Articles regularly appear in the woodworking periodicals about the essential power tool in your shop. The authors make convincing arguments for their choices. I prefer to think in terms of what suite of crucial tools makes your work possible. What you answer will vary with the materials you work with, how you change them, and the product you produce.
I’ll use my work as an example. In my work carving portraits of boats and ships, I need to resaw thick stock into thinner frequently. I then need to plane stock to final thickness. My indispensable power tools are my bandsaw and my planer. I also have a small power jointer, but I have a shooting board and an old jointer plane that work as well. The shop is too small for the sort of jointer that you might find in a boat shop or cabinetmakers. As a result, the blades on the hand plane are sharp, and the sole polished for when the little 6-inch power jointer won’t do. Without the jointers, I wouldn’t be able to glue up the panels I need for portraits. This suite of tools speeds my work. Could I do without them? Yes. There was a time before I could afford these aids. I used small portable and manual tools to complete the tasks just like my 18th and 19th-century antecedents. I am thrilled that I no longer have to do that.
If I was a cabinetmaker, my bandsaw might gather dust because the star of my tool suite could be the table saw. But, as you see from the picture my table saw does yeoman service as a place to stack recently resawed boards for a series of mast hoop portraits of small sailing craft. My router table is serving as a place to stack small logs before I resaw them; it’s a power tool that sees heavy use in many woodworking shops.
Most of us have limited space, and limited funds to spend on tools. You must think in terms of space available, and which tools are critical to your work. That large console table saw with digital readout to ten decimal points might have you drooling and daydreaming. But putting together a suite of tools that gets the job done is a better use of resources.
My primary goal is to get the wood to my carving bench with the minimum work, cost, and effort. Not till then do I start the most enjoyable aspects of my work. Think about that as you plan tool purchases.
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 dangerous. 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. Personal protective gear for carvers includes safety glasses, finger guards, cut resistant gloves, and an anti-skid surface on which to place your work.
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.
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. Sourceõ 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 for our course.
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 Sayers – The Book of Woodcarving: technique, designs, and projects. Dover, 1948 – Dover edition – 1978.
Richard Butz- How to Carve Wood: a book of projects and techniques. The Taunton Press, 1984.
These days the issue of a book being in print and available new is less of an issue than it was ten years ago. All the titles I’ve mentioned are either in print or are available at many used book sellers; the internet is your friend.
You can buy fancy ones, or make them from scrap. This one is preindustrial. I first saw one like this in my mentor’s shop. Unlike most it’s a single piece of wood -a moments work on the bandsaw, perhaps four with a handsaw. It hooks over the bench or in a vice and holds small stock while I finish plane it. As old shops get cleaned out most of these are consigned to the kindling pile. But, as humble as it is, it’s as at home in an 18th-century joiners shop as a modern one.
Almost every week Sensei says this in practice: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” — Confucius
Studied deliberation seems harder than going fast.
But, at this time I’m under little economic compulsion to produce in haste, and going slow allows me time to master what I previously left unmastered. Which I guess is what both Confucius and Sensei meant.
What’s old is not necessarily discarded. Not in tools nor skills. My shop is soooooo small that I can only fit one of those tiny 6-inch jointers in it — this is fine for most of the hoop tray portraits that I do. But, the carving of the Cunard liner Servia is much larger, and I could not use the small jointer for the task. Out came the old reliable jointer plane procured in the early seventies. Back then I owned almost no power tools, and if I wanted to thickness or joint stock, this was one of the tools I used. Today the tool and the hard-learned skills came in handy because it wasn’t gettin’ done otherwise. What’s old, stays new.
There are some interesting parallels between Japanese swordsmanship and effective carving technique. No, I am not suggesting that they are just alike, just that both involve very sharp steel blades, and reliance on muscle memory to complete accurate cuts. Let’s start at the beginning.
I always begin my classes in carving with sharpening. Nothing gets done effectively or safely without a sharp blade. After sharpening students have an opportunity to test the edges of their knives in chip carving. That being said sharpness is not the only thing needed to be successful. To be competent in chip carving you must have a sharp blade, and be able to cut at the correct angle and do so consistently. An incorrect cutting angle leads to irregular cuts and lopsided designs. Sharpness will not help with this.
A sword similarly needs to have the correct hasuji to achieve the intended effect; a clean, effective cut. Hasuji is the path your sword takes in a cut and the edge alignment which you maintain while you cut. Yes, one is with a very large blade, the other with a blade of an inch length, but the principle is the same.
