Introduction: Three Ways to Make a Wooden Chain

Picture of Three Ways to Make a Wooden Chain

Making a wooden chain is a classic wood carving project.

It is traditionally done using simple carving tools to make an unbroken chain from one solid piece of wood.

I thought it would be fun to explore different ways to make wooden chains using both hand carving tools as well as power tools. This is essentially a 3-for-1 instructable, covering three different methods I used to make some wooden chains.

Thanks for taking a look!

Step 1: Chain #1: Five Links From Basswood

Picture of Chain #1: Five Links From Basswood

This first chain has 5 unbroken links made from one solid piece of basswood.

Basswood is the most popular wood for hand carving because it is relatively soft and has a very consistent grain.

This chain was mostly hand-carved, although I made the initial rough cuts using a table saw and a scroll saw. Each link on this chain is 3 1/2 inches long, and 2 inches wide.

Step 2: Wood Blank

Picture of Wood Blank

I began this chain with a 2" by 2" piece of basswood that was 10 inches long.

I marked lines along the length to indicate the middle 1/2 inch on all four sides.

The four long corners were then removed using a table saw. You could whittle away these portions by hand if you wanted, but that wastes a lot of usable wood.

The goal is to create a wooden blank with a "plus sign" cross-section.

Step 3: Template

Picture of Template

I made a simple template for laying out the links on this chain.

This pattern can be easily duplicated for any size of stock material you may be working with. All you need to know is the width of your squared-up wood blank. In my case, it is 2 inches.

The template is made by creating a 4 x 8 grid on a sheet of paper, where 4 blocks match the total width of your square stock (so for me, each square is 1/2" by 1/2").

With a 4 x 8 piece of paper cut out, I folded it in half and in half again as needed to create the internal grid lines.

I then drew out the link pattern as shown in the photo. The actual link is 4 blocks by 7, and the remaining column of blocks (on the left in my photo) is used to indicate where to mark for the correct spacing between links when tracing the template onto the wood.

Step 4: Trim Template

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To use the template, the middle 1/2" needs to be removed so it matches the "plus sign" wood blank.

To do this simply cut through the middle of the blocks indicated in photo 1.

The completed template is shown in photo 2.

Step 5: Trace Template Onto Wood Blank

Picture of Trace Template Onto Wood Blank

The template can now be used to draw out the links on the wood.

Note the arrows on the template in photo 1. These indicate the placement of the pattern for the perpendicular through-link as shown in photo 2.

Use the template to mark all sides of the wood, being sure to line up things as closely as possible.

Step 6: Roughing Out

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I was initially going to carve out these areas by hand. But I decided to cheat and just use my scroll saw to speed things up.

This is a little tricky, as the surface in contact with the table is only 1/2" wide. But it can reasonable be done if you keep the wood firmly pressed against the table.

Step 7: Rough Chain Shape

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The rough chain shape is completed, but time-wise this is probably less than 1/4 of the way done with the chain.

All the fun and time-consuming steps lie ahead.

Step 8: The Challenge

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Here is the challenge with any attempt at creating an unbroken chain of wooden links.

The area connecting adjacent links is marked in black in these photos. This areas needs to be separated in some way in order to proceed.

So think about it for a minute, just for fun. How would you do this? And what kind of tools do you think would work?

I tried a number of approaches to severing this connection, and some worked much better than others. Details on the other methods I used will be shown in later steps.

For this particular chain, I carved out these areas one little nibble at a time using a small carving gouge.

Step 9: Solution

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I have a set of Flexcut carving gouges that I recently bought and have been experimenting with. It's a pretty popular starter set available on amazon. (This is the set I have: Flexcut carving kit)

For this step I used an 1/8" gouge (technically, it's called a "1/8 inch No. 11 veiner") to remove little bits of wood from between the connected links from every angle possible.

This is time consuming, but as you go, you learn which angles and movements seem to cut through the wood fibers most effectively.

My advice is to try different things, and when something seems to work, keep doing it. There's a lot of trial and error involved with learning skills like woodcarving, and I'm too much of a novice to attempt to teach much more about it than that.

Step 10: Keep at It

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Keep nibbling away from all sides until you see a just a small strand of wood remaining.

At this point, you can give the links a gentle bend and . . .

Step 11: Snap!

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If the pieces break apart with just a little bit of pressure, you're done!

Now repeat this same procedure for all the remaining links.

Step 12: Clean Up the Severed Areas

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I used a 3/8" gouge to clean up the severed areas and remove the few splintery bits.

Step 13: Start Whittling

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With all the links free from each other, the last step is to whittle down each link into a roundish link-like shape.

