Canadian Woodworking

Getting started (with carving)

Author: David Bruce Johnson
Published: December January 2004
Getting Started
Getting Started

Ever toy with the idea of carving? I don’t mean entering competitive challenges across the country. I’m just talking carving: something to do with your time that results in pleasure, accomplishment, pride or satisfaction.


Carving can be any or all of these things. And it is a lot easier to start than you may imagine.

First off, there are a lot of different tools that are needed. Sometimes that in itself can be enough to discourage someone from starting.

Gouges come in different lengths. Knives are a myriad of shapes. There are “series” of tools. Lots are straight. Many are bent. Some are ‘fishtail’. They have different shaped handles. The variations go on and on.

There are so many tools available, it’s hard to even know what tools you need to start carving, or what tools are most useful. Despite the popular saying, “You can’t have too many tools!” I think it’s a good idea to start small and work your way toward a larger collection. As you gain experience, you’ll discover that you actually “need” another tool for a particular reason or effect. Once you start carving (and I’m sure the ‘old-hands’ would all agree) you will find you use a small number of tools the majority of the time.

Here’s my suggestion for a starter set of tools: five D-series chisels (2/10, 5/12, 7/12, 9/12, and 12/8), plus a knife. Does that help? Probably not much.

My recommendation was written in “chisel-code”. Let me explain: The D-series is a set of chisels that are approximately 8” long. I think of them as the Goldilock series: neither too big nor too small; but just right for a beginner (and very useful for experts). The first four in the list are straight gouges.

The first number describes the amount of curvature – the lower the number meaning a flatter gouge. The second number describes the width of the chisel – the higher the number meaning a wider gouge. If you’re just starting, the most important thing is the variety in curvature. The difference between a 10 mm or 12 mm gouge is not really significant. These gouges are used for carving curved surfaces whether concave or convex.

Unfortunately, like the English language, there are exceptions to every rule. The last gouge (12/8) is a Parting tool (or Vee-gouge). Even these come in different forms – the angle between the two sides can be 30, 45, 60 or 90º. So, the 12 doesn’t mean curvature like the other gouges; however, the 8 does refer to width. A Parting tool is used to carve the joint between two surfaces or outlining a feature.

Whether you’re new to carving or have been at it forever, you need to keep the cutting edge of your carving tools in good shape. It can be frustrating if you are working with a tool that is dulled or chipped by mishap.

I’ll bet it’s safe to say that most of us have used the ‘grab and scatter’ approach when we’re carving. As you work, you grab whatever tool you want then lay it on your workbench and grab the next one. Soon, you have most of your tools cluttered with the wood chips on your workbench. Then you have to search through the tools repeatedly to find the one you want. In the process, the tools bang against each other and, probably too often, sometimes get knocked onto the floor. Then, when you do find the tool you want, it has a chip in its edge.

To prevent damage resulting from rolling off the work bench, some companies offer carving tools featuring handles with flat surfaces. They usually stay put if you lay them down. Of course, there are also many excellent brands that have round handles. Regardless of the type of handle that you may have, you need to do your best to prevent damaging the cutting edge.

Here’s a little item you can make to help protect your favorite chisels. I made this beauty from a scrap piece of basswood, but any piece of wood will do. The holes are 3/4” diameter and drilled deep enough so that the handles of the gouges contact the top of the hole before the cutting edge reaches the bottom. Make something like this holder to avoid having your carving tools spread all over your workbench. It’s a simple little project that will both protect and store your gouges. Here is another picture of the tool holder showing its dimensions.

In my list of suggested tools, I included a knife. Like many people, my first carving knife wasn’t very special. In fact, I completed my first carving with a small penknife. I have progressed a lot since then but still love to use a knife. Like gouges, most carvers inevitably will collect a number of knives.

I think a knife is the most all-round useful tool that you can have. There are many knives available for carvers, and each carver has their own favourite. When you are selecting a knife it should have a robust cutting edge, be a little flexible, and fit your hand. (Editor’s note: watch for details about this fitting process in a future article). I happen to like this ugly knife.

Like my gouges, its handle has flat surfaces so it stays put when I lay it down. The metal in the blade is exceptional and it can flex a little. I use a cork from a wine bottle to protect its blade.

With the small selection of tools I have suggested, a person can have a wonderful time carving just about anything they want.

Readers: if you have been toying with the idea of carving, this is the time to get started. Dust off your carving tools, or pick up what’s listed above. This is the first in a series on getting started in carving. Follow along and learn as the series continues.

In the next issue, David will show you how to handle your tools safely and effectively.

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