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 Woodcarvings by Maura

So, You really want to be a woodcarver?

The State of Woodcarving in America Today


Chapter 12

During the course of this project I had the chance to get involved with knife designer Mike Komick of British Columbia.  I found him to be very knowledgeable and when he offered to send me some information on tools and sharpening, I readily accepted. I was originally going to include this info in the previous chapter, The Wonderful World of the Workshop, but after realizing how valuable this information would be to other carvers, I decided to only do some minor editing  and to give Mike his own chapter.



A Word on Tools, Knives and Sharpening

By Michael Komick





What the Beginner and the Novice Should Know About the Bent Knife and Carving Tools


Carving Tool History: 


Through some research I have found out some interesting facts about the start of the carving tools. The tools started out very primitive. They were made of jade, obsidian, bone, seashells and beavers hind leg. Certain fish skins were used for sanding. Stories have been told of people coming to the Americas northwest coast from different parts of the world, pre 1700 century. There were reports of people boating over from Hawaii, Japan and Russia. These are the people that introduced steel to the Native Americans. Also steel had been retrieved from floating debris from wrecked ships. This steel would have been in a very primitive state but a big improvement over the bone and stone tools. The proof of this is that the carvings started to get bigger and more detailed. The oldest bent knife I have seen was one that belonged to Wayne Carlick who said it belonged to his grandfather. The blade was made of bone and shaped in a slow curved. It was lashed with sinew to an arbutus brand that was the handle.  Wayne is a carver at the Capilano Suspension bridge in North Vancouver, BC





 A good quality tool will be one of the most important investments you can make as a carver. A good tool can be just as important as the experience you gain. It is very discouraging to have a tool that wont stay sharp or a tool that is too hard to sharpen and will quite often chip or break. A good way to find good tools is to ask a master carver. They have usually established a working relationship with a retailer or a knife maker.


When looking for a carving tool ask the retailer or knife maker a few questions like what is the blade hardness and what kind of steel are they made from. If the retailer cant tell you what kind of steel it is made of stay away from it. The hardness should be RC 57+ and the steel should be tool steel. L6 is about the best I have found for wood carving tools. The cutting edge stays sharp for a long time and there is a bit of flex in the blade. With the right heat treatment this blade has what is called a tough edge. There will be an explanation further on.


When purchasing a tool, get one that has been pre-sharpened .You dont want to sit for hours sharpening to save maybe a few dollars. If the knife comes with a guarantee you can be assured it has some quality. This will be a commitment to the carver that this is a quality tool.



Carving Tool Steel:


 The composition of the steel is one of the things that makes or breaks a quality carving tool. The main function of a carving tool is to cut with the least resistance. To do this two things have to be considered, the thickness of the blade and the ability of the blade to stay sharp. The best steel for carving tools is tools steel. There are different grades of tools steel. The best is the one with the high nickel and high carbon content, preferably L6. Stay away from the tool steel that has a high content of carbide, Carbide can make a tool very hard but with a thin edge the is no material to support it and it will chip under a bit of stress. When it chips you have to have it repaired. A good tool steel will be made up of the following composition: .75% carbon, 2.60% nickel the high carbon and high nickel content gives the blade a tough edge.

 Analysis of the L6 tool steel is .75% carbon, .25% silicon, .42% manganese, .025% potassium, .011% sulfur, .03%chrome, 2.60% nickel.


Straight Single Edge Knife:

 There are many of these type of knifes. The ones we are most concerned about are the chip knife, the skew knife, a traditional straight edge. These blades can be different widths and lengths.



Drop point: This knife is favored by many carvers because it require a lot less wrist reaction then the ordinary straight back blade. To be effective the blade should be thin to offer little resistance while going through the wood. The top of the blade should lean forward so the knife will be doing a slicing motion while going through the wood.





Chip carving knife: You can identify this knife by the straight cutting edge leading to point. The back or spine of the blade has a curve leading down to the cutting edge. This knife is excellent for V cuts or any line cuts. While making the cuts you can hold the knife perpendicular to the work piece making easy on the wrist. You can use your thumb on the back to guide it while making a cut. This knife should lean forward so the knife is doing a slicing motion while going through the wood. While making tight circle cuts this knife should do very little if any chattering on the wood.




