Sunday, January 8, 2017


I'm not sure if my parents even actually knew that we girls had our own jackknifes; even I can't remember where we got them. My guess is that we inherited these "dangerous" weapons from our Vermont male cousins. The same cousin that once whittled an arrow so sleek and fast, that like lightning it shot clear across our town sandpit... and struck me smack in the corner of my eye. I inexplicably survived, but his prized homemade bow did not. He smashed it over his knee mere minutes after the misguided missile hit its unintended target. Inevitably, its fate would have been similar after us six scared cousins (one with a sharpened stick extending off their face) trekked our way back home already knowing that our grand (half-truth) explanation would most probably NOT be believed by my father. One of the few things we were right about as kids.

I never ever remember any of us whittling anything else besides arrows. No whistles, no animal shapes, not even one small carving worthy of sitting on the window sill. The satisfaction and gratification of taking a hand picked rough stick and transforming it a smooth piece of pure art was good enough for us. We probably could have outfitted every student at Hogwarts Scool of Witchcraft and Wizardry with our mystical sharp wands.

Reflecting now, I realize the true skill we were mastering during those whittling sessions, was the art of conversation.  Brilliant insights, teasing banter, heated debates, and boastful achievements flowed effortlessly between us.  Its almost as if those sticks actually were performing magic of their own.

When you whittle, you let your guard down. At first, your concentration is on that which is in front of you. Your hands quickly master the repetitive dance across the stick and then your mind relaxes. Then the words of wisdom start to spill forth from your mouth. OK, often not wisdom. And more often than not, you'll talk about stuff that you won't want to remember past the next day (especially if there's adult beverages around). Another great thing about whittling (especially with kids) is when you have a knife in one hand, and a stick in the other, there's no room for a cell phone. Unless your whittling yourself a selfie stick. We can definitely make an exception for that.

So, let's cover a few basic tips for beginners:

1. Get a pocket knife.  You aren't aiming to create a masterpiece yet, so a basic multi-blade pocket knife is all you need.  Keep the blades sharp and you'll be just fine. You can find a "How to sharpen a knife" video here. There's no need to spend a lot of money on this...Keep an eye out at local tag sales.

2. Find a branch/twig.  You want soft wood, like pine. Later, you can try Balsa or Basswood. Start simple, make an arrow or a drumstick. Once you've mastered that, select thicker branches and carve a utensil set, or at least a knife to impress your friends.

3. Whittle.  Start with the basic sweeping straight rough cut to give your piece a general shape. Keep with the grain. Then progress to the pull and push strokes to detail the piece.  These cuts give you the best control over the knife.  Other types of cuts may come into play and you can learn how to master four basic cuts in this video.

Its that simple. I wish I would've remembered this when my kids stopped being happy to see me volunteering at their school each day, and became secretive and moody prepubescent teens.  Instead of primordial groans with a few "none of your business" comments mixed in, I could have saved myself a whole lot of time and effort. I opted instead for more then a few gray hairs/sleepless nights whilst contemplating the meaning of motherhood.  My now adult kids are lucky I didn't have the thought of whittling up a big ol' paddle stick! I can chuckle at those memories present day.  Or is it that I suspect some day soon enough, they will have offspring of their own?  I'm torn between stockpiling jackknives/twigs or letting them learn parenting on their own... "cue evil laugh".

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