Chip Carving, from ‘Slöjd in Wood’

Examples of various triangle chip borders. A single-sided triangle chip changes character depending on where the deepest point is placed and how the borders are placed in relation to each other.

Slöjd in Wood” is the first English translation of Jögge Sundqvist’s classic Swedish book. It’s a gorgeous peek into a work that is dominated by saturated colors, crisp bevels and handmade work. In addition to introducing you to the pieces you can make for your home, Jögge shows you how to grip the knife to produce the cuts shown in the book safely and efficiently. And shows you how to replicate the deep colors on your pieces that are positively mesmerizing.

“Skureut” is an older, colloquial word for a pattern carved in wooden surfaces. The word skureut was used in dialects in Härjedalen, Hälsingland and Jämtland. When the more strictly geometrical patterns of the Renaissance became popularized as handicraft, this carved ornamentation was named chip carving. Skureut fits nicely with slöjd objects with its free-form folk-art style.

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Make your slöjd unique and personal by mixing wise sayings, commentaries on life’s complexities, signatures, names, dates and years with patterns made using chip carving, nail-cut patterns and shallow relief carving. There is great inspiration to be gained from slöjd artifacts at open-air museums and museum collections. Forgotten treasures that glitter in the dark.

Chip carving knives. Svante Djärv makes a useful model with bevels at 22°. The other one is my own make – an old razor knife with sharp carbon steel with bevels at 12°, which can be used only in softwood.

Tools: Chip carving knife, straight gouge No. 9, 5mm and No. 3, 14mm, center punch.

Material: Use deciduous softwoods such as lime, alder, sallow and aspen, but soft birch also works. Avoid knots, which are hard and difficult to cut.

I am studying older slöjd, and I am inspired by this naive folk art. The natural and expressive form speaks to me, and I collect patterns and decorations in a sketchbook. I transform them to tell my own stories.

When I work with slöjd, I make quick, rough sketches in green wood to get a three-dimensional feeling for how the shape will be. I make many prototypes before I decide on a basic functional form. The decorations should be part of the overall design and communicate something personal, adding a heightened feeling. A pattern shouldn’t overtake or compete with the basic form. For that reason, I sketch a lot and try out different varieties of decorations before I decide. A useful strategy is to arrange pieces of paper with your drawings on the work before you carve it.

Apart from practice, these ingredients allow me to produce my best work:

Shadow effect of the first cut from raking light.
  1. A really sharp chip carving knife. Hone and strop carefully. Feel for nicks by running the edge along your nail. If it grabs without slipping, it is really sharp.
  2. Raking light. Use a strong lamp or spotlight shining from the side opposite your knife hand onto the carving surface. The shadow helps you see the width of the line of the second cut.
  3. A good, essential grip. The thumb and the knuckle create fixed angles for the knife, 45º to the wood and 45º slanted backward toward you. They rest on the work and support the cut.
  4. A peaceful setting so as to concentrate.

In general, cut along the fiber direction. It is possible to cut across the grain in short-fibered woods such as alder, linden and sallow, but the wood can tear out when you cut round forms. If you angle the knife 45º toward yourself, it slices the wood surface first, preventing tear-out. It is sometimes necessary to turn the knife and push with the other hand’s thumb. When you cut round shapes such as circles and S-curves, both the blank and the knife turn throughout the cut. Make large arcs with your elbows during the cut. As this rotation transfers to your knife and to your work, the movement is smooth and without nicks.

The basic grip to cut a line. The thumb and the knuckle support the knife on the blank at two 45° angles. This grip provides fixed angles, which makes it easier to cut a variety of patterns. Use power from your back and shoulders. Support the work on your knee for better stability.

Make each cut deep enough so the cuts overlap at the bottom of the V-shaped groove. If done right, the waste pops out cleanly. It is difficult to clean-cut afterward. If you cut parallel lines, the partition walls are fragile so use less power. Think through the pattern you have drawn and the order of cuts to prevent tear-out and other flaws.

Triangle chips, together with cut lines, are the most traditional ways of carving decorations in wood. These patterns are triangular. The basic one is made with two 90º cuts and one 35º cut. I call this the single-sided triangle chip. The 90º side cuts appear as deep shadows. The other one, the three-sided triangle chip, has the deepest recess in the center. This is done with three 90º and three 45º cuts.

The triangle can also have sides of different lengths or even be curved. If you place these three-sided triangle chips in a circle, they become a sun circle or can be a component of a rosette.

Different examples of three-sided, three-cornered chip.

Three-sided triangle chip. Start by cutting the fibers at a 90º angle from the center. Press the tip of the knife into the wood so the edge stops at the point of the triangle. The cut is deepest at the center and becomes shallower until it stops at the tip of the triangle. Now cut away the material between the 90º cuts using a 45º angle. Cut toward the center to the same depth and angle. The chips come out easily if the 90º cuts are slightly deeper. The surface will be nice and clean.


Fingernail cut.

This pattern is simple and quick to make. Fingernail cuts can be found on objects dating to the 9th century Oseberg archaeological collections in Norway. The length of each cut is approximately 12mm (1/2″). Leave a narrow border between the individual nail cuts.

Straight gouge No. 9, 5mm that has been has been reground so the profile has rounded corners and resembles a finger. This profile makes the cut look the best.

Use a straight gouge Pfeil No. 9, 5mm. It is reground with rounded corners to be able to cut deep enough in the first 90º cut.

You can vary the length by using shorter or longer strokes. Change to a gouge with a different width for wider or narrower patterns. If you cover the surface with fingernail cuts, the uncut border creates negative space, which adds to the work’s expression.

The first phase is to make a cut at a 90º angle and repeat in a row with an interval of 10mm to 12mm (3/8″ to 1/2″) between cuts. Hollow out the fingernails on your way back to the start. For the hollowing phase, hold the gouge near the edge and support the thumb and index finger knuckle on the blank. Start cutting at a 90º angle then carefully scoop and level out as you cut toward the next 90º cut.

A shallow relief is a form or motif surrounded by a lower layer carved a few millimeters into the surface. This makes the carving dynamic with nice shadow effects.

First cut the borders of the shallow relief to a 45º angle with a chip carving knife. Then cut the motif at a 45º angle away from the motif into the background. Use extra power to cut as deep as you can.

Then use a straight gouge No. 3, 14mm to cut the lower layer flat to the depth of the first cut. With a split blank, you get straight fibers; that makes it possible to cut from two directions into the background. Use the thumb of your non-gouge hand to press on the gouge’s bevel, increasing friction so it doesn’t slip as you cut toward the border.

To emphasize the motif, make markings in the background. For example, small nicks with a knife tip. Punches or stamps also make interesting marks.

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How to draw a Viking braid in five steps.
Ideas for different types of single-sided or three-sided triangle chips. Offsets and variations make a great difference.

Signatures, names, years, dates, sayings or poems make slöjd articles personal and unique. The letters are cut with the same technique as the lines and the triangle chips, depending on how wide and deep you want them. Study your favorite fonts to understand how to transform the letters into lines that can be carved.

The beginning and ending of lines that make up letters and numbers can be finished in three different ways. Pointed is two cuts coming together at a point. Sans serif letters such as block letters need a stop cut. Serif letters get triangle chips at the beginning and end.


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