The skill of sharpening a whittling knife or any carving tool for that matter is a skill that for the whittler comes first.
Without this skill, all other skills of artistry and design will be compromised and the execution of the work will suffer. Sharpening is a skill, therefore, it must be learned and its value cannot be overestimated.
In this article, I will share how to sharpen whittling knives and how to maintain that sharp edge. I will also cover some key fundamentals of sharpening. When you’re through reading you will be able to:
- understand the importance of sharpness
- maintain sharpness with the least amount of effort
- sharpen a whittling knife
You can click on the table of contents to quickly scroll the sections.
However, it’s better to check out the entire article to fully understand the fundamentals of sharpening. Without further ado let’s get started.
Importance of sharpness: why a whittling knife must be sharp
As the very seasoned woodcarver, Chris Pye puts it,
Apart from carving itself sharpening and maintaining wood carving tools is the biggest task for the carver.Christopher J. Pye, Woodcarving Tools, Materials & equipment (1994)
Whittling in particular will not be any different.
Many people don’t consider sharpening a part of the carving process. This is contrary to the case. To whittle is to sharpen your knife!
There is a joy that comes from using a sharp tool to slice wood. If you bought your tools razor-sharp from the manufacturer you probably may have unknowingly experienced this feeling on your first-day carving. It’s vital that we do not take sharpening as a chore or inconvenience.
These are some of the ways sharpening skills help the carver.
1. Effort needed when carving
Sharp tools will cut with more ease than blunt tools. When whittling with a sharp knife it is easy to slice through. But the more you whittle the knife’s edge will start to erode due to the resistance the wood fiber amounts.
This is when you start to notice that slicing is now a bit harder. Should you continue with the blunt knife you’re bound to use more effort, energy, and time. Normally the process will be frustrating to say the list.
2. Control when whittling
try whittling with a blunt knife and you will immediately need a lot of force to push it. Sometimes the force is too much and the knife slices off adjacent parts unintentionally.
Sharp tools will require very little force to slice wood. If less force is used the control is greater. It’s like working details the cuts are slow but precise this can only be achieved while whittling with little force moving the knife.
A sharp knife that is well-honed will sweep the grain with the bevel following the cutting edge living the surface with a sheen.
This effect is best seen when the wood is cut with the grain but also occurs with cross-cutting using the slicing technique. Such clean cutting maybe all the surface finish that a carving needs in order to arrive at its finished state.
But this option of appearance is only for carvers that have sharp tools and correct technique. Whittling with a dull knife on the other hand will live the surface of the wood with scratches. A blunt knife will tend to tear the wood fibers apart rather than slice.
As you may have hard sharp tools will cause fewer accidents than not so sharp tools. As stated earlier there is greater control when using sharp tools as less force is exerted.
The reason why blunt tools tend to cause injuries is the use of excessive force. Other hazardous habits that detriment the safety f the carver is like putting body parts in the way of the carving tools.
Youngsters in whittling should also use sharp tools as it is safer than using blunt tools.
For many years I used blunt tools and woold only sharpen when they got really bad. I didn’t know how to sharpen my tools either.
After I learned how to sharpen tools and used sharp tools that I had sharpened myself for the first time is when I realized what I had been missing.
There is a frustration that is experienced with many carvers. This frustration is caused by blunt tools. The blunt tools stand in the way of the carver and his desired creation.
Sharp tools will not inhibit the carver, in fact, sharp tools will help the whittler see their creation sooner. The feeling of achieving with minimal hardships is beautiful and therapeutic.
Fundamentals of sharpening
The thinness of an edge makes it the most vulnerable part of your knife. This is also the part of the blade that takes the most beating. Every knife will require edge maintenance eventually, as even the best steel will wear with time.
The basic mechanics of sharpening will remain the same, whether it’s your blade’s first edge or its hundredth. We covered in great detail the whittling Knife’s bevel so we will not mention it here. However, you can check out Bevel of the knife
The cutting edge
The cutting edge can be defined as two flat, polished surfaces meeting at an angle. Since most whittling knives are designed to be pushed through wood, a keen cutting edge is essential, particularly for dense hardwoods that can quickly blunt tools.
Any flaw, like a nick in a whittling knife, will be transferred to the wood being cut. Do not assume that just because a knife is new that its edge is as sharp or as straight as it should be.
The quality of the cutting edge and finish on a knife depends on the size of abrasive particles used to sharpen it. Just as you would sand a tabletop with progressively finer grades of paper, sharpening begins with coarse abrasives and moves up through finer grits.
The only difference is the size of abrasive particles involved. For example, a coarse India stone has particles measuring about 173 microns across, while a hard Arkansas oilstone has smaller particles—about 10 microns.
How sharp is ‘sharp’?
What do we mean when we say that we want our knives to be sharp? Seems like a silly question.
We all know what sharp is. Or do we?
Sharpness is not just a function of creating a super-thin edge that will readily slice wood grains with ease; it’s also a function of shape and intended purpose.
You could grind your whittling knife to razor-thinness, but the edge would crumble the first time you whittle a hardwood. Your knife would be sharp but useless.
