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What Is Chip Carving?

chip carving article from Schaaf Tools

In the world of wood carving, chip carving is most similar to relief carving. Both are worked on flat pieces of wood that retain the same basic dimensions throughout the project rather than being whittled or carved into a different shape.  And like relief carving, chip carving removes portions of the original slab or panel to create a 3-D effect. Both are highly decorative, too.

But beyond these similarities, chip carving diverges from relief carving --and from other types of wood carving. In the next paragraphs, we explore the purpose, tools and techniques of chip carving and highlight its special attributes.

Why do woodcarvers choose chip carving?

Chip carving is beautiful, distinctive and decorative. Sometimes it’s used to embellish an existing item like a box or a piece of furniture rather than to create something new. But virtually any type of project that can be worked on a flat slab is a possibility.

Common projects for beginners include coasters, nameplates, plaques, and trivets. Whether it’s done on a new piece or a keepsake, chip carving appeals to carvers who appreciate its intricate cuts and distinctive geometric designs.

What tools does a chip carver use?

chip carving knife

Ask a few expert chip carvers this question, and you’ll get some variation in the answers. Virtually everyone agrees that the bulk of chip carving is done using a single carving knife that has a short blade and very little (or no) bevel. The experts generally agree, too, that:

1) a stab knife is extremely useful for creating a signature chip carving design, and

2) sharpening stones and a strop work well to keep chip carving knives sharp.

Some chip carvers say those are all the tools you’ll need. Anything more is superfluous. Others would include extra knives on their list of tools. A few add chisels or gouges.

One thing is clear, though. You don’t need many tools to create beautiful chip carvings. So, if you’re looking for a carving hobby that requires a minimal outlay for wood carving tools, chip carving is near the top of the list.

Are there different types of chip carving?

Yes. There are two forms of chip carving--geometric and freeform.

Geometric chip carving emphasizes recurring patterns such as decorative borders or rosettes. At the heart of geometric chip carving is the 3-corner (or triangle) cut. When executed correctly, this cut produces a 3-sided, 3-dimensional design that resembles a pyramid.

A few other cuts complement the triangle cut. One is the plunge cut, which goes straight into the wood and is backed gently out. Slicing cuts--both push cuts and pull cuts--are used frequently to separate a chip from the panel and pop it neatly out.

Freeform chip carving is essentially drawing with a knife blade. Curves mingle with straight lines to create a design or tell a story visually.

At first glance, you may think that freeform carving uses different cuts from geometric carving. Look carefully at a freeform chip carving--even a small one--and you’ll notice that all the lines or curves are actually 3-dimensional. That’s because they are all made by slicing away tiny chips of wood.

geometric chip carving, article by schaaf tools

What’s the methodology behind chip carving?

The methodology depends on whether you choose freeform or geometric chip carving. With freeform carving, you’ll need to find a pattern, or draw your own, and transfer it to your work piece.

For geometric carving, you’ll want a pencil and either a compass (for rosettes) or a T-square (for patterns like borders), or both. You’ll draw the pattern right onto the wood.

Once your pattern is in place, you’re ready to choose your tools and begin the carving.

What guidelines help a carver get started in chip carving?

Holding the knife properly and keeping the blade at a proper angle are both critical.

Holding the knife

Remember how we said that a chip carver’s primary carving knife has a short blade? That short blade means that your fingers are close to the end of that very sharp blade as you carve. For that reason, chip carvers are adamant you hold the knife correctly. For safety reasons, the thumb knuckle must be held securely against the end of the knife handle. The finger must  contact the wood surface.

Cutting angle of the knife

The crucial thing to remember here is that the blade needs to enter the wood at a 65° angle in order for the cuts to meet at the correct point and be uniform.  Judging the angle correctly takes practice but eventually becomes a habit.

Is chip carving simple to do?

Yes ... once you master the cuts, can expertly handle the tools, and thoroughly understand the technique, chip carving is simple. Of course, any type of wood carving is relatively simple once you master the craft.

The better question might be, “Is chip carving easier to master than other types of wood carving are?”

We’ve already mentioned several factors of chip carving that tend to make it easier to master than other carving types are. These include:

  • Limited number of essential tools. It’s easier to become proficient with a few knives than it is to learn to properly use several knives as well as a dozen or more chisels and gouges.
  • Limited number of cuts to perfect. The 3-corner cut and the stab cut are signature chip carving cuts that recur frequently. Slice cuts are common to chip carving and to other types of carving. Mastering them holds you in good stead all around.
  • Working on a single side of the wood. This makes a piece easier to hold, turn and anchor, and limits the amount of carving.
  • Concrete guidelines about how to hold the tools and address the wood. Guidelines are simply that--but having them helps beginning chip carvers establish good carving habits that produce better results with fewer injuries.

simple beautiful chip carving


Chip carving is a great starting point for hobbyists and novices. You need only a few cutting tools. And if you have a penchant for math or design, you may already have the necessary supplies such as a compass, T-square, and tracing paper.

Once you master a few basic cuts, you have all the building blocks you need to create intricate geometric or freeform designs.

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