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Tiny Whittling: More Than 20 Projects to Make

Tiny Whittling: More Than 20 Projects to Make

by Steve Tomashek

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A hip beginner’s guide to one of the world’s most relaxing, inexpensive, and rewarding hobbies, this handbook puts a modern spin on an ancient craft by teaching readers how to whittle whimsical miniature creatures. With just a sharp knife, a little practice, and the tiniest block of wood, anyone can make a charming carving in less than an hour. Led by an


A hip beginner’s guide to one of the world’s most relaxing, inexpensive, and rewarding hobbies, this handbook puts a modern spin on an ancient craft by teaching readers how to whittle whimsical miniature creatures. With just a sharp knife, a little practice, and the tiniest block of wood, anyone can make a charming carving in less than an hour. Led by an award-winning carver and artist, this manual takes readers through the basics, demonstrating how to carve root vegetables in order to minimize the danger of accidents; readers will create a simple turnip bear or a carrot mouse. As confidence builds, readers graduate to wood, and work through step-by-step instructions accompanied by photographs, enjoying increasingly polished results as they refine their technique. It includes easy-to-use templates and sources for tools and materials, readers will learn how to sand, paint, and decorate their tiny carvings, eventually creating a fox, an owl, a horse, a hen, and even a forest or farmyard setting for their miniature menagerie.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Just the word “whittling”’ conjures images of Jed Clampett whittlin’ on the porch in a Beverly Hillbillies rerun. But this is not your ol’ country boy DIY, as Tomashek, who runs the Web site Miniature Menagerie, takes a new generation through the basics of carving materials and on to more complicated projects, leading the novice through Ivory soap ducks to old ivory piano key creations. Along the way, he shows how to “cheat” on the hard stuff (like using a glued-on grapevine runner for a pig’s tail). The author, fond of polka-dotted animals, explains how to paint those spots, borrowing from aboriginal bark paintings, as well as showing how to make lines and gradations, and how to use scale in both painting and carving, with examples of what to expect from various wood grains. Color photos (350 of them) bring both tiny forest and barnyard to life, and detailed safety tips, plus drawing and sanding instructions right down to making Mr. Fox’s tricky tail round off a comprehensive book on a tiny subject. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

"A comprehensive book on a tiny subject"—Publishers Weekly

"There aren’t many beginner whittling books around, and the fun projects and straightforward instructions make this a good purchase for woodworking collections."—Library Journal

Library Journal
Tomashek teaches novices the basics of carving wood by hand with this accessible introduction to whittling. The three simplest projects, a duck, a bear, and a rabbit, are carved from soap or vegetables with household paring knives, allowing beginners to get a feel for carving without investing money in wood or other supplies. The rest of the projects are presented in order of difficulty and range from beginner-friendly songbirds to more complex animals such as a cow and a hen. Step-by-step directions and full-color photographs of the finished animals are included. VERDICT There aren't many beginner whittling books around, and the fun projects and straightforward instructions make this a good purchase for woodworking collections.

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Read an Excerpt

Tiny Whittling

More than 20 Projects to Make

By Steve Tomashek

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2012 Ivy Press Limited
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-499-4


Getting Started

Carving Materials

Knives & Sharpening

Carving Overview

From Drawing to Sanding

Painting Basics

Painting Techniques


The main type of wood I use for carving is American basswood (also known as American linden). Basswood is used for all the carving projects in this book because it is fairly soft and lightweight, so it is relatively easy to carve. However, there are many other types of suitable wood available and, as you progress with your carving, you may want to try some alternatives. Let's take a closer look at some of them.


Basswood has a straight grain, is dense, and generally has no knots or irregularities. The wood is not scarce or threatened. It's classified as a hardwood because it is deciduous, but if it is dried correctly, it is actually soft and easy to carve. It can be bought from sawyers, carving supply stores, or specialty wood suppliers. Don't confuse basswood with balsa wood, which is often used for model building and is generally too light and too soft for carving.


The other primary carving wood is boxwood, which also has a straight grain and no knots. It's important for the grain to be predictable if you're working on small details. Boxwood commonly grows as a shrub, and the large shrub branches are fine for carving, but in some places it also grows as a tree. It's slow growing, which is why the grain is tight, and this means it holds detail well in smaller pieces. It's harder to carve, so practice with basswood first.


