Selecting a Carving Knife

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Selecting a Carving Knife

It all comes down to fit and steel quality

By Lora S. Irish

You will notice, as you search for a new carving knife, that there are enough choices on the market to make your head spin. So how do you sort through them all to find the tool that’s right for you? Here’s a quick guide to get you started. After you select the right knife for you, try it out on one of our carving projects, such as Heart-Shaped Bottle Stopper.

Bench Knives

The tool we call a bench knife comes in many shapes and sizes. Some have long blades that may extend up to 4″ (102mm) from the handle, while others, such as chip-carving knives, have a 1″ (25mm)-long blade. Some blades have straight cutting edges, while others start to curve along the top third of the blade. Some are sharpened on one side only while others are sharpened on both. And each will fit your hand differently.

While many wood carvers have a variety of bench knives in their kits, most return over and over again to just one or two favorite tools. Following are the two main factors to consider.


Steel Quality

It determines how sharp an edge the knife can achieve and keep during a carving session. No matter how skilled you are, you’ll never be able to sharpen inexpensive steel into a bright, clean edge. Any sharp edge you do get will not last long. Be prepared to pay about the same amount for one good bench knife ($20-$25) as you would for a full five-to-six-piece inexpensive beginner’s carving set.

There are several companies (Barton, Flexcut, Helvie, Moore, My Chip Carving, OOCT, Warren) who make carving knives from excellent steel. If you don’t recognize the name, investigate before buying; inexpensive often means low quality steel.


A Comfortable Fit

When you grip the handle, the tips of your middle and ring finger should lie about 1/4″ (6mm) away from or just against your thumb palm. This lets you have free motion of your fingers, thumb, and wrist during any cut—not too tight and not too open. Your fingers should hold the knife handle to the palm without the need for excess pressure.

If the handle is too narrow or thin, your fingertips will need to curve into a clenched shape to hold the knife steady. That causes extra tension in the hand, which over time becomes tiring.

If the handle is too wide, your fingertips will not touch the thumb palm area. To hold it securely, you would need to grip tightly to steady the knife through the cuts. This, too, can cause fatigue and stress on your hands.

Traditionally, tool handles are sized to fit a medium-to-large man’s hand, because until a century ago, woodworking and carving were mostly done by men. Today, though, many professional carvers are women—and these women usually have smaller hands and therefore narrower grips. (My husband is a longtime woodworker. While his hand can hold a large knife comfortably, mine just can’t.)

Fortunately, today, you can find handles in a variety of sizes. Some manufacturers offer you a choice of handle shapes and sizes. In general, those classified as detail knives have smaller handles.

This knife handle is too wide for this carver.


A knife handle that properly fits a woman’s hand…

…will most likely be too small for a man.


A Rule of Thumb

To gauge how well a knife handle will fit your hand, wrap the fingers of your dominant hand around your other thumb. Your thumb represents the knife handle, which rests across your palm. Since the fattest part of your thumb sits nicely in this area, you can use it to see how thick a knife handle you can comfortably use. This is why I never recommend ergonomic grip tool handles, because they only perfectly fit one person’s hand—the person (usually a man) who made the handle mold in the first place.



TIP: Adjusting A Handle

If your knife handle is too large, sand or carve it down to fit your hand. If the handle is too small, wrap vet-wrap tape around the handle to build it up.



Blade Length

A good bench knife, one with high-quality steel and a proper fit, will carve about 90% of the straight cuts that you need for any project.

And for most carving projects, especially if you’re working with milled and kiln-dried wood where the bark and heartwood have been removed, it only needs to make a clean 1/2″ (1.3cm)-wide slice. A longer knife puts your hands farther from the details you’re carving and reduces your control (above right). If you do need to take larger slices, clamp the wood and use a drawknife; this allows you to use both hands on the tool, keeping control despite the length of the blade.

A shorter blade length (top) will afford you more control.


When a Longer Blade is Better

Harley Refsal, author of Carving Flat-Plane Style Caricatures, prefers a longer blade to take the large cuts needed for flat-plane carving. Initially, he ground down a Morakniv blade (a traditional Scandinavian multi-purpose knife) until it was about 2″ (5.1cm) long, and thinned it on a sharpening stone so it would glide through wood more easily. Eventually, he teamed up with Del Stubbs of Pinewood Forge to make the Harley Knife (shown at right).

“The distinct, flat facets created by a fairly large, thin-bladed knife, rather than a tiny detail knife or a variety of gouges, yield the Scandinavian-inspired flat-plane look I most enjoy carving,” Harley explained. He also recommends straight knives by OOCT for flat-plane carving and curved knives by Pinewood Forge, OCCT, and Drake Knives for spoon carving.

Longer knives, such as a traditional Sloyd, also work well to remove bark from large surface areas such as a walking stick. The long blade allows you to glide the cutting edge down the stick, freeing strips of bark.



About the Author
Lora S. Irish is an author, artist, carver, and pattern designer residing in Mount Airy, Md. She has written Landscape Pyrography: Techniques and Projects, Crafting with Gourds, Finishing Techniques for Woodcrafters, and many other Fox Chapel Publishing books. For more of her work, visit


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