8 Wood Carving Skills for Survival

Make tools, start a fire, and trap wild game with your pocket knife
A knife being sharpened on a wet stone.
When the work is done, sharpen your knife. Tim MacWelch

Your trusty pocket knife can do a lot more than open Amazon packages. Knives are an indispensable part of any outdoor survival kit. When used to their full potential, knives can perform some amazing tasks. In terms of surviving the wild, simple wood carving may seem like busy work, frivolous, or even worthless. However, that shaggy “fuzz stick” isn’t going to seem so silly when every piece of wood is soaked on the outside and you need the warmth of a fire to keep you from hypothermia. Wood carving isn’t just for old men in porch rockers. It’s one of the skills you’ll need to stay alive in the wilderness.

Safety First

A folding knife on a rock.
You can’t afford to add a deep laceration to your list of troubles in a survival situation. Tim MacWelch

You should have a firm foundation in proper knife use and safety. Following these rules will ensure there are no accidents when you are far away from medical help.

  • Make sure every cut is away from you and others.
  • Keep folding knives closed or sheath knives when not in use.
  • When carving from a seated position, keep your elbows on your knees. If you slip while your elbows are on your thighs or at your hips, you’re more likely to slice into your leg.
  • Don’t rush the work. Being in a hurry or “hacking” at the wood is a recipe for injury. Each cut should be slow and controlled.
  • Keep others out of your “blood circle.” This is the imaginary bubble around you which can be reached with the knife edge. Stop carving if someone enters your “circle”.
  • Keep your knife edge sharp. Dull knives require more pressure to make cuts and can cause you to slip.
  • When handing a knife to others, the best practice is to close folding knives and put fixed-blade knives back in their sheath before making the transfer.

Fuzz Stick

A wood-carved fuzz stick.
Fuzz sticks are great assets for wet weather fire building. Tim MacWelch

You’ll have the hardest time building a fire when all your fuel is soaked, but it’s usually just wet on the outside. Carve into a wet stick and you can often expose dry wood. Start by finding the driest sticks you can , usually on standing dead trees and shrubs. If the bark can be easily peeled or carved away, take it off. Most tree species have bark that burns poorly (especially when wet). Carefully start carving away from yourself and away from your body, making shavings that stay attached to the stick. Initially, your first shavings will be short, but as your skills increase, so will the length of your shavings. This is a good thing, as longer shavings burn better than short ones due to increased surface area. Start by carving a shaving near the end of a stick and work your way around the stick and backwards. Your shavings can be in orderly rows or in a spiraling pattern. Either way, the goal is to create a fuzz stick. For added flammability, you could add a secondary fuel. This could be a smear of wax or pine sap, or a dribble of oil or other flammable liquids (but nothing explosive, like gasoline). With the added fuel, and multiple fuzz sticks, you should be ready to light a fire in almost any weather.

Feather Sticks

A feathered wood-carved stick for fire-starting.
Once familiar with fuzz sticks, refine your carving technique to create feather sticks. Tim MacWelch

Once you have mastered the fuzz stick, it’s time to graduate to the feather stick. This fire starter requires better carving skills, but it also provides a better burn. Feather sticks have longer wood shavings than fuzz sticks. These longer shavings are also curled into rings and still attached to the stick. Since the feather stick exposes more surface area in the material of the stick, it allows the wood to burn more quickly and with higher heat than a fuzz stick (or the regular stick). Two of the main tricks for carving feather sticks are material selection and knife pressure. I prefer to use straight-grained sticks and split pieces from larger wood, selecting sticks that are free of knots or defects. When you begin carving, experiment with the pressure you apply to the knife. You’ll want to create some side pressure (pushing the side of the blade toward the side of the stick) as you push the knife edge downward to make the cut. Once you have the right combination of pressure in both directions (and the right angle on your blade), you should begin to carve long curling strips. Make each curl near the last one and allow them to stack up near each other. Repeat this as many times as you can, and if any curls are accidentally sliced off, tuck them inside the attached curls. They’ll still burn.

Figure Four Deadfall Trigger

A figure-four deadfall trigger.
Set the trap with a deadfall trigger. Tim MacWelch

Deadfall triggers prop up a heavy rock or piece of wood (deadfall) to trap dinner—squirrels, rabbits, etc. The toughest trigger to carve is the figure four. You have to make 12 precise cuts, creating four different features on three separate sticks. The vertical post should have a chisel-shaped feature carved on one end and a 90-degree square facet carved in the middle of the stick. The diagonal stick will act as a lever. It will need a similar chisel point on one end and a side notch at the other end. Trickiest of all, is the horizontal piece of the trigger, which will need a notch at the end and a notch on the side near the middle of the stick. This middle notch will need to be a quarter-turn away from the end notch. An optional “13th cut” can be to put a point on the end of the horizontal stick for bait. It’s complicated, but with a little practice and attention to detail, you’ll soon have a stable trigger mechanism that can hold a lot of weight.

