Some Notes on Carving Tools for "Carving for Turning"
There are two systems for describing carving tools – the Swiss system and the Sheffield system. In both systems, two numbers are used to describe a carving tool. The first number is the sweep of the tool, meaning the curvature. The second number is the width of the tool. In the Sheffield system the width is in the English system (such as 1/2") while in the Swiss system, the width is in mm.
In my opinion, the Swiss system is the dominate system in the literature. Most modern articles on carving give the tool descriptions in the Swiss system.
In both systems, a #1 tool is a flat tool, similar to a regular woodworking chisel, but with a double bevel edge (see the first picture which shows a #1 from the side). The reason for the double bevel is that carving tools are used like lathe tools – that is, you ride the bevel when using the tool in order to control the cut. I almost never use a #1 because when carving, you want the outside edges of the tool to be above the wood. So if I want to make a surface flat, I'll usually use a #2. If you find you need a #1, you can use your standard woodworking chisels with the bevel down.
In the Sheffield system, #2 tools are flat skews. In the Swiss system, skew chisels are designated with an “S”, such as #1S, and #2 tools are the first tools with a curve to the cutting edge. In the Sheffield system, the first curved tools are #3.
This can cause you problems when buying tools. English made carving tools, such as Sorby, Henry Taylor, and Ashley Iles, still use the Sheffield system, while tools made on the continent, such as Pfeil (Swiss Made), Two Cherries, and other German and Swiss made tools, use the Swiss system.
I use the Swiss system for my carving tools but I own a few tools that are marked according to the Sheffield system. I hold the Sheffield tool up to my Swiss marked tools and determine which sweep it is most like and then write on the handle the equivalent Swiss marking. For example, I have a Henry Taylor gouge marked as a #3. Since this is the first curved gouge in the Sheffield system, it is equivalent to a #2 Swiss system gouge and that’s what I’ve marked it as (see the second picture - you can clearly see the #3 on the blade and my markings on the handle).
I take a metric rule and measure the width of the Sheffield gouge and use that measurement as the second number in my re-marking of the gouge.
For those people who are metric phobic, don’t think about that second number as mm – just think of it as a descriptive number that represents the width, just like the first number represents the sweep (curve) of the gouge. If a #2/5 gouge is too narrow, grab a #2/10 gouge and don’t even think about what that all means.
In the Swiss system, the gouges with sweep run from #2 to #9, but there are essentially no #4 or #6 sweep gouges. In the Sheffield system, the gouges with sweep run from #3 to #10 and there are gouges at all numbers. All of these gouges are arcs of a circle (see the third picture which shows a #9 gouge "head on"). That is, if you were to draw a circle of the right diameter, you could lay one of these gouges on it and it would match the circle. Of course, every gouge would require a different diameter circle. A #3/5 will match a different circle than a #3/25 gouge (for example).
When you have a circle to carve, all you can do is keep trying gouges until you find one that comes close to matching the circle you want.
When using a gouge, you never want the corners of the gouge to get under the wood or the wood will split on you. But what if you want to carve a deep channel? Well, there are special gouges for that called veiners. These gouges are #11 in both systems and are shaped like a “U” instead of the arc of a circle (see the fourth picture).
The other required tool is a V tool. As its name suggests, this tool is shaped like the letter “V” and it’s used to cut along lines and to outline carved elements. There are a variety of different included angles in the V tool, but the most commonly used V tool is a 60 degree tool. Other included angles are 45 and 90 degrees. V tools also come in different widths and different carvers have their own preferences. I like a 6 mm as a general purpose V tool. The 60 degree V tool is a #12 in the Swiss system and a #39 in the Sheffield system. See the fifth picture which shows a #12/10 V tool "head on".
The above description of carving tools will get you started. There’s a number of what I’ll call “specials”, such as fishtail, backbent, frontbent, and others - there’s even one called “macaroni”. I won’t discuss these tools because you don’t really need them when you’re beginning.
Which tools are the best?
From the point of view of the steel, essentially all modern “name brand” carving tools are about the same. The major difference is the handle. You should try to handle different tools and decide which ones fit your hand the best.
It’s difficult to mix brands of carving tools because the sweeps of different manufacturers are different, even if they use the same system. A Sorby #5 will likely be a slightly different sweep than an Ashley Iles #5 of the same width, even though they both use the Sheffield system.
So once you find the tools you like, you should stick to that brand.
If you have any questions, please post here and I'll try to answer them.
Last edited by Mike Henderson; 05-01-2008 at 02:03 PM.
Reason: Added pictures
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