Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | June 30, 2010

Woodcarving Tools – Where Should One Start

In my many years of carving, I have spent more money on tools than I would like to admit (please don’t tell my wife).  Some early ones were terrible mistakes.  Since my blog site became active, I have had several inquiries about what kind of tools one should buy.  I find answering that question difficult because everyone has different desires.  About the only thing I can do is tell folks what I use personally with the caveat that they should try them before buying.  So, I thought this might make a good subject for a posting… what are the tools that I actually use.  I am going to focus on gouges (chisels) in this case.

In selecting tools, you want to consider quality (and the consistency of quality), the shape, the sweep, the width, the length, and handles (size and shape).

Standard Sized Gouges (to be used with the hand or mallet)

Regrettably, I believe the finest tools do not come from our country.  Rather, they are either European or Japanese.  And of the European, I have had the best results from the Swiss Made Pfeil brand.  There are also very good tools out of Germany… Kirschen/Two Cherries and Hirsch, being two.  I have found the Austrian Stubai to be inconsistent with quality.  Having said that, they make a series a extra deep No. 11 palm veiners that I find indispensable.  The sole distributor in the U.S. for Pfeil is Woodcraft.  However, they are also readily available from a selection of Canadian dealers, including Chipping Away.  I find the prices to be about the same.  There are also very good Japanese tools but they are expensive.  The other thing to note about Japanese gouges is that they have a fairly abrupt bevel.  This more abrupt bevel is great for short cuts but not so great for long sweeping cuts.  Japanese tools are also much harder than most any other tools as they are laminated – real hard, high quality carbon steel laminated to softer steel or iron.  If handles are an issue, my Japanese professional gouges have what I believe to be the most comfortable and beautiful  handles in existence.  All of the aforementioned tools have uniform sweeps.  Britain, however uses its own standard (Sheffield system) when it comes to sweeps so be cautious in ordering a British tool… don’t assume the sweep to be the same as the rest of the worlds.  I read good things about Henry Taylor and Ashley Iles but I have no first hand knowledge of any British tool.

Contrary to what the ads tell us, there is no such thing as a beginners set.  Most likely the set being referred to is of lesser quality and priced more affordable.  And, whether a beginner set or not, every set seems to include 1 or 2 tools that you will never use.  It is beyond me why manufactures include them in sets.  What you want depends entirely on what and how you are going to carve… and to a lesser degree, the woods you will use.

A Word about Palm Gouges

Most of the brands discussed above, also make palm gouges and the same considerations apply.  Palm gouges are smaller gouges used only in the hands and seldom struck with a mallet.  Major factors with palm gouges is the length of the shank and the handle.  You don’t want the shank to be too long as they are harder to control.  I find Pfeil’s to be just about the perfect size for me.  Ramelson, Stubai, and Flexcut are also good lengths.  Handles are also an important factor as palm tools are held in the hand, often for hours and you want it to be comfortable.  Most palm tools have gone to great lengths to design nice comfortable handles.  I believe one of the most comfortable handles to be those on Drake Knife palm tools.  In fact, Gil and Bonnie Drake also have wonderfully shaped handles on their knives.  I wished the rest of the makers should take note.

Gouge Styles

One can argue over how many end-of-the-gouge shapes there are, but suffice it to say there are a bunch.  Basically, a gouge is defined by the curve of its edge, referred to as its “sweep” and also by the shape of the end of the tool.  A #1 sweep is flat and each progressing sweep up to #11 is more curved than the prior number.  Then we have spoon gouges (dished like a spoon), skewed (angled), fishtail (flared or fanned out at the edge), and bent (bent along most or all of the shank).  Add to that special gouges like “V” parting tools that come in varying angles of degrees, and Fluteroni, and Macaroni tools which are each more or less like a channeling tool.  To get the full spectrum of gouges available, go to a good supplier’s catalog or on-line and take a look at what is available.

Hand Forged Gouges

Another option to buying tools is looking to a good hand forged tool.  These tools are often magical and can, themselves, be a piece of art.  Most forges restrict their output to knives but one high quality forge that also offers hand made gouges is Savage Forge in Clearlake, WA.  One draw back to buying hand made tools is that you will likely wait a long time to actually get the tool in your hand.  These old fashioned tool makers are artists and each tool is artfully created one at a time.  But, in the end, it will be a prized possession for sure.

My own Tools

As I stated earlier, I own a lot of tools… too many.  Here, I will present the tools that I use on a daily basis and value the most.

Generally speaking, in standard gouges, my brand of choice is Pfeil.  While I have complete sets of Nos. 2, 3, & 7 sweeps, my everyday, constantly used, tools are Pfeil fishtail gouges nos. 3, 5, 7, & 9 sweeps with a few v-parting tools.  I prefer fishtails as they are so much more versatile than straight gouges.  I also use a couple of hand forged tools made by Savage Forge that are also fishtail no. 3 sweeps.  And, not too far from hand is a selection of drop dead gorgeous professional Japanese gouges.

In Palm tools, once again, my brand of choice is Pfeil and my everyday set includes a variety of nos. 3, 5, 7, 9, & 12 sweeps.  I also consistently use 7 Savage Forge chisels that are varying sizes of nos. 2, 3, 9, & 12 sweeps.  Not too far from reach I keep, 5 Stubai no. 11 deep veiners from small to large.  And, this one may surprise you… I use a tool that came in my very first carving set.  It is a Millers Falls, approximately no. 8, bent gouge… my oldest gouge at about 45 years of age.

The Bottom Line

I suggest rubbing shoulders with seasoned carvers and observing what tools they use.  Don’t be afraid to ask for advice.  Classes and carving clubs are each a great place to see what other carvers are using.  If at all possible, test the tool before buying it… especially palm tools because of their handles.  In carving books and magazines, pay attention to tools being used by various authors or contributors.  Join the forum at Woodcarving Illustrated as it is a wealth of information where hundreds of carvers contribute.

You might like to check out additional articles that I have written about tools.  Simply click on “tools” in the right column.

Stay sharp, be carveful and please visit my website at www.WhiteEagleStudios.com .


Responses

  1. I found your website by looking for articles about Emil Janel and I am very glad that I did. I two questions, #1 have you ever used Denny Knifes (Mike Shiple now) and if so what is your opinion? #2 which of the EdgePro sharpeners do you recommend? I belive there are four diffrent packages to purchse. Thank You Bob Hallstrom

    • Hi Bob:

      Thank you for your visit. I really don’t know anything about Denny Tools… I do know they are quite common so there must be lots of users out there. As far as the Edge Pro goes, to the best of my knowledge, Edge Pro offers two systems… the smaller being the Apex. For home use and for knives, the Apex is just fine. If you intend to sharpen shears or sharpen commercially, the Pro is the one to get. I use the Pro as I sharpen salon shear professionally and they require a great deal of precision. The Apex is the more affordable version.

      Best regards and stay sharp.

      Michael


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