Beginners Project # 1.  -  Chip Carving

Chip Carving is a decorative style of carving in which knives are used to remove small chips of wood from the surface of an object to create freeform outlines and/or geometric patterns. While design possibilities are endless, they are normally created through repetition and variation of only a few basic shapes.  By far the most common "chips" removed are combinations of two or three sided pieces of material leaving behind V shaped incisions into the wood.

Cutting "Chip" Knife

Stab Knife

Serious chip carvers use two specialized knives in their work... a cutting or "Chip" knife used for cutting out all of the chips and a "Stab" knife used to decorate designs with wedge-shaped impressions made with a downward stab of the knife.  Before beginning this project we will take a closer look at these unique knives and exactly how the cuts are made.

Cutting Knife Grips

The key to the beautiful chip carving is in holding the knife at a precisely uniform angle while undercutting the chip to be removed.  For the cutting knife, the basic grip is to hold the knife in a closed fist with your thumb cocked outwards and with back of your fingers resting on the workpiece and the inside of the thumb's knuckle held firmly against the handle just above the blade. This will place the blade in a stable position at about 65 degrees to the carving surface. This grip should be held steady with a locked wrist while cuts are made by pulling the whole arm from the shoulder.

An alternate position of holding the cutting knife puts the blade at the same angle but with the sharp edge pointing in the opposite direction. This is achieved by rolling the knife over in your hand and placing the first knuckle of the thumb on the spine or back of the handle just above the blade. In this position cuts are made by pressing down firmly with the thumb.

The stab knife is held vertically in a closed fist with the thumb over the top end of the handle and the cutting edge down and facing you. The blade is pressed straight down to puncture the wood. The length of the impression is determined by how deep the blade is pressed and how far the knife is rocked back and forth. It is never used to slice the wood.

Cutting Two and Three Sided Chips


 Two and three sided chips (or more) may be straight sided or have free flowing curved sides. Regardless, the carving process is the same for both. The three-sided chip is most commonly used and is the backbone of most chip carvings. To make a three-sided chip, visualize the center point of the chip and holding the cutting knife in the basic grip draw it along the first side, undercutting the chip with the tip of the knife tip penetrating beneath the surface down to the visualized center of the chip. Now turn the work piece 180 degrees and flip your knife grip to the alternate position to cut the second side of the chip.  Again the tip of the knife should penetrate beneath the surface to the center of the chip. Without turning the wood, go back to the basic grip and complete the third cut to free the chip. If you have done it correctly, the three undercuts should meet at the center point beneath the surface and the chip should pop out easily as you finish the third cut.

Two sided chips are often long and free flowing. To carve a two-sided chip, visualize where the center line of the chip runs and cut along each side of the chip so that the blade tip penetrates down to and follows along the visualized center line. Again, the chip should easily pop out as the second cut is completed.

Chip Carving Tips

- If a chip does not pop out easily, resist the urge to pry it out. By doing so you risk snapping off the knife tip. It's better to re-cut the chip slightly deeper so that it pops out easily.

- The secret of cutting a long straight line is not to look at the blade itself but to look slightly ahead of it and let your eye pull the blade along.

- To cut smooth tight curves, raise the handle up a little by lifting your wrist while keeping your thumb and pointer finger knuckle anchored on the work piece. This reduces the length of blade in contact with the wood, allowing it to turn easier while maintaining the same 65 degree cutting angle.

Project #1.  A Chip Carved Coaster Set


Trace, draw or glue a paper copy of the above pattern onto a smooth 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 inch board of about 1/4 inch to 3/8 inch thickness. Using the chip knife and techniques described above, remove the white areas of the pattern. The dotted lines define the size and inner shape of each chip to be removed.