What steel for whittling?

Oct 25, 2000
I intend to start doing some whittling over the Christmas break. What is the best steel in terms of edge holding? I need it to be in a folder not a fixed blade. I would value edge holding, rather than hair splitting sharpness, as I am not particularly good at the act of sharpening and spend more time at that than actually using the knife. The wood used will not be hard wood, but will probably be either green or semi dried softwood. The diameter will range from ½" to 1 ½ ". Would my Spyderco Calypso Jnr Lightweight, with VG10 blade be good? What grade stone should be used for this job? Any suggestions would be appreciated.

By the way a very Happy Christmas to you all in the USA.
I whittle all the time and I love to see others get started. I have found that carbon steel works best. It holds the edge for a decent amount of time and is easy to sharpen as compared to stainless. Case chrome vanadium is great and so is whatever Boker uses in their carbon blades. The old Shrade carbon is good too. An Opinel is great if your not doing too fine detail.

Sharpness is key in whittling, even with soft woods. Shaving sharp is best. I would encourage you to get some kind of sharpening system like a Lanskey or take the time to learn to do it by hand with stones and strops. You might want to see if you can locate the book "Whittling and Woodcarving" by E. J.(or is it G.) Tangerman. It is the 'Bible' of whittling, full of useful info, even if it was first published back in the 30's.

Good luck, have fun and prepare to get cut, it is a right of passage for whittlers everywhere.
All of my whittling and wood carving tools are carbon steel. O1 is really good for taking and holding a super acute edge. I'm having some small fixed blade carving knives (1-2 inch blades, 6 inch handles) forged from 52100, they should be very interesting to use.

rkenny is right about sharpening. Whittling REQUIRES a very sharp acute edge. Learning to sharpen and strop are maybe most important part of this art. On the other hand, just about any good pocket knife will serve to slice soft sticks. If you want to actually make things, you will need to learn to create and maintain an exceptionally sharp edge. Tangerman's book is a great place to start since it covers every aspect of the craft. A modern reprint is available from amazon.com

Whittling involves making various small cuts, many towards the hands. You must learn proper technique to avoid cutting yourself. I rarely do that anymore, but for a couple of years I thought it was important, if not inevitable, to leave a little of myself (blood) in each and every carving. Sort of like a DNA signature.

Wood itself is a material which requires some understanding. It will cut best only in one direction. The knife will let you know if you are going the wrong way.

Any stone or combinations of stones that will produce an acute razor edge will do. I favor a medium and fine grade of ceramic stones because they can be used dry (no mess). Making a simple strop from scrap leather will dramatically help create, and maintain a good carving edge.

Have fun! Learn what a Stop cut is before you Start!

In whittling, stay away from steel that's brittle. It's chip easy, even at undetectable level.
I suggest D-2 (chisel, planes), for more stain-resistant, but O-1 and 52100 are my first choice.

Böker uses a modified version of 52100 btw.

"If the world wouldn't SUCK, we'd all fall off !"

You can E-mail me at any time....guaranteed reply !

member of the BKS
Richard :

<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">I intend to start doing some whittling over the Christmas break. What is the best steel in terms of edge holding?</font>

Most of the common tool steels will last a very long time if you are just doing low stress cutting into wood. I have a 60 RC D2 blade from Neil Blackwood and I have turned many pieces of 2x4 into boxfulls of shavings with it. It will lose that hairpopping edge after awhile as it rolls slightly, but I can't even imagine doing enough whittling that would wear down the edge that much that I would notice a difference in cutting ability. I have never seen it go past thumbnail catching ability whittling and I have done long sessions (1000+ hard cuts) on soft woods like pine.

However I am just doing rough work and don't care about the surface finish of the wood that the cut leaves nor am I doing fine controlled work that requires a very delicate touch and a generally sharper edge. If this was the case I would go with a very fine grain steel with small carbides like 52100. This will not be nearly as wear resistant as D2, but should give a smoother cleaner cut and will take a higher polish. I am not talking about shaving sharp here but the very high polish that many woodworking tools will have. Check out the "scary sharp" descriptions on the web for the near insane finish that a lot of people like on such tools.

