One of the basic exercises for woodcarvers is the creation of the Captive Ball, or Ball in a Cage. Usually carved of a relatively soft wood like this basswood at first, then moving up to more complicated materials, the idea is to improve both knife and safety skills.
I only managed to get one small cut on the tip of my index finger while making this. No bleeding — just a nip of the blade and a small pain. When woodcarving, it’s difficult to aim the blade away from oneself the whole time; therefore the blade needs to be extra sharp so that you avoid trying to force it. Chip Barton, the master woodcarver, explains in his book that you should sharpen your woodcarving tools at a fairly steep angle, first of all; and second that you should use a coarse stone, a fine stone, and then sandpaper mounted to paint stirrer-sticks at 800 grit, 1500 grit, 2000 grit, and 2500 grit if you can find it. I made a set of sticks like that, and it was awe-inspiring how sharp I could get my blades; with practice, I’m sure I can get them even sharper.
Sharp tools are scary to some people, and I suppose with good reason. The assumption is that you’re at greater risk from a sharp tool, because it will cut deeper into the person holding it during an accident. But dull tools put one in the mindset that more force needs to be applied… and so there’s this Catch-22 (as in the novel by Joseph Heller) — a dull tool inspires its user to apply more force, which increases the likelihood that the tool will break or slip, and cause an injury; a sharp tool cuts more cleanly and carefully, and so less force needs to be applied… BUT, of course, the act of using a very sharp tool gradually dulls it. Which means that as the user gets tired, the tool is also getting ‘tired’, and the chances of an accident rises with the length of time one works with hand tools.
[…] so I decided to make a chop — a seal stick — for her, in part as practice for making my own. Which is part of the reason I made that captive ball a few days ago: I want to get better at wood carving, because it’s a useful skill to pair with woodworking […]