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May 2021 Issue
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Learning the lost art of whittling

Douglas Horrell says a spoon makes a good first whittling project. Photo: Justyn Denney

The age-old craft of whittling is making a comeback, but how do you go about doing it in the bush and what tools do you need? 

Contrary to the cliché, you don’t have to be an old man sitting on his front porch waiting for death or dinner to partake in a bit of whittling.

This ancient craft is the perfect outdoor activity for a myriad of reasons, and passing the time is only one of them. You don’t need many tools, you can learn basic skills quickly and best of all, you can come home from a tramp with something to show for it other than a pack full of wet socks and smelly thermals.

One of the best places to learn the art of whittling is at Christchurch social enterprise called Rekindle, which runs workshops on a huge range of crafts, led by skilled practitioners and artists.

Douglas Horrell is one of Rekindle’s tutors, specialising in carving hand-crafted items such as spoons and bowls. The beautiful and intricate spoons Horrell carves are a good starting point for a practical and fun item any beginner could attempt after a bit of training.

“There are so many possibilities for what you could make,” says Horrell, who has made spoons from garden prunings (a branch of a plum tree, for instance) or wood he’s got from arborists (“the sound of a chainsaw is like my bat-signal, as soon as I hear it I’m off,” he says). Look for “greenwood”, in the bush – perhaps from a fallen tree – or scour the neighbourhood for someone doing some chopping.

Horrell also runs workshops to show beginners how to make a Scandinavian-style cup called a Kuksa, which is light enough for tramping and is sure to invoke envy in any hut. “It’s wonderful when you make a personalised item for yourself that’s both unique and useful,” he says.

Most whittlers can get away with using just three tools, none of which will weigh down your pack. You’ll need a small carving hatchet with flat slicing bevels. Horrell calls this your “knife on a stick.” This is like your portable band saw, especially useful for cutting around curves. The workhorse is your straight knife, often called a ‘Sloyd’ knife.

“It’s your classic whittling tool, with a nice flat bevel and a fine point for detailed work,” says Horrell.

The third tool you’ll need (if you’re making a spoon) is a spoon knife. “It has a compound curve, so it can hollow the different shapes found in a spoon bowl easily.”

After graduating from spoons and hand-held items you could even consider moving on to something bigger. Another Rekindle tutor, Gregory Quinn, specialises in furniture and reckons there’s no reason you couldn’t whip up a three-post stool in the bush, perhaps to leave at a hut for others to enjoy.

Whatever you choose to make, the main message is to have fun. So if you’re after a new activity to take into the bush, don’t whittle away any more time wondering.

Top bush whittling tips

  • Safety first. Whittling knives are razor-sharp (not to mention the hatchets). You’ll be using them close to your body and more than likely using techniques you’re unfamiliar with. Learn how to use your tools safely and don’t whittle when you’re tired. As Horrell says, “It’s about control, not brute force.”
  • Take a course. YouTube tutorials can help to hone skills but it’s no replacement for having a trained tutor guide you personally through the process. Rekindle run resourceful skills workshops in Christchurch and also sell instructional films through their website.
  • Keep your knives sharp. Sometimes you can blame your tools. Horrell says blunt knives can turn beginners off the craft, so look after your tools and they’ll look after you.
  • Keep at it. Practise will never make perfect, because whittling can never be truly mastered, and that’s the beauty of it. But the more you do it the better you’ll become and the greater the satisfaction. Passing your knowledge on to others is also a great reward.

Whittling knives
Get your wood into shape with these specialist whittling tools.

Mora 106 Woodcarving Knife $49.90
An 82mm laminated carbon steel blade for whittling, marking and detail work. Full tang with customisable birchwood handle.

Mora 164 Woodcarving Hook $69.90
Hook blade in laminated carbon steel and optimised to run smoothly over the inside of a spoon or bowl. RH, LH, and Two-sided ($89.90) options available.