Meet a master whittler

The art of whittling is fading.

In days gone-by, whittling was very much a part of everyday life. Cowboys whittled around the campfire. Old men whittled while out front of the corner store. Whittling was a skill taught to Boy Scouts. Knife companies sponsored whittling contests and produced “How to Whittle” pamphlets to keep folks scraping wood with their knives. There were even whittling classes taught after the Great Depression- government sponsored classes. And as a part of the pubic works program, the gov actually paid folks to whittle.

In case, you missed how we got to this point, over the last few weeks we have looked specifically at how times have changed and how boys (and adults) no longer whittle as a hobby or pastime. Now there are other recreations used to entertain and occupy our time. Then we talked about boys not carrying pocket knives like they used to.

Donald Mertz

Donald Mertz

With this as the backdrop, I’m excited to report I met a professional whittler. The minute I met him I knew I had to record our encounter. His name is Donald Mertz- He is a master whittler. Listen in on my conversation with Don about his life and his craft.

How long have you been whittling?

Ever since childhood, I am sixty seven now, so at least sixty years.”

Is there a difference between whittling and carving? If so, how would you describe them.

“Whittling is the art of shaping a hand held piece of wood in one hand and a knife in the other removing wood chips in a slicing action. It could be as simple as drawing the knife blade in a slicing action down the length of a piece of wood to create a thin, curling shaving the entire length of the wood.

A common mental picture of this type of whittling is a couple of ‘old timers’ sitting on the court house bench or the porch of a general store pulling shaving off a piece of wood with a pile of such shavings growing about their feet. It is also whimsical objects like a ball in a cage, a wooden chain with each link carved inner locking with the next link to form a chain, inner locking puzzles or those items often called ‘whimsies.’  Such an activity could also be called ‘carving with a knife.If only a knife is used to shape and carve the object that is hand held while carving, then it is technically called whittling.As soon as another cutting tool is used, even if it be abrasive paper (which is a cutting tool) then it ceases to be ‘whittling’ and becomes ‘carving or sculpturing.’

Carving means to cut wood with several cutting tools into an artistic or  decorative manner, to sculpt or to engrave..  Sculpture is the art of carving, cutting or hewing wood, stone, plastic into figures or designs of an artistic appeal.  Carving and sculpturing require the use of many carving tools such as chisels, gouges, adzes, rifflers and abrasive material of hand powered  tools or motorized cutting tools like a chain saw or a rotary grinding tools especially designed for carving.

Whittling is carving only with a knife.  Carving is using many carving tools including a knife.  Thus ‘Carving is not whittling’ but ‘Whittling can be carving.’  Whittle-Carving is a style of carving using only a knife.”

Did you start our being a whittler?

As a boy growing up on the farm in the late forties and early fifties, every boy carried a pocket knife.  If you had a knife then you would whittle, not always knowing what one was doing, but always trying to make something, a toy, a wooden boat, wooden rifles, animals.  It was not until 1973 that I met a wood carver who showed me the A-B-C’s basics about carving that started me to take carving seriously.  But having grown up with a pocket knife, it only seemed natural to use the knife in carving, supplemented by a few carving tools.  Whittling and carving is very much a ‘learning by doing’ craft in that the more you do the better you become.  This caused me to first call my self the ‘WOOD BEE CARVER’ as a play on the phrase of ‘would be’ as one who aspires to be, and from my experience of learning by doing I developed a philosophy that says, ‘Would be Carvers would be Carvers if they would carve wood.'”

What do you enjoy the most about working with wood and creating?

