When my son Julian turned eight, he took his birthday money to our local hardware and picked out a little green pocket knife. The knife has made a few trips through the wash, but other than that, he has cared for and carefully used his knife for close to two years. For a boy who already likes to do any kind of project that involves being outside, carving is a natural and fitting extension of enjoying the outdoors. It’s a good feeling to be able and capable when handling a carving knife, something I didn’t try until I was an adult. I am glad Julian is gaining that skill while he is still a child.
Julian’s wood carving projects were at first little more than sticks with bark removed and a carefully sharpened end. But ah, what things a stick can become — a spear, arrow, flag, javelin, fort-embellishment, marshmallow-roaster, and most of all, a magic wand. Just as he was learning to carve, he was in the thick of reading his first big chapter book, Harry Potter. He was very disappointed to find that most wands available to purchase were made from resin or plastic. So he began crafting his own. He carefully selected tree varieties based on the magical qualities the wood gave the wand, removed the bark and tapered the end to a point. Carving brought out the entrepreneur in him, he made wands by the dozen and set up a wand stand in our front yard.
Very soon after Julian got his knife, I became interested in wood carving as well. It was a happy coincidence, as I have so enjoyed carving with him. It was an interesting experience to both be beginners at something, and Julian delighted in showing me tips and tricks he learned. As the mom of two rough-and-tumble boys, sometimes it’s difficult to find common interests with my kids. But when we’re carving together, I love how we are all absorbed, working side-by-side, encouraging each other and making something new. My younger son Avery is five and he sometimes does a bit of closely-supervised carving work, but is usually content gathering shavings for kindling, and building things with the wood scraps.
We are a part of a homeschool cooperative and this past semester, I started a carving club. Once a week, a group of boys and girls, ranging in age from 7-12, met by the creek to make simple gnomes, mice, wands and birds. I did little more than make occasional suggestions, identify tree varieties and provide books and tools. But it was one of Julian’s favorite activities of the school year. Some of the children hadn’t used a carving knife before, and I was at first nervous working with so many beginners. But I soon found they were careful and respectful of the tool they were using- they didn’t want to cut themselves either! And they all enjoyed the simple alchemy of transforming a fresh green twig into a lovely new thing.
Here are some things I’ve found helpful to know:
:: Most importantly, get a good knife and keep it sharp. I have a leather strop I use and Julian brings his knife to me when it is in need of a honing.
:: Green (freshly cut) wood is much easier to carve. Small twigs and branches trimmed from around our yard provide all the carving material Julian needs.
:: Just the work of removing the bark from a twig is a project for beginners, the carving doesn’t have to be complicated to be satisfying.
:: I go over a few safety thoughts with children who are new to carving, here are the things I touch on: how to open and close a pocket knife safely, how to hold the knife, to work away from yourself, and to think about where the knife will go after you make your cut (is the knife pointing at your leg, your friend?).
I encourage you to try a bit of carving with your children, it’s a satisfying way to pass the time together!
The Little Book of Whittling by Chris Lubkemann: If you’re looking for step-by-step instructions for delightful, simple projects, check out this helpful book.
Robin Wood’s blog post about knives for kids: A great common-sense article on children and knives.
Ragweed Forge: I have found this my favorite place to buy carving knives. Ragnar is helpful when choosing a knife, offers a large selection of quality knives and provides excellent service.
Magic Wand Project
By Julian Startzman, age 9
Making wands is fun and easy but the wands look really cool when you’re finished. You can make a unique wand that is not made in a factory and you don’t have to work too hard to make one.
One tree branch
Carving knife, I use a Brusletto Balder
Sandpaper, 150 grit
Find a good tree- there is a bald cypress in our town that makes good wand wood; it is my favorite place to get wands to carve. But pine trees are also good, and nice and soft. Oak is hard to work with, but it also makes good wands. Green (fresh) wood is nice to carve, but I also use wood that falls off the trees. For this project, I cut a hemlock branch. I check with my mom before I cut branches off trees in our yard (usually…).
You need a branch that is good and straight that is about 14” long. Sometimes if a branch zig zags you can still use it. Don’t get one with too many knots or twigs on it- it makes it really hard to carve and the wand doesn’t look as nice when you’re finished.
Remove the bark, but don’t carve too deeply when you do this. Try to hold your knife parallel to the branch. Sometimes I leave the bark on the handle because it makes a good handle. To make it feel better in your hand, you can sand the bark a bit to make it smooth.
On hemlock, the layer under the bark is a pretty brown, so I like to leave some of that.
Sharpen the end a little. To do this, carve the wand on one side, and then keep turning the wand and shaving away the wood until you have a not-too-sharp point.
For carving tiny details, push the back of the knife blade with both your thumbs.
Sand any places that are still rough. You can polish the wand with beeswax if you like. Get a piece of beeswax and press it hard onto the wand. Rub the wand quickly with a rag to melt the beeswax into the surface.
Your wand is done!
Katie Startzman blogs about knitting, felting, leatherwork, wood carving and anything else that catches her fancy at Duo Fiberworks.
Julian is a homeschooler who enjoys reading fantasy novels and messing about outside.