Canadian Woodworking

Key Holder

Author: Francois Theriault
Illustration: James Provost
Published: April May 2008

Give anybody a knife and a piece of wood and their natural instinct is to start making notches.


The art of chip carving is a natural progression of this tendency, and has been used by most cultures to decorate everyday objects effectively with a few, simple tools.

This carving project is a practical and fun little piece that will appeal to the beginner woodcarver. The technique is fairly simple, consisting of mostly straight cuts with some simple curves. I recommend that you use a soft wood such as pine or basswood for this project as they are best suited for chip carving.

Iron pattern onto work piece

Pattern transferred to work piece

Cut first side of triangle

Cut other sides of triangle

Chip removed

Moor style chip knives

German style chip knives

Peg layout

Hanger layout

Pattern Transfer

For this project you will need a piece of softwood ⅝” x 5″ x 10″. If your stock is ¾” thick, thickness plane or hand plane it down to ⅝”. To transfer the pattern to your stock you will need a clothes iron.

• Photocopy the pattern.

• Place it face down on the wood.

• Heat the backside of the pattern with the clothes iron. The heat will cause the carbon powder from the photocopy to adhere to the wood.

Prepare the Board

This is a single-board project. As such there is no heavy construction involved.

• Using a band saw, scroll saw or a simple jig saw, cut out the shape of the key holder.

• Sand the edges smooth. A block of scrap wood with a piece of sanding paper wrapped around it does the job quite effectively. For the curved surfaces, use a piece of dowel as the support for the sanding paper. Begin with 100 grit sandpaper, working your way up to 220 grit. Take care to keep the sanding block perpendicular to the board. Of course, be careful not to sand over the pattern.

Cut the Triangles

Chip carving is a very straightforward craft. No fancy tools are required. As a matter of fact, for lack of a better tool, I spent many years carving with a utility knife with snap-off blades.

You’ll find that chip carving knives come in a variety of styles and prices.

Chip carving essentially involves cutting a series of small chips out of a wood surface in a triangular fashion. While the triangles are often equilateral (all sides are of equal length), they can be isosceles (two sides of equal length) or scalene (all sides are of different lengths). As well, the triangles can have straight or curved sides.

• Hold the knife blade at approximately 60º to the wood surface and cut the first side of the triangle. Repeat this on the second side, and then on the third side, ensuring that the knife points meet on all cuts at the same spot. The wood chip should then pop right out.

• For chips with longer sides, such as the central rosette of the pattern, take care to ease up on the pressure exerted on your knife as you approach the point, or you run the risk of cutting through the ridge.

• Always pay close attention to the direction of the grain. Cutting with the grain will give you a nice clean cut.


Be careful when running a short piece of wood through a thickness planer. It’s best to ensure that the shortest piece you use is about 4″ longer than the distance between the two pressure rollers, located in front and behind the cutter head. Measure this distance and write it on the side of your planer with a permanent marker. An alternate approach is to temporarily glue long strips of waste stock to either side of the piece, and then run the glued-up piece through the planer. These braces can be removed after the required thickness is achieved.

Mount the Pegs and the Hangers

Once the pattern is fully carved, drill the six holes to receive the pegs. I found the mini-pegs at my local hardware store. They are the right proportions for the overall project and are small enough to accept most sizes of key rings.

• Mark out the location of the drill holes.

• Using an appropriately sized drill bit, drill down a little more than the length of the shank on the mini-pegs. I drilled the ¼” holes 5⁄16″ deep.

• Apply a dab of glue and insert the pegs. Use a wet paper towel to clean up the surplus glue.

The final step involves installing the hangers. These come in a variety of sizes and configurations. For this project, I used a two-hole hanger with a central keyhole for the hanging screw. Since the key holder is better installed flush with the wall, the hangers need to be recessed into the back. It’s best to install two hangers – if you use only one the key holder will have a tendency to sway.

• A fast and easy way to do this is to trace the outline of the hanger onto the wood with a sharp knife. Holding the knife at 90º go over the outline several times with the same knife to sharply define the edge of the outline.

• Using a ¼” flat chisel remove the wood within the outline. Several passes might be required to work down to the thickness of the hanger. Use the hanger to check depth and fit from time to time to ensure you do not dig down too deep.

Apply a Finish

A final sanding of the carved surface is not required, as it would ruin the crispness of the design. You may however want to clean up any carbon from the photocopy transfer that shows on the surface. For this use a fine grit sandpaper (500 grit or higher). A couple of coats of varnish will give you a durable finish that will also make it easier for dusting and occasional cleaning.

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