I enjoy the very process of carving, what I call, ‘Wood carving is more the journey than the destination,’ by which I mean it is the actual carving process rather than the completed carving that brings the greatest enjoyment.  I enjoy sharpening an old pocket knife into a workable carving knife; I enjoy the creative process of an idea being shaped into a piece of wood that takes on a personality of its own; I enjoy the friendship of other carvers and the sharing of ideas, how-to’s and the thrill of creating; I enjoy seeing and feeling a shaving or chip of wood come off the block of wood during the slicing action the the cutting tool, so much so that there is almost a little music as the chip flies free from the wood; I enjoy setting free the carving subject that is imprisoned in a block of wood setting it free by removing everything that does not look like the carving subject. I enjoy writing and showing photographs of my carvings along with how-to instructions in my web log”

Any thing about the history of whittling you can share with us?

“I will be working on ‘A Century of Whittling’ as a history of the rise of whittling in our country between 1865 and 1965 since whittling got its big push during and after the civil war, thriving for 100 years as a ‘Folk Art’ (whittling is the art of the common folk) but since the electronic explosion after 1965 boys got away from pocket knives in exchange for video games.  Kids not longer make things to entertain themselves rather they are entertained electronically with little imagination stimulation or hands-on dexterity of doing hand creativity.  Industrial arts and the arts were done away with in most schools, so there was little opportunity to do creative-make it yourself kinds of activities.”

I see you are a teacher of this art- tell us how long you have taught and where?

I have taught organized classes for fifteen years and given many one-to-one carving instructions.  Because I teach “carving only with a knife” every student works hard at learning to carve only with a knife, having used a knife only as a secondary tool, but each student is eager to learn because of the unique look of ‘Whittle-Carving’ style of cuts, since I teach ‘slicing cuts’ as the way to clean and slick carving appearance.”

Can you gives us a high-level concept overview of what you teach in your classes?

I start off teaching the basics of learning to use a ‘slicing cut’ by carving a ‘ball’ on the end of a square stick.  Then I teach about the ‘Rule of Three’ Proportions of both the face and human figure, so that figure carvings will look right if everything is in proper proportions.  Besides the verbal instructions about the class project, I also will demonstrate carving with a knife the steps with each student following the verbal description.  I carve on a demonstration block of wood, and the student then carves on their own block of wood trying to remember what they had observed as I carved and also from ‘go-by’s’ which are carvings in various stages of completion for the student to look at while carving their own.”

What type of tools/knives do you use?

his-whittling-knifeSHARP KNIVES!  for Whittle-Carving projects.  Regular carving tools for larger carving projects. The photograph of the knife is a rose wood handled Challenger two bladed jack knife that has sentimental value to me.”

How do you keep them sharp?

Knives are sharpened by hand using  three diamond plates the size of a credit card + a coarse, a fine and an extra fine .  I keep the blade flat on its side rubbing back and forth on both sides until a burr edge appears on the coarse diamond plate and then continue on the other  diamond plates. This is followed by stropping on a leather strop fixed to a wooden paddle that has aluminum oxide compound applied for a fine polishing away of the burr edge to expose the cutting teeth.  It is during the extra fine diamond and the leather stropping that a micro bevel is applied, but for my slicing kind of knife carving I do not want a wide or thick bevel, the narrower the better.  While carving, all that is required is an occasional stropping.  Sharpening only occurs in there is is knick in the cutting edge or the cutting edge has gotten rounded by repeated stropping.”

You mentioned different steels are better for whittling, can you elaborate on this for us?

High Carbon Steel, the kind found in old pocket knives (the blades that will rust) make the best carving knives.  In the old pocket knives, the brand name does not make that much difference.  If an old pocket knife has survived over fifty years of mistreatment, it must have enough mettle in its carbon steel blades to still have carving life to be restored through reshaping and sharpening.  Even the cheap dime store type of pocket knives with tin shell handles, have excellent blades that make good carving knives.”

How do you decide what to whittle-carve?

“There as so many subject awaiting to be carved as well as themes like: hobos, gnomes, Indians, cowboys, caricature human figures.  Ideas come from wood carving magazines — Wood Carving Illustrated — Carving Magazine — Chip Chats; ideas come from various carving books, observation of life, cartoons, ideas that pop into my head and also taking a wood carving class to learn something new.  There is no end to where the ideas come from, the only end is that there is not enough time to carve all that one wants to carve.”

