Workshop Mishaps: Accident-Free Woodcarving

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This article is from Issue 40 of Woodcraft Magazine.

The story

My fascination with carving stems from my Boy Scout days when I received my first pocketknife. Unfortunately, it’s been an activity fraught with hazards. Recently, I endeavored to shape a series of small animals “in the round,” using palm-sized pieces of scrap wood. For this, I bought the four-blade whittler’s knife kit, figuring it would do the job. To reduce cleanup chores, I set up on the patio with a Cardinals baseball game on a small TV to keep me company and popped a cold one. Things were going well as I roughed out a dog shape from a piece of red oak. But by the third inning, my hands grew tired as the knife lost its edge, and making chips required more effort. Then, in a split second, the session came to a painful halt when the blade skipped over the wood and into my thumb. I grabbed an ice cube from the beer cooler, pressed it against the cut, and wrapped both with a towel for my trip to the hospital. In spite of my stitches, my interest in carving remains. Only now I want to prove I can do it safely, but I need help.

Case analysis

John Severdija of St. Louis, Missouri, could have avoided seeing red had he stuck to a few basic woodworking rules in addition to some very specific carving techniques. The basic rules are easy: avoid distractions, such as TV and alcohol. As far as carving strategies, holding a small workpiece with unprotected fingers is simply asking for it. And that’s just a start.

When a carving knife slips on the wood, it sometimes indicates a dull blade. John didn’t say he kept a sharpening stone in easy reach, but frequently honing the knife helps maintain a razor-sharp edge. Here, it seems, as John applied more pressure to cut with a dull edge, he increased the risk of blade slippage.

John also could have chosen a better carving wood than red oak. It features a wide grain pattern that can split off, unlike a soft, tight-grained wood such as basswood. This wood lets you cut cleanly both with and across the grain, while allowing for carving fine details.

Shop-smart strategies

When John adopts these tips, he’ll reserve his cutting for wood only. 

  • If shaping rough-outs, remove as much waste as possible on a bandsaw or scrollsaw before carving.

  • Keep knives super-sharp with regular honing.

  • Pay attention to grain direction, and plan your cuts to avoid carving against the grain.

  • Use a carver’s vise to firmly hold a carving at any angle, reducing the danger in manual holding (Woodcraft #144743).

  • When manually holding  a workpiece, protect your holding hand with a Kevlar carving glove (#06I63). To keep your other thumb safe from knife slips when performing pull cuts, use a thumb guard (#16V24). 


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