Holly is harder than basswood, but it is not as hard as boxwood. It's very strong — comparable to birch or maple — but is not so easily available. It's a white wood, but sometimes it also has grayish streaks, which can make it very attractive. It's more difficult to carve than basswood, but it holds details well.


Cedar, pine, and firs are not ideal for carving unless they are slow grown — the slower the growth, the tighter the grain — and even then, the grain can be wavy. Old or slow-grown yellow cedar is harder to find, but it's a very pretty wood with a pleasant smell.


Nut and fruitwoods such as walnut, pecan, apple, and Swiss pear are hardwoods; they are comparable to boxwood, but they tend to have a lot of knots. You can still use them, however, if you avoid the knotty areas. Swiss pear has a particularly attractive color, close to cherry (which can also be used for carving).


Lignum vitae is a very slow-growing tree. The darker parts of the wood have an unusual green color, and the white parts are yellow with green flecks. It's very hard to carve because the grain is woven — you feel like you're fighting the grain whichever way you cut. Its density allows it to withstand extreme conditions.


Real ivory can still legally be used if it is reclaimed. Old ivory piano keys can be obtained cheaply, and ivory seized from poachers is occasionally sold off by the relevant authorities; most of it goes to China and Japan for traditional carving. Tagua nut has similar properties and is known as "vegan ivory" — it is also plentiful and inexpensive. Both are very difficult to carve and brittle, but they can be effective for small details.


This wood should be used only for its color and beauty — it should definitely not be painted. There are natural pores in the wood, and the grain varies between hard and soft, which makes it unpredictable to carve. When working the wood, the orange dust it produces can be toxic or allergenic; always wear a breathing apparatus when using this wood, especially when sanding (the same is true of ebony wood).


We'll use soap and vegetables in the next chapter of the book. They're great for practicing on when you first start out, but they're not particularly attractive or durable — although they do have their own charm! For the best results with soap, look for a waxy type, not a flaky one.


At first, you probably won't want to spend a lot of money on equipment, but the good news is that you don't have to. Hobby knives, while not ideal, are certainly good enough for your first few carving projects. Once you've got the taste for it, you can move on to more expensive knives, which will give you more control and add an extra degree of finesse to your work. Whichever type of knife you use, always remember that the less sharp the blade, the more pressure you need to exert, and, therefore, the less control you have and the more dangerous the project becomes. Generally speaking, there are three types of blades: wedge-shaped, straight, or curved. I use mostly straight and curved blades, but try them out and see what works for you.


HOBBY (X-ACTO) KNIVES These are a great place to start. Hobby knives are inexpensive and easily available from craft stores or hardware outlets. On the one hand, you don't need any sharpening equipment — just use them and throw the blades away (they have interchangeable blades). On the other hand, hobby knives are not as sharp as professional ones, the handles are not very ergonomic for sustained use, and the blades are thin and break more easily.


Professional knives are designed to be held in the hand for longer periods of time, are easier to use, and the blades are made of hard machined steel. A common example is the Murphy knife (the 1 ½-inch/38-mm model), which is an inexpensive, commercially available professional knife that's good for beginners or intermediate-level carvers. These start from around twenty dollars.

I use artisan knives, which are of similar quality but can be works of art in themselves. There's a wide variety available, starting from around thirty dollars. For most purposes, I use only two sizes: a 1 ½-inch (38-mm) knife and the smaller 3/4-inch (18-mm) model (which is used for all the woodcarving projects in this book).


This is used for the soap and vegetable carving projects. A kitchen knife that you use for cutting fruit or vegetables is fine, as long as the blade is straight or curved upward, but not serrated.


When I started carving, I ended up wrecking some blades prematurely because I didn't know how to sharpen them properly. Know the difference between sharpening (also known as honing) and stropping: sharpen only when the blade is chipped; strop at regular intervals — after every three hours of use, on average. You can tell a blade is chipped if it makes a small line in the wood when you cut — the wood looks like it's been torn instead of cut.


