Three-corner chip carving adds decorative detail to your project.
Photo of chip carving knife and project

Chip carving provides a great way to learn carving basics. This method employs shallow, angled cuts to remove a wedge-shaped, three-corner chip. This simple style is sometimes called Swiss chip carving. For centuries, chip carvers decorated household items such as small boxes, plates, and spoons, many as gifts. It was a favorite pastime during the cold, harsh winters. With a sharp knife and alittle practice, you'll soon be creating attractive designs sure to earn the admiration of friends and family. 

On the cutting edge

Chip carving, in its basic form, utilizes a specialized chip-carving knife. You'll find plenty to choose from. Plan to spend from $20 to $50 for a quality knife.

Photo of handles of chip knives
Knife makers offer a variety of handle styles. and Wayne Barton knives feature a broad, rounded handle. Pfeil knives sport a simple handle with rounded edges. Ramelson knives, with their longer handles, are ideal for larger hands. Flexcut offers a more rounded, contoured shape.

The blades and handles vary in size and shape but all are similar in design (photo, above).

Photo of chip knife with lie showing blade angle
The thin, angled blade of a chip carving knife features a double bevel and excels at making the clean cuts deep enough to form a chip.

The traditional chip-carving knife features a cutting edge angled downward (photo, above). The blade tapers from the spine to the cutting edge, making it ideal for the slicing and stabbing cuts that define the chip's shape. The shallow, double bevel angle slices wood fibers cleanly. Purchase this style of knife first. It's the knife you'll use most often as you gain experience. 

Besides a knife, you need only a few sharpening supplies (see Staying sharp, below), and a thumb guard, available at most woodworking or carving tool resellers. 

Classic chip carving requires a geometric pattern to define where to make the knife cuts. Find patterns online or in chip-carving books and magazines. Or create your own designs with a pencil, compass, and ruler, or use graphics software on your computer. Find full-size patterns for these coasters below. Try either of these two methods to easily transfer the pattern to the workpiece.

Phot of pattern on craft vinyl
Glue the pattern to craft vinyl that has an adhesive backing. Then, remove the liner and attach the pattern to the workpiece.

First, attach the pattern to adhesive-backed craft vinyl (photo, above). Purchase Oracal 631 vinyl where craft supplies are sold. Use a light-duty spray adhesive to fasten the pattern to the vinyl. Use scissors to cut away the excess, peel away the liner on the back of the vinyl, then carefully position it over the workpiece. Start at one corner and press the pattern onto your workpiece to eliminate air bubbles. After carving, the vinyl peels away easily. This method works equally well on wood and foam.

Photo of heat transfer tool transferring pattern to material
Use a heat transfer tool, which resembles a woodburning pen with a flat plate, on patterns printed or copied with toner.

Alternately, for wood, apply the pattern with a heat transfer tool (photo, above). First, print the pattern on a laser printer or duplicate it on a copier—the toner is the key. 

Place the pattern facedown on the workpiece and slowly rub the heated  tool on the back of the pattern to transfer it to the workpiece. Check your progress until the entire pattern appears on the wood.

Making the cut

Precise knife cuts create the classic look of chip carving. Adjacent faces of the cuts intersect at a straight, clean line from top to bottom with all the cuts meeting at a point at the bottom. These cuts, made with one pass, vary in depth from start to finish. With these techniques and with practice, you'll learn to create perfect chips.

Many traditional chip carvers work sitting down, with the workpiece in their lap. If this feels awkward, a worksurface at a comfortable height may offer a suitable work environment. A task light helps to highlight pattern lines and knife cuts.

Phot of dumb, knuckle and knife in tripod position on material
The thumb, knuckle, and blade form a tripod for consistent, controlled cuts in the first position.

When gripping the knife, use one of two hand positions, depending on the direction of cut. The first position uses the thumb and a knuckle of the index finger as anchor points on the workpiece (photo, above). In this hand position, place the blade at the start of the cut with the thumb and knuckle securely on the workpiece. Move your hand and thumb as one unit to complete the cut.  

