7 great knife grips to get you started
Carving everything from wooden spoons to animal caricatures is a lot of fun, doesn’t require much space, and the tools needed are fairly simple and cost effective. The only thing stopping you from carving your next work of art is a bit of knowledge about how to hold and use these carving knives. Although the knives can be used very safely, there are a few basics you’ll need to know.
Different knife grips are needed to efficiently remove large amounts of material, create gentle and tight curves, and refine the shape of a spoon. Different grips will also allow you to deal with different grain directions.
Two Basic Holds
For most of these grips, the knife is held in the palm of your hand, with your thumb wrapped around one side and your four fingers wrapped around the other side. The main difference is whether the blade edge is pointing away (above) or towards (below) you.
Probably the most natural for most people, the elbow grip isn’t great for anything in particular, but is good for many types of cuts. The movement comes from the elbow joint.
As the name implies, the power grip can be used for removing lots of material at once. The movement comes from the shoulder and upper back area.
Thumb Push Grip
Brown uses this grip for making smaller, refined cuts, especially when working on curved surfaces or creating the smooth facets of a finished spoon.
Although it looks awkward, once you try this grip you may be surprised by how powerful and controlled it can be. Keep your elbows tight to your body while using this grip.
Brown uses this grip quite often, but is sure to keep the tip of the blade pointing away from his body.
Pull Grip, Modified
When more control is needed for finer cuts, this grip is a great option.
Thumb Skew Grip
With your thumb out of the way of the knife when the blade exits the workpiece, this grip is very safe. It’s used to work the material towards either end of a spoon.
Hook Knife Grip
This grip, and the movement associated with it, is different than the other grips. It’s used to hollow out the bowl portion of a spoon by removing chips.
Hook Knife Grip, Modified
By placing the tip of your left thumb on or near the base of the blade, you can apply controlled pressure to the hook knife. This grip will assist with allowing you to cut downhill on some areas of the bowl.
Many things are done to minimize movement of the knife – keeping your elbows tucked into your sides, a forearm contacting the side of your leg or your stomach, and the workpiece on your leg or against your stomach are all techniques to help you control the knife properly. Some grasps and techniques allow you to not follow these basic guidelines, but they are the exception, not the rule.
A few basic tips
It’s impossible to give complete guidance and explanation of the grips here. Practice making light cuts, using only a small amount of pressure, before adding more strength and power. If you feel your hand trembling with energy as you wait for the knife to finally remove a chip of wood, you’re likely removing too much wood at once, are using a dull blade or are using one of these grips incorrectly. It’s when a blade explodes free of a workpiece that damage can happen to the workpiece, the knife or the user. We can easily grab a new workpiece or purchase a new knife, but you certainly don’t want to injure yourself.
Elbow Grip (also called the forehand grip) – Thumb underneath the handle, fingers wrapped over top of handle. Angling the knife is a more efficient use of the blade and its cutting geometry. Use your right knee to support the work. Start the cut with the portion of the blade closest to the handle, moving the cutting action towards the tip of the knife during the cut. Most of the movement comes from the right elbow joint. This is a common grip when carving spoons, but it’s not overly powerful.
This is a slight variation of the elbow grip. Straighten your right elbow and have the movement come from your shoulders and upper back. Use your right knee to support the work. This is a much more powerful grip than the elbow grip. With experience, it’s easy to remove relatively large amounts of material with this grip.
Thumb Push Grip
Though there are a few slight variations on how you hold your knife, they all have the edge of the blade facing away from your body. Grasp the workpiece with your left hand with your left thumb raised slightly above the workpiece. Place your left thumb on the back of the blade or on the back of the handle, very close to the blade. The workpiece is usually held in mid-air. The knife is essentially positioned, angled and rotated by your right hand, while your left thumb provides much of the power. Push with your left thumb to make short, controlled cuts. The knife doesn’t move forward without your left thumb pushing it, so this is a safe and controlled grip that’s often used for either carving tighter curves or for making smooth, finished cuts on the spoon’s surface. You can regularly reposition your left hand to cut further along the workpiece. A variation includes slightly rotating the knife with your right hand, causing the knife to pivot around the end of your left thumb. Although your left arm is quite tight to your body, your right elbow is usually free to rotate and move around a bit. Your right arm isn’t generating the power, so this is much less dangerous.
Also called the backhand or palm up grip, the scissor grip starts with the user holding the blade so the edge of the blade is facing them, though strangely the cutting action actually takes place when the blade moves away from the user. Both hands are then rotated inwards, so your palms are facing upward, before any cuts are made. Start with both palms facing upward. Keep the inside edge of your right hand, or the inner edge of your right forearm, pressed against your chest or stomach. Your left forearm and elbow are generally pressed against your chest or stomach. You should be able to see most of your fingernails while you use this grip. This is a powerful grip for removing large amounts of material, but it also provides you with a fair bit of control.
Also called the backhand grip, it’s relatively easy to use and safe, though if done incorrectly this grip can be dangerous. This grip is used while working towards your body. One critical thing to remember is to always have the tip of the knife pointed away from yourself. Another important aspect of this grip is that the heel of your right thumb and palm must come into contact with your body before the knife. This stops the knife’s motion, eliminating any chance of injury. While holding the end of the workpiece in your left hand, press the opposite end into the sternum area of your body. Your thumb can wrap under the handle or be placed over the handle, beside the index finger. Using medium pressure, the inside of your right forearm should be pressed into your side during cuts, further reducing the chances of losing control of the knife. This can be a very controlled cut, and can be used both to smooth relatively flat surfaces and to further refine curves. It can also be used to remove larger amounts of material. Another benefit of this grip is the fact that you can cut to a line more easily, and easily gauge how much material you’re removing. A variation of this grip is to rotate your left hand so your fingers are almost on top of the workpiece. Then, with your index finger and thumb holding the workpiece, place two or three fingers on the back of the blade. These fingers can be used to power the blade in a very controlled way. This variation is generally used for very refined and light cuts. The biggest risk with this variation is the fact that your left hand needs to be properly rotated so the base of your left thumb is out of the way of the blade.
Thumb Skew Grip
Similar to how you would peel a potato, this grip involves holding the workpiece in mid-air with your left hand, planting your thumb on a surface that’s perpendicular to the surface you want to cut, and using your thumb to generate power to remove the chip. As the name implies, skewing the knife makes the cut easier and more efficient. The most important aspect of this grip is to place your thumb entirely on the adjoining surface, with absolutely no overhang. Any amount of overhanging thumb will quickly and cleanly be removed with your knife. This grip is mainly for refining the wood near either end of the workpiece. Not only can you remove side grain wood (with your thumb placed on the end grain), but you can also pivot the workpiece, place your thumb on the side grain and chamfer the end grain of the workpiece. This technique is pictured in this article’s lead photo on page 27.
Hook Knife Grip
While all the other grips use a straight knife, this grip uses a hook knife, which is the most common tool for hollowing out the bowl of a spoon. The grip is somewhat similar to the thumb skew grip, especially when it comes to your thumb placement, how your thumb provides the opposing force for the cut, and keeping your thumb out of the cutting path of the knife. A hook knife is generally used across the grain. As you rotate the knife during use, the cutting edge will travel in a curved path, going deeper and deeper into the bowl as you work. A variation is to press your left thumb against the base of the blade or very end of the handle to power the blade while grasping the workpiece with your left hand. This offers a lot of control, and can assist with cutting downhill in certain areas of the spoon’s bowl.
Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.