Tools of the Trade

Get Started Carving / Tools for Beginners

Tools of the Trade

An introduction to the tools used in traditional woodcarving

by Chris Pye

 

I carve in what might be called the traditional manner. It is sometimes referred to as European. The tools of my trade consist of variously shaped gouges, chisels, and so on. I don’t often use knives, which are so widespread in the U.S. that it would be reasonable to call them the traditional form of carving in America, and I don’t use power tools for anything other than roughing out or texturing.

It’s not that I have anything against knives or power equipment; lots of lovely work is done with them—it’s just that I’m in love with my carving tools. I can do so much more in terms of design or results with my gouges than I can with any knife. Indeed gouges superseded knives and axes in the history of carving design because of their advantages.

Sadly, it’s been my experience that a lot of knife users are put off by carving tools. Beginners can find their many shapes complicated, and they are daunted when it comes to selecting the best one to use for a particular job. Not to mention that dreaded sharpening! This is a pity—there is no doubt in my mind that carving tools can take the carver to places knives simply can’t go.

In this series of articles, I want to undo some of the mystery surrounding traditional carving tools— their selection and sharpening. We’ll move from there into simple exercises that will show you what these tools can do—how to hold and use them properly—and onto projects that bring this information all together.

Think of learning to carve in the same way as learning the guitar. A guitar teacher would first teach you how to tune the instrument and then move on to simple finger exercises. Gradually the exercises would get more challenging and develop into proper tunes.

This is the same as learning any skill and certainly true of carving. The most important part of learning any new skill is practice.

It amazes me how often beginners expect to learn the skill of woodcarving without putting in practice time. You’ll have to practice, put chisel to wood—a lot, if you want to progress!

Let’s begin with a quick overview of all those carving tools: what they are, why so many and briefly, what they can do for you.

Tool Charts & Sweeps

You have probably seen these charts in tool catalogs and carving books: you are looking at the profiles of carving tools seen on end, what carvers call their sweep. The sweeps and longitudinal shapes of carving tools are collected by manufacturers into numbering systems.

Regular Gouges

In a ‘true’ gouge, the sweep is actually an arc of a circle, a fact that can be readily demonstrated. The bigger the circle from which the arc is taken, the flatter the gouge.

Regular gouges: roughly the same width of carving tool but differing depths: the one on the left is flattest, the one on the right a semicircle and the others lie in between.

The width of a gouge is measured from corner to corner. This width or size of the tool is classified in either inches or millimeters. For any given width, there is a range of  flatter or deeper (quicker) gouges. The deepest true gouge is a semicircle.

Carvers use the fact that gouges are circle driven to great advantage when they produce perfect flowing lines by rotating the cutting edge along the sweep; cuts that can be unfailingly repeated elsewhere. This is very important in, say, mouldings, or matching two sides of a face. Gouges are the very bedrock of carving, from roughing out to finishing off.

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Short or spoonbent gouges: notice the different bends. You need to find one that will suit what you want to do; how deep a recess you need to get into.

U-Gouges

What I call ‘U-gouges’ are similar to true gouges, but work in a fundamentally different manner. The base of the “U” is a semi-circle or deep curve, but the walls extend upwards, parallel or splaying slightly, which means that you cannot rotate the cutting edge through an arc as you can with a true gouge.

These tools are used for creating channels or flutes when large (and are thus called fluters) and running the sort of detail lines you find in hair, fur or leaves when small (in which case they are called veiners). Broader U-gouges are great for roughing out and general shaping as you can mix the quickness of a deep gouge with flatter sides.

V-Gouges

In the charts you will also see sweeps that look like a “V”: these are called “V” or parting tools. The tool consists of two chisels joined at an angle that varies from 45˚ to 90˚, with 60˚ being the most useful. You would use the V-tool for separating (parting) one element in a carving from another, or for drawing lines, somewhat like a veiner.

Chisels

Lastly in the charts you will see chisels—dead flat like a carpenter’s chisel, but with a bevel on both sides—and skew chisels—angled at the end to produce a knifepoint and also with a bevel on both sides.

Chisels are used for lettering in the traditional manner. Skews are one of those tools I don’t use often, but when I need it, nothing else will do. They are useful for getting into tight corners, cleaning junctions and lines. The double bevel is an important feature, but we will delay discussing this until we look at sharpening.

Shapes

Besides differing when looked at on end, carving tools also differ in their lengthways appearance: their longitudinal shape. The common, parallel-sided regular gouge is shown on the left. The other is what is known as an ‘allongee’ shape—somewhat lighter.

The most common and useful carving tools are the ones with parallel sides, what we might call regular gouges: tough tools, hardened along their whole length and wearing out only over generations. You can use these gouges for pretty much everything: roughing out, modelling or detailing.

Bent Gouges

Detail of a Green Man by Gino Masero. Notice the fluid use of gouges, creating and moving the forms and outlines.

Thinking about how students seem to progress: next in usefulness are bent gouges. There comes a time when a regular gouge cannot get deep enough into a hollow; the blade fouls the edge. At this point a carver turns to a gouge that looks more like a spoon to get into the recess and scoop the wood away. These tools are called shortbent or spoon gouges. There is no standard bend and you need to see if a particular manufacturer makes the shape you want.

Fishtails

The next most useful tool is the fishtail. The blades of fishtails splay out from the end of a long shank. Again, manufacturers differ in the actual shape or amount of the splayed blade.

Unlike regular gouges, you can imagine that fishtails will eventually narrow as you sharpen them, giving them a shorter lifespan. Being more delicate and short-lived, carvers normally save fishtails for light work: finishing off and detailing, or running the protruding fishtail corners into recesses that would be inaccessible to the square corner of a regular gouge.

