After buying your first set of chisels, it can be tempting to dive into carving right away. However, by doing so, you may learn some common techniques the wrong way. In this article, you will learn the better approach, which would be to start from the basics and improve upon the craft.
Carving with chisel revolves around the following 3 basic techniques: Paring, Chopping Cut and Mortise Cut, out of which most other techniques are derived from. The technique you choose heavily depends on the project you’re working on. But in a nutshell, paring is used to shave wood off with the edge of the chisel and a chopping cut, as the name suggests, is used to chop on wood. While a mortise cut specializes in cutting waste material and creating cavities in blocks of wood.
With that said, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to woodworking with a chisel. The more knowledge you have, the easier your projects will become and the safer you will be. So without further ado, let’s discuss the 3 basic techniques mentioned above, and another important technique, scraping, that you are yet to learn.
4 Basic Techniques to Carve Wood Using Chisels
Until now, we only discussed the basics of chiseling techniques on a surface level, but there’s more to this than meets the eye. By mastering the following techniques, you can easily work on just about any project:
This is one of the most common cuts you might have seen people doing with a chisel. Paring basically means to shave wood off with a chisel. There are chisels dedicated to paring, but you can pull it off with a straight sharp bevel-edged chisel too.
This technique requires you to hold the chisel straight with both your hands. Remember to use both hands to exert enough force to be able to shave wood off. The beveled side needs to face up while the chisel’s flat side needs to be straight along with the piece of wood you are paring.
Pro tip: Always use a vice to grip the piece of wood that you are shaving because you will be exerting force on the chisel. Without a solid grip, you will not be able to shave the chisel by sliding it over the block of wood.
Use one hand to hold the handle, while the other hand to hold the chisel a few inches away from the edge. This hand can be used as a depth-stop if you do not want to go all the way through. It also helps you prevent the chisel from completely sliding off the piece of wood you are shaving.
A chopping cut, as the name indicates, is chopping with a chisel. Here you will need the assistance of a mallet or hammer depending on the chisel you have. First, use the sharp edge of the chisel to dig the edge inside the block of wood you have to chop.
You can do this by lightly tapping the end of the handle with a mallet or hammer. Also, ensure while you do that the chisel is at a 90-degrees from the block of wood.
One fair bit of warning is that you need to face the bevel side inside the area you intend to chop, while the flat side should face away from the area you are chopping.
Use this technique to create a guide for the area you need to chop off. You can also use a hobbyist’s carving knife for that purpose. Use the widest edged chisel you have if the cut is big. Now hammer it straight in till you reach the end of the area you have to chop off.
Do this vertically till you reach the end and do it on the whole area. If the area you want to chop is too deep, do it in small bits. Use mortise cuts to take chunks of wood off at a time. This takes us to the next and last basic technique.
A mortise cut is made to carve out a cavity in a block of wood. It is also an effective way to carve out a lot of wood at a faster pace. Usually, it is used to carve out cavities to create joints for two pieces of wood. But it is not limited to that use only. You can create cavities in a block of wood for a plethora of reasons. One is to make a storage box out of wood.
To perform this cut hold the chisel at an acute angle of under 45-degrees. The whole idea of carving with a chisel is to take your time. Slowly hammer the end of the handle and use the handle itself to guide the chisel and carve out small chunks of wood.
Keep in mind that the grain structure of the wood has a lot to do with carving. Ensure you don’t carve or cut along the wood grain. If you do, there is an ever so slight chance that the whole grain structure comes apart and tears the wood unusable. Small chopping cuts prevent that and make mortise cuts cleaner.
This is more of an uncommon technique that you won’t use a lot, but only use when necessary. Scraping is basically used to scrape off any excess amount of glue or cement from a piece of wood.
Just hold the chisel perpendicular to the area you want to scrape. Make sure it is straight at a 90-degree angle. Hold the chisel just above the sharp edge and slowly scrape the area. This will straighten out any deformities caused by excess glue sticking out of crevices.
Tips For Carving Wood With Chisel
While most of the things about the basic ways to carve wood with a chisel have been explained above. There are still some mistakes you can make while performing these techniques. Thus, the following tips are important to avoid such them:
- Ensure your chisel is extremely sharp when performing any form of cut. Otherwise, you might end up injuring yourself. A sharp chisel is like a sharp knife in the kitchen, the duller the blade the more chances there are to hurt yourself. Check out our article on sharpening wood carving tools if you want to learn the best methods of sharpening a chisel.
- Always take it slow with the chisel. Don’t try to carve out too much at a time. This is a recipe for disaster, be patient and do smaller cuts.
- When paring with a chisel, always keep both your hands on the chisel and not on the piece of wood you are working on. If you do that you are just asking to chop a finger off. Put one hand on the handle and the other on the chisel 3-4 inches away from the edge.
