I had a question from WoodWorkingChat.com on the Wood Spirit Carving Project that is being posted right now, that I thought I would share with you. The question was “How do you pick the right sized bench knife?”
Please remember you can click on any image for a full-sized photo.
Quality of the Steel
There are three important considerations in which bench knife you purchase. First is the quality of steel in the blade, which determines whether you can bring the knife to a very sharp, fine point with a sharp edge. While your hand will adjust to a knife handle that is not an absolute perfect in fit, there is nothing you can do to improve a poor quality steel blade or force it into holding an edge.
This top photo shows an ergonomic handled chip carving knife. I use this one for my general craft needs as cutting paper, cutting chipboard, or cutting leather. The handle is slightly too wide for a comfortable grip in my hand, and the extension of the knife point beyond the hand grip is a touch too long. Yet, this knife would be a perfect grip for a carver with a larger hand size than mine (woman’s small). The steel of this blade is very high quality.
Length of the Blade
This second photo shows a long bladed bench knife. This is the classic bench knife that is often shown for beginning carvers, yet its primary use is for long whittling strokes as de-barking walking sticks or rounding over the corners of a practice block. The handle of this knife fits my hand perfectly, but the long blade pushes my fingers away from the wood. I use this one for rough-out work, but never detail or shaving work.
Fit of the Handle
Finally, the third consideration is how the blade handle fits in the palm of your cutting hand. I use ‘the rule of thumb’ to size my bench knives. For a moment extend the thumb of your non-dominate hand in the ‘thumbs up’ position. Wrap your dominate hand around that extended thumb with the extended thumb tip resting at the mid-joint of the first finger. Use a light, semi-open grip. For me, the size and length of that extended thumb is the perfect size for my bench knife and tool handles. (See bottom photo)
The third photo shows my favorite bench knife, a rose wood handled large chip carving blade. The handle is exactly the size of my extended thumb, and the blade point is never more than one inch away from the wood.
I have a second chip carving knife that I use regularly that is classified as a small chip knife. The knife has a very short, narrow handle and a 3/4″ or less blade. A short blade, as a large chip knife, brings your hand right onto the carving wood, which gives you more control over the movement of the cutting tip. Very small, short blades, as a small chip knife, are perfect for getting into those tight corners or creating undercuts.
Rule of Thumb Sizing
If I am sizing a palm handled tool, I slide my non-dominate hand further up into my dominate hand so that the first joint of the extended thumb rests against the mid-joint of my first finger. This places the pad or base of my extended thumb into the center of my carving hand palm. The size of my thumb pad is about the size that I want for my palm tools.
Which bench knife or carving tools work best for you is determined by what style of wood carving you are working, the size of your hand, and your hobby budget. Of note is that many wood carvers own and use more than one bench knife or set of gouges, so that we will have on hand the right tool for the right job. As your hobby grows so will your tool hoard …
If you are just starting your hobby of wood carving you may wish to check out our article on the Wood Carving Tool Kit.