I used a basic carving knife for this step. It's important to take your time and enjoy the process--trying to rush something like this is not advisable. Strop your knife frequently and keep it sharp.

Chain #1 is done!

Step 14: Chain #2: 20 Links From a 2 by 4

Picture of Chain #2: 20 Links From a 2 by 4

This chain is made from 20 unbroken links made from a solid piece of a standard framing stud, or "2 by 4."

I tried to complete this chain using only power tools, to see if I could make a longer chain in less time.

Once I had established a method that worked, it was indeed a fairly quick process overall. However, in the end I found certain steps to still be quicker with my carving knife.

Step 15: Rough Out 2 by 4

Picture of Rough Out 2 by 4

To make the "plus sign" wood blank, I began by cutting a 1 1/2" by 1 1/2" piece of 2 by 4 using my circular saw with its edge guide.

With the edge guide and blade depth adjusted accordingly, I then cut off the four long corners of the blank.

Step 16: Lay Out Pattern

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I made a pattern similar to what was done for the first chain, but this time laid it out onto cardstock, repeating the template a few times.

This template was cut out with a hobby knife, and then used to transfer the pattern onto the piece of 2 by 4.

Step 17: Build a Holding Jig

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I built a simple holding jig out of a single 2 by 4 to hold the chain blank while I worked on it. Measurements and details are shared in the photo notes.

Step 18: Plunge Cuts

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I started hacking down the blank into rough link sections with plunge cuts made with an oscillating multi-tool.

These tools are excellent for various home repairs and such, and a perfect way to make the plunging through-cuts needed in this situation.

After a bit of research, I opted for the Dremel version which I got for 69 bucks on amazon. Here's the kit I got. It's solid, and I abused the hell out of it while making this chain. Definitely recommend, if you're looking for one.

Harbor Freight has a cheap-o version for less than 20, but I try to gauge my HF purchases carefully. In this case, it looked like more of a potential hassle to go the cheap route. That said . . . Harbor Freight was the only place I could find that carried the 3/8" plunge cutting blades I needed for this project at a decent price. I picked up one of these blades, which was an absolute necessity for completing this particular chain. Here is the blade I got.

Step 19: The Challenge Revisited

Picture of The Challenge Revisited

Recall Step 8 from the first wooden chain, regarding the question of how to separate the individual links. That's where we're at again.

However, because this chain was being made with a 1 1/2" piece of wood rather than a 2" piece (smaller area to work with), and because this was splintery pine rather than that heavenly-soft basswood . . . this step proved much more difficult this time around.

My first solution was to carefully drill out the conjoining area with a small drill bit. I tried this approach on several links, and it actually worked on a couple of them. However, for the few links I successfully separated without splitting the delicate pine, the results were quite messy and overall just too inconsistent for me.

So I scratched this approach.

Step 20: Solution

Picture of Solution

Next I tried using the 3/8" plunge cutting blade with the multi-tool, and this worked marginally well. However, doing this nearly severs the sides of the links in the process. They're still intact, but not by much.

The best option I found was to use a multi-purpose cutting bit in my rotary tool (this is the rotary tool I've had for years, and love it).

This cutting bit looks similar to a regular drill bit, but is intended for cutting sideways like a router bit.

To separate the chain links, I would make an initial plunge cut like a normal drill bit from each of the four corners. Then from each corner I would pivot the bit up and down to nibble away the wood between the two links.

The secret is to not enlarge the entry holes as much as is possible, as this will eat into the links. Several of mine were quite sloppy, but after about 10 links or so I started to get the hang of it. It worked surprisingly well!

Step 21: Failures

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This is quite a pile of failures, but I eventually found a way that worked!

Step 22: Cleaning Up the Links

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I made 20 connected, unbroken links out of this piece of 2x4.

For the first 10, I used my power carving tool (this is the kit I have) and my basic rotary tool to clean up the links. This actually proved more time-consuming than using a carving knife, so I finish-carved the remaining 10 links by hand.

Chain #2 is done!

Step 23: Chain #3: 10 Links in a Ring From a 2 by 4

Picture of Chain #3: 10 Links in a Ring From a 2 by 4

This third chain was made from 10 links cut from piece of 2 by 4.

This was the quickest and easiest approach BY FAR.

The secret is to make the individual links separately, break half of them into two, and then glue the broken ones back together linking up the unbroken ones in every other spot.

The net result is essentially the same, but you can produce a longer chain faster, and with cleaner-looking results.

However, since it's not made from one solid piece of wood, you lose all those imaginary coolness points in the process!

So it's a toss up, I guess. Read on to see how this was made.

Step 24: Pattern

Picture of Pattern

I began by cutting a few 1/2" thick, 1 1/2" wide slats from a 2 by 4, and made a simple link template out of paper.

