Day 14 – Why whittle?

Gabriel Russo and me whittling at Whittling Soiree #2

Some visitors to the aWay station have asked me to define whittling. To paraphrase one old time whittler “The difference between carving and whittling is that for carving you need equipment and talent, for whittling all you need is a knife and time”.

Brian Karl out here at the Headlands suggests that I call it ‘worrying’. I like that!

But my wife Sandra loves the connotation of lightness and ease that comes with ‘whittling’. Perhaps resulting from the only whittling metaphor common in English, ‘to whittle away the hours’.

For me, the attraction to whittling comes from over 25 years of woodworking – making things that require a huge amount of planning and upfront design work and then hours and hours of painstaking construction using a huge variety of hand tools, machines and jigs. It’s incredibly refreshing and liberating to  sit down for an afternoon with a small piece of wood (a piece that I would regularly discard in my studio), a single sharp knife and my hands and mind, to worry or whittle out a form for which I have no preconceived notion or plan.

I think back over 100’s of thousands of years of humans doing something similar; two stones, a sharpened stone edge and a stick, a blade of bronze or iron or steel. Its feels so natural and so strange – both at the same time. Strange in that few people in our culture and our time are engaged in this direct process of tool on material at all. Least of all the meditative act of working a piece of natural material with a single, simple but versatile tool.

I love the way the final outcomes vary so much from person to person. Its tempting to put on the psychoanalyst’s hat – or pipe.

So many of the forms feel so good in your hand, like the handle of a sweet tool. It’s as if they are ‘of’ the hand.

I’m excited to see how much of this inter-connectedness of the hand, the tool and the material can be carried into other objects or images created from these simple little sculptures.


  1. Well said! I think you are on to something here! Keep whittling!


  2. I like the “worrying” observation. Like a “worry stone” worn smooth from hours of handling. One of the artifacts in my collection is an oval stone polished glassy smooth that I found in an old cabin in the high desert. It must have been brought there as all the natural stones in the area were jagged and of a different color.


  3. Lawrence La Bianca sent me a comment on Facebook –

    What has been written
    about whittling
    is not true

    most of it

    It is the discovery
    that keeps
    the fingers moving

    not idleness

    but the knife looking for
    the right plane
    that will let the secret out

    Whittling is no pastime

    he says
    who has been whittling
    in spare minutes at the wood

    of his life for forty years

    Three rules he thinks
    have helped
    Make small cuts

    In this way

    you may be able to stop before
    what was to be an arm
    has to be something else

    Always whittle away from yourself

    and toward something.
    For God’s sake
    and your own
    know when to stop

    Whittling is the best example
    I know of what most
    may happen when

    least expected

    bad or good
    Hurry before
    angina comes like a pair of pliers

    over your left shoulder

    There is plenty of wood
    for everyone
    and you

    Go ahead now

    May you find
    in the waiting wood
    rough unspoken

    what is true

    nearly true

    – John Stone –


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