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  Whittled chains

I started whittling with a pocket knife as a kid. My father had been whittler, and I have a number of his carvings on the "My Dad's Carvings" page. Very early on, he taught me how to sharpen woodworking tools to an extremely keen edge using an India stone. The idea was that if I wanted to use his tools, I had to keep them as sharp as he did, which was sharp enough to shave with. Soon I began acquiring my own.

The inspiration for these chains came largely from an old book entitled Whittling and Woodcarving by E. J. Tangerman, still in print.

Whittled Chain
Above is a fairly early chain, done sometime in my mid teens. It’s not the first, but it’s the earliest survivor. I started on the Ball and cage end. The cage has eight bars. As you can see, there is one major mistake: Before freeing the ball, all work to make it as round as possible must be complete before freeing the ball on the ends, because after it’s free, it’s pretty much impossible to hold on to it with sufficient grip to do any further carving.


Whittled Chain
The chain above was done in 1970. I arrived early in Oakland to attend California College of the Arts, and had some extra time on my hands. I made this out of a spruce shade roller from my apartment, later replaced at the hardware store. The knife used was a rare “Carpenter’s Choice” model Case pocket knife, the one pictured on the home page. I started at the ball-in-cage end, and proceeded to the wheel, followed by the tri-link basket joint. After three captive rings on a shaft, I started in on the triple chain. For this and the axles on the wheel, I made a knife (pictured below) by breaking off a painter’s palette knife and sharpening it to a narrow point. After the captive moebius band I made a ball and socket joint. This was pretty delicate, and it broke during a party, and a couple of pieces were lost, so there the chain ends. I was almost out of wood anyway. I have no idea where this one is today.

Carved Mahogany Chain Carved Mahogany Chain


This chain was carved over a period of about two and a half weeks. I started at the end with the double ball-in-cage, followed by two captive rings. Next is a swivel ball and socket joint, then a twin chain section, followed by the gears, which work. Above the spiral cage, a shaft connects to a block inside, which slides in a helical motion. Above that, the hook is connected with a conventional swivel joint.

I was on vacation away from home, and didn’t have my favorite whittling knives with me. I made the knife for this by grinding down an old file and re-tempering it with propane torch, and adding a handle. The only other tool used was an Exacto knife, to separate the gear teeth and axles. The wood is mahogany.

Click to see large photos

Mahogany Chain photo credits: Ken Hutchison

Carved Mahogany Chain Detail

Hand made carving tools These chains are carved almost entirely with a pen knife. If you're a real whittler, the rules of whittling chains and similar novelties, are that everything must be carved from a single piece of wood. Only knives may be used, no power tools. It occasionally happens that a delicate part splits from the force of cutting. In this case, not another stroke may be taken until the split is glued back together, lest any advantage be taken of the separation. There are no more than one or two of these in all the carvings on this page.
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