I traced this pattern onto the slats and marked hole centers on either end of each piece.

Step 25: Remove Middle Sections

Picture of Remove Middle Sections

I used a drill press with a 3/4" forstner bit to drill holes through each end of the links.

To keep the holes from blowing out on the bottom side, only drill down until the pilot point of the bit just barely breaks through the bottom side. Then flip over the wood and complete the hole.

Next I used the scroll saw to complete internal holes. Then I cut out the individual links.

Step 26: Sand Links

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I used my bench sander to sand the outside of the links round, and my rotary tool with a sanding drum to sand the inside edges.

Step 27: Break Links

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Half of the links were now broken in two. I did this by clamping them in a vice and gently tapping them with a mallet.

Just be sure to keep the mating pieces next to each other so they don't get mixed up. When these are glued back together, if you have lined them up precisely you cannot see the seam at all.

Step 28: Make a Chain

Picture of Make a Chain

Using a bit of wood glue, I fastened the broken links back together with solid unbroken links between each glued link.

A 10-inch piece of masking tape is wrapped around the glued links as a quick clamp to hold the pieces together till they are dry.

When the glue was dry, I removed the tape and lightly sanded the glue joints until any visible glue and any trace of the seams were gone.

Step 29: Thanks for Reading!

Picture of Thanks for Reading!

There are undoubtedly many ways to make wooden chains.

These were just the methods I tried. Do you know of another method you've seen or tried yourself? Let me know in the comments!

Comments

pankinoa made it! (author)2017-07-27

My latch with wooden chain

Rex Miles (author)2017-07-15

Neat!! very helpful. I made a chain before, but I made round links.

Looks a lot easier to use oval ones. I'll have to try oval ones sometime.

GerardZ1 (author)2017-03-15

Nice instructable...well presented....

MGriffies (author)2016-11-27

Steve Ramsey has a Youtube tutorial on making chains using a router! Look him up and his way just eliminates any sanding or carving! His link is as following: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pHCfXtRYCA

dalegribble made it! (author)2016-08-26

I have always wanted to try this. Great instructions. Thanks for the inspiration and instructions!

seamster (author)dalegribble2016-08-26

Nice Dale, thanks for the photo!

It was a fun project, and good practice. Nice to see that you tried it out! :)

makendo (author)2016-05-16

Mathias Wandel made one in a fabulously complicated way: http://woodgears.ca/toys/chain.html

I think if I ever do this, I'll use your method 3. Clever and a great result.

seamster (author)makendo2016-05-16

Oh nice! I had not seen that yet, thanks for the link.

I love that he went back to a roughing knife at the end, just like I did with my 2nd chain above. All power tools proves too slow. Ha!

Ehlers_TV (author)2016-02-26

AWESOME !!!! I need to TRY !!!

DeeRilee (author)2016-01-22

My grandmother had a wooden chain that my father had made as a teen...at one end of it was a wooden "cage" with a ball inside...all from one piece of wood. I was always so fascinated with it!

Love this project.

seamster (author)DeeRilee2016-01-22

Thank you! I've been looking for another carving project to start. Perhaps I'll have to make a caged ball next! :)

amberrayh (author)2016-01-21

Awesome project! Thanks for sharing. Beautiful pics and write up as always :)

seamster (author)amberrayh2016-01-21

Hey, hey! Thank you. Nice to see you still poking around here! :)

thewireguy made it! (author)2016-01-20

Thank you for a great posting. Used to make a lot of small wood chains myself starting about 45 years ago. I always that it would be good to show people how to do it, and you did it well.

seamster (author)thewireguy2016-01-20

Oh goodness, that's incredible!

You should do just one more . . . and snap some photos to write up an instructable on the process! ;)

thewireguy (author)seamster2016-01-20

Thanks for kindness, but now too old, unsteady and poor vision. Same basic process you show except with exacto knife, changing blade often.

blackbeard52 (author)2016-01-20

Use a Power carver trick to hold set 1 level for cutting. replace the blocks removed with plus sign cutouts insert the gap with matchsticks and tape the block back in. this will make it safe to cut since it will now be 2 inche base

fdc313 (author)2016-01-20

I really like the ring link, even if it is cheating :) .. Great tutorial

seamster (author)fdc3132016-01-20

Thank you, I really appreciate it.

BillK39 (author)2016-01-20

LOL!!! #3 looks to be cheating to me! I wouldn't tell though!

seamster (author)BillK392016-01-20

Ha! Yep, it's definitely "cheating" if you're a carving purist :)

I certainly value the unbroken (mostly) hand-carved one the most, so that says something!

