Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | May 6, 2009

Primer on Woodcarving Tools, Part I – Woodcarving Gouges

Whether you are carving monumental statues or simply hand whittling, there are tools made to suit your every need.  Basically, there are gouges, knives, and power tools.  However, within each of those categories there are myriads of shapes, sizes, and applications.  I am calling these initial discussions a “primer” as they are simply an introduction.


Gouges are similar to carpenters chisels and while there are straight gouges (No. 1 sweep), most are curved.  Gouges are formed into varying sweeps to remove lesser or greater amounts of wood depending upon the curve of the sweep.  For instance, a #9 sweep is a deep sweep and is generally used for fast removal of wood in the case of larger gouges and small channeled cuts in the case of smaller gouges.  A #3 sweep is a shallow sweep and is used on flatter areas and for smoothing.  The cut resulting from the latter is similar in appearance to a light ping in hammered metal.  I like to finish most of my carvings in this manner as I want the hand carved look.

The sweep numbers and classifications are from a standardized European system of identification.  Sweep #1 is a flat chisel and comes beveled (sharpened) on a single side or on both sides.  Sweep #2 is also a flat chisel but is cut on a “skew,” or angle of varying degrees .   Sweeps number 3 and 4 are shallow gouges, Sweeps 5 & 6 are medium gouges, and 7 – 10 are deep gouges.  The # 11 is a severe deep gouge and is often referred to as a “veiner.”  Then we move into “V parting tools.”  V tools are sometimes numbered but for the most part, they are simply referred to as V tools.  There are varying angles to “V’s” but the most common are 45, 60, and 90 degrees.  They cut just as their name suggests, in a V shape.  V tools are used for “stop cuts” and detail such as for hair and lines around eyes.

If you are not confused yet, there are derivatives of most of the above referred to as “fishtail gouges,” ”spoon gouges,” bent gouges,”skewed gouges,” back bent gouges,” “dog legs,” and more.  It gets kind of crazy.  Gouges come “palm” sized, intermediate sized, and full sized.  Fishtail gouges are my favorite gouge as they come in many of the standard sweeps and sizes but they have a narrower shank and flair at the blade and I find them to be multi-purpose and quite versatile in their application.

All of these tools come in widths from as narrow as 2mm up to 30mm (less than 1/8″ to about 1 1/4 “).  There are heavy duty versions as large as 80mm (3 inches) and more.  Gouge widths are more often than not offered in millimeters rather than inches which can be confusing to we Americans.

The charts below are those of the famous Swiss Pfeil brand but, they are also fairly representative of gouges shapes and sizes in general.

Gouge Sweeps I

Gouge Sweeps I

Gouge Sweeps II

Gouge Sweeps II

Gouge Sweeps III (V Tools)

Gouge Sweeps III

Palm Sized Gouges

Palm sized gouges are intended primarily for hand work and can easily be used with one hand.  Whittlers and caricature carvers use them and they are used for finish work.  Typically they are between 5 and 6 inches long.  I have actually cut some even shorter for a little pocket kit that I like to carry.  There are as many choices for handle shapes in palm sized tools as there are manufacturers.  I tend to like the standard gouge handle shape which is similar to a screwdriver handle.  I find them to be more manageable in many respects.  Palm tools do not come in all the options as full sized tools but they come in many basic shapes.

Intermediate Sized Tools

Intermediate Tools usually run between 8″ and 9″ in length.  They are simply a scaled-down version of full sized tools.  Here again, like palm tools, intermediate sized tools do not come in all of the options listed above.  Many carvers like this sized tool as it is easy to use either by hand or with a mallet.

Full Sized Tools

Full sized tools run between 9 ½” and 11″ long.  Although one can use them with simple hand pressure, they are primarily used with a mallet.  A narrow width can easily be used by hand (two hands) but a wide deep gouge requires a mallet unless you are built like a lineman from your favorite football team.  Besides the quality of the steel, handles are an important consideration, especially on full sized tools as they need to be able to withstand hundreds, if not thousands of mallet strikes.

The Correct Gouge

Choosing the correct gouge makes all the difference when carving.  While it is possible to use any tool for any job, using the correct tool usually provides better control, a better looking finish, efficiency, and a better appearance.  The wood you are carving also has a bearing on what tools you use.  It is difficult to carve hard wood with small or fine tools and it often requires a mallet.  One thing I try to provide in my classes is direction on what tools to use and resources for acquiring them.  I have in the neighborhood of 500 woodcarving tools and more than a few of them have been a mistake.

Most quality factory tools are from, Austria, England, Germany, Japan, and Switzerland.  Good tools from the US tend to be produced by small forges and tool companies and not mass produced.  Some of the absolute best tools that I own were produced by a small forge in Clear Lake, Washington owned by Dick Anderson.  The forge is Savage Forge.  It is not unusual to wait a full year for delivery of a tool but they are worth the wait.  I am pretty sure these tools have a talent of their own and are magic.  Dick can be contacted at:  Note that I have not linked the e-mail address in order to prevent automatic spammer search devices.

Favorite Gouges

I would enjoy hearing what your favorite gouges are and why you choose them.  Of course “favorite” is a relative term and everyone has favorites for specific purposes.  For the purpose of this article, let’s stay general.  I will post selected responses in a future article discussing favorite tools.  Please respond to  Thank you in advance for your response.

Gouge Tip

One can often use the corner of a larger or wider gouge for detail work.  It is for this reason that I particularly like fishtail gouges.  For instance, the outside 1/4 or 1/3 of a deep #11 gouge can easily assume the role of a narrow #3 or #5 shallow gouge.  Doing so will save you a trip to the tool rack.  I am aware of a professional carver in Austria that routinely uses a 3-inch wide gouge for even the finest of detail.

In my next posting, I will discuss knives.

Keep sharp, be “carveful” and happy carving!
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