Carving Chisels and Gouges

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Carving Chisels and Gouges

Carving chisels and gouges differ from cabinet chisels and other gouges in that they are usually somewhat thinner and are sharpened with a finer angle on the cutting edge.  Some are intended for handwork only while others can be struck with a mallet and of course are never struck a metal hammer.  They have thinner blades and handles that are easy to control, are comfortable and don’t tend to roll on the bench.  I have replaced every round handle on my carving tools with a tapered octagon handle.  This eliminates any rolling of the tool, when I place it down on the bench it stays there.  If I am using a series of chisels and gouges for a particular job I have a mat, a piece of carpet that I use to lay the tools down on to protect their cutting edges.  I also point the sharp ends away from me on the mat to protect me from the very sharp cutting edges.  Most carving jobs are done with two or three tools; sometimes a couple of more but each carving job can require different tools to accomplish the task at hand.  Therefore if you intend to do a lot of carving you will want to equip yourself with the necessary tools.  While both chisels and gouges come in different sizes and with gouges different sweeps you can invest a substantial amount of money to have all of the various sizes of chisels and different sizes and sweeps of gouges.  There also Palm Chisels and Gouges that are smaller versions usually with mushroom or knob type handles for ‘better’ control of these tools.  I have several of these small ‘palm’ tools but like my other chisels I have replaced all of their handles with long tapered octagon wooden handles, I just find them easier to use and they all match.   Large heavy duty carving tools can have socket handles but the most common have tangs to secure them to the handles. 


Back Bent Chisel is a regular flat chisel with the blade bent backwards to a curved chisel.  The advantage of this tool is that it brings the cutting angle down very low to produce a finer cut.  The bevel is ground just the opposite a regular chisel with the bevel on top.  Useful for rounding over and shaping convex and protruding detail work.


Curved Chisel is a flat chisel with a blade curved opposite the bevel and is used to get down into areas that need to be flattened.  The curve of the blade will allow for the cutting angle to engage the wood fibers at a low angle.


Double Bevel Chisel is a special carving tool that has a bevel ground on both sides of the blade.  This tool, usually with a straight blade is used for cleanup work; the double bevel is not good for layout work as the blade pushes in both directions when it is plunged into the cut.  Single bevel tools are used for striking the work into the groundwork.  This tool is also available is a skew, which is handy because you can easily reverse it to get into tight areas.


Fishtail Chisel is like a regular chisel but of lighter weight and the blade tapers from wide at the cutting edge to narrower at the tang.  One great advantage to this tool is that it can get into tighter areas; the angle of the taper allows the cutting edge to work up against a shoulder or other interior detail.  These chisels are usually more flexible than regular chisels.


Flat Chisel is very similar to a bench chisel in that it has a flat blade and the cutting edge is at 90º to the blade.  The blades are usually manufactured with a tang and are thinner than a cabinet chisel and may or may not have bevels up the sides of the blade.  Because of the thin nature they are more commonly like a firmer with no side bevels.  One of the more useful carving tools a surprising amount of work can be done with a flat carving chisel.  Most are ground at a fine 15º angle on one side of the chisel.  Some are ground with a double bevel. The single bevel is used to layout and strike work into the groundwork.  Also called a firmer or carving chisel.


Skew Chisel is like the flat chisel but the cutting edge is ground at an angle to the blade.  The skew angle can be either left or right and ground on one or both sides.  When ground on both sides the skew is reversible, if it is ground on one side then a pair may be required.  These chisels cut smooth because of the skew angle and can get into tight corners for easy clean up.


V-Chisel is also called a veiner and is used to add V-shaped details in wood.  This tool and the U-Chisel are used only for shallow work; if deeper V-cuts are needed straight chisels are used to cut down both sides of the v-groove.  Like the U-chisel curved cuts can present grain direction problems.  I make my first v-cut shallow on the side of the curve that is with the direction of the grain.  I then reverse and make my second v-cut to final depth with the grain of the wood.  Tipping the tool up when engaging the wood will start the cut on the top edge of the wood first preventing chipping out.  Some of these chisels are sharpened with the outside edges projecting further than the center part of the V.  This allows the tool to score or cut the wood ahead of the V to prevent tear out.  This tool can also have a bent blade such as a long bend or short or spoon bend to just the end, allowing v-cut detail work in deep excavations.