Specialty Tools

There are other shapes: what are called longbents (swan or sowback) and the really odd-looking backbents, but really, the longbents are of little use to most woodcarvers—I haven’t used one for years—and the backbents are very specialized tools—although in the right place very useful—and we need not concern ourselves with them right now.

The important thing to grasp here is that any sweep you have as a regular gouge, you can also get as a shortbent or a fishtail. So, when you find the width and sweep of regular gouge won’t get into a corner, or into a recess, you can switch to a similar tool that does the job better or more efficiently.

What Tools Do I Need To Begin Carving?

You can see that by the time you have multiplied the widths, the sweeps and the shapes of carving tools you have a lot of possible tools, enough to make any beginner panic!

The number of tools reflects the enormous variety and complexity of possible carved work. You might, for example, carve letters 10″ high or the tiny eye of a netsuke fish; vigorous and deep acanthus leaves, or simple pea moulding. And as your work will be different from the next carver, your tools will be different as well.

Here’s the good news: you only need a few to start with, and these should be regular gouges. And here’s the golden rule: as you progress, buy your next carving tools on the basis of need. This is a bit of a conundrum: you don’t want to start carving until you know what tools you need, but you won’t know what tools you need until you start carving…

The answer is to start with a few of those carving tools that are most likely to be useful in the widest variety of situations; I’ll give you a short list of such carving tools later. I’ll include those we will be using in later exercises and projects designed to demonstrate where and why these tools are used and how to make the most of them.

Numbering Systems

Manufacturers categorize their tools with a numbering system. Besides recognizing different carving tools, you must be able to find your way around those charts, full of numbers. All the tools we’ve mentioned will have a number given to them and stamped into the shank by the maker. Unfortunately there is no consensus. Manufacturers differ in what number they give a particular sweep or shape.

The most common and oldest numbering system is called the Sheffield list and most other makers follow a similar numbering pattern. In the Sheffield list, for any width:

#1 is a chisel

#2 the skew chisel

#3 is the flattest possible gouge

#9 is usually the semicircle

There is a range of sweeps (#4 – #8) in between.

So, at any given width, the smaller the number, the flatter the carving tool.

The #10s and #11s are U-gouges.

The V-tool might be any number; luckily it is readily recognizable.

However, as an example of the historical individuality of makers, the common Pfeil (Swiss Made) tools start with chisels at #1 (as does the Sheffield list) but calls its skews #1S. Thus Pfeil start their gouges out of sync with the Sheffield list, with their flattest gouge being #2. They also drop some numbers entirely! Nevertheless, the tools you need will be there, even if the numbering seems odd.

You might be carving with a ½” gouge and think: “I’d really like this to be flatter.” You would then go to the tool chart of any (or your favorite) maker, place the cutting edge on its sweep in the picture, and find it was, say a ½” x #6—with luck, as it says on the shank. You would then buy a ½” x #5, #4, or #3, depending on how much flatter you wanted it. You can also use the chart to find your tool in shortbent or fishtail shape.

What Are the Best Makes and Where Do I Buy Them?

There are many good carving tools on the market, made from decent steel and tempered to hold their cutting edges well.

A short list would include: Auriou, Pfeil, Henry Taylor, Ashley Iles, Stubai and Two Cherries—plenty to choose from. You will, however, find variations in the thickness of the blade and the quality of the forging (the actual shaping of the tool). Variations occur even from tool to tool within the same maker and undesirable ones come about through the balance between the elements of hand-forging and quality control. It is easy to become brand loyal and I always suggest students try tools from different manufacturers and make their own minds up.

Recommendations for a beginner’s tool set: from left to right, #3 gouges, #6 gouges, #9 gouges, 60° V-tool, and skew chisel.

Because of this variation in shape or quality, it’s always best to pick up and handle a carving tool before you buy it. If that isn’t possible, there are plenty of suppliers in this and other magazines, and on the web. Whoever you decide to purchase from, it’s important to be able to return a tool if you are not happy with it.

Some students argue that traditional carving tools are expensive, and they can be when compared with knives, but not when compared with other wood crafts. You will need to spend some money to start, but carving tools are a great investment: with just a few sharp gouges and a mallet you are up and away carving. You can build up your kit so slowly you hardly notice the cost and you can carve scrap lumber. You would be hard pressed to wear out a regular carving tool in a lifetime of creative carving—I have some around that are a hundred years old, with several names besides mine on the handles.

Recommendations for a beginner’s tool set

Here are a few useful tools with which you can accomplish a lot of carving.

  • #3 x ¼” and ½” (flattest gouges in the maker’s range
  • #6 x ¼” and ½” (middle gouges)
  • #9 x ¼” and ½” (deepest, semicircular gouges)
  • Skew chisel x 3/8″
  • 60˚ V-tool x 3/8″

What’s Next?

Once you have some carving tools, the next thing to do is sharpen them properly. But, hey—don’t they come already sharpened these days? Well, yes, the cutting edge might be sharp but the tool might still cut badly or inefficiently. We need to go through a straightforward process of ‘commissioning’ your carving tools in order to get the best out of them—and thus out of you, the carver.


About the Author

Chris Pye is a master woodcarver, instructor and author. He has written several books and offers one-on-one instruction at his home studio in Hereford, England. He also maintains a monthly e-mail newsletter and website on woodcarving at www.chrispye-woodcarving.com. For more on the basics of woodcarving, check out Chris’ series of books Woodcarving Tools, Materials, and Equipment.

 

 

 


This article was first published in Woodcarving Illustrated Fall 2006 (Issue 36).

 

 

 

 


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