Understanding The Artform and Giving Homage to Whittling and Whittlers

A lot is happening in this photo: confidential talking, laughing, sharing of wisdom.

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Whittling: More than meets the eye

Writer’s note: I am not a hub-copier. This hub was inspired by fellow hubber, Suzycat7, who published an interesting hub: The History of Whittling, and did a nice job of explaining this early pioneer pastime that most-assuredly evolved into a rural American hobby. I just wanted to give homage and respect to Suzycat7 with this note. Sincerely, Kenneth

Of the history of whittling, a real word, I exhausted every source and resource available, and a few that were not available for public use. Dead-end. No elaborate, hidden-discovery found by an English explorer, “J. Waddleton Smithworth,” while digging through the remains of his favorite hang-out, “Mrs. Lizzie Bunkworthing Smith’s Stylish Antiques and Book Parlor,” while venturing back to his hometown where he grew up as an inquisitive lad.

Sorry, Discovery ID, Learning Channel, Myth Hunters and such channels. No ratings-builder on this subject. Maybe you could cure your case of “sour grapes,” by doing a series of documentaries sponsored by Ford, about why most coffins are lined with linen material. Does it really matter if the corpse is laid to rest on linen or burlap found in most retired farmers’ barns? That subject may not be as exciting as “Whittling: The Truth Revealed,” but it’s a start.

I learned how to whittle correctly from my dad. Naturally. This unintimidating, non-threatening art form was, in early days, passed-down to the son or sons of the family, but a mom is as able to teach her son or daughters how t whittle the correct way. Whittling itself knows no sexual discrimination.

Man in 1930s passing the time whittling

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Cutting 20 Euro Bill with knife

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Natives in New Guinea, Indonesia, gather around for some friendly-whittling

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My turn to be initiated into whittling

When I saw my dad whittling one rare day when he wasn’t working at something, I asked him to show me how “to do that you are doing,” and these were my exact words.

“You know how to handle a pocket knife?” he asked. And anyone who is teaching should ask the basics first, without jumping right into the lesson.

I opened the little green-imitation precious stone handled pocket knife that my grandpa, his dad, gave me one Christmas and well, so far so good. I was proud.

Then this is what separated the whittler from the boy. Whittling wasn’t as easy as I had thought, but is anything?

My dad handed me a small yellow pine limb and said, “Let’s see you whittle.” Again I was proud.

“Stop that or you will cut off your fingers,” snapped my dad, but not in an abusive tone, but in a stern tone to get my attention and retain what he was about to say. I wasn’t proud that time, but almost cried.

“Hold the knife “this” way and just slowly push the knife away from you, Kenny,” he instructed and I “whittled,” on my very-first try. Yes, I was very proud at that moment. So was my dad. “Another whittler in the family,” he probably thought at that time.

As my dad said, which has stuck with me in life, “It’s all in how you hold the knife.” Which his principle applies also to fishing poles, rifles, and lawnmowers.

The Whittling Boy by Winslow Homer

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My friend, Mr. Largus Clark

Whittling surfaced again when I was 19. My dad, mom, and I lived up the road from a Mr. Largus Clark, his real name, and his wife, Lily. Largus was, there is no easy way say this, a big man. Not in height, but size. But he was never the insecure type—I think he loved himself so much that he didn’t deem it necessary to change. Lily was a small, frail-but-sturdy southern gentlewoman.

Mr. Clark would sit on his front porch and whittle most of each day that God sent. He loved to whittle on cedars that one of his sons would cut and unload at the edge of his yard. One afternoon I was on a walk to pass the time because I was laid-off (this was in 1974) from Toll-Gate Garment, Hamilton, Ala., which is now just an empty, lonesome, “Ghost Motel,” and I heard Mr. Clark yell, “Hey, young man! Come here!” And out of fear mixed with respect, I left my walk and sat down with him.

For some unexplainable reason, he asked, “You whittle any?” in his old man growling voice.

“Some, sir, but not that much,” I replied staring into his eyes that told his passion for whittling.

“See that cedar over there? Get you a good stick of it, and whittle until the sun goes down,” Mr. Clark said motioning to the pile of fresh cedar.

I looked for just the right piece of cedar and thanked him before I left him yelling hello at people passing by on the highway that passed by his house. As I walked away from Mr. Clark, I noticed that his feet were both covered up to the ankles in cedar shavings from his hours of whittling.

