How to Carve a Willow Whistle with a Penknife

Test your penknife wood carving skills by whittling a willow whistle for your next outdoor adventure.

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by Flickr/Andrea Parrish-Geyer

In 50 Things to Do with a Penknife (Princeton Architectural Press) by Matt Collins, a horticultural consultant at the Garden Museum in London, showcases a practical guide for whittling with a penknife. Matt combines craftsmanship with savvy survival-skill projects that encompass a range of skills levels. Each project is accompanied by detailed step-by-step illustrations, making his book ideal for the creative adventurer.

Sculpting a whistle from the green and lithe stems of a springtime willow is a carving tradition passed down through generations of keen whittlers. As the sap rises and flows through young willow branches during the early summer months, their bark is particularly supple, and subsequently easy to separate from the stem. Because of this, willow is the ideal source material for this satisfying carving project, offering a malleable texture that may be sculpted with relative ease. As with many whittling exercises, this one can take a few tries to master, but the result will be noteworthy, and persistence is the key.

black and white illustration of a whistle made out of a willow stem with a line cut in the center and a hole carved near one end as a mouth piece

1. For this exercise you’ll need a straight stem of green willow, roughly 5/8 – 3/4 inch in diameter and 8 – 12 inches in length. Using a pull cut, create a shallow slope at one end of the stick.

black and white illustration of a person using a knife to cut a slope on the end of a stick

2. With the slope facing away from you, place the blade of your penknife 1-1/4 inch back from the beginning of the slope cut and make a stop cut.

black and white illustration of a person holding a knife against a stick a little ways from the end

3. With your knife 3/8 inch back from the stop cut made in step two, push cut downward toward it, carving out a thin wedge.

black and white illustration of a person carving a chunk out of a stick to a line with a knife

4. You now need to remove the bark without breaking it. Place your penknife blade roughly 4 inches back from the slope, make a circular cut around the stick as deep as the bark. This is best achieved by holding the knife in a fixed position and turning the stick with your other hand.

black and white illustration of a person holding a stick to a knife and turning it around to score a circle

5. Loosen the bark by placing it on your knee and tapping with the handle of your penknife. Turn the stick in your other hand while you tap, forcing the bark to come away evenly from the stem inside. Take your time with this – you should be able to feel when the bark is ready to be pulled off.

black and white illustration of a person holding a stick with a notch in one end and a line carved half way down and the person knocking a knife handle against it

6. Carefully pull the bark from the stick and place it to one side.

black and white illustration of a person holding a stick with the bark pulled off and the portion of the bark that had come off

7. Taking the bare wood, place your knife inside the groove, against the stop cut made in step two. Use a push cut to remove the top of the stick, creating a flat surface.

black and white illustration of a person carving along a stick

8. Repeat steps two and three, making a slightly deeper stop cut this time and push cutting toward it from 3/4 inch back, rather than 3/8 inch.

black and white illustration of a person cutting a notch in to a stick

9. The side profile of your stick should now look like this.

black and white illustration of a stick with the bark taken off of one half and a notch taken out of that portion leading to a pointed tip

10. Taking the bark section that was removed in step six, carefully slide it back in place, lining up the bark hole with the whistle hole. Blow through; it should whistle! If not, you may need to check that the flat surface made in step seven is flat enough and is letting enough air through.

black and white illustration of a person holding a stick made in to a whistle with a cut around the center and a notch near the top

More from 50 Things to Do with a Penknife:

How to Carve a Fish Hook with a Penknife
Penknife Carving Projects and Techniques

Illustrations by Maria Nilsson from 50 Things to Do with a Penknife by Matt Collins, reprinted with permission from Princeton Architectural Press, 2017.