In chip carving an angle too steep or too shallow dooms your project to failure; so correct hasuji is essential. With a sword, correct cutting angle will use less energy and will cut cleaner as well.
You can go to books on chip carving and find the correct angle at which you should cut to a degree. But, you are not going to get too far lining up each cut with a protractor. You have to learn it, and through practice put that angle into your muscle memory. This is pretty much what we do with a Japanese Katana too.
As with a Katana so with a knife; we learn correct hasuji through practice.
An additional piece of wonderment in blade work
You may have heard of a state called mushin ( mushin no shin), sometimes referred to as “no mind.” I have yet to achieve this state in martial arts, but when I was carving every day for hours on end, I’d frequently find myself awakening from mushin after an hour of doing something like hollowing the wings on an eagle. My body knew what needed to be done, and my training took over leaving my mind to relax, and think of no thing. You cannot achieve this sort of state if you are consciously thinking things through all the time.
My first martial art was Judo. My Japanese sensei heard me complaining one day that we practiced all these throws thousands of times. His response was to throw me and then sit down beside his thirteen-year-old critic and explain that we practiced the techniques thousands of times in dojo with the intent of learning them so well that when needed there would be no thought at all involved in their use. The first time I was jumped on a New York subway and defeated my attacker with a single throw and a wrist lock I knew that…as usual…sensei knew best. As sensei pointed out the key was practice. The swordsman Miyamoto Musashi was also an acomplished poet, pholosopher, calligrapher and painter. He advised that the principles involved in mastery of one thing can be applied to learn and master others – ” from one thing learn a thousand things.”
So, get out your tools, and start practicing.
Need a mallet? Sooner or later every carver does. You should use one even if you love the slam feeling of the gouge handle into your palm. There’s a perfectly reasonable reason why. If you become a professional carver or carve a lot as an amateur, you’re potentially doing a lot of damage to the palm of your hand. There’s no sense in setting yourself up for tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. Using a mallet is a great way to avoid this.
Wait, what about the sort of sensory feedback I get on how much pressure I need on a cut. The mallet is going to change that. Well, only to a degree. If the tool is sharp, and your right hand is doing a proper of guidance you shouldn’t need a mallet on delicate cuts. A mallet is for when you need a bit more oomph on a tool. An alternative to using a mallet is a palm pad; these have an impact absorbing gel inside that cushions your hand.
But, to get back to mallets. The picture shows a selection of mallets that I use regularly; note that most of them are shop made. The mallet to the far left is one I purchased in the early ’70s. It’s made from low-grade Lignum Vitae and has withstood all these years of my heavier work. It’s not a light tool, and it wouldn’t be suitable for most of the lighter work that I do in portraiture or fine work. To the right of the Lignum mallet is a palm mallet made from a piece of firewood elm. I was jealous of the little palm mallets that Woodcraft Supply had for sale, but about twenty years ago I did not have the forty or so dollars needed to buy one. I found a nice piece of elm burl in the firewood pile and made one instead. Next over is a mallet made from an apple branch and a found counterbalance from some project of years back. I soaked the handle in linseed oil, and I’ll be cutting it down, but it’s proven useful because the brass head allows me to concentrate a good bit of force in a small area. The turned mallet is made from firewood pile ash and is the lightest of my collection. I use this one when I need a very light touch on a workpiece. The final mallet was made years ago by Jerry Cumbo, the shop manager at WoodenBoat School. Jerry made it for a student of mine who had shown up to class without a mallet, he made it out of black locust (otherwise known as New England teak), and it’s a nice addition to my collection.
Why do I have a collection of mallets? It’s so I can choose the weight and direction of impact while I am working. Do you need this many mallets? Probably not, unless you are doing more substantial sculptural work a smaller mallet like a palm mallet might be more appropriate to your needs, and you could make it yourself.
From firewood to present. It’s a nice transition. As I pulled the bright reddish cherry from the piles of cordwood I began to get excited. I recognized some truly prime wood among the common red oak. A tragedy in a way, because I was thinking of the gorgeous planks for cabinet work that were now reduced to cordwood length. At least now they’ll be used for a better purpose than use as fuel.
So, wooden spoons in stunning natural cherry color. A great Christmas present for a cook. don’t you agree?