The 2 Most Useful Tools (and how to use them)

If you are new to wood carving don't immediately rush out and spend hundreds of dollars in new tools. Many a fine carving has been done with as little as a simple one or two bladed Jack knife. Besides, if you have a local carving club in your area, members will happily lend you a knife until you get a feel for what style of carving interests you and any specialized tools that may require.  The most important thing is that whatever knife or tool you use, that it be sharp! (more on that later).

A Sharp Knife

By far, the most useful and universal carving tool is a sharp knife.  Ideally, a good general purpose carving knife should have about a 1 1/2 inch hardened steel blade in something like a "Sheepsfoot" profile and have a comfortable handle to hold. The harder the steel the longer it will keep it's sharp edge, but the more brittle the blade. A good quality knife should have a Rockwell hardness somewhere between about Rc 58 and Rc 63.  Anything softer and it will require frequent re-sharpening, much harder and that fine edge will be chipping or snapping off.  Manufacturers such as "Flexcut" and "pfeil" offer a variety of good carving knives at prices typically about $ 20 to $ 25.  For some carving styles, this one knife may be the only tool you ever need!

Basic Knife Cutting Strokes

Straightaway Cutting is just as the name suggests. The knife is held firmly in a closed fist with the sharp edge facing away from yourself and the blade is pushed away at an angle into the wood with a slicing motion, using the full length of the blade. This is a powerful stroke and is useful for quickly removing large amounts of material, but be careful because you have very little control over the path of the blade... if the wood splits or when the blade cuts free of the wood that sharp edge will fling out dangerously.  Never leave an arm or leg "down stream" of the blade when using this cut.

Draw Cutting is used where more control is required. The knife is held in your curled fingers with the sharp edge facing the thumb. The thumb is then placed on the end of the workpiece as an anchor point while the fist is slowly closed, drawing the blade through the wood toward the thumb. A secretary's rubber thimble or a little tape wrapped around the thumb may be good insurance here.

The Thumb Push Holding the knife in a fist with the sharp edge facing away, place the thumb along the back (dull) edge of the blade for additional force. Resting the back of the fingers on the workpiece adds stability and control.


The Stab Cut is used to produce heavy, deep cuts. The knife is held like a dagger, sharp edge facing you with your thumb on the top end of the handle and the blade projecting out of the bottom of a closed fist. As with straightaway cutting, use care, this grip affords very little control.

The V-tool

For most carvers, the V-tool is second only to the knife in its usefulness. The tool is essentially two chisels joined at an angle to produce a "V" shaped groove as it is pushed along with the point of the V cutting into the surface of the wood. It is most often used to outline the lines and shapes in the wood the way a pencil would on paper. It is also frequently used to produce flowing hair and beard effects in figure and caricature carving.