Those of you familiar with the U.S.S Constitution may recognize the featured photo as one of the boarding planks on the Constitution. It’s been a frequently carved design for me since I first saw it, and I’ve used it to grace chest and box tops over the years. Despite being an intricate design, it is not a hard carving project. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know that I plunder designs. I love to alter things, pull elements out of context, and place them in new settings. It’s a common technique for artisans and artists. The boarding plank design’s most salient feature, for me, was the head.
At some time in the ’90s, a client wanted something carved on the end of a tiller; the usual Turk’s Head knot was not what he wanted. I plundered the boarding plank for the design, and the client sailed away very pleased. Here is the prototype for the tiller head:
Later, I again used the head for some quickly carved walking stick heads. Never meant to be fully featured carvings the stick heads were “sketches” that I could carve and sell as I worked. They sold well at boat shows.
Usable design elements are in plain sight within other designs. Plunder away!
A little carving can be a good thing for a boat. I’ve used chip carving to carve incised stars; compass rose designs and other designs on everything from quarterboard ends to compass boxes. Chip carving requires only a sharp carving knife and can be used to accent flat surfaces with pleasing designs that won’t foul lines. The average student picks up the basics in a few hours. Carvings can be simple or very complicated—simple works best for the beginner, and on a boat.
The chip-carved designs I’ll show you all have one underlying feature: the small pyramid or chip which you excise from the workpiece in six precise cuts. Once you master these basics, everything else falls into place. The basic pyramid forms the basis of all chip carving from the easiest to the most complicated.
But, first a few words on safety: always wear eye protection, and always secure the work on a non-slip surface. Consider wearing finger guards or carvers gloves. The old rubric of never cutting towards yourself makes little sense when you need to reposition your work periodically. Preferably, avoid having to cut towards yourself, but if you must keep delicate body parts like fingers out of the path of a moving blade. Critically don’t carve while tired or on medication.
If you look a the first figure, you’ll notice a triangle with three lines running towards the angles from the center. Each of the six lines represents one of the cuts you’ll make to free a pyramid of wood.
We can start by selecting the wood. Basswood and close-grained pine are both excellent choices for beginners.
The three lines inside the triangle are the ones you’ll cut first. They are started deep where the lines meet and run out shallow at the angle on the outer edge of the design. These first three cuts are made perpendicular to the surface of the wood. Don’t let these become angle cuts; keep them vertical. The photo I’ve included shows a practice board that I use to remind myself of the order of how cuts on designs that I frequently cut.
Remember, these cuts will be deeper at the center and shallower at the outer edges of the triangle. The best way to achieve this is to set your knife into the center deeply and pull back with decreasing pressure on the blade. You will need to ensure that your blade is very sharp.
You do not want to overrun the edges of the triangle while making the initial perpendicular cuts.
After making the perpendicular cuts, you’ll make three cuts along the edges of the triangle. These are slicing cuts made at an angle of about 65 degrees. You can approximate this angle by placing your knife at 90 degrees, halving that to 45, and then bring it back towards the vertical about halfway. There is no need to be too fussy here. A few degrees in one or the other direction should not matter if you are consistent, and practice will ensure that. The cuts along the long axis of the triangle will be most straightforward, while the final cut at the base needs a bit more care because it is relatively short.
These angle cuts have more to do with your wrist movement than bullying your way through the wood. The wrist flexes, and the very sharp knife does most of the work. Reminder: keep that edge sharp. If you’ve done everything right, each chip will pop out cleanly. Practice makes perfect.
Avid chip carvers take it as an article of faith that all chips should pop out like toast from the toaster. If yours don’t all the time, you may not have cut deeply enough or used the correct angle consistently. If the angle of cuts is consistent, the cuts meet.
Don’t yield to impatience and use the tip of your knife to wedge or flick the chip out. You’ll dull the blade and spoil the work. Or worse, flick that chip right into your eye. I’ll confess that not all my chips pop the first time all the time.
After you have the essential chip down, you’ll be ready to move along to cut the star.
1.) Mark out the lines for the star. Include those radiating from the center of the figure to the ray tips, and those extending inward to stars base.
2.) Make the vertical cuts from the center outwards, deeper at the center, and shallower at the edges. Just as you did with the pyramid.
3.) After those make the ten angled slicing cuts to clear the chips.
4.) Work your way around the star until you finish up all the rays.
The only caution on cutting stars is that it’s easy to cut the rays unevenly. Careful recutting can rectify this, but once out of balance, a star can become a carvers headache.
A good trick is to take a compass and scribe a circle around the outside edge of the rays. If you don’t cut beyond the circle, the rays will stay equal.
The star is a lovely and traditional design you can use to finish off the end of a quarterboard, boom, chest, door, or whatever you fancy. Gold-leafed, it will be an incomparable decoration.
Here are some examples I’ve carved using chip carving: