Whittling Life

Whittling is a subtractive process, meaning you start with a block of wood and remove some bits until you arrive at the shape you want. Whereas carpentry is additive: you keep adding boards until you arrive at the final structure. Carpentry also has a jigsaw-puzzle aspect, where pieces have to fit together just-right. I never bothered to contemplate the difference before, but the other day I noticed that I’m a particular type of woodworker.

I had split a block of wood into tiny planks with the idea that I’d assemble them into a small box — a carpentry project. But I sat there staring at the boards, deciding on how to assemble them. Carpentry is about precise cuts with saws and lots of sawdust — and that’s just not my style. I’m a knife guy — I like cutting into wood and having curls drop off. For instance, I already have a small box made from a block of wood that I simply hollowed-out with a knife and chisel.

So instead of piecing those tiny planks together, I’ve been using them as starting-points for carved pendants. It turns out that I’m into subtractive art, not additive — I wasn’t quite aware of the distinction before. And it’s true: when faced with a blank canvas, I don’t know where to begin — my mind is equally blank. But when presented with a work-in-progress, I can certainly tell you what doesn’t belong. It’s basically a form of criticism: “Nope, that doesn’t look right! Remove it!”. You just keep pecking away until there’s nothing left to criticize.

And this serves as a metaphor for life. If presented with the idea that life is a blank-canvas, I’m frozen with indecision. I don’t know how to proceed — I need something to evaluate and judge. BUT, this criticism needs to be applied with the intent of creating a work-of-art. I had been criticizing and stopping there — I wasn’t actually cutting anything out. Therefore I always see the same bits that don’t belong, every single day.

So instead of looking for what I should add into my life, I should be evaluating what I already have, then actively removing the bits that don’t belong i.e. whittling my life into a work of art. I had been trying an additive approach, which simply didn’t suit me AND I had neglected to remove the bits that didn’t fit. For example, my tendency for general-negativity is something that needs to be sliced away — and my knife in this context is mental-discipline.

Safe Slicing

I’ve been whittling a lot lately. One observation is this: I can place the sharp-edge of my knife against my finger and nothing happens. There’s no slice, no pain, no blood, no nothing. I would need to apply sufficient force for a cut to occur. In order to generate that force, I would need to put some weight behind it or add some speed. A light, slow touch just won’t do anything significant.

Therefore, if you keep your hand’s movement soft and steady, letting the blade do the work, you can’t cut yourself. This is why a sharp knife is safer than a dull one. A dull blade requires increased pressure to cut, giving it the potential to release its momentum if the wood suddenly gives-way while you’re pushing. Whereas a sharp knife effortlessly glides through the wood at low-speed. This is why stropping the knife on a regular basis is so important, as it makes for a razor-sharp edge.

In other words, the knife can’t cut me, only I can cut myself through the misapplication of force. Rushing and straining against the grain is the pathway to pain. That sounds like a metaphor for life doesn’t it? And it’s true: how easy it is to hurt ourselves when we struggle, urgently pushing against some obstacle until we build-up a dangerous momentum. But instead of all that strife, we should let the blade do the work, easily cleaving its way through the grain.

And what that means is this: sharpen your knife and gently guide it. How? It’s the same answer that’s been given since time immemorial: MENTAL DISCIPLINE!!! When your thoughts no longer run rampant, you no longer have the urge to erratically hack and attack your way through life. You simply see the path before you and casually proceed upon it. But as sharpening a blade takes time and practice, sharpening the mind takes a great investment too — yet it’s the only way to escape the pain. So be the Buddha, sharpen the mind and end your suffering.

More Whittling

To textually describe what’s in the picture: there’s an arrowhead, cross, spinning-top, teetotum, pawn, abstract pendant, spoon & fork, letter R, tiki statue, and a shovel. Some of the items have walnut oil applied, some have an added coat of beeswax & walnut oil, and some are bare wood (the pawn, spinning-top, and R have the wax while the tiki and shovel are bare).

To make the wax/oil coating, I heated walnut oil over a candle and dropped in some beeswax shavings. When it cooled, it was like lip-balm, so I dipped my finger in and rubbed the wood (beeswax is too hard on its own). I buffed it with a cotton cloth, although I’m not sure that did anything. The walnut oil is straight from the supermarket’s oil section. The reason I’m trying walnut oil as a finish is because it has the potential to dry over time (in a good way) and act as a better coating than something that remains oily (we’ll see).

Rich Whittling

The name of this blog is Whittlin’ Rich yet I haven’t done a lot of whittling. Yes I’ve whittled wood before, but not much. So for whatever reason, I recently took up whittling as a hobby. Here’s a picture displaying my many small projects and the primary tools I’ve been using.

I use basswood since it’s the recommended wood-of-choice for carving. For knives, I use a Morakniv 120 and 122, a BeaverCraft C1M and C2 as well as the tiny C15 — and of course there’s my strop with some polishing compound rubbed into the leather. To carve effectively, you need to strop your blades at the end of each whittlin’ day, in my opinion.

Just to provide some textual detail as to what’s in the picture: there’s a bunch of faces, some full-body figurines made from 1″x 1″ x 6″ blocks (not shown: one of the figurines has another figurine on its back), a small spoon, a carved-out box, my name carved into a block, a minature dumbbell, a wooden knife, an anvil and hammer, a sword, a sword’s handle, and a pine tree. Nothing’s officially “done” since I might go back to add details over time.

It’s been an enjoyable pastime over the last 10 weeks. Lately I’ve been using it as a meditation of sorts, as a way to keep an eye on my thoughts. While whittling, my mind tends to drift down random tangents about whatever so I’m trying to remove focus from those thoughts and remain focused on right-now i.e. whittling.