My students use sharp knives a lot. They have been chopping food since the casa and as we cook community lunch every week, they are very used to handling kitchen knives. But using knives for wood carving, or whittling, is a very different skill.
Whittling is a work choice in my 9-12 class, there are books and pieces of wood on the shelf but the knives are kept in my cupboard. Anyone who has already had the safety lesson can come and ask me for a knife when they are ready to work with it. We always discuss their plan and go over the safety rules before I give them a knife and they know they must return it to me as soon as they have finished, not hand it on to someone else.
Opinions are divided on the best knives for whittling but there is a consensus that they should be small and very sharp. The handle should be comfortable to hold, so it is better if it does not have any other tools (so not Swiss-army type gadgets). A single blade is really all you need.
I really like the wooden handled Opinel knives (I don’t have any affiliation with them). They come in several sizes and have a lock that keeps the blade open or closed as desired. They go down to very small sizes but the littler ones don’t have locks – I buy the smallest size that does have a lock and though I would prefer to go a bit smaller, I’m happy with the compromise. I keep them sharp with a kitchen knife sharpener – a sharp knife really does make a big difference to both safety and ease.
These are the rules we follow:
1. The knife must always be closed and locked when not in immediate use. This means if you are stopping for a chat, putting it down to adjust your position, or passing it to a friend, it must be closed.
2. You are responsible for keeping your blood circle clear. Your blood circle is the area you cover if you hold the knife in your outstretched hand and turn around – basically as far as you can reach with the knife. Our rule is that if someone enters your blood circle, you have to close your knife and then negotiate clearing the space. It is the knife user’s responsibility to notice when someone enters their blood circle, not other people’s responsibility to stay out of it (though we do expect a certain amount of courtesy).
3. Work outside your blood triangle. Your blood triangle it the shape formed by your two thighs and an imaginary line between your knees. It’s very tempting to sit on the ground with your knees up and work in the stable, protected space between your legs. Unfortunately, this puts your knife in perfect alignment with your femoral arteries, making a little slip into a very serious issue.
The child in the first picture below is working well within her blood circle, whereas the child in the second picture is outside it, a much safer position (albeit an unfeasibly large stick).
4. Always cut away from your body. Enough said, right?
5. Make small cuts. Smaller cuts take less pressure, making slips less severe. Artistically it makes sense to work a little at a time too, I tell the children they can always take more off but they can’t put bits back on. Trying to hack big chunks of gets frustrating, whittling is a relaxing art that requires us to slow down and work little by little: stopping, checking and realigning every few cuts.
6. If you drop a knife, let it fall. Focus on moving your body away to protect it and worry about the knife afterwards.
I guess it would be a good idea to print and laminate these rules and add them to the tray of books and wood, but I haven’t done that yet. I’d love to know if you do any whittling with your students. How do you manage it and what do they make? Please let me know in the comments section below, on the Montessori Handwork Facebook page or in the Montessori Handwork Threads Facebook group.