As an introduction, even simple plan carbon steel blades at ~62 RC will hold an edge a long time for such use. Lee Valley sells small carving, paring and whittling knives. You might want to pick one of these up as they are cheap (10-$20) which will give you a good performance base that you can use to clarify what you want if you decide to upgrade to a custom or high end production blade.

One note, there are some woods that are very difficult to cut and are fairly abrasive, if you are into working with these, which is not common for carving because of the difficult of working, you might want a more wear resistant blade to do the rough work and save you fine cutlery for the details.


[This message has been edited by Cliff Stamp (edited 12-20-2000).]
Blade shape is also very important in a whittler. Thin, fully tapered grinds are vital. Having a selection of blade outlines is also very valuable. A classic 3-bladed "stockman" pocket knife is one of the best. The small spaying blade and sheepsfoot come particularly in handy. Carbon steel is a natural. Just keep a stone handy. Most of the carbon steels come back to sharpness so fast that you can keep a razor edge.
Get an Old Timer Stockman. As for sharpening, you want a very thin edge. I would vote for razor sharpness, not edge holding ability. You should only use very sharp knives to whittle with. If sharpening is a bane, I suggest you buy an XACTO carving kit. The different XACTO blades really come in handy for delicate whittling. But if you really want to buy something that is razor sharp and comes with a nice handle to boot, get a Warren carving kit. Wonderful carbon steel blades that you can whittle up a storm with. Another whittling knife you can pick up for not a lot of money is a Murphy.

Also, lately, I've found that the Victorinox SAK Pocket Pal makes a dandy whittler, even though it is stainless. Fits the hand nice and has a couple of good blades. You just need to reprofile the edge so that it is very thin. This means sharpening it on a stone so that the blade is close to flat. This gives you a very thin edge for razor sharp whittling. Once you get the thin edge, you can maintain it for a long time by stropping it on a piece of leather.

BTW, with an Old Timer, you can easily do this kind of stuff:


I get some pleasure from finding a relentlessly peaceful use for a combative looking knife.

All of the above suggestions are great, if you want stainless...D2, if you want carbon use 52100 or O1. Whatever you choose must have a thin profile and be sharp!

Off the main question...You have to be comfortable. The best steel will not help you if you cannot control the edge, lack of control either from fatigue or grip can ruin all that you have done.

Pick your steel and then look at the handles....and think.

Thanks for your replies. It seems to me, from your answers, that a good sharp blade is the most important thing, rather than a particular type of steel

rkenny. Thanks for mentioning the " O " word. I have been using Opinel knives for years for everything including gutting & skinning. Since I found Blade Forums and discovered all these wonderful steels and knives that abound, I didn't dare mention the name!But to be honest for a cheap cheerful knife that takes an edge extremely well and costs £6.00 (US$ 9.00)I dont think they can be beaten. I have never had a knife disclour, the only problem seems to be their ability to chip easily.

Paracelsus. When you say whittling requires a very acute edge, what sort of angle are we talking about?

Cliff. The woods I will be using will be mainly Ash, Sycamore and Hornbeam and maybe the odd bit of Laburnum. Are any of these a problem with abrasion?

Thanks for your help guys
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by richard w:
Thanks for your replies. It seems to me, from your answers, that a good sharp blade is the most important thing, rather than a particular type of steel

Yes, that is my opinion. However, I would emphasize the use of carbon steels rather than high chromium steels because of the relatively smaller grain structure

Paracelsus. When you say whittling requires a very acute edge, what sort of angle are we talking about?

Depends on the blade of course, but something like 10 to fifteen degree bevel on each side, maybe less. If you have a strop nearby while you work, having a very sharp edge is preferrable to holding an edge for a long long time.

The woods I will be using will be mainly Ash, Sycamore and Hornbeam and maybe the odd bit of Laburnum. Are any of these a problem with abrasion?