Mr. Clark was about 75 at that time, and lived to a ripe old age of 90. I assume there was an untold secret of living a long life that he had discovered in those many hours of whittling his cedar wood.

Mr. Mose Wright, Master Whittler

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Caution: Wood carving is not the same as whittling

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Facts about whittling

Famous whittlers I have known:

  • My dad.
  • My grandpa, my dad’s dad.
  • My grandma, my dad’s mother—she was a true rebel-of-a-post-pioneer southern woman who “chose” to be a wife and mother.
  • Floy Glenn, a World War I veteran, who owned a small country store, but his main love was whittling.

Preferred woods for the serious whittler

  • Yellow Pine
  • Cedar
  • Red Oak

This wood has a sturdy-but-easy grain that with your sharp knife, you can be on your way to being a Master Whittler in little or no time.

Now keep in mind, to be a Master Whittler, you have to have three necessary traits:

  • Patience.
  • Dedication to your whittling.
  • Pride in what you make from your whittling.
  • The right type of wood

What whittling is not:

  • Wood carving – remember there is a huge difference in whittling and wood carving.
  • A waste of time for “loafers,” as wives used to call husbands who didn’t work all of the time.
  • A place to plot meaness.
  • Just another “man thing.”

What whittling (to me) defines:

  • A legal event in all 50 states for men, women, and teens who can handle knives responsibly.
  • Time men, who are friends, neighbors, can bold, talk, and share advice on various things.
  • A time of quiet craftsmanship for I do not know of any boisterous whittlers.
  • A way for area men (or women) folk to get to know a new neighbor.

Signs of a Master Whittler:

  • Hardly talking to fellow whittlers.
  • Always looking at his knife and wood to make sure he is always safe.
  • Patience—for he (or she) can sit all day long to whittle.

Whittling, although thought of as boring and a waste of time by some, was so popular that it made its way to The Andy Griffith Show. This was the episode where Brisco Darling and his sons, were going to find a bride for “Rodney,” his oldest son, by sitting on a bench in front of a store front and whittle while surveying the sidewalks for pretty girls.

And I remember “Jed Clampett,” The Beverly Hillbillies, sitting on the sidewalk in front of his mansion just whittling the time away and he did have a huge pile of shavings in front of him. Clampett, like most whittlers, was not out to make anything, just whittle. Would it be correct to use “whittlings,” instead of shavings?

“I” never made it to the level of Master Whittler. I can live with that very easily.

But what I “did” garner from the silent art form of whittling was a very-special bonding with my dad when he was a younger man, and by honoring my friend, “Largus Clark,” who was made the wiser by whittling than most thought him.

"And my sincere thanks again, Suzycat7."

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Comments 6 comments

JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 2 years ago from Deep South, USA

As a child, I tried to copy my granddad's whittling technique, but never mastered it, probably because I didn't have the patience. I've always considered whittling and what its practitioners produce a type of folk art. I have a three-inch piece of cedar that's in links (like a wooden chain), all whittled from a single piece of wood. It was given to me about 40 years ago by a whittling friend, and every time I look at it I think about how difficult it must have been to achieve.

Voted Up++

Jaye


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 2 years ago from Southern Georgia

Growing up on a farm--and still there now--I learned to respect a knife for what you could do with it, both good and bad. I still feel naked when I don't have at least one knife of some sort on my person. And yes, I can whittle!

Enjoyed and up!


torrilynn profile image

torrilynn 2 years ago

I've heard of whittling before. I've tried it before and failed miserably. thanks for the hub.


kenneth avery profile image

kenneth avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama Author

Hi, torrilynn,

Thank you for your humble comment. And do not feel badly. I never made it as a whittler. NO patience.


kenneth avery profile image

kenneth avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama Author

Hi, Randy Godwin over in Atlanta!

I know that feeling about carrying a pocket knife. I have two my dad gave me. Both deer-antlered and I wouldn't part with them and my grandson, 10, now carries a knife. He says it makes him feel big.

Thanks, good friend for the comment.


kenneth avery profile image

kenneth avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama Author

Hi, Jaye,

Thanks for your sweet comment. What I would give if I could have the patience to whittle a cedar chain, or even to whittle. It is a patient-art form and now I am thinking about Mr. Clark, now he could not only eat a breakfast made for two men, but whittle all day long.

I miss him.

And Jaye, thanks for your sweet friendship and following over the years.

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