Use a diamond-carbide sharpening stone with two sides — one side is rougher, for sharpening; the other is smoother, for finishing. Wet the surface and run the blade away from your body along the rough side of the stone, with the sharp side of the blade facing you. Lift the back of the blade at an angle of around 15 degrees. Do this five times one way, then flip the blade over and run it five times the other way. Once the nick is out, do the same on the finishing side. Now you're ready for stropping.


Spread out stropping compound (aluminum oxide) over a strip of leather called a strop. Press the blade into the leather and drag it across. Keep the blade completely flat on the leather but apply more pressure to the sharp side. Repeat approximately ten times on each side until the blade is polished. It should be completely reflective with no visible scratches.

You can also buy ceramic strops, or even use a piece of basswood — look online and you'll find no shortage of information and debate about which method is the best.

Grinders can also be used. However, you can quickly ruin a blade with one if you don't know what you're doing, so I won't recommend them here.


Now that you know all about the equipment you need, let's have a look at some basic carving techniques, and, just as importantly, some safety tips.


The paring cut is the easiest one for beginners, and the one that's used most in this book. It's very much like the cut you routinely use for peeling vegetables. The fact that you're pulling the knife toward your body probably contradicts every piece of safety advice you've ever had, but you're protected to some extent by the rubber fingertip you're wearing on your thumb (see below) and, more importantly, by the fact that you will maintain absolute control over your carving every step of the way.

Always be aware of which way the wood grain is going, and whether you're cutting across the grain or along the grain. The former is considerably harder, and, therefore, requires an even greater degree of control and a very sharp blade. Paring off edges is always easier than cutting off whole flat surfaces, so work from the corners wherever possible.


Pulling the blade is the norm for paring cuts, but there are times — usually when you're trying to cut a particularly awkward spot — when you may need to push it away from you with the thumb of the opposite hand. This is more difficult, requires even greater control, and is not recommended for beginners.


These two terms are almost interchangeable in this book. A notch cut involves making a (usually diagonal) cut into the wood, then reversing the wood (or the knife, with more experience) and cutting toward the first cut to remove a section. This allows you to carve out sections in between legs, at points where you need to create sharp angles, etc.

To make a V cut, you usually use the tip of the blade instead of the edge. When making a V cut, the two initial cuts from either side may not meet at the top, so a third cut along the top of the V-shaped section is needed to remove the unwanted section.


This is a sort of paring cut where you enter the grain from the side and end up cutting with the grain. Rather than doing a straight cut with your knife where you'd end up with a flat surface that cuts off the grain diagonally, you allow the cut to turn into the direction of the grain, leaving a scooped (rounded) surface.


Some things can be carved from memory, but most need The more you plan out your project on paper, the more successful the carving will be — you should aim to keep your drawing skills at the same level as your carving skills. In most of the projects in this book we will draw an outline of the figure onto the wood before we start to carve, and in many cases we'll draw on other features — feet, a tail, eyes — as cutting guides as we go along. to be drawn first.


If I have an idea in mind for an animal carving, I will sketch it out many times in my drawing book, making it slightly different each time. Try exaggerating a particular feature, or drawing it from an unusual angle to give you a different perspective. I'll choose the elements I like best and put them together in the final design.

"Automatic drawing" techniques famously used by the surrealists, whereby you just allow your pencil to wander unaided across the page, can enable you to come up with ideas you hadn't previously thought of. You never know what's lurking in your subconscious. Alternatively, draw inspiration from other cultures, or study other people's work — art, cartooning, caricature, photos, whatever takes your fancy.


For me, this is the least enjoyable part of the process, but it's worth it because it makes painting much easier. I tend to use three different sandpaper grits: the heaviest is 150, then 240, up to 400, which is pretty smooth. Start with the heaviest and progress to the smoothest, but be wary of sanding too much off as you can quickly lose detail and definition on small items. For particularly small figures, I would skip the 150-grit stage completely.


I use needle files when there are places on my carvings that are inaccessible with sandpaper. They come in round, triangular, and square variations, and in different grits.

Use round files on flat surfaces, square files for squaring off sharp corners, and triangular files for fine creases between features. Square and triangular files can also be used to drill small holes if you spin them in your fingers. On small pieces, this can give you more control than an actual drill. You can find these files online or in craft and hardware stores.