Dog Leg Chisels are also used for carving work and are referred to as entering or cornering chisels.  These tools are particularly handy, the offset or dogleg is usually in the shank just at where the blade starts to widen out.  This offset allows the back of the blade to be flat keeping the cutting angle low for a smoother and easier cut.  In a set of three there is a straight blade, left skew and right skew to handle any application.


A gouge is any chisel with a curved cutting edge; this includes even very low sweeps or curves.  If it is curved it is a gouge.  Some heavy-duty carving gouges are quite similar to a bench gouge, but most are smaller, thinner walls and lighter duty and they are sharpened to a finer edge.  


Back Bent Gouge is a handy tool for finishing off curved convex surfaces.  The bevel is on the top and this tool can perform functions that no other single tool can accomplish.  While you can do the same with a flat chisel, the back bent gouge can do the same job in one or two strokes.  The back bend can be on full-length gouges as well as the spoon gouge shape.


Curved Gouge is a gouge with a curve to the shaft allowing the tool to work on deep inside curves.  The curve along the length of the shaft gives a lower angle of attack to the cutting edge.


Fishtail Gouge is a lightweight gouge that has a wider cutting edge and the shaft tapers back to the tang.  The fishtail gouge like the fishtail chisel in that it is flexible and the taper allows the sides to be moved up next to a corner or edge without the shaft interfering with the cutting action.  The fishtail also makes the gouge lighter weight, as there is less metal in the blade.


Flat Gouge is the standard classic carving gouge.  With thinner walls and lighter construction than a Cabinet gouge, this tool comes in many sizes and sweeps to the curve.  The shaft is straight and attaches to the handle usually with a tang in some rare instances a socket.  The bevel is ground on the outside or convex side of the gouge.  When used for laying out and working the background this chisel is used to follow the sweeps of the curves in the carvings.  The appropriate sweep is chosen to match the pattern for the carving.  You can see why you might need several sizes and sweeps of this tool to match all curves that might be encountered.  A special grinding (on the inside) to this tool produces an ‘in cannel’ gouge and the outside of the tool can be used to do the lay out and initial chopping.


Fluting Gouge is similar to the flat gouge but usually have a greater sweep with high thin walls.  More of a U-shape these tools are great for deep flutes and other deep detail.  When using a gouge it is important that sometimes when you are cutting you are cutting with the direction of the grain on one side and against the grain on the other side.  Always be aware of the direction of the grain and cut first on one side and finish up the other direction on the other side of the flute.


Spoon Gouge has a shaft that becomes a spoon shape near the cutting edge.  With more curve along the length of the shaft than a curved gouge these tools are ideal to get down in the bottom of bowls, spoons and other steeply sided excavations in the wood.  The curved shape to the spoon also gives added leverage to the cutting process.


U-Chisel should actually be classified as a gouge as it has a curved cutting edge.  This very fine U-shaped edge is used for adding details and fine u-shaped cuts into the wood.  When using this tool always keep in mind that on curves one side is with the grain and the other side is against the grain.  I do the initial cut a little shallower in the correct direction for that cut.  I then I do the second cut in the other direction to keep me working with the grain of the wood.  This tool can also have a bent blade such as a long bend or short or spoon bend to just the end, allowing detail work in deep excavations. 


Individual wood carvers have their own preferences for how the tools are sharpened.  Most agree on a fine angle of 15º for the bevel on the cutting edge.  Many sharpen a secondary bevel on the cutting edge, but I prefer a single 15º bevel that is flat and not hollow ground.  The problem with hollow grinding is that it is impossible to polish the entire bevel, which I believe makes for a smoother and easier cut.


As for storage of carving tools, the tool roll of canvas or leather is popular as is hanging the tools up on the wall to both display and keep the cutting edges from getting dull by banging into each other.  This can happen if they are kept in a drawer.  A drawer will work if it has dividers that separate each tool.  I have used tool rolls and they are handy if you have to take them out of the shop but for storage and accessibility I prefer to hang them up and show them off.  After I use my carving tools, I always wipe the blade down with turpentine to remove any pitch or sap that might be on the blade.  I also keep my entire tool bright and free from rust.  A tool that has a bright finish will not tend to rust as one with just a ground surface.  I also check the sharpness and touch up the blades if necessary so they are always sharp and ready to go.