A Brief History of Whittling Woodcarving

By Kevin Kessinger •  Updated: 09/21/23 • 

Wood carving is likely one of the oldest forms of art, having begun when a person fashioned a piece of wood with a sharp rock.

Whittling evolved from sharpened metal blades to carve a portable piece of wood, making it one of the earliest types of carving.

Whittling is a type of sculpting that is usually done with nothing more than a knife. Furthermore, a perfectionist might argue that whittling is done with nothing more than a “pocket” knife. Whittling is an American phrase that, as previously said, implies sculpting with a knife. It is a type of woodcarving. Woodcarving is a term used in different parts of the world to describe carving with a knife.

History of Whittling

The origins of whittling can be traced back to early America, when smart people could whittle just about anything, anyplace. Throughout its early years, a Swiss army knife was inexpensive, could be rapidly and safely transported, and easily manufactured. Furthermore, suitable softwood, primarily pine or willow, was abundant.

The Whittling Boy Painting: Winslow Homer

The Whittling Boy Painting: Winslow Homer

Whittling, nonetheless, didn’t become a widespread leisure activity in the United States until the Civil Battle in 1865, when soldiers with skilled hands whittled for hours to pass the time. Whittling became a preferred pastime of soldiers across ranks. Some soldiers that had the routine of carrying around folding jack knives became efficient whittlers. 

They turned wood right into strolling sticks, figurines, sculptures, smoking cigarettes pipelines, followers, whistles, and a ball in a cage. After the battle, these same guys taught soldiers exactly how to whittle, especially in the Indian and Spanish-American wars.

Some of the Civil War veterans ended up being migrants and employees that worked with railways, ranches, and building roads. 

Anywhere they went for work, migrant farm laborers also called ‘Hoe kids,’ or ‘Hobos,’ carried their hoes with them to grow plants. Many things they made from whittling were exchanged for food, clothing, and shelter.

The art of whittling continued after the Great Depression, which made kids make things with their pocket knives.

After the 2nd World War, the G.I. Bill enabled veterans to get a university education to work in industries like production and construction. Subsequently, whittling started to shed its ground as a sought-after skill. Nevertheless, the Boy Scouts incorporated whittling as one of the skills members required to practice in the 1950s. The Boy Scouts also funded whittling competitions.

The art of whittling declined in 1965 with the arrival of the digital age when customers changed their focus to home entertainment instead of hands-on tasks. Additionally, the public institutions ceased their industrial and hands-on courses, limiting direct exposure for students that may have developed an interest in these skills.

Woodcarving grew a little in the mid-1970s, with the increase of woodcarving clubs showing up here and there across the country. Many of these subscription organizations sponsored Woodcarving workshops that showed the essential skillsets. Woodcarving fanatics attempted to preserve a rise in whittling passion, yet until now, they’ve generated minimal results from more youthful generations.

After the 1980s and the development of the first video games, youngsters were mostly engaged online. Utilizing the hands was more regarding manipulating a joystick or computer game controller to develop something from square one. From Ataris to Playstations to Xboxes and currently virtual reality, youths are more engaged in digital hobbies than old-school ones like whittling.

Whittling Now

Recently, non-electronic arts and crafts have been organizing substantial returns as people (consisting of young people) look for methods to take a break from all the computer screens and smartphones.

These crafts were historically gender-specific, for example, whittling for gents and knitting for ladies. But with, the revival of these art forms, in recent years, has made these crafts gender-neutral. Nowadays, in the whittling community, you can find many ladies of all age groups, and similarly, in the knitting community, you can find men.

Whittling is achieving revived interest across genders and geographies with many new whittling clubs outside the US in countries like the UK.

Supporters of the modern whittling state that it’s a terrific remedy to the stress of modern-day life and a type of digital detox. It’s now generating interest across genders, age groups, and geographies.

Hobby and Recreation

The first point concerning whittling is that it’s for recreation and leisure. Here you create something with your hands, and that’s hugely satisfying.

Developing something via your hands is healing and also reflective. It’s energetic and, consequently, favorable to your well-being.

Many people go to a bar to relax and unwind after a day or week of work. This hobby is portable and low-cost and helps you unwind from your daily activities.

All you need is a pocketknife and also a piece of wood, and you’re prepared to go.

> Recommended Reading: Whittling Guide for Beginners

Wrapping Up

The difference between Whittling and Woodcarving is to do with the mind frame. In carving, you’re settling up the job in a goal-oriented manner with preparation as well as criteria of implementation in mind. In contrast, with whittling, you take one day at a time and allow spontaneity to take control of the project.

Kevin Kessinger

Kev is the founder of Pro Wood Carving and has been carving spoons, small pieces, and whittling since his teenage years. He has continued to level up his wood carving skills and wanted to share his journey and knowledge with other wood carvers. He launched Pro Wood Carving in 2021 to make wood carving more approachable for everyone looking to improve their skills.