Sunday, July 19, 2009

Magical Knives, or Wish in One Hand . . . .

Back a couple of weeks ago on "Beginner's Carving Corner and Beyond", Tom Hines asked the musical question, "Does anyone have any magical knives?" Or something similar. I responded that I had a box full of magical knives, whereupon he responded with another post laying out a list of qualities that a magical knife might have. He must have been reading my mind!

As background for all this, let me start up the Wayback Machine and take you back in time about 15 years. This happened in Albuquerque. It was a lovely spring day, and I made the ill-considered decision to take my wife with me to an outdoors carving show on the University of New Mexico campus. There were a lot of excellent carvers there, but I only remember one. He was in his mid-thirties, I'd guess, and was a wonderful carver. We complemented his work, and I asked him what kind of knives he used. He snapped open a beat-up leather pouch on his belt and pulled out an old Buck Folding Hunter. The original 4-inch blade had been sharpened down to a little less than half that size. It was now an odd shape that I couldn't begin to describe. "This is it," he said. "This is the only knife I use. It does everything I need it to do." That was his magic knife. We'll come back to him a little later.

These are the first of my magical knives.They are called "Harley" knives. They are made and sold by Del Stubbs of Pinewood Forge. They start off life as a Frost's Pattern #122 from Sweden. Del takes them and regrinds the blade from a 20 degree angle down to a 12 degree angle. They are made specifically for Scandinavian Flat Plane carving in basswood and are named after Harley Refsal, probably the foremost practitioner of SFP carving on the North American Continent. For their purpose these knives are truly magical. They drift through basswood with hardly any drag at all. But don't use them to pry and don't use them on anything harder than butternut. Those edges will kink at the least excuse. I know! But for carving Uncle Ira up there, they are worth their weight in gold.

These are a couple of knives made by Carl Johnson. They are magical because they allow me to carve Celtic knots without a scroll saw. All I have to do is drill a 1/8" diameter hole, and I'm off to the races. They are not so magical for removing large amounts of wood, however. Sorry, Carl.

Here's another pair of Del Stubbs knives that I consider magical. These are his regular sloyd and his short sloyd. He also makes a straight sloyd, a skinny sloyd and an extra long sloyd. I wish he'd quit coming up with new knives. I already have a drawer with nothing but his knives in it. If he makes any more, I'm going to have to clean out another drawer for the overflow! These knives are sharp and pointy without being delicate. They are perfect for wood spirits and spoons.

Now here is my latest magical knife. It's made by Ralph E. Long and is called the WH-8. I was introduced to this knife by Don Mertz, the Woodbee Carver. After seeing the post where he used this knife alone to carve a very detailed pirate, I had to give it a try. I carved that Santa using only the Long knife. The blade is whisper thin. I measured 58-thousands of an inch thick at the handle and tapers to nothing at the edge and the point. If the Harley knives drift through basswood, this Long knife (I LOVE saying that!) falls through it. And like the Harley knives, don't twist, don't flick, don't pry! But the shape of the blade is what makes it magical. I could do things with this knife I didn't think were possible. It excells at getting into tight spots. Plus the curvature of the blade keeps the heel of the edge out of the way when you are using the point, and keeps the point out of the way when you are using the heel. A wonderful knife -- as long as you don't try to use it on maple.

Well, I promised you that we'd come back to that New Mexico carver with the Buck Folding Hunter, and here we are. Remember I said I'd made an ill-considered decision to bring my wife along to the carving show? Ever since that day, about every three weeks on average, she says to me, "Why do you need all these knives? Why can't you do like that guy in New Mexico and just use one knife?"

Within the answer to that question lies the point of this whole ramble. You can be a one-knife carver if all you do is one style of carving. If you want to do SFP and wood spirits and spoons and Welsh lovespoons and want to do them with the minimum amount of frustration, you need more than one knife. Because there is no one, magical, do-all knife.

So indulge yourselves. Go out and buy 20 or 30 knives. You'll feel better!

Until next time, let the chips fly!


  1. Oh MAN! I had to read ALL THE WAY To the end to find out you feel the same way I do. Granted, I don't have a knife, but I do have a favorite chisel. ( 1.5 inch #2 sweep I think ) I love it for roughing and smoothing, but it does not do everything I want so I have to use other chisels. I was about to ask why you have so many magical knives. Well, you answered it, It's difficult to do lots of things with only one type. there really a woodworker out there that does not eventually become a collectore of tools? Everyone will fall victim to collecting planes, saws, chisels etc even if they do not need or use them ever.

  2. MMM sometimes I'm unsure of my hobby, is it carving, or is it knife collecting. I'm certainly better at collecting knives than I am at carving.
    My latest magic knives are the small travelers from Bay Forge, then there is that bigger set. MMM

  3. Ethan, the purpose of writing a post is to get people to read ALL THE WAY to the end! And, yeah, tool collectoritis is a major problem for the wallet.

    John, we're ALL better knife collectors than we are carvers. I don't know which is more pleasurable, knife collecting or carving. Oh, wait. I know! Carving with a new knife!


  4. GReat Post.

    Curious if your wife has a stash of fabric in a cedar chest for projects...
    most folks have some sort of secret collection of "useful/ beautiful" things that fascinate them.

    I don't have that many knives. The one I'd call magical, I got in Bali. (That alone would qualify it.) It's a skew knife and I use it all the time. The other carving tools I got there went into my plaster kit. Not practical for the hard woods I work with but great for plaster working.

  5. It is always great when someone talks through their tools, thank you.
    A frosts with a 12 degree bevel! Don`t ever let anyone else use that knife. I like the way you carve the Celtic knots, when I get the time I will have to make some very small knives for myself or modify an existing blade.

    I recently got into collecting bench stones and lusting after even more natural stones. I will do a post about them one day.

  6. Well, im about as bad at collecting knives as tom h.
    since i cold grind straight razors into woodcarving knives, i get the pleasure to test them out before i sell them or give them away.
    As an average i usually make 5 knives and keep one special knife for myself.
    currently with about 25 knives in my collection. there is no one favorite knife, but if forced i could carve with any of them,
    As i see it Each knife fills a particular need its best suited for,
    long thin blades are pretty good for roughing, where thin short blades are best for minor details.

    things would be much more simple if i could carve with one knife, but that means i would have to stop making them, and i find that as much fun as carving sometimes...

  7. What a great informative post. Graet carving of Celtic Knotwork. That's something I would be interested in carving....but maybe not just yet:¬)

  8. Great post Bob! I missed it because my computer had a knot in it. I limit myself to 3 carving events per year. Evart Roundup, GOW, Dayton show. I buy a knife (or at leasy one other tool) at each of these events. Some work out, and some don't. But it sure is fun tryin em out...Thanks for this post.