An Introduction to Chip Carving


An Introduction to Chip Carving:
Murray Taylor gives a brief history of chip carving and describes the tools and equipment you will need.

A locked casket with flower and shrub motif, circa 1300-1400

In this article, I would like to introduce you to the wonderful world of chip carving, give you a brief history, describe the tools you need to get started and the different styles of chip carving that can be achieved.
I have heard it said by the uninitiated and those not familiar with chip carving that it is an inferior or lower form of carving. Well, let me dispel this rumour from the start. In its simplest form, it is the removal of chips of wood to reveal a pattern or picture, it teaches tool control, accuracy and attention to detail. At the other end of the spectrum, chip carving is an art form in its own right, allowing the execution of highly decorative and complex pieces of work.
The origins of chip carving go back into antiquity and have been found in many parts of the world, from the South Pacific to Central Africa, from the Antipodes to Japan and, moving nearer to home, was found in most parts of Europe. Chip carving probably first came to the British Isles with the Vikings and spread to the US with the European immigrants in the 19th century.
Nowadays chip carving is prolific in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, where professional carvers use it to decorate buildings and domestic objects. It is not surprising, therefore, that these countries manufacture the tools required for this art. Chip carving as a hobby has long since been practised in the US. It is now becoming more popular in the UK and both countries are now producing very good chip carving tools.
Very early examples of tribal chip carving have been found on weapons, paddles and tool handles, whereas in the European tradition we find it on small wooden domestic objects known as treen, washboards, chests, cupboard fronts, chair backs and the like. There is also an architectural tradition – examples can be found on doors, staircases, wall panels and exposed beams – which is achieved using chisels, gouges and even a long shoulder knife.

A raised casket with rosette motifs dated 1449

A coopered umbrella stand

Candle holder with rosette motif

Two free-form designs on boxes

The tools you will need
The things you will need for chip carving fall into three categories – the knives, the drawing instruments and the wood for practice boards or finished objects.
So now let’s look at the tools you will need to get started. There are only two knives that are essential at this level of chip carving – the cutting knife and the stab knife. The cutting knife has a short blade, approximately 30-35mm long, and a handle of 100-110mm long. It is important that the cutting edge of the blade has a pronounced downward slope, which makes for easier entry into the wood and more accurate chip removal. The knife is held with the handle in line with the forearm and the thumb resting on the wood.

The two knives you will need – cutting knife (right) and stab knife

Top tip: However difficult it seems to keep the thumb on the wood it is really important. Without it you cannot control the knife

As the cutting knife is the most important tool in the box and is in the hand longer than any other I think it is worth spending a little more time discussing it. It goes without saying that the cutting knife must be really comfortable in your hand. The choice of knife is a matter of personal preference but I urge you to try as many types of handle shapes as possible. I realise that this may not be easy but it is usually a subject of much lively discussion at chip carving classes and club meetings where you may be able to try the handle shapes of different knives, if not actually cut with them. Most chip carvers do not like anyone else using their favourite knife, a bit like a fountain pen, if anyone remembers them.
The next thing to consider is the downward slopping angle, or angle of attack of the cutting edge. This can vary from being in line with or parallel to the handle to an attack angle of 20⁰. 

The grip for the cutting knife

The grip for the stab knife

A small tool kit with some of my favourite knives

Six cutting knives showing different attack angles from straight (right) – 20⁰

One aspect of blade design that is not generally considered is blade thickness. My early attempts at chip carving were with home-made knives that I fashioned from hacksaw blades. They certainly took an edge but tended to snap when side pressure was applied. This was because the hacksaw blades were made from 0.75mm stock whereas modern cutting knives are manufactured from 1.5-2mm stock. I tend to prefer thinner blades for a clean neat cut.
The cutting knife is sharpened at a very shallow angle, 10° or less, and has a highly polished finish. I know that sharpening is a subject people have trouble with so I will cover this at length in the next article, along with the ‘commissioning’ of a knife – that is, the initial preparation before it can be used successfully as most knives are not ready for use when purchased despite the claims made in tool catalogues.
The second knife in the box is the stab knife, this is a totally different kind of tool from the cutting knife as it is not used to cut but rather impress a small triangular design into the wood and is most effective in both geometric and free-form carving. The blade tends to be slightly thicker than the cutting knife and is sharpened to an angle of 60⁰.
As your chip carving develops you may find that you require a cutting knife with a smaller blade for very fine detail work or making tight circular cuts. Some of the manufacturers do offer such knives but I often adapt tools to suit my needs. It is important to protect your knife blades from damage when in the tool box and this is can be done with a cork or a small tool roll. If you use a cork it must be of the synthetic variety as natural cork tends to rust the blade.

