The Essentials of Chip Carving archive

Friday 26 February 2010

Wayne Barton shows you how to make a stylised picture frame using only one knife and repeated patterns


Chip carving for the carver is often working within the confines of an already completed object such as a box or chair. Being restricted to particular geometric shapes can also put limits on what can and cannot be carved. While this preliminary task to carving may seem daunting to some, like all multi-faceted activities when broken down to their individual components or sections, it becomes more clear how to proceed with confidence. The drawing or layout for a carving is its roadmap. Good design and accuracy will determine how pleasant the journey will be.

But before we can even start to carve, we have to have an idea of what we would like to carve.

A picture frame is a good example to illustrate the five core elements of step-by-step procedure from inspiration to finished carving.

1. Inspiration

Before starting the drawing, a few observations may be helpful. While this particular motif may be labelled a leafy vine and is instantly recognised as such, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to identify this species in nature for it is simply a stylisation.

Most items seen in the natural world can be stylised to fit situations and convey the spirit or essence of the original inspiration source.

Designing the essence of 'vine-ness' rather than copying a particular species makes it easier to create the vine to fit the geometric shape in which it will be placed, instead of forcing the geometric shape to conform to a particular leaf. On the section of the frame already shown, note that the vine appears to be growing upward on the side sections of the frame and outward on the top, expressing an uplifting, positive attitude. Note also the leaves are oriented diagonally as indicated by their veins. This diagonal orientation imparts movement and energy to the design.

2. Drawing the design

The most important skill ancillary to woodcarving, and one that is often passed over too quickly if given any attention at all, is drawing. Accuracy in drawing is particularly crucial to chip carving.

Continuing on the theme of a vine leaf, the design will be a flowing, repetitious pattern.

The carving surface of the frame shown in our example is 38mm wide, the width of the vine design is 30mm. When designing an organic form such as leaves, as in this case, within a particular boundary, it is best to allow the design to fill the space, touching the outer parameters with a robust attitude.

Drawing the design too small within the space allotted would cause the image to appear floating, withering and lifeless.

A centuries-old artistic device used in both art and architecture is to emphasise the pleasing proportions of objects designed in or by the number three, imitating many types of foliage found in nature. That devise has been employed here by grouping three lobes together prominently on each side of every leaf. In actuality, using this device simplifies the designing process. For the most part, only two leaves need to be designed because the vine pattern repeats itself.

Using tracing paper

A trick is to lay out the pattern on tracing paper. This will make any alterations or adjustments easier than drawing directly on the wood. Begin by drawing the geometric shape for the side motifs of the frame. With the centre vein in the leaves zig-zagging at about a 45 degree angle, use this line to develop one leaf, and then the other

oriented in the opposite direction. With these two leaves determined, the vine is created by repeated tracing of the original two leaves and connecting them to the length needed. Note the vine has been altered to indicate its beginning and end.

Top and bottom

The top and bottom sections are started the same as the sides and are also reversed. These sections are designed from the centre outwards.

Adding veins gives the leaves the suggestion of more life, movement and vitality. This approach is the same no matter what pattern is used.

3. Transferring the drawing

Once the initial drawing is completed, the design can be transferred onto the frame using graphite paper, not carbon paper which is most difficult to remove when cleaning up the wood after carving.

Once the graphite paper is in place the actual tracing is done with a stylus. The stylus should have a rounded preferably small ball-type end.

The objective is to apply light pressure on the pattern in order to transfer a precise graphite imprint onto the work. A sharp pointed tool will tear the paper and score the work which is something that you don't want to happen.

If you are creating a vine pattern as shown here, you wil no doubt by now have observed that this design is actually four separate sections, with the four corners left open. This not only gives the design a visual break but also eliminates the need of designing the vine around corners.

These visual breaks can be created in many different designs and can add drama or a counterpoint to what may be a visually endless expanse of patterning.

4. choosing and using chip carving knives

Chip carving can be executed with as few as two knives, the cutting knife that removes all the wood and the stab knife that accents the work of the cutting knife.

Some projects, such as this picture frame being used as an example, has the advantage of using only the cutting knife.

The big issue with chip carving is how to hold the knife comfortably yet affording the user full control.

Practice carving by making chips that are relatively small and similar. You will find that this will allow you to gain confidence in holding and using the knife.

Also note that carving too deeply usually results in parts of the pattern inadvertently being released that was meant to be kept. When making curved cuts, maintain the same approximately 65 degree cutting angle but raise the handle. This manoeuvre will reduce the length of the blade edge in the wood and provide smoothly faceted chips.

5. Cutting the design

Now that we have some basic techniques under our belt, we can start the process of carving. It matters not which section is carved first, just carve them one at a time. Begin carving by tracing the leaf outlines first with a cutting knife and then, in this case, the outer edges or borders of the geometric form last. Carving in this progression will lessen the possibility of losing any leaf lobes and most likely keep the borders straighter.

The last chips to be carved will be the veins. Remove the main or centre veins first and then all the remaining smaller ones. Don't make the vein chips too large as they are only accents. If they are too large they will distract from the overall design.

Irrespective of the design chosen, measured, controlled cuts are required, concentrating on the presentation angle of blade and the depth of cut. The repetition of cuts will build up your confidence. You will soon find that no matter if the design is a geometric form or a fluid flowing style like this one, you will be able to tackle it with the same controlled methodical approach.

Woodworkers Institute

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Chip Carving , Wayne Barton , stylised picture frame

Contact Details

To see more of the work of Wayne Barton, and for information on his courses and shows, visit his