I can remember as a child sitting on the old gray porch of my great grandparents home with my great grandfather. His name was John William Mathiath Gregory. I remember him as a quiet, gentle fellow. He wore a gray cowboy hat and a ready smile. He bought me my very first comic book, Tarzan of the Apes. It started a deep love of comics. I wish I could remember his voice and more about his personality. I was told he lovingly called me "Bennie" as a baby, it caught on and by the time I could talk, everyone, including my parents called me "Ben" instead of Brenda. Fellow classmates would call me "Ben" or "Woody" after Woody Woodpecker because of my red hair. So, it wasn't until I was 18 and moved away that folks started using my actual birth name.
As I've mentioned before, Great Grandpa Gregory is the reason I took up beekeeping. I also have him to thank for another of my endeavors. I can remember him sitting on the front porch and whittling slender sticks with his pocket knife. I also remember how the older men would sit outside the bank, feed store or local barbershop, drink coffee, smoke, dip, sip a soda water, play checkers and — whittle. The days are long gone of seeing the old men setting up shop and whittling outside of their favorite hangouts.
The more I thought about it, the more I wondered, why did they do that? What drew them to whittling?
I pulled out my trusty laptop and looked up forums on whittling and carving. I had made up my mind to try whittling and looked for advice on how to get started. I wanted to try it for myself, and see if I could figure out what drew them to the craft. The overall advice on forums, start off with a quality knife. Invest in a knife that is razor sharp and high quality. You're more apt to hurt yourself trying to use a dull knife.
Second, start with a softer wood, something like basswood. It's more user friendly to new beginners. I found two little shops online, both American owned, American made. Both guarantee their knives for life and even toss in free sharpening if you ever want to send them to them. With that accomplished, I had a co-worker take me to Lowe's and teach me about sand paper, understanding the different grains, in what order to use them and what they will accomplish. I was set.
I started practicing by making spoons out of basswood. It's fairly easy to make a design and then start working to make it a reality. I have worked my way up over the past year. Last Christmas I put them in the kids Christmas stockings. Recently, I graduated up to trying hardwoods. I made my first walnut spoon not too long ago. It's gorgeous. Let me tell you, there is a serious reason why they suggest starting with a softer wood. The walnut took far longer. It was a pill and a half to deal with, much, much harder to carve.
Have I learned the secret of why old men used to sit and whittle? I don't know. I wish they were still here to ask.
But, I can say, it's satisfying to take a piece of wood and see something hidden inside it, then, taking it and bringing it to life. It is engaging. My mind slows down to only what I am doing. Surprisingly, I'm not just using my eyes for decision making in shaping the wood. When it comes time to sand the wood, my fingers feel the depth of the wood for evenness and any little spot that needs tending. It's a great moment when the texture is perfect and the wood is as smooth as butter.
I've made mistakes here and there, like not wearing gloves and slicing my fingers and hands open. I've learned some patience. Recently, I learned the hard way never to breathe in walnut dust. It's toxic and has the potential to seriously hurt your lungs. It knocked me off my feet for several weeks. Yet, I'm nowhere near done. I love carving wood. One day, people will drive by and eventually see a 7 foot totem pole in my yard. That day is coming.
Whittling, I have determined, is challenging, enjoyable and satisfying. Great Grandpa will never know his influence on me, but I thank him and all old timers just the same.