Drawing instruments
The drawing instruments you will need in the basic box are easily obtained from art supply outlets or craft shops and consists of the following:
A 0.5mm propelling or mechanical pencil, these will normally be supplied with HB leads but it is important to empty these and refill with B or 2B leads as these are much softer and will not leave scratch marks on the wood.
The next thing you will need is a soft eraser and, although not essential, a pencil-type eraser is very useful. For the gadgeteers among us, and I’m sure there are a few, you can get a battery powered eraser with a very fine tip, not essential by any means, but a useful addition to the box and always a talking point at demonstrations.
For grid panel layouts, a 12in plastic ruler with imperial and metric measurements comes next, along with a plastic T-square. I also like to have a 6in clear plastic ruler for drawing connecting lines on geometric grids – the transparency makes it easier to use. 

Top tip: A white ruler with black markings makes it much easier to lay out grids and patterns

The next thing you need is a bow compass – that is, a compass with a mechanical means of adjustment. This type of compass usually takes a 1mm lead and it is important that this is also B or 2B. The point of the instrument will normally be two ended, one is a long tapering point while the other is shouldered. You need to use the shouldered end as this does not disfigure the wood so much.
Unfortunately, the old school-type compass into which you clamp an ordinary pencil will not do as the setting can easily vary and spoil the design. Along with the compass you need a small file or emery board to sharpen the lead. This is done by reducing two sides to a point and then filing down from the top or the outside to form a point. I would suggest that you keep all your tools together in a small convenient box, or when you have had some practice you could chip carve a box like mine.

The basic drawing instruments you require

Use the shouldered end of the point (above) and file the lead as shown

My chip carving tool box in lime (Tilia vulgaris) and sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum)

Styles of chip carving
The patterns or pictures produced by chip carving are made by the removal of either geometric or free-form chips. These chips can be formed using either straight or curved lines to produce a myriad geometric patterns or free-form designs. In the earlier stages of your chip carving you will remove chips where all the cuts are at 65° into the wood, but as you progress we will look at other styles of chip removal. Many of the geometric designs fall into the category of being ‘traditional’ and you will encounter them in many people’s work. They originate from the early examples of tribal chip carving which can be seen in museums, the only difference being that the earlier tribal work was done by eye and therefore was not so precise, whereas the later European work was set out with the benefit of drawing instruments.
The free-form style of chip carving is not confined by tradition but allows us to use our imagination in the same way that an artist would, the only difference being that we cut our pictures out of a piece of wood as opposed to painting on a canvas. Ideas for free-form chip carving can be derived from your drawings, line drawings taken from photographs or from pattern books, but you must be aware of copyright laws if the work is not for your own use.
Although I enjoy practising and teaching all forms of chip carving I favour free-form as it lends itself to a greater freedom of expression and at a higher level you can even incorporate imperfections or knots in the wood to enhance your work.
As we progress through this series on chip carving you will be able to develop ideas and techniques of your own. One of the interesting things within the art is the ability to carve one shape in different forms, as with the simple heart shape, which I have carved in three different ways: as a simple outline, with a geometric pattern within the heart and finally by carving the chips outside the heart to reveal the shape.
So start collecting the tools and drawing instruments I have outlined in this article and next time we will sharpen up and start chipping.

A dovetailed box with padlock, made and carved by Murray

A carved footstool I made, influenced by the work of Wayne Barton

A chip carving of classical Japanese design by Murray which was inspired by various motifs in the Dover Press book, Traditional Japanese Design Motifs

A chip carving of the deity Fujin (Japanese god of wind) by Murray, inspired by various motifs in the Dover Press book, Traditional Japanese Design Motifs

A clock with rosette and leaf design

A sample board of a simple heart shape treated in three different ways


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