Skew knife: This knife can be identified by the 45% angle on the cutting edge. Usually this knife blade is very slender a can make very deep cuts. It is very good for V cuts because of the depth you can go into the wood with it being so slender. This is an excellent knife on the straight cuts. Because of the width of the blade it is not good on tight curves.



 Bent knife:

The bent knives usually have a cutting sharp cutting edge on either side. Some carvers prefer having the knife sharp only on one side because they like to push one side with their thumb and that would be a safety hazard if both sides were sharp.


These blades can be different widths and lengths. What will determine the size is the size of the carving that is being done. The blades I have made are from 3/16 to 1 wide by to 6 long.


There are basically three different bent knives and all the other knives are a variation of these three.




A. Straight double edge knife:-

Although this blade is not bent it is the same shape and used to complete a bent knife set of six knives. This knife is used for clean up and detail work. While selecting this knife it will be important to make sure the blade is sharpened from close to the handle to the tip of the blade. All though it is not bent it is of the same design. It will be used for the hard to reach areas and tight corners. This blade can also be used for cutting lines


B. Slow curve knife:- 

This is also known as the planer blade. At the front of this blade there will have a slight bend. There are different variations to the bend in the slow curved blade. There can be a bend from about 5 degrees to 30 degrees bend. This blade should be sharp along the level part of the blade to the tip. Some of the cuts you will be requiring from this knife will be against the stop cuts. This will require the use of the very tip of the blade. The selection of this bend will depend where the carver wants to carve. This knife can be used to level off the flatter part of the carving. It can be used for shallow cuts


C. High curved knife:

This blade has a serious bend in it. It will usually be bent from about 45 % to 90% with a large curve. This blade should be usable, meaning sharp, from the heel right to the tip. With this knife you will be able to get into deeper areas. This knife will usually have a bit of a flat area and this can be used for leveling cuts you have made with a knife that has an aggressive bend like the hook knife. The wide curve of this blade can be used for cleaning these same cuts in a rounded area, for example, in a bowel or spoon.




Chisel Sharpening and Repair



To start with you should determine if the chisel has to be sharpened or repaired.


Sharpening a Chisel


Clamp the chisel into a fixed table vise so that the taper or bevel is facing up. To determine what grit to start the sharpening process with check to see how sharp the edge is. If it is very dull but still has some bite start with 400 grit wet/dry paper or stone. If you use paper put it on a block to make the paper sit even on the bevel. Make sure to lay the block or stone flat on the bevel. It doesnt matter if this is a round, flat or V chisel. Press down evenly on the block with a slight more pressure to the front or cutting edge side. Use the back and forth motion or round and round motion. But do not rock the block or stone back and forth.  A good way to see where you are sharpening is taking place on the bevel is to see where your scratches from the paper or stone are taking place. When you can see that your edge is getting sharper you can advance on to the 600 grit paper and after you have done a few strokes and advanced the sharpened edge go onto the 800 grit. Do the same with the 1,000 and the 2,000 grit papers. After this you will want to use the 10,000 grit paste on the leather strop. You can use a flat strop on the bevel and on the inside use a strop that is wrapped on a dowel. The inside of your chisel will determine the radius of the dowel. Do the majority of the stropping with the flat strop on the bevel side and clean the burr off with the round strop on the opposite side.


Again when you are sharpening the chisel do not rock the sharpener back and forth because what happens is you will set up a convex bevel and it will have very little if any bite going into the wood, To determine if the bevel has a convex  area put the bevel down on a flat area if you can see a crown or a convex surface it is time for a repair.





Repair A Convex Bevel


If your chisel is not too hard you can use a good or new file. If the file slides off of it you will have to resort to the slow speed belt sander. Use a course, 80 grit belt, Determine the angle you want when you are finished and work toward that angle. Press the convex area lightly on the belt for two seconds and determine how hot the metal is getting. To do this you will have to touch the sharpened end to determine the heat. You dont want it over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Dunk it in the water to keep it cool. Also you can press on for 2 second and off the belt for two seconds then back on for 2 seconds. Keep on dunking it every once in a while. Dont get in a big hurry with this process because you can make lots of work for yourself if the chisel turns brown or blue in color from sharpening. If this happens the structure of the steel has been changed to get it back to a normal harness for this steel it will have to be re-tempered. So go slow. In this case slow is fast. After you have taken the convex out and you have the angle on the bevel you want then you can start with the 400 grit and use the sharpening instructions above. Remember avoid the rocking motion with the sharpener be it the paper or the stone. To do this, watch where your scratches are taking place.


