How to get started working with wood in the Great Outdoors

With a few simple tools and techniques, it is possible to use the natural materials available to the outdoorsman to make all manner of useful and even beautiful things when traveling. Learning to work with wood is not only a great way to connect with the environment but a certain level of proficiency with cutting tools could save your butt if you find yourself having to improvise equipment on an adventure. The subject of working with wood is vast but here are a few basic tips by Andrew Groves of Miscellaneous Adventures that should get you started in your wood working endeavors. Also, be sure to check out and support Andrew’s Kickstarter project for wood carving workshops that he will begin running.

1. Tools.

Some say the best tool is the one you available at the time, but let’s make this easy for ourselves and make sure the tools you do have available are of good quality and are razor sharp before setting out.

You’ll need a basic set of tools that don’t take up too much space in your pack, that are well constructed and free of unnecessary features. With knives this means a non-folding sheath knife; folding blades are weak at the hinge and may not cope with some of the heavier tasks required. Your knife should not be too big, between 75mm and 100mm is perfect for carving and suitable for most other camp chores provided it is ultra sharp.

Next, an axe or hatchet. My preference is a hatchet like the one in the photo. It’s small and light making it great for carving but still heavy enough for splitting small logs and firewood. This, like your knife needs to be very sharp.

Then, a folding saw of some kind. Saws are a relatively safe cutting tool but you’ll want something sturdy. A folding buck saw is another option but these take up more space.

Lastly, I like to take a crook knife. This is useful for hollowing out depressions in wood. It can be a bit tricky to use at first but worth persevering with.

Did I mention your tools need to be sharp? They do, therefore it’s a good idea to take along a pocket sharpening stone.

2. It’s a state of mind.

Before starting to make anything, it’s important to get in the right frame of mind. Don’t rush, keep calm and relax. If you’re trying to make something in a hurry, you’re likely to have an accident, and if you’re a long way from civilisation, even a minor cut could be problematic. At the very least, your project is unlikely to be successful.

You’re also out there to enjoy yourself, so take advantage of the slow process of working with hand tools; relax and appreciate your surroundings. Once you get going, woodcarving can be a very meditative experience.

3. Safety.

Safety is paramount when working with sharp tools – especially if you’re creating things in a remote location – and there are more safety techniques and tips than I can cover in this how-to.

The most important thing is to be aware of where your body parts are in relation to the cutting tools and to consider where the cutting edge will end up if you slip or if you miss the work piece.

Use a solid chopping block and make sure your tools are sharp; blunt tools require more force and are more likely to slip over the material you are working with.

You should also have a well stocked first aid kit.

4. Materials.

The materials you have available to you will depend on your location, but as a starting point for carving, sections of hardwoods that are knot free with a nice straight grain are easiest to work with.

Here in the UK or elsewhere in Northern Europe, I would choose Birch, Hazel, Beech or similar. When sourcing your materials consider what your final piece will look like and what function it needs to serve; maybe you can find a section of timber that has a useful kink or shape that you can work with.

Also consider your impact on the landscape and environment; don’t cut down trees unnecessarily, work with naturally fallen timber where possible and if you do have to cut a living tree do in such a way that the tree can heal quickly.

5. Some basic techniques.

Splitting wood. We want to split wood for carving in a controlled manner, and you can do this with either your knife or axe. Stand a sawn log upright on a chopping block and rest the cutting edge on top of the log. Strike the back of the knife blade or axe head with sturdy stick.

If you don’t have a flat chopping block another good method is to rest your axe along the length of the workpiece and bring the two down together onto a fallen log; be careful not to trap your thumb between the handle and the piece of wood you’re splitting!

6.Stop cut.

Stop cuts are very useful for removing large chunks of wood from your workpiece. Saw across the grain first and then split along the grain with your knife or axe. The split will stop at the cross cut.

7. Holding your knife.

There are various grips and techniques for carving with a knife, the best are those that offer the most control. Reinforced grips are particularly useful and make use of your thumb to push the back of the blade offering extra strength and support.

8. Finishing.

If you’ve made something that you intend to cook or eat with, a spoon for example, it will need some kind of protective finish to stop it from soaking up moisture. There are many different natural oils you can use for this; chances are you have some olive or vegetable oil in your pack for cooking with and this will work fine in the short term.

Olive and vegetable oils do have a tendency to go rancid over time, however, so if you’ve made something that you want to use for a long time naturally drying oils such as walnut and linseed oil are a good option.

Make sure you use food safe oils as wood finishes from hardware stores often contain chemicals to accelerate the drying process that you most definitely don’t want to be ingesting.

9. Good luck and mind your fingers.

Be sure to check out Andrew’s Kickstarter project at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/miscadventures/woodland-woodcarving-workshops or his website http://miscellaneousadventures.co.uk/ for more of his art and woodworking!