What is Whittling, Anyways?

This is an excerpt from my book in progress. Enjoy!

To carve is to whittle, to whittle is to carve; by definition the words are synonymous. ‘To cut, slice, shave, or otherwise remove pieces of a whole, hard material until it is shaped into a different thing’ can effectively describe both activities. But are they the same thing? Not exactly.

Humans have been carving for millennia, but the term ‘whittling’ is a rather recent label. The term became popularized after the American civil war, during which soldiers would carve to pass the time between marches and battles. Whittling simply started as a branch of carving (pun intended) that we can effectively classify as ‘leisure carving.’ Carving as a pass-time and not a profession.

This type of carving became popular as one-tool work, utilizing only a knife (and sometimes a saw to harvest materials), whereas carving can come with a whole host of gouges, rasps, axes, chisels, etc. Also, whittling is well known for utilizing found wood such as fallen branches or scrap lumber, where the full definition of carving could include nearly endless carving materials from stone to soap.

The popularity of whittling grew rapidly after the civil war ended and became very much a part of the imagery associated with young boys and old men, but knife use in general has long been an important part of human existence. It suited everyday tasks around the farm and home in times when people were used to fixing things if they broke and making items that they needed; and it’s always been gender-non-specific with both women and men proficient with the tool’s uses and its maintenance.

With the rise of mass-production and a complete overhaul of north american life with the advent of plastics and electronics throughout the 50s-70s, knife use, the hobby of whittling, and self-sufficiency in many forms all began to decrease in popularity/practice as things became automated and disposable. Now, decades later, people are feeling the repercussions of mass-consumerism; we are reaching for change.

Slowly but surely we are reasserting the common knowledge that humans, while consumers, are fantastic producers as well, thus every day more and more artisans and craftfolks are emerging into the world of human production. With this rise of hand-made, well-made, locally- and proudly-made, comes the rise of the platforms which support and inspire them such as artisan markets, maker’s spaces, craft workshops, etc, as well as the foundations which support these activities. Whittling is one of these such foundations, a launchpad if you will, propelling and supporting the growth of craftsfolk and bringing about new and ancient modes of awareness and connection of and to our products, our land, and our processes.

With the stress of lifestyles which have come with the technological age and the mental health issues which have rose out of this time, we are seeing a massive shift in perspective towards mindfulness and mindful practices. Through greater awareness, higher priority is given to developing services which can help us navigate the world by helping us to navigate our own minds and deal with stress, burnout, and anxiety. Hand craft is a beautiful tool to help us affect better mental health.

Like a yogi focusing on their breath, focused hand-work helps to center our minds and enter a beautiful flow state of mind. Whittling has the added, priceless benefit of being a gateway into so many worlds of exploration. Whether it is the outdoors, wood working, cooking, self-sufficiency, sculpture, or the broad world of hand craft in general – if we let our minds wander when we whittle, we can go to beautiful places.

You will find the words carving and whittling used interchangeably throughout this book, you can now see how the line of separation between them is thin, moveable, and often blurry. Wherever you go with this, the following techniques are are meant to help you lay the foundations of your wood crafting hobby. So you don’t have to take it seriously (other than the safety bits). Just have fun with it, play with the wood, enjoy the journey of finding materials, get lost in the process, and may it lead you to curious and interesting places! As you get started, don’t worry about ‘what’ you make, just whittle away at sticks and explore, the rest will come.

On that note, I’d like to put this equation into your mind, as I hope it can come to represent contemporary whittling as a mindful practice first and foremost, from which the beautiful craft of carving can flourish with the rebirth of human curiosity, self-confidence/-sufficiency, and creativity through making.

Whittling = process > product; Carving = product > process.

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