Can Robots Whittle?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Ribbonfarm Lab

Continuing my descent into a middle-aged cliche, I bought myself a cheap beginner whittling kit.

The impulse was born of wondering whether a robot powered by modern AI and equipped with appropriate end effectors could learn to whittle, a premise that features in my recent short story Knowledge Management. It was either this or an Oak-D Lite AI camera for robotics. Either $34 vs. $149 to jumpstart 2024 maker activities. I always find that a bit of shopping for new toys reliably gets me out of a stall in the painfully slow evolution of the Ribbonfarm Lab (it’s not going to turn into Bell Labs anytime soon), but usually I acquire something aspirationally bleeding edge and high-tech even if the chances of my learning how to use it are low.

But besides the whittling kit being cheaper, I think a definite shift away from pure frontier-chasing is emerging in my lab activities. I’m increasingly convinced that only a small but disproportionately legible part of technology evolution is driven by high-tech frontier frenzy focused on consensus “current hot problems” in an on-the-nose way. The illegible bulk is driven by people chasing bunny trails that interest them, regardless of age, hotness, or sophistication. More breakthroughs happen because people got curious about a line of tinkering abandoned years, decades, centuries, or even millennia ago, with the resulting ideas powering successful and elegant oblique attacks on contemporary problems everyone else is charging at head-on. I doubt I’ll personally make any brilliant breakthroughs of that sort, but I want to get a feel for that style of oblique, non-present-biased technological exploration. Plus there’s a higher chance I’ll actually get somewhere with whittling than with machine vision.

The modern Maker scene is defined by the frontier of newly affordable bleeding edge gadgets, tools, and materials; often things coming off patent like 3D printing materials or MEMS accelerometers. But lately I’ve found myself getting increasingly interested in archaic but subtle technologies (see my post Touching Transistors, about dabbling in 80s vintage 555-based circuits for example). Whittling is in some ways the oldest engineering activity, older even than things like pottery-making or shaping stone. I imagine sharpening a stick with a sharp shard of rock was the first tool-making activity. But it’s not an obviously trivial activity. Beyond sometimes sharpening pencils with a razor blade as a kid (the pencil sharpeners I had were weirdly sucky), I have no experience of whittling, and no immediate intuitions for how to do it well. We’ll see what I learn. It’s weird that I have more experience with lathes and milling machines from my mechanical engineering college days than with the more elemental subtractive material-forming process of whittling.

This kit is admittedly a little too modern, featuring 3 refined vanadium steel knives, a leather sharpening strop, safety gloves, and machined blocks of uniform bass wood with no complex grain patterns or knots. My goal is to learn with this stuff and then go primitivist to a single knife and found wood for some projects, and more advanced, to a Dremel and harder woods, for some other projects. I don’t think I want to get into woodworking proper though. Way too artisan. If I get that far I’ll probably pivot to laser cutting or desktop CNC.

Apparently the traditional first thing to whittle — the hello world of whittling — is a spoon, so I’m going to try that. Then I’ll try the rabbit sculpture featured in the little booklet. Stay tuned for exciting progress reports. Tips from experienced whittlers welcome. Project ideas for the 6 unallocated blocks of the 8 in the picture also welcome.

I’ll probably buy the AI camera too later in the year. Hmm maybe the camera can be used to watch me whittle and learn the moves for a robot to copy later 🤔.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. whittling might be a natural activity for AI-based robots, but i wonder if the tools we use or even the moves we use are natural for robots. so – what is the “natural” activity for a robot that is like whitlling for humans?
    perhaps additive manufacturing is such an act – so 3D printing of an object “whittled” in the AI’s mind, might be more natural for the robots’s natural strengths.