The problem with tricks and puzzles is the secret of their construction often is not shared or passed on to new whittlers. Rediscovering how to make them is trying to say the least. I have worked to that end with limited success; I hope to pass on everything I know, which shouldn’t take very long.
These are a few books that I have found useful and interesting:
Still in print
The Art of Whittling by Walter L. Faurot 1930 (reprint 2007)
Whittling & Woodcarving by E.J. Tangerman 1936
Wonders in Wood by Edwin Mather Wyatt 1997
Available thru used book dealers on the internet
Hobo & Tramp Art Carving by Adolph Vandertie & Patrick Spielman 1995
If you are interested in why we carve Whimseys
Chain Carvers - Old Men Crafting Meaning
by Simon J. Bronner (Professor of American Studies - Penn. State)
Interlocking puzzles are fun and easy to make.
(some easier than others)
Both puzzles are based on the same link design.
Once put together, most can not be taken apart without damaging the puzzle.
Although it appears to be some crude prehistoric doll, it is actually a wooden bell. The two arms are the strikers and the body is the sound chamber.
Just as all Whimseys are not puzzles, not all puzzles are useless.
These are examples of old "smokehouse locks"; while they would not keep thieves out, they did stop the munchkins from munching on the smoked hams. The visible surfaces were attached to the outside of the door; or occasionally to the door jam.
(Note that one of the pins is missing)
The maker of this lock had an unusual sense of humor; adding a head and feet
Size will depend on how deep you must cut to free the swivel.
Mine has a three inch loop shaped handle with a 3/8 inch long cutting edge.
Looking at the cutting edge, it is a flat 1/8" wide chisel
A Wood Carving Supply Providing Tools & Supplies To Carvers & Whittlers In Wood
Seemingly impossible, this is one of the most common methods of locking the stopper inside the bottle. There are many variations, most based of the same method of assembly.
Chains, Balls-in-Cages, Fans, Puzzles
Lots of Information below
To most Americans, whittling is considered a pastime of country folk with too much time on their hands. In fact, most whittling today is done by retired folks. They either whittled or remember someone who did when they were young. Now in retirement, whittling gives them an activity they can take pride in. Most people like to create things; even useless items such as wooden chains.
That may be what truly sets us apart from other creatures. An old whittler once told me, “I take great pleasure in wasting my time.”
History of carved Whimseys
I suppose the first useless carving could have been a small club carved for a cave-child’s toy. When carving useless items actually began is impossible to answer. The oldest book I own which includes chains, balls-in-cages, and other Whimseys was published in 1906. The title is “Basic Sloyd and Whittling”; near the back of the book is a page of carvings titled “Spontaneous carvings by children under 12 years of age”.
If these items were commonplace to children in 1906, they must have been carved long before that time. As you can see, I know very little about the actual history of Whimseys; I can’t say where, why, or when they began. I do know they are tedious to carve, require the ability to visualize in 3D and command a certain amount of amazement from non-carvers and children.
Once you have produced your first useless carving, you have become another link in the history of Whimseys and the chain continues. Although I may not know when it began, I can safely say it will not end as long as there is wood to carve.
The possible items to whittle is limitless, these are some of the basic forms: Pliers, wrenches, fans, chains, captured balls, captured rings, swivels, sliding joints, bottle stoppers, interlocking puzzles, puzzle boxes, hooks, hinges, axles, and woven woodwork. There are countless ways these items may be incorporated into carvings, furniture, jewelry and even items “in bottles.”
Whatever the trick or item to be carved, use the best straight-grained wood you have available. A twisted or wild grain pattern will quickly discourage the whittler and ruin the carving. Within this article, I will present examples of many of the favorite whittling tricks. Although I can not begin to show the extensive variations that may be carved.
Where to begin
Each form of whimsy has its own procedure to successful completion.
The chain is a good item to begin with; once mastered, additional features may be incorporated into future chains.
There are other tools and tricks that are part and parcel of carving Whimseys, which may be one of the attractions of this type of carving. The material for making special tools is determined by how often you will use the tool and necessary strength requirements. For most, simple tools a 1/8” W1 tool steel dowel will work well. If the tool is for a one-time use, other materials such as large paperclips, bobby-pins and crochet hooks may suffice. The tool should fit the job, that is your best guide.
This design demonstrates good intentions with less than satisfactory results. The spiral creates a weak carving with cross-grain throughout the entire cage. Although it appears sound, the cage has been re-glued several times.
A chain's length is determined by the piece of wood selected and your skill at releasing the individual links. It is best to allow for longer links on your first chain. Once you discover the difficult areas, you may decide to make longer and smaller chains with tighter links.
There will be occasions when a knife cannot reach the area to be cut, which is when a special tool is required. The ability to design and make small tools can prove invaluable in carving Whimseys. One example of a special tool is a captured-ring tool, which is also used to free some axels.
Plan your creations to avoid as much short end-grain as possible. As tempting as it may be to carve; a weak design will not make a good whimsey. Puzzles of this sort need to be handled and examined. If broken and re-glued, you have lost the “magic” of how the balls came to be inside the cage. This design will also frustrate most whittlers, as the cross-grain requires care with the knife and simply holding it too firmly may ruin it.
Chain in a Cage
This is an exercise in frustration, the difficulty of carving a chain is compounded by enclosing it within a cage. The result of an enclosed chain is normally disappointing because the chain becomes longer as links are released. This can be seen in the lower picture. This whittlers' trick still commands attention and amazement.
Testing your skill
Incorporating several tricks into one whimsey can be rewarding as shown here. This helps break up the monotony of carving identical link after link. Visually, this whimsey is interesting with multiple moving parts.
This whimsey begins (from left) with two chain links captured in a loop. This is connected to a cage, which rotates about an axel. Followed by a sliding joint with a captured ball at one end acting as a swivel. Finally, a captured wheel and axel. Obviously made without the aid of special tools, evident by the spacing around the axels. Every feature could be created (and probably was) with a pocketknife.
The Crown–of-Thorns is more of an exercise in patience and perseverance than in real carving skill. Each piece is identical, with a single key piece to connect and complete the ring. There are many variations in appearance, but only a few variations in design. The carving is basic and repetitive requiring nearly one hundred pieces to form a twelve-inch circle.
This whimsey was carved during the 1930’s. It incorporates several interesting features into a very small piece of wood. As you see, the “balls-in-cage” are connected in a barbell configuration. The two cages are free to rotate around the barbell shaft. This feature acts as a swivel that in longer chains may help prevent breakage due to binding.
Well-designed Whimseys should allow for rough handling by children. Swivels are one consideration that may add to the life of a carving. Another is some built-in method of hanging the whimsey out of the reach of “sticky" little people.
This example was carved during the depression era. The difficulty is the addition of the four side bars. The second ball adds complexity also. Often whittlers will challenge themselves to carve some object that has never been carved before and may never be carved again.
To say all Whimseys turn out this well would be stretching the truth a bit.
Often chains turn out shorter than planned, or cage bars may be badly nicked.
That should not prevent you from displaying them proudly.
It is more important to expand your knowledge of how these items are created. There are many failures on the road to success; determination and patience will serve you well in the process.
One Piece Pliers
Pliers and some other Whimseys are made using this same pattern..