Repair a Hollow Bevel Chisel (Recess bevel on the round chisel)


This will happen if the back of the bevel has been sharpened too much. To recognize this you will see the inside or bottom side of the chisel goes back and the shape looks elongated.


Take a new or good file and file the cutting edge straight. This means knocking the corners back. Then get the bevel you want either with the file or belt sand as above. If you are using the belt sander do it slowly and lightly so as not to cause too much heat in the metal. After the corners have been knocked back then get the bevel you want. Watch the bevel it maybe convex at this point too and this will have to be straightened out also. When this has all been straightened out then use the sharpening method to touch up the edge to where you want it.


Sharpening and Maintaining the Cutting Edge of Your Knife


Sharpening or maintaining your knife can be an easy but hazardous activity.                                     Always be Alert and never attempt to sharpen if you are not in full command of   your mental and physical faculties.


If you maintain your knife blade after it has been sharpened you will not have to sharpen                    it. To maintain the blade give it a couple of strokes as suggested below, with the  1,000 grit or 2,000 grit wet/dry sand paper or stone. Then strop it with the 10,000 grit paste.



4 single edge straight knives


Straight Single Edge Blade

If the knife is very dull start with a 600 or 800 grit wet/dry sand paper. Lay the knife flat on the edge of the paper. Lift the back of the knife slightly about 5 to 10 degrees so as the edge that is to be sharpened is resting on the sandpaper. Slide the knife away from the cutting edge. See diagram on the bottom. Do this two time on one side then turn the blade on the other side and repeat the same process on the opposite side of the blade. You have removed metal about 1/16 from the cutting edge, which is normal. The key is to keep it almost flat on the paper and rotate from side to side. The pressure you put on the paper should be light but firm. After you have a good edge with the 600 or 800 grit paper you will want to repeat this process with the 1000 grit paper and the same with the 2,000 grit paper. You may want to go to a higher grit, for a finer edge. You may also want to strop the blade, on leather with the white compound, to clean off the burrs at the end of your sharpening. To strop put compound on the strop and raise the back up 5 to 10 degrees and use the sharpening motion. You can go back and forth so long as you keep the knife fairly flat so you dont cut the strop. When the compound gets black and shiny it is used up so scrape it off and recharge it and let it dry.

Caution:  Do not raise the back of the blade too high you will remove the cutting edge with a couple of strokes or put shoulders on the or cutting edge side of the blade.



Double Edge Curved Blade

If the knife is very dull start with the 600 to 800 grit wet/dry sandpaper. Rip the paper sheet into s. Wrap one of the s around a dowel that will fit on the inside of the curve or hook on the blade. Lay the paper & dowel flat on the blade. Lift the paper & dowel up 5 degrees toward the cutting edge then stroke away from the edge. Do the same amount of strokes on each side until you have the desired edge. Remember to do the same amount of strokes on each side for even wear.  Repeat this same process with 1,000 and 2,000 grit wet/dry sandpaper or sharpening stone. You may want to go to higher grit, for a finer edge. You may also want to strop the blade on leather to clean off any burrs at the end of your sharpening. Spread some white lightning stropping compound onto the leather strop. When the compound dries on the strop use the sharpen method on the compound. When your compound gets black and shiny gently scrape it off and recharge it with clean compound.  It is about 10,000 grit and brings the  tool up to a super fine edge.




To Effectively Use A Double Edge Bent Knife


Inside beveled blade

There are two different types of double edge knives. There is the inside bevel and the back side bevel. This particular knife is identified by the bevel on the inside radius of the blade. I will also discuss the backside bevel knife.


The blade is mounted on the handle in such a way that you can get close to the wood with the back of the handle. With the blade positioned the way it is you will have more control of your cuts then you will with a chisel and with the cutting edge on each sides you wont have to turn your carving around to cut the opposite way. With the bent knife you can start and stop your cuts where and when you want .You are not pushing you tool like you do with the chisel.


