Monday, October 10, 2011

THE MAGIC OF FACES - KNIVES

As I believe I mentioned earlier these posts are going to be enhanced and made into a book that will be available on Kindle and Nook (assuming I can work out photography) for the low, low price of $2.99. For that reason I'm covering the initial steps prior to carving just like it was a tutorial for a beginner, hence the posts on knives and the one to come on Safety. Be patient, we'll get to the actual carving very soon.

The knife you use to carve is important. It has to fit your hand, not slide around when your hand gets sweaty, and be comfortable to hold for long periods. More important than the knife is how sharp it is. For most of my carving life I used a folding pocket knife (more on this later), and while it was what I considered sharp, I didn't really know what sharp was until I purchased my first fixed-blade, honest-to-goodness carving knife from Del Stubbs at Pinewood Forge. That's the knife I'm talking about there to the left of old Happy, the Wood Spirit. I have since learned to put a carving edge on just about any knife, and I would suggest you do the same. You don't need a lot of expensive equipment (multiple diamond hones, water stones, ceramic stones, etc.) to do the job right. Just google "scary sharp system" and you will find everything you need for not much money. Just don't fall into the trap of over-sharpening. Once you get a good edge on the knife (many knives come with a great edge) all you need to do is strop the edge every half hour or so. Unless you try to carve a nail or something you should almost never touch the knife to a sharpener again.

Another knife I have used is the Flexcut Pelican pictured here.


I consider a sheath of some kind an essential accessory to a carving knife. They take up less room (yeah, even that Flexcut sheath) than the traditional packaging a knife comes in, and they provide protection for the edge. This Flexcut sheath is pretty pricey, about half the cost of the knife itself, but it will save you a lot of worry.

Del Stubs's knives come with traditional Scandinavian birch bark sheaths at no extra cost, so the cost of one of his knives is about the same as the cost of a Pelican and sheath.


I've posted an official photo of the Flexcut Pelican to point out a peculiarity of mine. I can't leave a production knife alone. I've always got to be modifying them to make them fit me better. By comparing the photos of my Pelican above and the factory Pelican here, you can see what I've done.

The first thing I did was take a sander to the handle and remove the factory finish. Straight from the factory Flexcut knives come with a hard, slick (polyurethane, I presume) finish to the handle. As soon as my hand starts sweating, the knife starts trying to slide around. This results in gripping the knife harder and, for me at least, a case of tendinitis (we'll talk about this in the upcoming Safety post).

The next thing I did was very carefully grind the hump off the point of the blade. Flexcut puts that hump there to strengthen the point, but I wanted a point that would allow me to make really tight turns. I knew grinding that hump off would make the point more delicate, but I've broken enough points off blades to know how to avoid that.

This lesson of this is that you can take a factory knife that isn't exactly what you need, and, with some research and experience, modify it to make it truly yours.


Now, this is the one knife that I'm going to use to carve the face in this tutorial. It's the Regular Slojd from Pinewood Forge. It has a 2-1/4" blade, a birch bark sheath, a beautiful wood handle that doesn't slide around in your hand, and costs $38 the last I looked. If you like a shorter blade they have the Short Slojd with a 1-3/4" blade. (Full disclosure, I have always paid for everything I received from Pinewood Forge.) Del and Mary are great people to deal with and will bend over backward to get you what you want. By the way, I haven't modified this knife a whit. It's perfect the way it is.

You may have noticed something about all the knives I've recommended here: they all have a curved edge. I think this is the best blade style for a beginner. I prefer the curved edge because it makes slicing cuts easier. A slicing cut is the easiest, most efficient way to cut wood. It requires less force and thus is safer. Even when you push the blade straight into the wood, the curved edge imparts a natural slicing action. An awful lot of carving knives have a straight edge, some variation of what is called a Wharncliffe blade style. I do use these blades for some things, but I consider them an expert's blade due to the more complex motion that is required to get a slicing cut.

One more caveat, you will need a knife with a relatively thick blade which gives more support to the edge. That's not so important if you are carving in commercially obtained wood, but if you are carving in found wood, and you will probably want to do that sooner or later, you will want that support to deal with whatever foreign objects (dirt, etc.) might be present. Just be careful.

About folding knives: beginners shouldn't use them. Now some may call me an uneducated hypocrite because most kids start whittling with folding knives, and, in fact, my first whittling knife was a folding knife. But today I wouldn't start any child or adult beginner with anything but a fixed blade knife for safety reasons. Until you get good with a knife, practicing the proper ways to make a cut, folding knives have a tendency to fold (go figure!) and cut your fingers. Yep, happened to me on a couple of occasions. So, please, stick to fixed blade knives for a while.

If you have any questions about knives, sharpening or stropping, feel free to leave a comment.

Next time we'll cover Safety. You'll want to pay attention because, trust me, blood will just ruin a good piece of wood.

Until then, let the chips fly!

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