Carving with Kids

kid carving sketch_0001_NEW

A recent young guest to the shop relief-carving a fish with mallet and gouge

Ten years ago, when my son was six, I gave him a pocketknife.  My wife thought this was stupid.  Within a day, I was with him at the emergency room watching him get stitches in his finger.  This was rough, as was the look on my wife’s face when I returned home.

I guess I was impatient.  I wanted him to gain confidence with tools from an early age and all that.  But the fact is, limited hand strength and dexterity can make it difficult to control a sharp knife for young folks.  Forcing a situation too early can instill fear and opposition, rather than confidence and excitement.  I don’t think there is a magic age for such things; much depends on the individual.

But, in my experience, kids want to carve.  In fact, kids want to create in many ways.  The more we can encourage them to draw, write, feel, build, and explore in the real world, the less they may wish to immerse themselves in a virtual world.  So, when opportunity presents itself, carve with them.

My son’s finger healed, and the two of us made lots of projects over the years.  At sixteen, my son, at least for now, knows more than me, but there are still curious younger kids around on occasion.  Here’s what I’ve learned since that trip to the ER:

  • For young kids, keep the projects simple.  They can achieve success and learn some fundamentals.
  • They may not be as interested in bowls and spoons as I am.  Give them a lot of choice.  If they want to carve Spiderman or a monster truck, then think of a way to simplify the image and go with it.
  • Consider a simple relief carving project for starters.  I’ll explain why…

Last week I had a nine-year old in the shop (see top sketch) who loves to go fishing.  We found a picture of a catfish in a book and drew a simple version onto a small plank of basswood.  With a mallet and a v-tool, he ran a trench along the outline of the fish, not concerned with occasional deviations from the pencil line.  Opportunities came up to talk about grain direction, raising and lowering the handle, and so on.  But, overall, I just let him get a feel for things and make little mistakes.

IMG_5342After the v-trench was done around the fish, I showed him how to remove the background simply with a deep gouge (a number eight or so).  Using the mallet, he tapped from the outside edge in until the chip released at the v-trench.  A few simple indications of gills and fin texture with the v-tool and gouge, and the carving was done.  Half an hour, tops.  He painted it with some acrylic craft paint, but markers work well too.

He loved it, and wants to carve some more.  He felt confident.  Working with a mallet and gouge allows smaller hands to remove wood efficiently, and there is never a hand in range of the cutting edge.  Softer wood like basswood is a big help as well.

A mallet and gouge is a great way for a kid (or an adult for that matter) to carve a bowl as well.  A lot of material can be removed, and it’s safer and cheaper than an adze.  And, of course, working safely with a knife will come as well.  Even if it means some stitches along the way.


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7 Responses to Carving with Kids

  1. Scott Kinsey says:

    That 9 year old made a terrific carving.


  2. Nikolaus says:

    Hi David,

    very nice carving that fish!! A friend of my sometimes does woodwork in a kindergarten and he showed me that he works with different sized shaving horses, just simply screwed together ones and small drawknives. He reckons that the risk of cutting themselves is lower because you need to hold the drawknife with both hands. It works fine for him and the kids. No rushing to the emergency room yet. And Kindergarten is from 3 years to max 6 years old kids in Germany.



    • Dave Fisher says:

      Great point, Nikolaus. Both hands on the tool(s) means no hand in front of the edge. Next time I’m having trouble with the drawknife, I’ll remind myself that German three-year-olds can do it! Thank for sharing your friend’s experience. Wonderful.


  3. Regina says:

    Dave, you are such a blessing to this little guy. Thank you for encouraging him.


  4. Keith Green says:

    I got my first knife at about 4 or 5. Gave my girls theirs at not much later an age. I’m sure I cut myself a lot, though there wasn’t anywhere in that place and time where one could get stitched if required. I don’t remember any of those cuts, neither do my cousins. We were responsible for sharpening them so I’m sure they were fairly dull for quite a while 🙂
    We lived in a fishing village on Canada’s Labrador coast. Vivid memories of us boys sitting in a meadow, filleting grass blades in the manner of our parents with fish.
    Of my two girls, the youngest tries now and then with the knife to carve something and she HAS cut herself several times. Her reaction is one of downplay and annoyance at having done it, which gives me hope for the future that she will continue with it.


  5. Pingback: Rainbow Dolphin and Whale Shark | David Fisher, Carving Explorations

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