Whatever Happened To … Whittling

When I was at Junior School (ages 7-10 years) in the early sixties, every boy and, I suspect, many of the girls would take a knife to school. Not because Bournemouth was a hotbed of knife culture and we needed to defend ourselves, but because knives were an essential part of school life. We needed something to sharpen our pencils with, carve our names in desks, and … to whittle.

No teacher would have dreamed of confiscating our knives. They didn’t like the name carving but – the rest – that was normal.

I’m not sure when I started whittling. I have a feeling that I’d seen cowboys doing it in a film – and back in the late fifties/early sixties every second film was a cowboy film. They dominated the cheap Saturday morning matinees at the local cinema where all the kids would gather to see the latest instalment.

So I started whittling. It was a cheap and fun pastime. We all had penknives. Sticks were easy to find. And you could spend hours whittling away with your friends. I suppose it’s a bit like fishing without the fish. Hours of companionable silence as you relax, slicing away at a stick as the slow clouds roll by overhead. We never made anything from whittling. To us, it wasn’t about carving wooden objects. It was about the process of whittling strips of wood, of taking a stick and whittling it away to nothing.

The other fun thing we learned from cowboy films that would send modern parents apoplectic, was how to become a blood brother. Again we all had knives. We all had friends. And, we all had hands covered in small scars from our impromptu ceremonies. It seemed like such a cool thing to do. This was definitely in an age before AIDS and the fear of contaminated blood.

Any other whittlers or blood brothers out there?


International Kittens of MysteryChris Dolley is a NY Times bestselling author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novelette, What Ho, Automaton! was a finalist for the 2012 WSFA Small Press Award for short fiction. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .
An Unsafe Pair of Handsa quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand?
Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.
What Ho, Automaton! – Wodehouse Steampunk. Follow the adventures of Reggie Worcester, consulting detective, and his gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton, Reeves. It’s set in an alternative 1903 where an augmented Queen Victoria is still on the throne and automata are a common sight below stairs. Humour, Mystery, Aunts and Zeppelins!
French Fried the international bestseller – true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth?
Resonance “This is one of the most original new science fiction books I have ever read. If it is as big a hit as it deserves, it may well be this book which becomes the standard by which SF stories about … are judged.”

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Whatever Happened To … Whittling — 7 Comments

  1. Whittling was a skill taught in Cub and Boy Scouts when I was a kid in L.A. A lot of boys belonged. Indian Guides, too. My brother had a whittling knife, but he was too impatient to do much besides gouge initials where they weren’t supposed to be. I remember using his knife to tighten my skates.

    • I had a Girl Scout knife. May still have it buried in a drawer. I think I used it out camping to carve notches in stakes and branches to for rope attachments. And to cut away poison ivy from the tree beside my pup tent. I was the only one who didn’t come down with the loathsome rash. Whittling is also useful to create tinder with which to start a fire.

      I remember teaching my son and his Cub Scout Den how to whittle on bars of soap. I thought they’d make cool things like dogs or bear cubs. No, they all made cars, accurate cars down to the curve of the bumper.

  2. Just checked — yup, still can see the scar on my thumb from my fist, and last, attempt to whittle. I think I was 9.

  3. We have gameboys and tablets and ipads now.

    One doubts that even with knives again allowed to be carried when boarding a plane whittling as a passtime will return.

    I think I know where my Swiss Army Knives are … I stopped carrying them when they set off alarms entering all public buildings and so on. I love my Swiss Army knives — the first one was a gift from WJ Williams, others from my spouse — and I didn’t want them confiscated. If I continued to carry them they would be because I’d forget they were in my hand bag. And the whole point of carrying a knife like that is to have its lovely set of tools available when you’re away from home.

    Love, C,

    • Yes, the classic multi-tool penknife in Britain always had main knife, smaller knife, usefool tool for picking stones out of horse’s hooves, as the 1-2-3 essential components. None of us had horses but we were always prepared.

  4. I still have my old Swiss Army knife, which belonged to my grandpa before it was mine. It’s so old by now that the Swiss cross has worn away from the handle.

    I used to carry it in my handbag for all sorts of emergencies, but since security worries about knives have grown (though knives were banned in school even back when I was a kid) it resides in my desk drawer.