Wow, those are all very hard, tough woods. Hornbeam is Gorgeous! You will need a slightly thicker edge for working these, and lots of force. The traditional whittling wood in your country is Linden wood, the related species in the USA is called Basswood. Very little figure, but creamy tan texture which will hold detail well and takes a good finish. Ash is hard, and splits easily. Sycamore is softer with tighter grain. It can be a nice wood.

Some of the tropical hardwoods like Teak are easy to carve in part because of a very high oil content, but contain Lots of silicates which will wear an edge down faster.

Besides Basswood, carvers in the USA often whittle figures in any of the fruit woods, eg Walnut, Butternut, Apple, Pear, etc. Holly is also fun to whittle, being almost pure white and very dense.

Consider getting a dedicated fixed blade carving knife to whittle these woods. If this is your first attempt, use softer woods. There is a great magazine in your country called Woodcarving which will point you towards suppliers of woodcarving equipment and wood in your country. The book Woodcarving Scandanavian style by Harvey Resfal is a great primer for figure carving with simple straight cuts. Have Fun!</font>


National Woodcarving Association (USA) Web site

[This message has been edited by Paracelsus (edited 12-22-2000).]
Richard, Paraclesus is right on with all his answers. As far as Opinels go. I just discovered them recently and I love them. They are almost disposably cheap yet great, sturdy knives with great steel. Frosts of Sweden is the same way. You can regrind Frosts and Opinels to whatever shape you want and not worry about ruining an expensive knife. The steel in these two brands of knives is great, and that is the most important part of the knife. They are not fancy but they WORK. Let me know how your whittling progresses.

Sorry, It was late and I should have been more specific. What I meant to say was any suggestions for a production stockman with high-end steel? I noticed above that Boker is using a modified version of 52100. Are there any other companies using 52100 or D2? I have a stockman, which I believe is 1095, and I am not very impressed with the performance of the steel.

Buck Collectors Club Member #1058

[This message has been edited by Jeff O (edited 12-22-2000).]
Jeff O,
Where did you read that Boker is using a modified ver of 52100? I've looked and can't find it. I would guess that would make a really good carver. I dunno. But I'm surprised about 1095. I believe that is what the steel is in my old timers (I'm not positive, though) and some other carbon steel blades I use (like Kabars, for instance), and they seem to work well for carving soft woods. I like the way it bites into the wood. But I'm sure no steel expert. Their performance may not be so good against hard woods, though. I dunno. About the hardest thing I whittle is walnut and I don't have a problem with it. Very nice wood for carving. See below:



I get some pleasure from finding a relentlessly peaceful use for a combative looking knife.
Wow! That's pretty cool Hoodoo!

Bart Student is the one who said that Boker uses a modified 52100 on the 4th post down from the top.

The 1095 stockman that I have is not of the highest quality. It won't take a razor sharp edge like a 1095 Ka-Bar. Maybe it is the result of a low quality heat treat, and now that I think about it, relatively thick blade profiles. I have an easier time putting an edge on an ats-34 BM, and basically every other knife that I have.

Buck Collectors Club Member #1058
Thanks Jeff. I see it now.

It's pretty likely you will have to reprofile what ever knife you use. I even grind down the spine sometimes to reduce the width of the blade so I can get it into tighter spaces. That's one of the reasons I buy cheaper pocket knives like Old Timers. They work for me and I don't feel bad modifying them to suit my needs.


I get some pleasure from finding a relentlessly peaceful use for a combative looking knife.
From what I understand Boker's are made in Argentina, unless they state Solingen, Germany, with a Rockell of 52-55, which is pretty low for a durable edge....Ironhorse....
I have a Boker King Kutter stockman that I've used for wood carving and whittling for a couple of decades. I would suspect that the steel is something like 52100 with a high RC rating as it takes and holds a fantastic edge. Once carved an endless chain (30 links) from yellow cedar (cypress) with it. Also carved a neat slash across my fingers.