Accentuating Contrast in Your Chip Carving

Woodcarvers use several different techniques in staining their chip carving. Many will take a small brush, such as a #8 quill, to stain the entire panel with a very light colored stain, wiping the excess stain from the wood with paper toweling. After the lighter stain dries, the next step is to apply a darker stain. As before, wipe the excess stain shortly after applying it. The stain will appear much darker in the carved areas of the design.

I wanted to accentuate the contrast in my chip carving panels even further. So I decided to modify the standard staining technique.

Before carving I sealed the basswood blanks with a mixture of 50% polyurethane varnish thinned with 50% mineral spirits. I coated the panels with several coats of this mixture, lightly sanding between coats. When it comes time to stain the incised carving, the polyurethane varnish mixture will act as a barrier coat blocking the stain from coloring the uncarved areas. Generous coats of sealer on the sides of the wood blank will prevent the end grain from soaking up too much stain resulting in a noticeably darker color.

After the last coat was completely dry, I applied RTape’s 4075RLA Conform® Series application tape to the panel, trimming the excess around the blank. I then transferred my pattern to application tape, using Saral paper to trace the design. See the photo below. Saral paper is similar to carbon paper, but is available in several colors other than graphite. You can buy it on-line at:

chip carving 01









Covering the wood blank with Conform® application tape prevents leaving telltale marks on the wood.  After carving the design remove the Conform® tape from the wood. Without stain, the design looks very bland. See the photo below.

chip carving 02









Using a stiff bristle brush apply a dark gel stain into the incised areas of the panel. Then coat the remaining portions of the surface and the edges. Immediately wipe off the excess stain with paper toweling. If there is stubborn residual stain in the recessed areas of the design, use a stiff bristle brush, such as a fitch, to dry brush away the excess.

chip carving 04


Before varnishing the project, wait at least 24 hours for the stain to thoroughly dry. There are different types of varnishes that you can use. I prefer to brush on thin coats of polyurethane. Other carvers prefer a spray varnish.  The choice is yours.