Go and Do: Whittling away your free time in the Roaring Fork Valley

Adventuring is easiest when it can be done anywhere

Ike Fredregill uses a pocket knife to shave the edges off a piece of drift wood he found while hiking around Rob Roy Reservoir in Wyoming.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

It’s not every day I get to encourage our readers to play with knives, but whittling wood might just be humankind’s second oldest playtime hobby — right after throwing large rocks into bodies of water.

As satisfying as the kerplunk of a heavy boulder hitting the pristine surface of a pond might be, at some point our ancestors grew bored and turned their attention toward the sticks they used to poke their fires (likely, the third oldest playtime hobby).

There is a power in transforming an unassuming twig into something more, though admittedly for most of us, that something more began with a simple pointy end.

Thirty years after my initiation into the whittling world, I still scour the ground during every hiking trip for my next project.

Typically, our Go and Do series focuses on sending readers to a specific place at a specific time to experience a specific event. Whittling, however, does not conform to space and time in a typical fashion.

It can be done anywhere, though outdoors are preferred (or so my wife keeps yelling at me).

It can be done to any pliable material; however, this article focuses on sticks.

And it can transport you anywhere.

While whittling on a 4-foot-long, slender and mostly straight limb — thinking it would make a decent hiking stick — I have found myself teleported to a primal era, hunting woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers.

At other times, I carved wooden toys for my children, imagining I was on the bench of a trireme warship headed across the Mediterranean Sea toward Greek wars of old.

Some of my gnarled creations resembled space aliens, and while carving them, my mind was lost in a nebula of hues unseen from the confines of Earth.

An imagination is critical to the task of whittling, and with it, a person can Go and Do anything.

A selection of Two Cherries carving tools manufactured in Remscheid, Germany, handed down to Fredregill by his father, who purchased them while working as an electrician in Germany during the 1990s.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Tools of the trade

Armed with a sharp imagination, a would-be whittler needs only two other items to begin their journey: a stick and a sharp edge.

Truth be told, I’ve whittled many a spear with nothing more than a rough patch of concrete, but for this exercise, I advise a knife.

In my editor’s opinion, children read newspapers. So for the sake of caution, if you are a child, please do not play with knives without adult supervision.

Some of the adults I’ve met also need supervision, myself being chief among them. Knives, especially those with dull blades, can cause an abundance of troubles.

Cut away from yourself, keep your blade sharp and be acutely aware of whether your knife has a locking mechanism — if it does, engage that puppy.

A note on cutting away from yourself: This is the best strategy. Some nooks and crannies, however, require a different stroke.

If you find yourself drawing the blade toward you, ask yourself two questions: Is this absolutely necessary, and if it is, can I place some portion of the project between myself and the blade?

Humans have invented more ways to cut, slice and shave than can be covered in a volume of tomes on the topic, so I will not dive into advising the would-be whittlers on the “best.”

For me, I prefer a cold steel blade that locks and has a good thickness to it, reducing the chances of chipping.

Additionally, a bit of sandpaper will go a long way toward giving your project a finished look, but it is not required.

Ike Fredregill uses a bent-aside carving knife to whittle away at a piece of basswood purchased from a hardware store.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Sticky situation

Any lump of wood will do in a pinch, but selecting the right canvas for the job can yield more satisfying results.

I’m an opportunist when it comes to selecting a free-range stick. If it’s on the ground, it’s fair game. Thoroughly dried wood carves in a more predictable pattern, but some enthusiasts enjoy a green branch for the ease with which the blade passes through the material.

I don’t advise anyone cut their project from a live specimen, but if a person chooses this route, be aware of the rules and regulations for damaging live trees in the area where you are selecting your materials.

Also note that a piece of green wood will eventually dry, which can cause cracking as well as distortion.

Some woods carve more easily than others.

Basswood and balsa wood are easy to shape and handy for beginners; however, they don’t hold details well. I’ve found balsa wood, in particular, has a fuzzy appearance when finished, which I don’t enjoy.

I’ve never whittled aspen, and it is another of those fuzzy hardwoods, but it is prevalent across the Rocky Mountains and readily available.

White pine is ideal, but it is native to the East and Pacific Northwest. Ponderosa pine, on the other hand, is prevelant throughout the West and makes for a decent medium.

Most of my hiking-trip whittling adventures began with a promising pine branch and ended with sticky hands. I like pine, but it is not a precise whittling material. It is good for rudimentary shapes, but once the detailing begins, pine can become difficult.

The materials previously mentioned are cheap and easily accessible either at a local hardware store or on an afternoon walk through the valley; thus, they are ideal for idle whittling and your first steps into the hobby.

Conversely, black cherry, butternut and black walnut are the Cadillacs of the whittling world.

Unfortunately, these woods are not native to the Western Slope and can be a bit pricey.

If you know a woodworker, you might score a few scraps from their bin, but those occasions are rare since many people who work with wood are kin to dragons sitting atop a gold hoard.

These woods hold detail with amazing accuracy and are rich in both color and grain. My preference is black walnut, but it can depend on your project.

I like to whittle viking karves, those dreadful longboats that once terrorized the civilized world, and I find walnut is perfect for the job. But spoon carvers love the color variations in butternut, and cherry’s red tones lend perfectly to knickknacks.

The rabbit hole of whittling is deep, and the further you dive, the more you will drive your loved ones crazy with an incessant desire to cut, chip, scrape, notch and puncture every sprig, bough and board you find.

If the hobby takes your fancy, you might even traipse over to Craig in June to meet other whittling enthusiasts during the Whittle the Wood Rendezvous, where chainsaws and logs are the preferred hobby mediums.

From a pocket knife and twig to a shed-full of carving tools and a wood pile, whittling is an adventure with few limits and boundless rewards (mothers and wives are particularly fond of receiving whittled presents on special occasions).

Just be careful not to poke your eye out.

Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at

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