To hold the projects for painting (see next page) and for the Snowman (see pages 60 — 63), you will need a drill. It's best to use a hand drill because it gives you more control. You can find tiny drill bits in model and hobby stores or online. You will also need a "pin vise" to hold the bit as you drill.


Painting is the most time-consuming part of the whole process. A larger piece with a lot of detail can take six to eight hours to complete. Sometimes, I'll use a block color over the whole figure and then paint the details on top of this; however, if the figure is small or very detailed, I'll do the details first — usually the eyes — and then paint around them. A magnifying glass is a necessity when painting fine details — these can be found at model stores or online, or you could use reading glasses.


When I've finished a piece, I'll usually drill a small hole in the underside so that I can mount it on a toothpick for painting. This will prevent your fingers from smudging the intricate paintwork, and lets you move around the carving quickly if you're painting a pattern or stippling. You can also drill all the way through — starting at the the top — if you want to hang your figures on wire as ornaments or attach jewelry findings to make them into a pair of earrings.


Paintbrushes are probably my biggest expense. They wear out faster than anything else, especially the really fine ones. I use a larger brush — a No. 4 — for painting large surface areas and for mixing paint. I tend to use the round version, which is more pointed at the end, rather than the filbert, which has bristles that are more splayed out. For details, I use liner brushes from 5/0 down to 20/0 (the smallest).


I always use acrylic paint, which is halfway between watercolor paint and oil paint in terms of its consistency. I find that watercolor is too watery, and it reanimates (that is, it becomes wet again) when you paint over it with another color, while oil paint takes far too long to dry.

Acrylic paint is water-based, so you don't have to use turpentine or thinners; however, the downside is that you can't work with it for too long — it dries in 23 minutes. This is a matter of personal taste, and you will want to achieve different effects, so experiment and see what works best for you.

If you do use acrylics, you may need one or two coats. On the first coat, make the paint as thick as possible without it being too thick to apply easily. This will seal the wood as well as prevent moisture from entering it, which may make your carving puff up. If you're blending between two colors, it's easier if the paint is a little thinner.


Most people have some unwanted CDs lying around, and these make excellent miniature palettes for mixing colors. I simply dab the paints on toward the center, and mix them together closer to the edge as required.

You may have learned some elementary color theory in art class at school, in which case you'll know that mixing together two of the three primary colors — red, blue, and yellow — will create secondary colors (purple, green, and orange). There's a lot more to color theory than this, obviously, and it's worth looking at some color wheels online or in a book to find out more about complementary and contrasting colors. I often use accent colors to add detail to a base color. All this requires is mixing the base color with a tiny bit of black to darken it, or a little bit of white to lighten it.

Mix up the colors you think will work, see how they turn out, and tweak the formula as necessary. You will need to keep your colors consistent over the whole figure, so make sure that you mix enough. How much is enough? Well, there's no substitute for practice! It's better to have too much than too little.


Of course, you don't have to use the color palettes and designs we've suggested for each project in this book; as you become more skilled and more confident, you'll inevitably start to develop your own style. However, here are a few techniques you may want to try along the way.


This kangaroo is painted in a polka-dot pattern that obviously does not occur in nature, but it was inspired by aboriginal bark paintings. I used a base coat of dark brown acrylic paint, then mixed the yellows and oranges and painted the dots on top using a fine brush. Spotter brushes specifically designed for this task are available, but I generally find that the fine liner brushes work just as well.


It's difficult to convey a three-dimensional quality in a two-dimensional medium, but I think the abstract representation of fur on this dog works well. I painted a base coat in black acrylic, then used a liner brush to add the little lines in various shades of gray, some of which were connected to each other to suggest the different layers in the dog's coat.


Excerpted from Tiny Whittling by Steve Tomashek. Copyright © 2012 Ivy Press Limited. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"A comprehensive book on a tiny subject"—Publishers Weekly

"There aren’t many beginner whittling books around, and the fun projects and straightforward instructions make this a good purchase for woodworking collections."—Library Journal

Meet the Author

Steve Tomashek is an artist, photographer, and master carver of miniatures. He is the author of the website Miniature Menagerie, which features animated films of his whittling and his collection of wooden animals. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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