Get Started in Chip Carving

Comments (0)

This article is from Issue 108 of Woodcraft Magazine.

A couple of knives and a little practice are all you need

Chip carving is a method of embellishing the surface of plain wood by incising repeating patterns with a specialized knife. There are a series of foundational cuts that can be applied to most patterns; and those patterns can be added to, resized, and reordered to create a near infinite number of original designs. The best things about this craft are that it’s fun, easy to learn, and doesn’t even require a shop.
Unlike many other aspects of woodworking, chip carving is also relatively inexpensive. You can perform most cuts with one knife that costs around $25. And with the way you hold the knife and plunge the blade, the whole enterprise is relatively safe, so you typically don’t need to buy a carving glove. Pick up a non-slip pad if you plan to work on a bench or table. But you can also carve right in your lap.
The best wood to start chip carving is basswood. It’s inexpensive, too, and easy 
to come by. Other woods such as butternut (See p. 54 for more info on this species.), clear white pine, and cedar are also great starter woods. As your skills increase, you can try your hand at harder, denser woods. Let’s get started.

Applying a pattern

The best way to learn chip carving is to apply a simple, repeating geometric pattern to a small blank of basswood and start cutting. These “practice boards” are easy to make, fun to do, and, while not technically a project, look pretty cool when done.

Draw your design on graph paper or print out a design and cut it to the size of your practice board. Now, cut a piece of carbon paper (available at office supply and craft stores) to size, and tape both sheets to your practice board. Then, simply trace the pattern. After shading the areas to be cut, chip out your design. When done, sand away any remaining pencil lines, being careful not to blunt the pattern’s sharp lines.

Trace it on. After taping your cut-to-size pattern and carbon paper to your practice board, trace the pattern as shown. Various washer sizes make great guides for curved details.

Getting a grip

Most chip carving is safe and doesn’t require the use of a glove. Due to the angle of attack, controlled cuts, and limited range of motion, the danger of cutting yourself is relatively low. But understanding how to grip the knife is critical to controlling it. Hold the knife with the cutting edge pointing away from you. Curl your fingers around the handle, rolling the cutting edge toward you. Rotate your wrist, and rest your knuckles on the project with your thumb bracing your hand. Then angle the blade to the workpiece as shown.

Hold Steady. Point the cutting edge away, and rest the handle near your fingertips. Then, grip the knife so that its spine nestles where your palm and fingers meet. Position your middle knuckles on the surface, anchoring with the pad of your thumb. Usually, you want the blade at about 65°, unless you’re making a shallow cut as shown.

Getting to the point

Most chip carving consists of incising pattern shapes with a series of angled cuts that meet at a single point or line in the center. To practice, start with a triangle. For the first cut, plunge the knife along one side, imagining the tip touching the triangle’s center. Power comes from your shoulder; keep your wrist locked. Rotate the workpiece rather than moving your arm to make the second cut. Rotate the piece a third time, plunge, and cut to free the chip, completing the triangle. If the chip doesn’t pop out, repeat the process cutting a little deeper. With practice, your cuts should intersect in crisp lines and points.

First cut. Place the knife’s tip at the triangle’s apex with the cutting edge angled at 45°-65° to the first side. Rest your knuckles on the surface and anchor with your thumb. In one motion, plunge the blade toward an imagined center of the triangle, pull the blade toward the triangle’s base, and then up and out.
Second cut. Plunge in and pull out as with the first cut, but plunge from the triangle’s base to its apex. Rather than twisting your wrist to accommodate the cut, rotate the board to align the pattern line to your blade.

Third cut. Rotate the board again to align the pattern line with your blade. Place the knife tip at one point of the base and pull the blade along the triangle’s base to free the chip.

Sharpening your chip carving knives

Starting with a 1000 grit waterstone and the cutting edge toward you, raise the back of the blade 8° to 10° (about the thickness of a dime). Pull the knife toward you a few strokes. Flip the cutting edge away from you, and push the knife the same number of strokes while maintaining the angle. Repeat the process through 8000 grit. To polish the blade, make a strop by gluing two scraps of leather (available at craft supply stores) to both faces on a length of plywood. Using a compound (see p. 60), start on the rough side of the leather but this time, point the cutting edge away from you and pull the knife toward you. Then, flip the edge toward you, and push it away. Finally, flip the strop over and repeat the process to finish polishing on the smoother side as shown.


Write Comment

Write Comment

You must be logged in to write a comment. Log In

Top of Page