What the knife can be used for

To understand how the blade cuts I will explain the areas were the bent knife is very efficient. On a relief carving you can get down into areas and cut up against the stop cut. For any concaved areas you can use the high curved or the hooked knife. Bowels or spoons can be carved with the high curved or the hooked knife. The slow cured knife is very useful for leveling off or planing an area. It is also useful for shallow relief or digging.


How to hold the knife

To use the knife place the back of the handle in the palm of the hand you will use for carving. The tip of the curved blade should be pointed upwards. Place the thumb toward the top of the handle and the little finger is toward the blade. In this position you will effectively be able to guide the angle of the cut.  See diagram A, below.





There are a few different ways to use the bent knife most of them will be the right way to use them I have observed carvers and also used the carving tools myself. I have found to get the best use of this knife, holding it in your hand as mentioned above. Put the bottom of the blade flat on the wood you will carve, meaning 90 degrees to the wood to be carved.  Use the heel of the blade to carve with. So the knife should be angled back (about 15 degrees) and the blade laying flat on the heel of the blade. Now take and angle the knife toward you about 5 to 10 degrees. Put some pressure on the knife and drag it toward you. Make sure that your elbow is tucked into your side and remember to keep your wrist straight unless you want to finish your cut. In this case you change the angle by angling the knife back up to the 90 degrees. The angle of your knife will determine the depth of your cut. You should not have the knife angled any more than 20 degrees off the 90 degrees at any time. Too steep of an angle will prevent you from making an easy cut. This theory works for all the different bent knives. This usually takes some practice so dont get discouraged. Just practice the cut on a piece of scrap wood before you get into a carving

See diagram B, below for the angle of the knife



This knife is sharpened on both sides so you will want to use both sides; you will be able to do a pushing or pulling action. This will save you the effort of turning the carving around every time you want to cut in a different direction. Sometimes the grain in the wood changes and you have to cut in a different direction. This is extremely helpful when the wood grain starts to run in different directions.


There are three basic bent knives, a slow curve and high curve and a hooked knife. Some uses for the three styles of knives are:



Double edged Slow curved. Used by bird and fish carvers


Slow Curved Knife


The slow curve is as it suggest. It has a very gradual curve toward the end of the knife. The knife can be used for shallow digging or to plane a surface. Sometimes the surface has to be planed to draw lines or to complete or finish off an area. Sometime you have to make cuts up against a stop cut so the blade should be sharp right out to the tip. With this blade you should be able to cut with both sides of the knife. If the grain in the wood is changing direction you dont have to turn the carving around, just change the direction of cutting with the knife


Double edge high curve. Used for relief carving    



High Curve Knife

This knife is also as it suggests. The curve is high. Usually it is bent up to 90 degree. The wide curve makes the knife excellent for cleaning out the knife marks made by the hook knife in a concave area. This knife acts as a wide scorp. Being sharp right to the tip you can cut up against the stop cuts with this knife. This is an excellent knife for deep relief carvings. I especially like it for relieving the background.




Double edge hook knife


Small double edge hook for the smaller carvings



Hooked Knife

Easily recognized by the hook at the end of the blade this knife is very useful in roughing out the bowel or spoons and any other concaved areas. This knife can be used as a scorp. In a manner more so then the high curved knife. I would like to remind you that the angle that you have the knife off the wood determines the depth of your cut. In other words if you lay the heel of your knife flat on the wood it will not cut anything, if you tip it toward you about 5 to 10 degrees and pull the knife towards you it will dig in. To start with put your elbow into your side and keep your wrist straight. Just cut a shaving off the surface until you get used to the knife. Dont bend your wrist unless you want to cut out. Try to pull and push it to get used to it. See diagram A and diagram B for proper angles.



Out of the ordinary carving tools



The Adze



Adze Blades


Totem pole knife blades



Finishing knives



The Scorp


This is a 5" gooseneck chisel with a #7 cutting edge 3/4" wide. Handmade

 For any further information on sharpening, tools or tool design, please feel free to contact Mike.


Michael Komick

Preferred Edge Carving Knives And Supplies
Tool Designer and Maker

British Columbia, Canada







Chapter 11  /     Chapter 13


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2005 Carvin' in NYC


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