Chip carving is an ideal technique for the person who wants to learn a bit about woodworking, but has always been discouraged at the prospect of buying a garage full of expensive and intimidating power tools.
Fortunately, only a few tools are required to get started on a chip carving project. You need only chip carving knives, sharpening equipment, and a few small pieces of wood.
In this article, we give you step-by-step instructions for applying the pattern to the wood, making first cuts, choosing knives, and finishing. All instructions assume the reader is right-handed; keep this in mind as you begin. (Read over the "General Cutting Rules" below, before you start.)
Applying a Pattern
The first choice for wood is basswood. It is a straight-grained, unfigured wood that carves beautifully. Later, if you wish, try butternut or walnut.
If you are going to follow a pattern from a book, first prepare a piece of wood that approximates the size of the pattern given. The wood should be between 1/4" and 3/8" thick. Scrape and sand the surface as if you were finishing it, because you won't be able to do this after carving without dulling the crisp points and carved details.
After you have prepared the piece of wood, make a photocopy of the design you like, and cut it out so it fits nicely on your wood. The photocopied pattern can be transferred directly by pressing it face down onto the wood with a hot iron. (Set the iron to about a medium heat.) This works well, because photocopier ink is actually a heat-sensitive powder, and reheating it with an iron will melt it, dropping the pattern onto the wood. (We recommend testing the transfer on a scrap piece of wood, as not all copiers and printers use the correct ink. If it does not work, simply use transfer paper to trace your pattern onto the wood.)
After pressing with the iron, carefully lift up one corner to see if the pattern has transferred clearly. If not, iron some more. Do this at all four corners until you are certain the entire pattern has transferred clearly. Remember, be sure you have a good transfer before removing the paper, as you can never replace the paper accurately enough to re-iron.
Another word of caution: if you iron on a piece of wood that has glue joints, the heat will sometimes expand them. This happened to me, but I was able to save the piece by re-clamping immediately and allowing the wood to cool.
Making The First Cuts
Many books on the subject of chip carving recommend that you hold the knife in a manner that to me seems awkward and uncontrolled. If you are able to carve that way, go ahead. I feel more comfortable holding the knife like a pen, except perhaps a bit more upright. This feels natural and helps you achieve a consistent angle of cut.
While cutting at the same angle into the wood, it helps to vary the blade angle forward or backward, depending on the type of cut you are making. Obviously, you can't turn corners if the blade is at a shallow angle, so stand it up. On the other hand, with small chips, you can actually cut against the grain by almost laying the knife down and cutting. By holding the knife this way, the heel of your hand is on the work, as is your other hand. The first or second finger of your left hand guides the blade.
If the movement of the blade is away from you, your right hand holds the knife, while a finger of your left hand actually pushes on the back of the blade. When cutting the other way, your right hand pulls the blade toward you, while the finger on the other hand acts as a restraint. Be careful to place your finger just above the sharpened portion of the blade when cutting toward you. For finer control, use your finger as a fulcrum. For example, when you near the end of a cut, stop pushing with your finger, and pivot the knife forward, being aware of the point's location, so you don't undercut.
I carve sitting in a swivel-type armchair, and place the work on a piece of plywood that extends off my radial arm saw table. The work is about chest high, so no bending is required to see details.
All traces of the photocopied pattern must be removed, or they will appear as dirt spots under the finish. Avoid gloss and semi-gloss finishes; they give the pattern a plastic-coated look. I recommend a low-gloss urethane. Sand lightly between coats with wet and dry paper, being careful to not round-over crisp points. If you wish to turn your project into a coaster, simply glue cork onto the bottom, let it dry, and trim to size.
Removing just one chip is satisfying, but admiring a finished project, which is very beautiful, is much more gratifying. It is hard to believe that removing simple triangles from a wooden surface can create such lasting beauty.
Choosing a Knife
It is important that a chip-carving knife have a thin, wedge-shaped blade capable of holding a razor-sharp edge. One knife is all you need to get started; however, two others would be quite useful.
The most practical knife for a beginner has a blade with a cutting edge that is approximately parallel to the handle (top knife in photo). If you want to purchase only one knife to start with, this is the one.
The second choice is a knife that has a cutting edge about right angles to the handle (middle knife in photo). It is used for stabbing.
The third knife I would recommend to a beginner has a blade with a fine point (bottom knife in photo), which is useful for carving delicate scroll work, such as the corner areas of the pinwheel pattern. If possible, buy a knife that has a handle with a round, rather than an oval cross-section; it can be turned more easily in the fingers to follow sharply curved lines.
General Cutting Rules for Chip Carving
Cut with the grain, as the long fibers of the wood will tear at the cut line when cutting against the grain.
Don't cut too deeply. About 1/8" is the deepest you should go on the biggest chips on these pieces. For smaller chips, cut less deeply.
Remove large chips in stages, particularly if you have already carved out a section nearby. Otherwise, the force you have to apply to remove the whole chip in one cut will deflect wood. This deflection will occur toward the weakest spot, which will no doubt be the nice crisp edge you just cut.
Cut away from a previously carved chip, rather than cutting toward it; the wedging action of the blade could pop out a part of the mountain that was to be left in.
If the chip does not have carving adjacent to it, remove the complete line of the pattern. If it does, it is best to stay back from the line when removing the first chip, then cut its adjacent chip, also staying back of the line. Finally, make your finishing cuts on both sides to split the line. At this point, watch that straight lines over multiple chips are maintained.
Don't undercut. Try to visualize where the point of your blade is, and avoid leaving a score mark at the base of a cut. This is another good reason to take out progressively larger chips, rather than trying to remove the entire chip at once. Do not pry chips out. Instead wriggle them to see where they are still attached, then go a little deeper in that area and wriggle again. Some undercutting will occur, but if you have done everything right up to this point, it should be a nearly microscopic line.
To remove undercuts, turn your knife over, and with the dull side of the blade at the same angle as your cut, gently draw it the length of your cut, then rotate the work 180°, and do it going the other way. The operative word here is gently. You are not trying to create pressed wood decorations. The undercut must be a very fine one. This is not a method of erasing an unintended slip.
Before making marks with the stabbing knife, remove the line of the pattern with the primary knife, then press the stabbing knife into that cut line. Pressing into a line of the pattern will leave black ink in the bottom of the depression.
(This bulletin is taken from an article by Robert Dunn and Alex Vincent, both of Calgary, Alberta, originally printed in Issue 8 (3/94) of WoodCuts.)