Carving Tutorial

I’ve had many requests to do a tutorial on handle carving, so I decided to document the carving of the grip on this long sword. It’s a long grip (11 1/2 “) so the process is a bit different than working on something shorter.First I will lay out the tools I use. There are four essential tools needed, a pencil, a good felt tipped pen, a straight chisel and a skew chisel.

The bottom chisel is a straight chisel and the one on top is a skew chisel.

It doesn’t hurt to have some micro chisels for cleaning out the more inaccessible areas.
I start by planning the knotwork I’m going to carve on the grip. I look through books with images of ancient Celtic and Norse stone carvings and wood carvings and try to figure the patterns out on paper, lots of sketching  with a pad and pencil gives me a good understanding of what initially seem like incomprehensibly complicated designs, they all make sense once you’ve got your head around them.

Once I have a design figured out, I do a rough drawing in pencil on the grip. I don’t worry about the over under pattern, I just draw all the lines over each other, this gives good consistency of width once you start to establish the over under pattern. Drawing the pattern on in pencil first also helps make sure that everything is centered, sometimes I’ll erase my first attempt and redo it to get everything symmetrical.

Once the pattern is drawn on in pencil, I’ll draw a more precise image over the pencil, with a good felt tipped pen. When working in ink I establish the overlapping pattern and concentrate on even lines, this is the final step before carving.

It’s important to keep your chisels as sharp as possible. I start by sharpening on a block with 1500 grit sandpaper and then I do a bit of buffing to get it extra sharp.

I use a fine polishing compound to avoid removing too much metal.

If the chisel is sharp enough to cut into your thumb nail when you run it lightly over it then it is sharp enough.
The next step is to clamp the blade to a table and start to cut the lines in with the skew chisel. Basically I’m cutting the outline of what I will carve. I apply a lot of pressure when cutting in and earlier this summer while carving a little over enthusiastically, I cut the end of my index finger on my left hand in half with the skew chisel… so, take a breath, know where your chisel is going and don’t cut yourself!

Once I have the lines cut in, I begin to cut out the shape of the pattern with the straight chisel. I try to carve nice round cords so the knotwork doesn’t appear blocky. The difference between a deep relief and a light relief carving has more to do with rounding the lines than the actual depth of the background. Handle carving is a balance between aesthetics and function and I always have to be mindful to not carve too deep or I’ll go through into the tang hole and that will mean starting over from a block of wood, which is a loss of several days work.

As I progress, I take time to sand down the carved sections with 120 grit sandpaper, this gives me an idea of how well rounded the carving looks. If it’s looking blocky this is the time to go back and sort it out.

I’ve noticed that I never keep the knees in my jeans for long and i wondered about it, It turns out that as I’m carving I often kneel in front of the work. I’m usually so involved in the carving that I don’t notice. Maybe I should get some knee pads…
Once the initial carving is finished I begin the polishing process. starting with 120 grit and moving up through six hundred grit sandpaper, I then skip to a 1500 grit to get a nice shine.

Once I have polished the grip, I apply several coats of ‘tried and true’ linseed oil which I’ve heated up by placing the tin of oil in a pot of boiling water until it’s warm (but not so hot that I can’t put my finger in it). I apply a thin coat with a paintbrush, making sure I cover every bit of wood and get in all the details, I leave this on for an hour and then wipe it off and rub it in. I wait for about 24 hours before repeating this process. Once the oil has set I finish the grip by applying a final coat of butchers wax to seal it.  The wax and linseed oil finish gives the wood a burnished look that brings out its beautiful natural qualities. In this case I used curly maple and the figure jumps out as soon as I put the first coat of oil on.

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Jake Powning

Jake is a professional swordsmith, artist, and writer who explores the strange place where traditional culture and the land meet.


  1. Nicely done Jake. Thanks for posting.

  2. You’re work is awesome. A true craftsman are you.

  3. I look through all your posts, all your pictures, and your blades. I read a post of yours about Vindirhrafn, and your story of the creation and naming of the blade. There was a part where you talk about how when you were twelve you discovered the smith Don Fogg and how you were immediately overwhelmed by the attention to realistic detail in his blades and how it affected you. I just found it funny because I experienced the same amount of awe when looking at all of your blades (especially Farbauti, Vindirhrafn, and Sindin!) You are the modern day Ulfbehrt and Thanes, Jarls, and kings from the farthest reaches of earth would praise your craftsmanship. Wonderful job sir and thank you for showing your work.

  4. thank you very much Nolan. 🙂

  5. Inspiring craftsmanship. I am preparing handles for a pair of matching seaxes that I recently forged, and am enthused to engrave Huginn and Muninn on the set. This instructional will benefit my approach to a quality finish.
    Thanks, and keep up the exceptional work.

  6. Sorry, one question: what size engraving tools do you prefer for your handles. You recommended a brand of Japanese tools recently, but am curious if you prefer the standard sizes, or the micros? I was looking at 3 or 4 mm for knot work and the raven motifs.
    Thanks again.

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