How Do I Know If My Knife Is Sharp?

Today’s question comes from Bill who writes: “Thanks, Bob, for starting this blog!!! My question: When I watch videos of some of the well known carvers doing what they do the best, it often looks as though they are cutting through butter rather than wood. I buy my basswood from the same place that I know some of them do and my knives are very sharp, but I’ve never been able to slice it like they do. Do they have a special technique, a different grade of bass wood or something else? Again, thank you!!”

Bill, that’s a very good question, and one that I think many carvers have on their mind.  When it comes to wood carving knives there is what seems to be sharp and what is truly carving sharp.  A carver’s knife may not be as sharp as he thinks it is.  Many carvers test the sharpness of their blades by shaving hair off the back of their hand.  This is not a good test as most any blade with a somewhat decent edge will shave the hair off the back of your hand.

Just because a knife can shave the hair off your arm doesn’t necessarily mean it can cut a piece of wood.  The true test to see if your knife blade is truly carving sharp is this:  Take a block of basswood and try to make a cut across the end grain.  Not with the grain, but across the grain.

A truly carving sharp blade should be able to make a smooth cut across the end grain, a cut which is perfectly smooth with no ripples, chips or drag marks.  If you see any of these your blade is not carving sharp and requires more stropping.  The cut should be as smooth as a baby’s…well you know how the saying goes.

It is possible your knife is already carving sharp.  However, there is another reason why it might not be cutting through the wood as well as it should, and that is the angle you are holding the blade to the wood.  Too steep of an angle and your knife will dig in and not cut properly.  Too shallow of an angle and your blade will “slip” across the wood and only take off small wood chips.  Try changing the way you hold the knife in your hand to change the angle of the blade as it approaches the wood.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly; the way you actually carve the wood will make a difference.  Most wood carvers push and pull their knives straight through the wood as they carve.  The blades on most wood carving knives are not meant to do this.

They are designed to be sliced through the wood as if you were slicing a loaf of bread.

A slicing cut makes all the difference in the world when wood carving.  Try it and see for yourself!  The next time you’re carving first make a cut by pushing or pulling the blade straight through the wood.  Then make a second cut but this time slice your blade through the wood as you make your cut.  I guarantee you will notice a big difference.

This is one reason why knives with up sweep blades work so well.

Helvie Up Sweep Knife

The up sweep blade has a natural slicing motion as it is pulled through the wood.

Note: These same principles hold true for gouges and V-tools as well as carving knives.

I hope you all find these few pointers helpful.  Meanwhile…

Keep a sharp edge and keep on carvin’!

PS: Please send in your questions and comments so we can keep Wood Chip Chatter active and keep the conversations going.

Published by carverbobk

I’m a self taught award winning wood carver who has been carving since I was a teenager. I enjoy instructing other carvers, especially beginners.

4 thoughts on “How Do I Know If My Knife Is Sharp?

  1. Thanks Bob. I learned a couple of things by your response to Bill. I was given an upsweep knife a few years ago and at first I didn’t like it, but one day I picked it up and now it’s one of my favorite knives. Take care my friend.


  2. ‘Thanks so much, Bob! I am most grateful for your answer! I can tell a difference already. Best of luck with your new blog.


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