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Carving Tools Buying Guide

From the ornate religious carvings of medieval Europe to the carved totem poles of the Native Americans, wood carving has been an integral part of the art and culture of many civilisations through history. Despite a decline in popularity in the early 20th Century, woodcarving is as popular today as it ever was. From chip carved plaques to full sized carvings in the round, wood carving offers many different creative possibilities.

Anatomy of a Carving Tool

Anatomy of a Carving Tool

Any carving tool consists of the main parts; the blade and the handle. Starting from the cutting edge of the blade, the straight or curved shape of this edge is referred to as the sweep. From this point the blade will either be bevelled on both sides, if it is a straight sweep and bevelled on one side only if the sweep is curved. If the bevel is on the inside of the curve the gouge is said to be in-cannel and if the bevel is on the outside of the curve the gouge is out-cannel.

As the blade nears the handle, it starts to taper at the shoulder reaching its narrowest point at the neck.

From the neck, the blade flares out towards the handle to form the bolster. Unseen, a rod extends out from the bolster into the handle. This tang, gives extra support to the blade within the handle. The handles of carving chisels are usually made from wood. Slow growing, straight grained hardwoods such as ash, beech and hornbeam are best for handles as the wood is dense and strong and the straight grain is less likely to split due to inherent knots and faults.

A brass or steel ferrule usually supports the handle next to the bolster where the tang enters the handle. ©

Types of Carving Tools

Carving Chisel

The carving chisel is, specifically, a flat bladed carving tool. Carving chisels differ to ordinary woodworking chisels in that they are bevelled on both sides of the blade instead of having a bevel and a flat back. The standard chisels have a cutting edge that is square to the sides but chisels are also available with a skewed edge, which is particularly useful when cleaning out tight corners where there is little clearance. ©

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Carving Gouges

The carving gouge is the most commonly used type of carving tool. Available with varying degrees of blade curvature, gouges can produce all kinds of concave and convex shapes and surfaces. This curvature is called the sweep and is usually denoted by a number. The higher the number, the tighter the curve. A #2 sweep is almost flat whereas a #9 is just about semi circular. It is the higher numbered gouges that are particularly good at cutting channels and deeper details. ©

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Long Bent Gouges

The long bent tools have blades that are curved along their entire length. This shape allows them to hollow out and make the deeper cuts a straight gouge would be unable to make. Available with a range of sweeps and also as a V-tool, this type of gouge is extremely useful when relief carving. ©

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Spoon Bent Gouges

Also known as the short bent gouge, spoon bent gouges get their name from having a blade that is mainly straight along its length and only curves at the end; looking like a spoon. Like the long bent gouges, the spoon bent gouges are used for hollowing and deep cutting however because of the unusual blade shape, these gouges excel at cutting in hard to reach areas. ©

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Fishtail Gouges

It is easy to see how the fishtail gouge gets its name. The blade starts off thin at the handle, flaring out towards the end to reach its widest point at the cutting edge. Available in either chisel or gouge form, the unusual shape of the blade gives clearance in hard to access areas where full width blades would have difficulty fitting. ©

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Carving Knives

An important tool in any wood carver's collection, carving knives can be used for whittling, chip carving, letter carving and detailing as well as for general carving work. Carving knives are available with many different blade shapes, each one designed for a specific purpose. When choosing a carving knife, think about what the knife will be used for and then select a blade shape that will best suit your needs. ©

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V-Tools

V-tools get their name from the V profile of the blade. Producing a V shaped cut with a crisp angled bottom, V tools are used for detailing and adding decoration. Also known as V parting tools, V-tools are available in a variety of different angles with the most common being 30 and 45 degrees. ©

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Veiners

The veiner features a tight U shaped profile and is used for adding fine details such as veins and stem on leaves as well as cutting deeper grooves. Veining tools are usually denoted by the sweep #11. ©

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Japanese Carving Tools

Very different in form to Western carving chisels, Japanese carving tools feature much shorter blades in relation to their handles making the blades exceptionally easy to control and manoeuvre. The chisels have laminated steel blades and are capable of taking an exceptionally fine, sharp edge. Rather than use a formal profile numbering system like the Europeans do, Japanese carving tools are categorised by their profile shapes and as one chisel will fulfill a number of tasks, fewer profiles are needed. Traditionally, these carving tools feature magnolia wood handles that feel soft and are comfortable to hold. ©

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Features to Consider When Buying a Carving Tool

Features to Consider When Buying a Carving Tool

1. Size

The overall size of the tool can have some influence on how easy it is to control. Beginners and those carvers with smaller hands find medium sized tools far better to work with as they give greater control when cutting. Medium sized tools have shorter blades and smaller handles than full sized tools. Even smaller, palm tools give even greater control and are favoured for very fine work as well as for linoleum carving. ©

2. Sweep

Denoted by a number, the sweep of a carving tool denotes how curved, or not, the cutting edge is. Straight chisels are identified by #1, gouges begin at #2 up to #11. The higher the number, the more curved the profile becomes. The lower numbered gouges give a smooth, gentle curve whereas the higher numbers will cut deeper channels and grooves. ©

Tips From the Experts

1. When hollowing or shaping, taking many small cuts will give better results than trying to remove a lot of wood in one cut. ©

Small Cuts

2. Before making any cuts, plan your carving on the blank wood first. Take into consideration that wood is harder to break across the grain than it is along the grain. Any delicate features such as stems and bird's legs should be cut with the grain running along them rather than across them. ©

Marking

3. A carving tool should be sharp enough to be able to cut the wood using only the force of your hand striking the end of the handle. ©

4. When first taking up woodcarving it is easy to be tempted to buy lots of carving tools. Don't. Buy a good, simple starter set with a chisel, V-tool and a couple of gouges and also invest in a good carving knife. Additional tools can be purchased as and when you need them. ©

Brands

Pfeil

Founded in Switzerland in 1902 Pfeil tools are widely recognised for producing the world's finest carving tools. Each blade is forged from a special chrome vanadium alloy steel which has outstanding elasticity and is unparalleled in its edge holding properties. Every Pfeil tool is precision sharpened and honed ready for use before leaving the factory. Trusted by wood carvers all over the world, Pfeil make the best carving tools money can buy.

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Stubai

Manufactured in Austria, Stubai are recognised as the leading authority in the design and manufacture of premium quality carving tools. For over two hundred years, Stubai tools have been forged with high-quality, easy to sharpen steel blades. After going through several stages including: compressing, calibrating, heat-treatment, finishing and assembly, every individual tool is ready sharpened to a good edge with their handle unpolished to give a more natural, pleasant feel. Stubai's state of the art heat treatment process provides each blade the very best edge retention 58-60 HRC.

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Sharpening & Maintenance

Sharpening

When there is any drop in performance of the carving tool, it is time to sharpen the blade. ©

Carving tools can be sharpened either by hand with oil or water stones, or mechanically using a bench grinder. ©

To preserve the shape of gouges and V-tools, use a profiled stone or strop that matches closely the profile of the tool being sharpened. ©

For the best results, sharpen and polish both sides of the blade. ©

Maintenance

A light coating of tool oil will protect blades when they are not in use. ©