Whittling Exercises A-B-C’s

   Posted by: woodbeecarver   in Tutorials

Whittling is the art of shaping a hand held piece of wood with a knife using various cutting strokes. The most efficient cut is a slicing cut since the cutting edge of the knife blade is made up of very small teeth very similar to saw teeth. Think of trying to cut a slice of bread. If the knife is laid across the loaf and pressure forces the blade straight down with a wedge cut, the bread will be cut eventually but will be squashed before the blade is forced through the bread. If, however, the knife is used in a slicing action allowing the cutting teeth of the blade to separate the fibers of the baked bread then a slice is possible with a smooth cut with little squashing of the bread. The same happens when whittling by using a slicing action allowing the cutting teeth of the blade to do what it is intended to do without forcing the blade into the wood. The key is to learn to develop a slicing action as often as possible to create clean and crisp cuts.

The Whittling A-B-C’s are:

A- Always cut with a slicing action.

B- Be a slicer and not a prier.

C- Cut with the cutting edge by slicing.

The exercises suggested are to practice the slicing cut while whittling, along with solving how to carve various shapes, angles and effects while producing recognizable objects.


The first exercise is carving a round ball on the end of a square piece of wood. To make something round that is square, whittle away the square corners and edges. To whittle a ball within a square establish a square area by making notch cuts in the four corners of the square piece of wood as is illustrated in the photo above in the piece of wood numbered (1). A notch is two angled cuts that takes out a wedge of wood leaving an area that looks like an open “V”. Utilize the slicing cut by thinking of the blade as slicing a slice of bread at an angle to create the first cut and then slice at the other angle to remove the wedge of wood creating a notch. Two slicing cuts at an angle to each other creates a notch.

The number (2) block of wood in the photo illustrates connecting the corner notches together with a longer notch across the full width of the side of the wood. Once again this is accomplished with two slicing cuts at a angle to each other to create a V trough. The top edges of the square needs to be chamfered which is removing the right angles with an angled slicing cut upwards across the end grain. At this stage the square has its top edges and bottom edges chamfered in an exercise of beginning to round a square into a ball.

The number (3) block of wood in the photo illustrates the continuing to remove right angled corners on all sides so that the square begins to take the octagon shape of a stop sign. Number (3) also has a horizontal line drawn around the center very much like the equator for the earth. There are arrows that begin at this equator line pointing the direction for making the slicing cuts as if slicing up towards the North Pole and down towards the South Pole. This exercise teaches carving with the grain of the wood with the center line or equator being the turning point in the direction. This becomes second nature through practice.

Number (4) in the photo illustrates a round ball carved on the end of the square stick. The purpose of this exercise is to learn to utilize the slicing cuts, learn to open up an area using the notch cuts, learn to round over square and sharp edges and learn how to carve something round. There may be times when a ball shape is needed in a carving and it helps to know how to do so by first opening up the area of wood using notch cuts to created a box shape or a diamond shaped area larger than what the finished ball will be and then removing the corners of the box or diamond shape by whittling a ball. This could be when carving the ball on the end of Santa’s hat, the crystal ball of a wizard, the ball in a sports figure or any other adaptation of a ball shape.


For the continued exercise in whittling this ball shape also fits into the next exercise of carving a head out of the ball shape. The human head is basically round and will fit within the ball, although when carving heads one does not always start with a round ball, rather to imagine the head as having round features. Think of this as being a learning exercise rather than a step by step approach to carving a head. The steps suggested in these exercises are to be adapted and applied to the carving process rather than duplicated.

Using the ball to represent the head for lay-out purposes is to illustrate that as a ball can be rotated in several directions, so the ball model can help in positioning the head. The head can be turned to one side or the other, can be looking up or looking down and can be tilted. In the photograph above there are three models with (F-1) showing a ball with a horizontal and vertical center lines in which the vertical center line angles the head slightly to the right. The (F) stands for “front” representing the chest area of a human figure. This exercise shows how easy it is to lay-out the design for carving the head at different angles and poses.

In the model (F-2) each side of the ball has been sliced off to put the ball into the shape of the narrowing of the face and looking down from the top a pie shape can be envisioned. Model (F-3) shows how the sides to be sliced away are drawn as a guide for how the head shape will look as the before the slicing action that produces (F-2)


In the photograph above are three models with the one on the left being the ball with horizontal center line tilted down and the vertical center line angling to the right making the head when carved to be looking to the right with head down slightly. The center model has the pie shape or narrowing of the head drawn while the right model is a head carved to form.


In this photograph the same three models show the head looking slightly to the left and looking up slightly.

With these examples of being able to carve a head turned slightly sideways and up or down, the next exercise is to carve a full figure to go under the head. Carving the head to basic form first gives a point of reference to design the body proportionately by using the Rule of Three. The Rule of Three divides the body proportions below the head into thirds. The shoulders to the waist is a third, the waist to mid knees is a third and mid knees to bottom of feet is a third are the three divisions.

Using this Rule of Three pencil in the three dividing points and then draw in the arms, hands, legs, shoes and clothing. Knowing other body proportions is helpful as in the length of arm from shoulder to elbow is the same as elbow to first row of knuckles on hand. Elbow is slightly above the waist line. Feet are as long as the length of face as the hands from finger tip to base of palm are equal to the length of the face. When the arm is at side of body the hand is parallel with crotch.

The face also has its own Rule of Three in dividing face proportionately. From hairline to eye brow is a third, eyebrow to bottom of nose is a third and bottom of nose to chin is a third. The ear sits on the back half of the head with the top of the ear parallel with eyebrows and bottom of ear parallel with bottom of nose. Eyes are located on the horizontal center line of head. Between nose and chin the upper lip is down one third distance, bottom lip is half way between nose and chin and the indention between bottom lip and chin is two thirds from bottom of nose. Corners of mouth are in line with center of eyes and there is a eye width between the eyes.


This photograph shows four models of a full figure with the first one on the left showing the round ball on a square stick has been carved to the rough form of a head looking slightly to the right. The second model is looking slightly to the right with an upward look. The third model has the head and body carved to form without much detail and the final model on the right shows the face carved in detail and the rest of the figure refined slightly but not completely detailed. These models are three inches tall and three quarters of an inch wide.

This whittling exercise of learning to slice with the cutting edge will open the door to opportunity and creativity by carving as often as possible for the more one carves the better one becomes. My motto is: “Would be carvers would be carvers if they would carve wood.”

May your knife always be sharp and the chips knee high.”

This entry was posted on Monday, July 14th, 2008 at 8:05 am and is filed under Tutorials. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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