Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | November 2, 2009

Achieving Clean Woodcarving Cuts

I think we can all agree that a woodcarving with a fine finish to it is much more pleasing to look at than one with chips and chatter marks.  Clean cuts add to any carving’s finished beauty.  I like my carvings to look like they were hand carved with fine finish cuts.  In my opinion, sanding is not a viable replacement for clean cutting but I know many carvers that sand just for that reason.  My personal preference is to not sand woodcarvings at all… for any reason.  My long time carving friend, Wayne Gundersen, a professional sign carver, used to have a sign in his shop that read: “No Sanding, No Whining!”

Clearly, in order to produce a smooth, clean cut, one needs sharp tools; but I also recommend slicing or paring off the wood as one approaches the finishing stages.

I have noticed many beginning carvers and even some seasoned carvers simply push their tool into the wood.  Generally speaking, in the early stages of a carving pushing or pounding is acceptable and may even be required but as you carving approaches the final stages, I suggest moving to a slicing cut which will produce a much cleaner finish.  Here are some tips:

With Knives

>    With the handle of the knife in your primary hand (this is your control), push the back of the blade in a slicing action with the thumb of your secondary hand (this is your power).  In the case of whittling, your secondary hand may also be holding your piece but this should not be a problem.  This manner of carving may take a little practice if you are not used to it but once you have done it for a while, you will likely not change back to any old habits;

>    Keep the point of the knife blade within the bounds of actual area being carved so that the point does not make unwanted cut marks on your project.  In many instances, it is advisable to first make a stop cut;

>    If this is a new process for you, begin with more gentle or thin cuts.  Once you are used to the slicing action, you may use more aggression as the project may require;

>    Keep each slice moving in a consistent flow.  Starting, stopping, and starting again can produce an unsightly cut mark (chatter or chipping).  If you end up with such a mark, carefully and thinly repeat the cut, removing unsightly marks with an even flowing cut;

>    Slice inward and gently roll your knife edge upward and out or to the stop cut.

>    When finished with your slicing, examine the project and carefully shave off any unsightly marks.  Leave your project clean and without unnecessary cut and gouge marks.

>    Practice some simple designs with varied shaped cuts to get used to a slicing cut.

With Gouges

>    Keep the corners of gouges above of the surface of the wood to keep from digging in;

>    As the gouge is pushed into the wood, slice along the tool’s cutting edge by slightly rotating the tool (obviously, you can not do this with a straight chisel or “V” tool;

>    Deeper gouges require more of a rotation;

>    Where practical, and with all larger pieces, use a holding device so both hands are free to work the gouge.  Greater success will come from using two hands;

>    Just as when using knives, look over your piece and clean-up any unwanted gouge or torn marks.

Don’t be hasty.  In general, think of what you are doing as paring off bits of wood to reveal what ever it is that lying beneath the surface of the wood.  By carefully slicing, you will not injure the subject hiding in the wood.


Woodcarver and Clean Cuts


Generally speaking, it is difficult to achieve clean smooth cuts unless you carve with the grain.  When carving, if and when you start to feel resistance and your tool begins to dig into the wood, it is an indication that you are “going against the grain.”  You have, no doubt, heard the term: “that goes against my grain.”  Try changing your carving direction in these cases and it is likely that your cuts will smooth out.  Simply as an exercise, cut a donut from a scrap piece of pine and experiment by hand carving, first, the outside, then the inside.  Alternately, another option would be to cut a snake shape or wiggle shape from pine and hand carve the inside and outside turns.  I suggest pine as it is grainy and is well suited for the exercise.  This will prove to be an invaluable lesson for any beginner.


When I am carving, I like to strop my knife or gouge at least each hour of its use (or as needed) to maintain a keen, razor edge.  Power stropping may be in order but for these once-an-hour stroppings, I use either a length of leather with rouge applied to it affixed to a hand held board or I use a hand-cranked felt wheel with rouge applied.  One can also use a good piece of chrome tanned leather with no rouge.  As far as the rouges go, I use Yellow Stone for stropping maintenance work.  A stick of that will last a lifetime.  When stropping, make sure that you keep the blade absolutely flat on the strop so as to not round your edge.  The idea is to strop like the barbers of yesteryear used to strop their straight razors.  Lifting the back edge up more than very slightly can cause rounding of the edge and can require re-grinding.

Many years ago, I had entered a wood carving show and I watched during the judging. The judges were unaware of whose work they were judging.  One judge; an elderly fellow wearing the proverbial Coke bottle lense glasses, picked up one of my entries at point blank range and commented to the other judges that there were “feathers on this thing.”  Feathers mean small wood fuzz left on the piece.  I was upset for two reasons.  One is that he needed his Coke bottle lenses to see any feathers in the first place but mostly for the fact that they were there at all.  I vowed to always leave my pieces finely finished to the point that even with Coke bottle lenses, one could not find evidence of feathers or unwanted marks on my work.  I ended up getting a blue ribbon in the category but my ego was, none the less, bruised.

To Paint or Not to Paint

With little question, most carvers paint their work.  While I will use a colored wash periodically or wax with stain in it here and there, for the most part, I do not paint as I like the look of a hand carved piece.  Painting is purely a matter of choice but the reason for including the subject of painting in this column is to simply point out the fact that painting is a poor practice if its primary purpose is to cover up poor quality cuts or to hide fuzz.  Same goes for the use of wax.  If you paint, your paint job will look much finer if it is applied to a cleanly finish carving project.

Keep sharp and happy carving and whatever you do be carveful.

For further information and good tips on carving, visit my website at


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