I got to thinking this morning that some of you might be interested in what kind of tools I use to do my carvings and sculptures. There are a lot of them. Woodworkers are obsessive tool collectors by nature, always experimenting and thinking that some “new thing” will solve a problem that they haven’t been able to work out. Sometimes this is true. A lot of the time what is really going on is that we haven’t got the skill to use the tools we already have… at least not yet. But most of us don’t figure this out until we’ve spent an enormous amount of money and accumulated a huge collection of tools and machines most of which end up collecting dust and rust in forgotten corners of the shop or garage until we finally try to sell them for pennies on the dollar at the yard sale our wives demand we have.
Nevertheless, after thirty plus years, I do have a collection of very important tools that I reach for, sometimes very often, sometimes only once in a very rare while, which are essential to my art. And I still sometimes purchase new tools and machines that actually do improve my work or make the use of my time more efficient. Only now, after so many years, I have better learned to determined which tools are truly of professional quality and which are junk, and which will actually do the job that they are designed to do and which are dreams that work beautifully in the imaginations of engineers but really have little practical application.
Fundamental to my craft are carving gouges. These are the traditional tools of woodcarvers and have really remained unchanged for many centuries, at least since the invention of metallurgy. I say “unchanged”: The carving gouge certainly has been refined and improved over its long history, both in the quality of the steels of which it is forged and in the refinement of its forms. But essentially it has always been and still is a shaped steel blade that is sharpened to a razor edge that is used to artistically form wood by hand.
I have, over the past thirty years, acquired somewhere around 300 of these tools. They come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes and each one serves a specific purpose. Some of them I use constantly. There are others I might use once a year, but I have to have them because the shape they fit or the corner they reach into cannot be made or reached into by any other tool.
Many of the tools I have are of contemporary manufacture: There are a half-dozen forges around the world that produce very high quality carving tools. And I also have a large number of gouges that are a hundred to two-hundred or more years old. These older tools often are of finer craftsmanship and of better steel than the new tools: The alloys’ formulas long lost and the precision hand-craftsmanship overpowered by the need for speed and profits. We have lost something in becoming modern, even as we have progressed.
I think that my favorite modern gouges are made by Pfeil and are sold under the name “Swiss Made”. I usually buy them through “Woodcraft” (Woodcraft.com). Swiss Made gouges are the surgical tools of the traditional carving world. They are always perfectly manufactured, perfectly pre-sharpened, perfectly balanced.
I am equally pleased with the Austrian “Stubai” gouges. These sometimes offer a different selection of “sweeps” than Swiss Made (“the sweep” of a gouge is the curvature of its cutting edge), and they come with a blackened surface that reduces light reflections that can sometimes become annoying when carving small details. Swiss Made tools have a very polished bright finish.
I also have had good experiences with the “Mastercarver” tools from Woodcarvers’ Supply.
All of these tools are European “Continental” manufacture. The other traditional source of Western carving is English, and there are a number of quality tool manufacturers in Britain. I have a number of English gouges in my array. Henry Taylor, Ashley Iles, and Marples are three very fine forges. I personally prefer the Continental tools for two reasons. The first is my carving style: The Swiss Made tools, especially in the narrower sweeps, are more delicately made and lighter in the hand than the English tools. I carve mostly high detail smaller work and the English tools seem better suited toward more robust carving. This seems to be a heritage of the style of carvings from each of these regions: The Continental carvers worked often in linden, and developed a taste for very small and refined details. The English carvers worked more in oak, and the carvings of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries are often robust and heavier. Oak requires a much heftier tool than linden to avoid breaking the tool.
The other reason that I steer away from English tools is their handles. Traditionally, the Brits put round handles on their gouges while the Germans and the other Europeans put octagonal handles on their tools. Round handles roll off the bench, and the gouge invariably lands point down. I do not like to sharpen tools. Therefore I do not like gouges that won’t stay on the bench. And the Brits, being so god-awful stubborn and tradition-bound simply will not get it into their heads that the Germans, in this case, have it right. Otherwise, the English tools are great tools. You shouldn’t let handles be the criterion for your judgment of tools: Handles can easily be replaced.
I shouldn’t limit the offerings that are out there. The tools above I am most familiar with. There are dozens of other fine manufacturers, as well as not a few very bad ones. And there are some unique variations that need to be explored: Warren Tool and FlexCut make handles with interchangeable blades that are very useful and high quality. And there is the whole world of Japanese steel, which is very different from European and American metal. You need to discover what you want to accomplish and what works best for you, and you need to do your homework.
Some of the most wonderful gouges I own are English made, but are antique. In the late 18th century and through the 19th century, in London, there was a family named Addis who made some of the finest tools I have ever used. I own a number of Addis gouges spanning three generations, and they are treasures. If you are acquiring a tool kit, do everything you can to own these older tools. They are rare. There is a website that sometimes offers them. It is called “The Finest Things” . www.thefinestthings.com
If you are buying antique gouges, there is a caution. Staining on the metal is not a problem, but rust can be. Rust on the OUTSIDE surface of the gouge is not really an issue. Such rusting can be sanded off. But rusting on the INSIDE surface of the gouge can be a problem IF it has caused pitting in the metal. Surface rust can be cleaned away, but if the metal has been pitted by rust you will never be able to create a precisely sharpened edge on the tool because the pits will always appear as serrations along the edge as the front and back metal surfaces meet. Do not waste your money on any tool that has pitted rusting on the inside channel of the cutting surface.
And after you have spent the time and effort sharpening your tools to that sharper than razor edge you can prevent rusting by putting a layer of paste wax on the steel. Don’t put any oil on the metal: Oil and wood don’t mix. Paste wax is made for wood surfaces and it will put a layer of protection on the carbon steel of your gouge.
Here are some pictures of gouges.
These are some smaller Pfeil gouges. You can see the octagonal handles.
This is an Ashley Iles parting tool. You can see the heavier shank and the round handle.
These are Auriou tools. I have never used their gouges, but I have several of their files and they are world renowned for these. I assume that their carving tools are of a similar high quality.
These are heavier sculptors gouges. You can see the short thick shank and heavier steel of the gouges, and the strong reinforcing bands around the handles to prevent the wood from splitting under the impact of the mallet blows that woodsculpture requires.
These are a pair of Henry Taylor gouges. Again notice the somewhat heavier blades and the round handles that seem to be characteristic of English tools.
This is a set of what are called “Fishtail” gouges (I have no idea of the manufacturer). The fishtail shape allows the cutting edge of the gouge access to areas that sometimes are inaccessible to a straight shanked tool, but the tradeoff can be that the tool has a shorter working life because each sharpening narrows the cutting edge.
This isn’t my array, but it is a nice collection and it shows what a well tooled studio might look like.
These are called Palm tools. They are smaller than standard gouges and are used for small work only. You can’t get a lot of power or leverage using them.
These are sets of Japanese tools. They are quite different from European tools. The steels are of a different alloying, and they are laminated rather than forged by processes unique to Asia. Some folks swear by these tools and say that their edge holding capabilities are superior. I have not used them myself.
These are the kind of “carving tools” that you often see in hobby stores and online. They are junk.
Somewhat higher quality junk
This would be a nice beginner’s carving set for medium scale simple sculptural carving
This is a Henry Taylor set for large heavy sculptural carving
These are Warren interchangeable blades. You purchase one or more handles and then these blades easily fit into the handle using a chuck type system. The steel is very high quality. I have had, in the past, a friendship with the guys who own Warren tool, and I can vouch for both their products and their services. Their gouges would be a good investment for someone who wanted to make small carvings as a sometimes hobby.