives

Knives – Selection and Care

WHAT type of knife shall I need?” Commonest of beginning whittler’s questions, it is almost impossible to answer unless you decide first what sort of whittling you plan to do. A knife, just as any other tool, must be selected for its job? A pen knife is useless for cutting off limbs, as useless as a jacknife is for making a matchstick chain.
First, as to blades: There are dozens of pocket-knife blade shapes – one manufacturer alone makes thirty-five – but only about two dozen are of use to whittlers. Twenty shapes are illustrated in Figs. 27 and 28. Commonest among whittling blade shapes is the pen blade, usually a. thin, wafer blade in small knives, exactly the sort of thing you need for hard-to-get-at and small work. Its flexibility will help you smooth a surface. A modification, the cut-off pen, provides a sharp point at the end of a straight cutting edge, thus is good for finishing corners, chip carving, and roughing down a background. The punch blade is similar to a round-nose chisel sharpened on the side and is useful principally in cutting holes in leather or rounding out small holes in wood. It often will make trouble by biting into the grain, and is somewhat hard to sharpen. A modification, the reaming blade, is ground oval on the back, thus does not bite in when rounding curves or drilling wood.

whittling blades fig27 Whittling and Woodcarving Knives

Ten Knife Blades for Whittling. 1, 2, 3, and 6 are most suitable

Another very common blade shape in knives from the smallest to the largest, is the clip, providing a rounded cutting edge together with a sharp long point. This blade is very useful because its long point will get into places and its rounded cutting edge is not so likely to catch at the tip in smoothing surfaces.  The cutback clip is shorter-tipped, giving a keen point at the proper cutting angle, yet is sturdy. The clip itself has several modifications, the B clip, the A clip, the  Turkish clip, and the Texas Tickler clip, the last two being very long and usually only on large knives. For normal work, I prefer the B clip, because the cutting edge is more nearly in line with the handle. The cutback is good for close work and chipping.

A grown-up edition of the pen blade is the spear, strong-backed, sturdy, and with the tip centered at its end. This blade is convenient for heavy cutting and roughìng out. If the “back bone,” the thickest part of the blade, is in the middle, the blade is called a sabre spear. This blade will hold its edge better because the blade thickens more rapidly behind the cutting edge and is very stiff, an advantage in heavy rustic cutting. The same treatment on a clip blade produces the sabre clip, again gaining stiffness. Both sabre-type blades are good for hard woods, but are heavy and cause the piece to split ahead of the cutting edge — which spells disaster in making a fan.
Another common type is the sheep-foot (sheepsfoot), somewhat similar to the cutoff pen, but larger and with a rounded hump back of the point. This blade is stiff and gives a good point for chip carving and point work, but the point will dig in when you try to smooth a surface with it. Modifications are the long sheep-foot and the Wharncliffe, the latter with a very long point and both giving a longer cutting edge. A pruning knife is also a modification in which the point is carried out in front of the line of the handle, making a concave or hooked-end cutting edge.

whittling blades fig28 Whittling and Woodcarving Knives

Ten more blades. 4, 6, and 8 are best for whittling.

Last of the important types is the spey, direct opposite of the sheep-foot in that the cutting edge is convex-curved. This blade is good for smoothing up a background after it has been sunk and for cutting round-bottomed grooves. The budding blade is exactly like it, but longer. The razor blade also is similar, but larger and with a differently shaped end.
One special whittling knife also has a chisel blade carrying a cutting edge at its end, really a gouge put into a clasp-knife handle.  Another has a blade with diagonal chisel end and a sharpened side for scraping. Then there are screwdrivers, bottle openers, can openers, manicure and file blades, scissors, and dozens of other specialized gadgets, all useful for their particular work, but of no value to the whittler.
As to knife types: In the general group called clasp knives, and meaning knives in which the blade or blades close into the handle, there three general classes based on size; the smallest being pen knives (up to 3 in. long when closed, light in construction and with thin blades); the next being jack-knives (3-1/2 to 5 in. long closed, with heavier blades and sturdy frame); and last, folding hunting or clasp knives (up to 8 in. long or so, with heavy blades ).  Penknives usually have two blades, a pen and a B clip, although some have two pens, one small and one large. Others have specialty blades added. Handle covers are usually pearl, a plastic, solid metal, or some similarly decorative material.

