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leslie's guiding traditions

Whittling is - the hobby of carving sticks or blocks of wood using a knife. An ancient skill which has been turned into a hobby by many, it is a fascinating, inexpensive craft. The only equipment needed is a supply of suitable wood, a safety glove, and a good knife which fits comfortably in the hand, and is kept sharp. From these simple beginnings a start can be made, and as skills develop it is possible to work on a number of fun and practical projects, from practical items such as bookmarks and paper knives, through utensils such as spatulas and wooden spoons, and fun items such as whistles and rattles, through to creating artwork items such as models.

The first thing you need, is a suitable knife. A penknife will do for beginners, provided it is sharp, but before long you are likely to want a knife with a more comfortable handle to use, so you can work for longer periods of time without discomfort or blisters, by choosing a knife with either a fixed blade, or a folding lockable blade.

The other factor to consider, when choosing your knife, is the law on knives. These laws are broadly similar across the UK, in that a folding knife with a blade under 3 inches (7.5 cm) is legal, but any fixed-blade or locking knife can't be carried 'without good reason'. Because of this, it is generally better for the whittling itself to be done at home, or the meeting place. At camps, it would usually be best for knives to be transported securely, stored by the adults, and only issued when needed, with each being signed out when in use, and signed back in when finished with.

What your knife does need to be, is both clean, and sharp. A satisfactory knife cut should be clean and easy, and a long shaving should be formed as you cut across the grain - if this is not easy to achieve, sharpen your knife! Sharpening is an occasional process which can be done on an oilstone, or on wet and dry paper on a flat surface (such as perspex or glass). Have a look at the shape of the sharpened area of the blade - if the bevel is flat you need to keep the blade flat on the abrasive at all times when sharpening. If curved, lift the back of the blade away from the sharpening surface to maintain the shape. More often you will be doing fine honing - drawing the sharp edge across a leather strop or canvas webbing which has been dressed with an abrasive paste such as chrome cleaner, wiping the blade along the surface away from you, with the back of the blade leading - usually 6 wipes is enough - this can be done after every half hour or so of whittling. If yours is a folding knife, make sure the blade is locked in position before sharpening so it does not move unexpectedly.

Also consider storage - every knife should have a sheath which covers and protects the blade, and ideally one which holds the knife in place even if it is tipped up. The knife should be stored in a safe place, secure so that no-one can get hold of it who shouldn't, especially young children. Every time you stop using it, even if only for a few moments, put it away properly - it is important to develop good safety habits from the start, so that they become second nature.

SAFETY HINT - If you drop your knife - always jump out of the way and let it fall, until it has landed and is lying still on the ground. Do not try to catch it . . .

The next kit to consider is your safety equipment. And the most important thing besides the knife, is the safety glove. These come in a range of sizes, including ones small enough for Guide-size hands, and are comparatively inexpensive. Suitable gloves are ones which conform to British Standard BS EN 388, and are classified according to four criteria - abrasion (1-4), cut (1-5), tear (1-4) and puncture (1-4). The higher the number, the better the protection, for whittling focus on high ratings for cut and puncture - the gloves should show the rating clearly on the fabric.

If you prefer holding the wood in your lap, then a leather apron is a wise investment too, to protect your stomach and legs from any risk of a knife slipping.

Choosing your wood

You can whittle almost any wood. That said, some woods are harder than others to use - and wood hardens as it dries out, so green wood is easier to carve than dry - green wood is best collected in winter, as it will bleed sap if cut in the growing season. Easier woods to carve are silver birch, hazel, yew, pear, maple, sycamore, lime, balsa. Befriending a tree surgeon can give access to small off-cuts in suitable woods which are ideal for beginners. Avoid any wood which is dead, or diseased.  

There are four key 'cuts' to learn, and it is worth practicing them until they are mastered, before tackling any major projects. For all cuts, keep the cutting hand in contact with the body for stability and to avoid the knife cutting too far.

The first of these is the wedge cut, made with the edge of the blade rather than the point. It is a cut downward and away from you, cutting the wood at an angle, then turn the wood and cut another downward slice, to remove a triangular wedge. The groove is sometimes referred to as a stop cut, because you can cut further into the wood in either direction.  

The next cut is the Pull or Squeeze cut. This is similar to the way some people peel root vegetables with a knife - gripping the wood with a gloved hand, hold the end of the wood with the thumb to give pressure to draw the knife towards you, taking a slice off of the end of the stick.

When doing this cut, be careful to ensure the thumb of your cutting hand is low enough that the knife will not come near it when it emerges from the wood.

The push cut is a slicing cut away from you, it can be done with or without using the thumb to add extra pressure to the knife. This is best done into a stop cut, as otherwise it is difficult to control the knife and prevent it cutting further than you intended. With this cut you also have to be aware of close bystanders.

The final cut is known as the lever cut. For this cut, the thumb of the gloved hand pushes against the base of the back of the handle, while the other hand pulls the handle towards you, so that the thumb acts as a fulcrum to create a long slicing action useful for removing large amounts of wood fast.

For your first projects, start simple. Good starter options are garden dibbers, and wooden tent pegs. Once you can turn these out easily and accurately, consider making whistles, spatulas or paperknives, or wooden spoons. (Items for food use should be made out of wood which is suitable for this, such as fruitwoods (e.g. apple, pear, plum, orange, lemon), or hardwoods such as birch, lime, or maples such as sycamore or hazel - but avoid mahogany, rosewood, yew, and shrubs such as laburnum or rhododendron.)

There is now a whittling badge for Guides. The information on this page will be valuable for anyone trying the badge.

The first clause is to whittle a musical instrument out of a vegetable. There are a few different options, which one to choose would depend on the shape of vegetable you are planning to use, and your skills. You will find instructions and patterns online for making a whistle or ocarina.  

The second is to progress your skills to whittling wood. If you are a beginner at whittling then something simple like a dibber, tent peg or paper knife would be an easy starting point. But if you have done a little whittling, you are challenged to do something more advanced - could you make a spoon or bowl, or carve an animal or figure?

The final clause is to progress your skills. So that could be mastering a new cut, or learning how to add a decorative pattern to items you have made, or working on a more advanced project. So, a paper knife or letter opener with a decoratively-carved handle perhaps?