Attmos (author)2016-01-20

Very cool, I like it. Thanks, this is really inspirational.

seamster (author)Attmos2016-01-20

Thank you for the compliments! I hope you'll make some. Be sure to share a photo if you do :)

mmclean4 (author)2016-01-20

Good job. It has been 50 years since I first carved a chain. I wish I had this well explained lesson to help me then.

UnclTodd (author)2016-01-19

In my wildest dream I would never even attempt any of the three projects... but after viewing all the steps the 3rd time (I was fascinated!) I came up with a short list of excuses for not even trying: Failing eyesight; Accellerating arthritis; Shortening attention span; Wrong tools at hand. Thank you for sharing your skills in such detail.

seamster (author)UnclTodd2016-01-19

You're very welcome! Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

kaderdina made it! (author)2016-01-19

Without using any power tools. I shaped out the cross using a chisel and curved out the rest of the wood with a pointy kitched knife and a pen needle. The joint areas were espcecially tricky.

seamster (author)kaderdina2016-01-19

Excellent! Good to see how it turned out. Thanks for sharing the photo!

Hey, we have a chain like these that was hand carved by my grandfather back in scotland, he was cabinet maker back in the day. they are very cool, thanks for the instruct. Photo attached is my grand parents back in scotland, my father is in the side car..

Very cool! It's great to see things that have been passed down through the generations like that. Awesome. I hope my kids keep these chains and pass them down likewise!

KennethM45 (author)2016-01-19

The nices way to do it is to cut hem all from a single piece of wood. at the ends just draw the link across the end of the board and down the other side. It has been a long time since I did one of these, but it is really fascinating to give them to someone and tell them it is made without gluing any of it together. My very first carving project was a 'Courting Spoon" made from a solid block of poplar, it had a triple post spiral for the handle and a ball and cage for the end. No gluing involved.

seamster (author)KennethM452016-01-19

I agree, it really is best to do the no-glue method. I included that version just to show how easily it can be done.

Great comment, thank you!

KennethM45 (author)seamster2016-01-19

I had just apprenticed to a master wood carver, he looked at it and accused me of having done this before. lol :) His best quote was: "if you make a mistake in wood, don't try to cover it up, just make it look like it was part of the design." :)

Miss miya (author)2016-01-19

cool

It's arsom

EthanM2 (author)2016-01-19

Great! I have always had an obsession with wooden chains, although they are quite useless! I have discovered that I am pretty bad at whittling, but it's nice to see other people's successes! Good pictures, not dull like many others on instructables.

seamster (author)EthanM22016-01-19

Thanks! Yes, wooden chains are certainly a "whimsy" item . . . visually interesting and good for conversation.

I gave these to my kids, and hopefully they'll just hang on to them till they're old.

EthanM2 (author)seamster2016-01-19

The chains would also make great gifts, I love the idea of handing them down to your kids, it's something they could look back on when they are older, and laugh at the 'really old fashioned' tools you used to make them!

Scottparkercopestick (author)2016-01-19

Nice job with loads of different methods. The last one was definitely the one i'd try as I have very little patience for hand tools but just to throw another option in the mix, check out this link to Steve Ramsey who did it with a router https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pHCfXtRYCA

Ah, very nice!

That is a great way to make a bunch of individual links FAST. Thanks for sharing the link!

NathanSellers (author)2016-01-16

super cool. I fully expected that you used a round piece of wood for the last one.

EthanM2 (author)NathanSellers2016-01-19

So did I! I have seen people breaking the chains elsewhere, I hate doing that though, it almost seems like cheating! I hate breaking things, even if they are meant to be broken and fixed again, it makes me sad!

seamster (author)NathanSellers2016-01-16

Thanks! It could certainly be done that way, but I opted for a simpler approach! : )

dollarseed (author)2016-01-19

I have an old wooden anchor that is hung by a wood chain, and have always been fascinated at how that would be done. Thanks for sharing :)

LucianoP1 (author)2016-01-19

bravissimo

Darknessblade. (author)2016-01-18

there is a way stimilar to the last one

only then using a custom base and a tool.

to make the chains perfectly rounded.

then cut it in half.

re glue the connected ones.

jnatter (author)Darknessblade.2016-01-19

Don't cut in half but put the link in vise and break it with the grain. Then glue the pieces together. A little sand paper and the break is almost invisible.

Amaries (author)2016-01-18

Awesome, I have to try this once

Ehlers_TV (author)2016-01-18

Good Job !!!! :-D

mapski99 (author)2016-01-17

AWESOME post. Thanks.

jolj1. (author)2016-01-17

The first way you show in Bass wood was first completed by Hobos on trains with just a pocket knife.

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