Jackknives usually have one large blade, either a clip or a spear and one or more small ones, an assortment of pen, cut-off pen, and sheep-foot. Handles are usually staghorn, wood, a plastic material, or bone. Hunting knives are similar, but larger, and often have only one blade, a spear or clip, and a handle of special shape, sometimes with a guard.
Then there are straight-handle or f1xed-handle knives, including everything from paring knives to special woodcarving or sheath knives.  Blades are usually clip, but may be spear, sabre-spear, or sheep-foot shape.  Similar is the Swedish sloyd-bladed barrel knife, shown at the center of Fig. 25, which has a round or barrel-shaped handle into which the blade is inserted. It is necessary to pull out the entire lining to open or close the blade but a blade is held open. Some specialized knives, such as the snap-button, spring-opened type also have blade locks. Snapping shut is a danger with the ordinary blade, particularly if you are boring or cutting with the tip. If the tip sticks, the blade may snap shut — then woe betide any fingers in the way! I have nicked myself once or twice this way but have not had any serious trouble. It is a matter of learning how — just as closing a clasp knife is. Learn to do the latter by holding the handle in the tips of the fingers and closing the blade with the palm of the other hand or with the finger tips well back from the cutting edge. And never have two blades open at once — unless you are playing mumblety-peg (bad for a good knife).
My personal preference is for penknives, since most of my whíttlíng is in miniature. Rustic whíttling, however, will make good use of a jackknife. Heavy carving calls for the hunting type.

whittling knife parts fig29 Whittling and Woodcarving Knives

Knife parts with their names, and three special blades

I believe the well-rounded whittler’s kit should contain at least three knives, one a penknife with a pen and a B clip, the latter the larger and both long and thin, the second a small jackknífe with a heavy clip blade and a smaller spearblade, and the third a large jackknife with a heavy spear or clip blade and a smaller spear, clip, or spey. The smaller jackknife may well have three blades, the third being a cutoff pen or sheepsfoot. I prefer thin handles with sturdy bolsters (the end caps; small ones that do not cover blade pivots are called “tips”), long blades, and if the knife is to be used for whittling principally, no specialty blades or gadgets. Their place is in knives for camping and rustic work. Handle material will make little difference, except in looks and cost.
Select a knife that feels well in your hand and that will do the type of work you want it to do. If you decide the blade shape isn’t exactly what you want, it can be modified somewhat by grinding. (When the blade tip breaks, you will have to modify the shape anyway.) The main thing is to get a well-built, sturdy knife with good steel in the blades. The only way to test the steel is to cut with it for a while and see how long the blade holds its edge. Usually a knife bought from any reputable manufacturer will have good steel in it, but it will not be cheap. It will be worth every cent, though, in saved sharpening time.
After you have bought a knife, keep it in good condition. Don’t let it stay wet. Wipe off the blades and oil them and the hinges when you have finished the day`s shaving production. Don‘t stick it in the ground, or use it to cut paper, cardboard, fingernails, pencils, sanded wood, or wire. All these things dull blades. Don’t cut knots or resinous woods (pitch pine, etc.), and drill holes with extreme care, otherwise you’ll break off the tip or break out pieces. And don’t put sidewise pressure on the blade; it isn’t built for that. When you grind out a nick on a wheel, be sure to keep the blade cool, or you will burn it and thus take out the temper, just as you may if you use the knife as a poker in a fire.

Above all, keep blades sharp. Otherwise you will be constantly troubled with poor cutting, scuffed up cuts instead of smooth ones, splitting instead of cutting. I honestly think more good whittling has been ruined by dull blades than by lack of skill.
Some parents feel that dull blades are safer on a child’s knife.  Quite the opposite is true, providing the child is old enough to have a knife at all, because a dull blade forces excessive pressure behind it, thus causing slipping, splitting, snapping shut, and their attendant hurts. A good clean cut can be handled with a. dose of iodine, a bit of a bandage, and forgetfulness. My four-year-old’s favorite expression is “I cut myself berry badly” — and it was mine too at his age. I remember once I did a very complete job of paring an index finger but didn’t tell a soul about it for fear I’d have the knife taken away for a while. I had a boat to finish first.
Incidentally, as you go in for ships in bottles (Chap XII), or making pliers and scissors (Chap. X), you will need special knives like those at the top of Fig. 25. Make them by breaking off the cutting edge of a razor blade with a pair of pliers and binding it in the split end of a piece of dowel rod. Use pliers, not your fingers.  You may have to break several blades before one will break right.
The general rule, “Whittle away from yourself,” is sound, proved so by the times when you won’t be able to. If you must cut toward yourself, try to keep the holding hand behind the cutting edge (Fig. 30), and don’t cut with the piece against your knee or stomach. You aren‘t a surgeon. Chapter III will give you pointers.

Above everything else, keep your knife sharp.

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