- While paring, use your other hand, the one on the chisel and not the handle, as a depth stop.
- When chopping into the wood, always face the bevel inwards towards the area you will cut into. The flat side should face away from the area you are chopping into.
- Use big powerful blows when you are chopping into wood or paring vertically. This ensures a straight cut-through compared to when you will hit it with small blows. Small hits with the mallet will only make uneven cuts as the chisel will try to wiggle in between these small hits.
- While mortising, always face the bevel outwards of the cut and use the handle to guide it. Scoop it up where you have to.
- Beware when doing a mortise cut along the grain. If the grain structure is weak it might tear it whole apart. This can damage the piece of wood you are working with.
Also if you are a beginner, try using woods that complements carving. Basswood is one of the most sought wood for carving by beginners. It is easy to carve, it feels like it is almost meant for carving. We recommend buying reliable blocks of basswood from Amazon, click the blue text to check the current price. Black walnut is also a great wood for use in carving wood with chisels.
When to Use a Mallet or Hammer When Carving?
You can either use a chisel by hand or by hitting it with a mallet or hammer. Now the question might arise in your mind, when do I use a hammer or mallet for carving with a chisel?
Well, the answer is simple, you use it when you are chopping or carving deep into the wood. Your hands can only shave off wood from the top with the force they have. But in order to dig deep, you need to exert enough force onto the chisel. And hammering on it is the best way to do so.
What Type of Chisel is Best for Beginners?
Every woodcarver has a set of chisels in their inventory as they are a mandatory part of their arsenal. There are many types of chisels available in the market but for beginners, we recommend the following set:
This chisel set comes with 5 pieces of different sizes. Moreover, it does not cost a lot for the quality and quantity it offers, as well as every chisel comes with a hardwood handle to provide impact resistance. The blade is made of high-quality carbon chrome steel for optimal durability.
The set contains chisels of different widths, which are perfect for starters. But keep in mind that for some projects, you will need a wooden mallet as this set comes with wooden-ended handles. If you’re purchasing a set with a steel-ended handle, then you can use a normal hammer.
The reason behind that is fairly simple, the chisel with a wooden-ended handle can get damaged with a metal hammer. So a wooden mallet of course is way better for that purpose.
Alternatively, the steel-ended handle can handle a normal hammer’s beating. Keep this tip in mind when purchasing any set of chisels.
Wood Chisel Project Ideas
Since you are a beginner, try to practice using a chisel on a block of wood and master the four basics. Once you are confident enough, start with taking beginner projects first.
Let us recommend you a few projects that are fun and easy to do as part of this beginner’s guide to carving wood with a chisel:
Making a Box
Now making a wooden box might sound difficult, but it is one of the easier things you can do. You just need to carve inside a block of wood by way of chopping and mortise cuts. Carve out mortises slowly till the cavity is deep enough to form the shape of a box.
Don’t worry about uneven surfaces, you can even them out with some wet/dry sandpaper. Some people like to keep tool marks on their hand projects to show it’s hand made. But the choice is yours in this regard. Lastly use oil to stain the piece of wood and seal it once the oil dries up. Let it cure and you are set to go!
Making a Bowl
This is another easy project you can do as a beginner. It is almost the same as carving out a box from wood. The only difference is you will have to chop it at different heights to create a bowl-like shape inside before performing mortise cuts.
Using a circular log instead of a block of wood also helps as well. Start from the end with a small chop inside the block of wood. Gradually increase the depth of the cuts as you move towards the center. You should use paring to carve the outside of the bowl to get the shape you want.
Caring and Maintenance of Your Chisels
One thing to care about when you buy chisels is to use a cap on the sharp edge. This is so you don’t lose that edge or damage the chisel. Don’t store all the chisels together unless they are in a box with dedicated slots to make sure that the chisels don’t end up hitting each other.
Also to keep a sharp edge on your chisel, always use an oil sharpening stone to sharpen them. Hold the chisel bevel side down on the sharpening stone first. Hold it at the same angle as the bevel near the edge. Sharpen it slowly by moving it back and forth.
Use water or oil when necessary to loosen the friction and reduce heat. You can also use fine-grit sandpaper if you don’t have a sharpening stone. After sharpening the bevel side down, remove the burr on the edge by sharpening it flat side down.
If your chisel is chipped or damaged, you can use a grinding stone for taking off the chipped edge and straightening it. Sharpen it enough so that there isn’t any surface on the edge on which light can shine. Once you achieve that sharpness time to take the chisel to a fine-grit sharpening stone or wet/dry sandpaper.
Woodworking with chisels can be fun, especially if you know what you’re doing. Although it isn’t something that you can master in a day, with enough research and practice, you can get on the right track.
Therefore, after reading this comprehensive guide, we hope you’re now equipped with enough knowledge to get started with the most basic techniques and also, can craft some basic projects to polish your skills.