What types of wood are best for this? Does it depend on any factors?

“The carvers’ choice is ‘basswood’ that comes from the Linden Tree.  Also ‘butternut’ is a favorite as well at catalpa, but for that matter, any wood can be carved, although the harder woods take more effort.  Basswood is a fairly soft wood with even grain that is not to distinct and basswood receives paint very well.”

On average how long does it take to complete a figurine?

“It depends upon the size: for a six inch tall figure one inch square, it takes about eight hours, a three inch figure would take maybe four hours, while a larger piece may take forty to a hundred hours depending upon the difficulty of the design.  Of course, carving is normally not done at one sitting.”

At what point, do you consider a piece to be completed?

“Experience teaches one to know ‘enough is enough.’ “

I see there is an association of Wood Carvers you belong to- what is the purpose of that association? How many members does it have?

“The National Wood Carvers Association exists to promote and encourage carving and whittling, primarily through the publication of ‘Chip Chats’ a bi-monthly magazine that has show reports with photographs of carving entries in competition, some how-to articles and resources for tools, classes and supplies.  30,000 members world wide, although most are in the United States, which is unique in promoting ‘hobby Carving’ while in other countries carving is a trade, occupation learned in apprenticeship.”

You work is amazing. Are there any pieces that are your favorite?

“My favorite pieces are the ones I am carving now for that is the meaning of ‘Woodcarving is more the journey than the destination,’ in that it is in the carving process that the carver finds the greatest fulfillment.  The completed carving is nice, but it is the next carving project that motivates me.  My favorite piece is the one I am working on at the moment. And they are all my favorites.  It is like knives, of all the hundreds of knives I have, my favorite is the one I have in my hand at the time and I am thrilled with it as it is slicing singingly through the wood, the music of the creative spirit whittling away time, the best time of one’s life.”

#End of interview

Thank you Don for taking the time to share your life and work with us. Your work is fascinating.

I intentionally did not include photos of Don’s work. Instead, you must visit his virtual shop. He has hundreds of images, plus his blog is chocked full of details and tidbits. Take the time to visit- it’ll be the highlight of your day! Here it is WoodBeCarver. Say “Hello” to Don while you’re there.


Published in: on May 2, 2009 at 8:25 am  Comments (10)  
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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What a great interview. I am heading to Donald’s Place right now. Thanks

  2. Scott, what a great story. Really interesting and the guy is only 45 minutes away from Roger and me. Maybe we can go and see his work. Its fantastic!!

  3. Scott,
    I’ve been waiting for this article, since you mentioned it. It was well worth the wait. Whittling is indeed becomming a lost art. I miss the days of seeing the “Old Timers”, sitting in the town square, making shavings. Thanks for a great article.

  4. […] recently interviewed me on the subject of WHITTLING.  The interview may be viewed by visiting .  I am very honored to be able to share my ideas about Whittling with those interested in […]

  5. This is a great article/interview. You could not have picked a better representative from the carving community to interview. I know Don (from afar) and I know him to be a skilled, generous, and a kind man. I can assure you that a trip to Don’s Wood Bee Carver site will keep you occupied for hours.

  6. You absolutely must check out Don’s site.It is utterly FANTASTIC!!!

  7. Sure wish I could whittle. Frank

    • Yeah, me too Frank. I’m trying to get an excellent master whittler to start a Whittling Group over at so stay tuned.

  8. Excellent interview….I’ve seen some of Don’s work and it is great! I’ve been whittling the greter part of my 83 years and there is nothing quite like it for relaxation. Certainly beats TV.

  9. I started looking for information on whittling today just after writing a blog post for Father’s Day about the
    “balls in a cage” that my father used to make. He’d find a chunk of local wood at the beach and with nothing but a pocket knife, he made items that are family treasures.

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