by Ashley Stewart | Photos by Greg Clarkson
When I was growing up, I remember seeing a little wooden figurine of a pig in my Nana’s living room. I was told to be careful with it because it was lightweight and the legs were fragile. My father made it. He whittled it out of a piece of balsa wood. His father, my grandpa, taught him how to whittle, just like his father before him.
People have been carving pictures and figurines into wood since man first invented the knife. Vikings carved magnificent dragon heads into the prows of their boats. Medieval Europeans carved saints and angels into their churches. But whittling as we know it in America has a much shorter history. The popularity of whittling peaked in the century between 1865 and 1965. During the civil war, there wasn’t much to do in the downtime between battles. Soldiers would pull out their trusty pocket knives, find a good sturdy piece of wood and carve. They would carve walking sticks, figurines, spoons, and even wooden chains.
After the war, veterans brought those skills home and passed them down through the generations. It was particularly popular in rural areas and with migrant or itinerant laborers. These traveling “hobos” would trade their whittlings for food and other necessities. Whittling and carving were and still are, an inexpensive hobby to create anything from everyday objects to toys.
Around the middle of the 20th Century, whittling became one of the skills taught by the burgeoning Boy Scouts. Almost every boy carried a pocket knife out of necessity. The popularity of this hands-on activity began to fade after the mid-1960s as the electronic age began to blossom and children began gravitating towards arcades and TV screens.
Carving and whittling still attract attention and interest as forms of folk art. Many carving clubs and magazines can still be found across the country. There is a wide selection of carving tools outside of the humble pocket knife, in addition to plenty of books and websites. Whittling isn’t just an old man on his front porch, shaving a stick away into sawdust. It’s a uniquely American art form.