Most wood carvers that I've met over the years use fixed-bladed carving knives. Many carvers have a whole set of differently shaped blades. Normally these knives are carried around in a special tool box, perhaps neatly rolled in a leather pouch that has a pocket dedicated to each knife. I personally have no question as to the quality, usefulness, or potential of these tools. It's just that my own history and experience with carving has taken me down a path that has had me working with just one basic tool for the majority of what I do, a pocketknife.
Can a person make the projects shown on this site with the typical fixed-bladed carving knives? Absolutely! If you have these specialized tools, definitely pick up some twigs and branches or other wood scrap, and whittle away! You may have the disadvantage in certain situations, however, of not having your tool box close by or your rolled up pouch of carving knives handy. In any case, you'll find that any spontaneous, do-it-anywhere carving is greatly handi-capped. On the other hand, a pocketknife that's always right with you (well, almost always) can come out at a moment's notice and be put to work. Besides all the "scheduled" carving I do in my shop and at home, I can't tell you how much fun I've had "cutting up" with my pocketknife all over the world, in an incredible variety of places and situations! Check out the "RECENT PROJECTS" page.
If you're interested in getting a Victorinox Swiss Army knife that already has the modifications done, Bob Reitmeyer, a woodcarver/whittler from western Pennsylvania, has done the work and offers the knife on his website.
The knife on the left is my super-well-used Victorinox Swiss Army "Tinker. I'm guessing that out of its two blades has come over $160,000.00 worth of carvings. This, of course, is over a bunch of years. You can tell that the small blade has been worn down quite a bit. (Actually, the fine point turns out to be an advantage for making tighter turn cuts in small spaces.)
(1) The pocketknife I recommend will have two blades: a small blade (about 1 1/2 inches/4 centimeters long) as well as the standard longer blade (2 1/2 inches/6 1/2 centimeters long). The great majority of your carving will be done with the small blade, even if you're carving one of the larger pieces.
(2) The steel should be good, sharpening well, and holding an edge well. It could be either carbon steel or stainless steel. Some carvers are "allergic" to stainless, but I've found that the Victorinox Swiss Army knives I been using for decades are excellent. One reason I recommend the Victorinox knives, besides their being very good knives, they are relatively easy to find, and for the work they do, reasonably priced. (AN IMPORTANT NOTE: Do yourself a favor and never buy one of those cheap imitations of the Victorinox Swiss Army knives. In my own experience I've never found one of those knives to have decent steel.)
The only difference between the Tinker and the Hiker is that the Hiker has added a saw blade, an extremely good one, I might add.
They're pretty much self-explanatory.
SHARPENING AND HONING
Since the summer of 1966 I've used a number of different pocketknives, all of them having the two blades, one small and one large. However, for more than 20 years now I've been using one or another model of the Victorinox Swiss Army Knife. The models I've used used the most are the Tinker and the Hiker. It's hard to imagine how many thousands of projects have come out of these knives! And given the fact that these knives have a number of other features besides the two blades, they've come in incredibly handy in all kinds of other situations. (I'll share some of those too!)
...JUST A FEW NON-CARVING USES OF MY KNIFE:
Let me explain why I use and recommend the Victorinox/Swiss Army knives. Right from the beginning of my working with them, I found them to have excellent steel, to sharpen well, and to hold an edge well too. Besides, they are reasonably priced and are available just about everywhere. While some carvers object to stainless steel blades, I've personally found Victorinox's knives to be very well suited to the kind of carving I do. And as an added bonus, since my total life experience involves much, much more than woodcarving, I can't tell you how many times I've made use of the other features on my knives! . . . the screwdrivers, the awl, the can opener, the tweezers, the saw (on the Hiker), and definitely the toothpick!
While the Victorinox knives come out of the package much sharper than most new knives and make it possible to whittle something right away, a person will naturally need to know how to sharpen and hone, in order the maintain the blades. This would be true of any good knife.
Two modifications I've made on my own knives: (1) taking off the key-ring tab (due to my having to be constantly working with the small blade, with my thumb pressing where the ring tab would be); (2) tapering the small blade a bit (to allow me to make tighter turn cuts, especially when I'm working on miniatures). Of course I personally work hundreds of hours with my knives, and for me these modifications are helpful. For many folks they wouldn't be necessary at all.
There are all kinds of ways to sharpen and hone knife blades. You can spend all kinds of money on some pretty expensive sharpening systems. I'm sure many of them work well. My own system, however is very inexpensive and simple. Let me quote from pages 8 and 9 of THE LITTLE BOOK OF WHITTLING:
I'm sure there are a gazillion pages of information on the internet about knives of every kind, including carving knives. The contribution that I'll be making to that mountain of information is going to be fairly small, quite simple, and specifically directed to the type of carving I do and write about.
A number of years ago, Ed Eason, a guitarist with Carrie Underwood, produced a short video on how I sharpen my knife. He also has a couple of other videos on his site about what I do. You might want to check them out. Ed's website is:
Like any method or system, mine takes a little practice, but it does work, and I've been satisfied with it for quite a few years. The price is pretty good too, practically nothing after a very small initial investment.
If I'm starting out with a totally dull knife (even a new blade can be dull), I usually use my two-sided sharpening stone to get the process started, first the coarser surface and then the finer. (Most sharpening stones have two surfaces.) With the blade not quite flat against the stone, I use a circular motion followed up by several slicing motions. After this part, the blade is semi-sharp, but not yet ready for carving.
Then I'll go to a series of little strips of wet-or-dry sandpaper or emery cloth, like the kind used on auto body work. The three grits that I generally use are 320, 400, and 600 (the higher the number, the finer the grit). Some of my little beat-up sheets have been around for eight or ten years and are still working! They;'re virtually paper-smooth, but they still serve to polish the blade's edge.
Finally, I'll end up stropping (wiping) my blade on a piece of leather, usually with a little bit of stropping compound. For many years, I just used the rough backside of an old leather belt.
If I'm starting with a blade that only needs a touch of sharpening, I'll start with the finest grit of wet-or-dry sandpaper and finish with a few strops on the leather.
. . . and lots, lots more!