Similarly, a razor-sharp but wedge-thick edge is great for hardwoods but not much good for softwoods.
We have to take into consideration the shape of the blade, the angle of the edge bevel, and especially the material being whittled when we consider how we judge the sharpness of our whittling knives.
So the real question is not “how sharp should my knife be,” but rather “how do I get maximum performance from my knife under a given set of conditions.”
A sharp knife can be defined as one that has a keen edge that can hold up in repeated usage while producing the results we’re looking for while whittling.
Sharpness vs strength
The sharpness comes with a reduced bevel angle. Long bevels are sharper than shorter ones.
However, as the edge becomes thinner and sharper the integrity of the edge is tested. At this stage it doesn’t hold up well and resharpening is required.
The fibers in softwoods may not stay still long enough – to be cut cleanly, and so they tend to tear What is needed for carving these soft types of wood is a longer bevel, effectively a sharper edge, than might be expected. The keenness divides the fibers before they crumble, giving proper clean cuts.
For hardwoods, the long bevel becomes a disadvantage. The thin edge does not hold too well and sharpening has to be frequent. the only way around this which is the right way to carve hardwoods is to use a knife with a shorter bevel.
Tools for sharpening a Whittling knife
There are many products and devices on the market for sharpening tools. Many are expensive, and some are useless. With the simplest equipment listed below, you’ll have all you’ll need to put a razor-sharp edge on your whittling knife.
A fast-cutting & finishing abrasive.
There is a variety of different types of sharpening stones available, and each has advantages and disadvantages. Some stones require oil or water to be used as a lubricant. This lubricant reduces the friction of grinding and helps to remove the swarf to keep the stone working effectively.
Swarf is the name given to the small metal dust that is abraded off your blade during the sharpening process. Each stone will be a specific grit. You’ll need to be able to move from a coarser stone to a finer stone to complete the process, so get a few stones of varying grits
An edge guide (optional)
You can get a good usable edge by sharpening your free hand, but there is no way even a professional can match a novice using a guide. This simple mechanical device assures a constant correct angle and removes much of the frustration of sharpening.
A sharpening steel
After the fine abrasive, you will want to sharpen steel to achieve the ultimate edge. There are many sheets of steel of all shapes and textures on the market. Unfortunately, except for a very few available to the professional sharpener, they are all rough as a cob and consequently useless.
All you’ll do is tear up the fine edge you so carefully put on with the finest abrasive you could find. So if you can’t see your face reflected in the steel that touches your blade, forget it. The shape of the steeling tool is not too important, but it should provide some method of indicating the proper angle.
You now have all the equipment you need for sharpening—but there is just one more thing.
How can you tell when the blade is sharp?
An edge tester
Without some way of testing your edge, you just don’t know when to stop. An Edge Tester will do the trick here, whether your tool is a knife, an ice auger, an ax, or even a fishhook. It solves one of the oldest problems in sharpening, and it will never tell you a fib.
How to sharpen whittling knives in 5 steps
While using a belt grinder to sharpen your blade is a great method, it also requires actually having the grinder available anytime you need to put a new edge on your blade.
As someone who travels frequently and is often away from electricity, I don’t always have this luxury. Learning to use a stone is a worthwhile time investment that will give you the freedom to maintain your blade anywhere.
Step 1: Grind the first bevel of your edge.
Before you can grind the bevel, mark the bevel with a marker. this should help to show areas that are missed or are irregular.
Hold your knife and lay it with its bevel resting flat on the stone. Move the edge across the stone assuming you’re slicing off a thin layer of the stone. make sure the whole edge from the tip of the knife to the heel comes in contact with the stone. repeat this severally.
Step 2: Check for the burr
Continually repeating the first step above produces tiny burrs on the edge. Burrs are metal shavings curling on the edge of the knife.
The burr should form uniformly along the edge. If you note that an area does not have burr it’s probably because you did not grind that particular area.
Step 3: Switch sides and repeat the process with a finer grit
The burr will appear on one side. You now need to grind the other side till you have burrs on both sides.
Once you have set your knife’s edge with the coarse stone it’s time to move on to a finer grit. Repeat the entire process again on a stone with higher grit like #400.
Step 4: Strop your edge
The burrs that were formed on the previous step are removed by stropping. Think of stropping just like sharpening but now in reverse.
Instead of pushing the blade forward as if we are cutting a thin slice while stropping we pull the blade backward.
we still need to lift the spine of the knife to a position that allows the knife to stay flat on the strop.
Step 5: Test your edge
There are many ways to test the sharpness of your whittling knife. Some propose the cut a paper or the fingernail test.
I recommend using the knife in its intended use which is try on a piece of wood that is for carving and judge the ease.
As you become more familiar with your whittling knife, you should be able to tell when it loses its edge.
More on knife sharpening
Sharpening skill is a vital skill for not only the carving craft but even the wider woodworking group of crafts. We spend a lot of time with our tools as we learn how to use them it’s important to learn how to sharpen and take care of them.
We hope our guide on how to sharpen a whittling knife was helpful in making your whittling knife fully commissioned.