Photo of thumb on top of knife
The second position, with the thumb on top, makes it easier to cut with the blade angled away from you.

The second position places the thumb on the top edge of the knife handle (photo, above). This allows you to apply pressure with your thumb when cutting with the blade angled away from your body. If you can easily rotate the workpiece, you won't use the second hand position as often as the first position.

For your first exercise, cut a three-corner chip using the following steps. 

Photo of first cut from tip to tip of triangle
Make the first cut from tip to tip of the triangle, cutting deeper in the middle. Keep the blade between a 55° and 65° angle relative to the workpiece.

1 Place the point of the blade at one corner of the triangle (photo, above).Start at one end with a shallow cut. As you progress toward the midpoint of the cut, slice deeper while trying to visualize the blade tip at the center of the three-dimensional triangle shape. Once you pass the midpoint, start lifting the blade until it exits the cut at the end.

Photo of second cut
Start the second cut from the end of the first, while maintaining the same angle on the blade so that, at full depth, the cuts meet in the center of the triangle.

2 Turn the workpiece to make the second cut (photo, above). Cut this side of the triangle the same way as the first.

Photo of chip popping out
The third cut connects the end of the second cut with the start of the first cut. The chip should pop out cleanly.

3 Rotate the workpiece to cut the third side. As you complete this cut, you will end up where your first cut began.

Ideally, the chip will pop out freely with a "snap" (photo, above). If it doesn't, repeat the cuts a little deeper, making sure to match the angle of the original cut. It's tempting to use the knife to pry out the chip, but you risk damaging the thin blade.  

After the final cut

Remove pattern marks and any remaining adhesive with denatured alcohol. A white plastic eraser also helps with this task. Follow up with a 220-grit sanding block, if necessary, but don't go overboard. A light touch preserves the crisp cut lines and facets you worked so hard to achieve.

After a final, light sanding apply the finish of your choice. Aerosol acrylic or lacquer provide easy, quick finishes on both basswood and foam.

As with any craft, learning the nuances, techniques, and styles of chip carving comes with time and experience. But starting with this basic chip-carving technique, you'll soon be carving attractive designs to dress up your projects.

Image of pattern
Photo of pattern
Photo of pattern

Staying sharp

Photo of sharpening knife on ceramic stone
A ceramic sharpening stone helps keep your knife razor sharp, which makes the intricate cuts easier.
Photo on knife on leather stroop
Use a leather strop often to hone the knife edge for smoother, easier cuts.

As with any style of wood carving, chip carving requires sharp tools. Hone the knife periodically to keep it razor sharp. Before starting, use a fine ceramic sharpening stone (photo above, top) followed by a few swipes on a leather strop charged with stropping compound, above. As you carve, use the strop often to keep the edge sharp. 

Carving media

Photo of carving media

Basswood (also known as linden) posesses creamy color, consistent and nearly invisible grain, and softness that make it ideal for carving. Sharp tools create crisp, smooth cuts in basswood. If you can't find quality basswood locally, look online or seek out a local carving club (see Sources at bottom of page). 

Basswood you find at a craft store is likely to be too hard and dry to carve. You'll know as soon as you try to make a chip. Before carving, set the basswood blanks alongside an open container of water inside a lidded plastic storage tote. After a day or two, you'll find the basswood easier to carve.

Another trick: Periodically spray a mist of 50/50 rubbing alcohol and water on the workpiece as you carve. This softens the wood fibers for easier carving.

Often used in making commercial signs, high-density urethane (HDU) foam makes a good alternative to basswood. It's easy to carve, making it ideal for practicing your technique. A foam density of 15 to 20 pounds per cubic foot matches that of most basswood. Signmakers in your area may be able to supply scraps of HDU. Some foam you find online is labeled "sculpture" or "carving" foam used for crafting. Its lighter density makes it easy to carve, and tan foam already resembles the color of wood.


Knives: Premier Chip Carving knives:

Ramelson knives:

Pfeil and Flexcut knives:

Diamond Carving knives:

Ceramic sharpening stones: