I’ve prepared some materials for beginners, which I hope will make the first steps in carving easier, and help to make you a more successful woodcarver. Please bear in mind that without attention to safety woodcarving can be a dangerous art. Always use protective goggles against flying chips, be careful to plan out cuts so that you don’t cut yourself. If a cut looks unsafe, it probably is; reposition your work for safety.
Consider taking a course with a carver at either an adult education center, or at one of the many exceptional craft education centers. Safety comes first.
Tools for carvers come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and qualities. When I was getting started, it was easier to get badly cheated on carving tools. They were hard to find, and sometimes of very indifferent quality. I was lucky and unlucky: my first set was an old Millers Falls set that is no longer made; my second set was an expensive full-size set of truly awful English tools. When the whole kit was stolen in Philadelphia, I was heartbroken at the loss of my Millers Falls tools and grateful that those terrible English things had gone on to a more deserving owner.
Your decisions on tools have long-lasting effects. Take the time to do it right.
The Sayres tool kit. This is a compact, and versatile toolset available from the Leigh Valley website. Lee Valley has these available pre-sharpened ( which I advise strongly).
3/8″ 60° parting tool
5/8″ #5 gouge
3/8″ #7 gouge
3/8″ #3 gouge
1″ #3 gouge
This kit around $ 259 at the time I am writing (2019). Yes, good tools are not cheap.
I mostly use Pfeil ( Swiss made tools). Here is a basic tool kit that I’d take traveling if I needed to do some necessary work.
I have given you the sweep and size of the tool. You can purchase these tools online from Woodcraft Supply.
# 5 sweep – 20mm
#7 sweep – 20mm
#7 sweep fishtail – 14mm
#8 sweep- 25mm
#11 veiner- 7mm
#12 V-tool – 8mm
#1 Skew firmer – 16mm ( a chisel beveled on both sides)
I have been satisfied with my Pfeil tools, and have used many of them for over forty years. If you needed to cut the size of the purchase initially, you could eliminate the veiner, and one of the number 7 gouges.
Either of these tool kits can be added to, but Sayres kit cannot be subtracted from. This is a very flexible assortment of tools for carving, and with your knife, it is a good foundation tool kit.
Knives are very personal. If a knife is not comfortable to hold, it’s irrelevant how good the design or steel is. To start with you’ll need one knife: a curved back, straight-edged chip carvers knife ( sometimes called a sheepsfoot shape.
A couple of things to remember:
Don’t buy a stainless steel carving knife. Stainless steel will be hard for you to restore a really sharp edge on. Stainless is also brittle. You don’t want a blade snapping the first time you put a bit of pressure on it. The vendors I have listed will have a wide variety of knives available. Avoid folding knives, utility knives, knives made for modelers work. I advise chip carvers knives. Avoid thin blades. Although most of mine come custom made from a smith ( Mudd Sharrigan in Wiscasset, Maine) I also have many from Murphy Tool, and from Lee Valley
Things you’ll need which are probably around your home:
safety glasses; ruler; number 2 pencils; transfer paper (carbon paper for transferring designs); erasers; nail or vegetable brush- for cleaning out dust and chips; box or case to hold your kit,
Ceramic stones: pocket size extra fine and fine
Importantly, you’ll need something to keep your work from slipping around dangerously. A piece of work that moves while you are cutting is a danger to you, and you may see hours of work ruined. A few clamps are of use for securing work. I also use anti skid materials like drawer liners and carpet backing. Look at my post on carvers hooks for how to make a portable work surface. You will not be the only carver to start out on a table or countertop. I did.
What brand tools to buy:
I buy from Pfeil (Swiss made Tools), Henry Taylor, Warren, Harmon, Murphy, Addis Brothers and whoever else has what I like and want.
Reputable companies include those above and: Sorby, Stubai, Ashly Isles, Two Cherries, and others.
Not all tools made by a manufacturer are of equal quality. Sorby makes fantastic turning tools. But I don’t care for their carving tools. Pfeil gouges are my preferred manufacturer for gouges, but I would not use their knives. This is a personal preference.
What to expect from a tool manufacturer:
Most of the time, the tools you order will arrive and be fine right out of the box. But you should be aware of a few points:
1.) Many manufacturers sell tools ground, but not finely sharpened or honed. For beginners, I recommend that they get their tools honed and ready to use by the company they are ordering from.
2.) All manufacturers use mass-produced handles. Some of these are very good, but others are awful. Watch out for too much finish on these handles. You may need to take a bit of steel wool to them and knock off a bit of the gloss and excess. If you don’t do this, the tool might slip in your hand, or give you blisters.
3.) Gross defects. You probably won’t find any, but look for misaligned handles, unevenly ground bevels and any other sloppiness. Send the tool back. It’ll take too long to fix the defect, and you paid good money for a useable tool.
An online search will show many tool vendors. Not all are reputable. Among the ones I deal with and have found trustworthy are:
Woodcraft Supply – one of the premier tool dealers for carvers and woodworkers in general. Source for Swiss Made Pfeil tools
Woodcarvers Supply, Inc. – This Florida based operation has a good selection of supplies for carvers. Source for Henry Taylor Tools.
Lee Valley/ Veritas – The Sayres tool kit is available through these folks – pre-sharpened. I’ve had some good experiences with their service and tools. There is an emphasis on hand tools which has been declining in the offerings of other retailers.
One of my favorite carvers, Ian Norbury, has pointed out that many woodcarvers don’t read works on the craft. The mystical experience of staring at the wood is overrated; it has less to tell us than the accumulated wisdom of skilled carvers. Read.
The first two books mentioned are essential to marine carving. The others are general carving texts:
Jay S. Hanna – The Shipcarver’s Handbook, WoodenBoat Publications, Inc. 1988. An excellent book for the beginner and advanced carver. This is the text I have used in teaching maritime carving.
David Hassell – Woodcarving Decorative Signs and Eagles. Tiller Publishing, 1997. While he shows a different approach to letter carving than I use his book is one of the most valuable resources for marine carvers available.
These are some excellent beginners text works:
Charles Marshall Sayres – The Book of Woodcarving: technique, designs, and projects. Dover, 1948 – Dover edition – 1978. This book is a companion book for the Sayres tool kit.
Richard Butz- How to Carve Wood: a book of projects and techniques. The Taunton Press, 1984.