Make a Bow Drill Kit

A bow drill kit
Carving skills and traditional fire making combine when you make friction fire kits. Tim MacWelch

The bow and drill is one of the most reliable friction fire methods, but it’s not easy. In fact, this method takes proper material selection, good cardio, and some solid whittling skills. You’ll need to carve a straight wooden drill that will be rotated back-and-forth on a flat wooden board. You also have to notch a small branch to create a bow, which will be used to turn the drill. There are also holes you’ll need to drill into a handhold block and the fire board, as well as the angled notch in the fire board (the notch will hold your precious dust). If all goes right, dust will become an ember and your fire will be born. To carve the bow, choose a flexible limb about 2 feet long and as thick as your thumb. Carve a crescent-shaped notch at each end to hold a thin rope for your bow string. Carve the drill into a smooth cylinder, about thumb thickness and 10 inches long. Carve the fire board flat and drill a shallow hole to receive the drill. You’ll also need to drill a piece of hardwood to create a handhold block, which will sit on top of the drill. When these parts are complete, try a test run by spinning the drill with the bow pinned between the fire board and handhold. After you begin to burn down into the board, carve the most important facet of the kit—the notch. This should be a 45-degree notch through the edge of the board with the point nearly reaching the center of the hole in the board. This notch will allow the dust to pour out and create a place for the ember to form.

Read Next: 10 of the Best Survival Knives

The Try Stick

A try stick wood carving.
Put your carving skills to the test on a try stick. Tim MacWelch

The late Mors Kochanski is known for many things. He was an author, and ran a successful survival school in Canada for decades, mentoring many survivalists. He popularized the use of Mora knives here in North America and also gave us the “try stick” to hone our carving skills. The try stick can be made in many different ways, and you can create your own pattern (either for fun or to practice tricky carving techniques). However you do it, the point of a try stick is to practice many different cuts and carving techniques on a single stick. The typical stick has a variety of notches, reductions, and other shapes, all designed to showcase your carving skills.

Hook Knife

A set of wood-carving tools.
Carve canes, bowls and spoons with a crooked knife. Tim MacWelch

The hook knife (or crooked knife) is an odd/old tool. Today, farriers use a dull version of this blade to clean the crud from the underside of horse hooves, but other than that, these tools aren’t frequently seen anymore. The knives can be used to carve the hollow cavity for wooden bowls, spoons, ladles and other necessities. I use a Morakniv 162 (a wide double-edge blade with a tight radius), the Morakniv 163 (a wide double-edge knife with a shallow bend) and the Morakniv 164 (a narrow little single-edge hook with a tight radius) for my carving. With a sweeping stroke, you can push or pull these blades through soft wood or medium hardwood to create any project the wood will allow.

Put Away a Sharp Blade

Whether you are using a commercial sharpening kit or a rounded river cobble, you can sharpen your knife on many different surfaces (with the right technique). Knife sharpening is important, both at home and in the wild. It’s easy too. So there’s no excuse for carrying a dull blade, even in remote settings with limited supplies.

Start by taking out your sharpening kit or selecting a smooth fine-grained stone. If you decide to use a natural rock, try to find one with a slightly rough surface similar to a normal sharpening stone texture. It’s also helpful to study the knife edge and look for damage before you start sharpening. Edge areas with chips and rolls will need more aggressive grinding; ordinary dullness may only require a little grinding on a finer grit stone. It’s helpful to get a baseline for sharpness before you start sharpening, so try slicing through a piece of paper or rope to test the edge. Once you’re ready to sharpen, pour some water to the stone (to keep the pores open) and begin your sharpening strokes. I prefer to make little circular strokes, using an equal number of strokes for each side of the knife, but some prefer to move the blade in other directions. Do what’s comfortable for you. Wash off the stone periodically as you work and try your best to hold the edge at the correct angle. You’re usually trying to restore the factory edge angle, not create a new one. You can test your knife during the sharpening process by slicing the paper or rope again, just to see where you are at, or wait until the end. Once you feel you’ve sharpened enough, strop the edges on a leather belt or bark-less log to remove the edge bur and polish the edge. Then test your knife on paper and see if it’s good enough. Apply a little oil when the sharping is done and your knife will be ready to use the next time you need it.