Tools used in wood carving – choosing wood carving tools

Choosing basics wood carving tools

The woodcarver uses a number of wood carving tools at various stages in his work. In a few cases, the carver and carpenter use wood carving tool of the same name, but very different in type. For instance, the carpenter’s mallet is a modified rectangular block while the carver’s mallet is round in section with a much shorter handle. The carpenter’s gouge is thick and heavy by comparison to a carver’s. When carving, use the carver’s tools. An initial interest in carpentry will often develop into a wish to carve and some knowledge of woodwork and joinery is very valuable to the carver.

Primitive tools

As carving is a natural activity of man, children at an early age will start to whittle sticks and carve with a pen-knife. Many country people who do not pretend to be carvers will cut an ash cane from the hedge. The bent root is used as the handle which they will proceed to carve into the form of an animal or bird. I often saw such sticks made by my father. Round-headed nails were used for the eyes. These root-carved hybrids, half accident and half contrived, had a very special fascination for us as children.

In historical museums, there are examples of flint knives, chisels, and even gouges dating from Neolithic times. A knife is still a favorite wood carving tool for toymakers and for small work carved in the hand. As work increases in size, carving with the knife becomes impracticable. Chopping and striking tools like the axe and the adze also have primitive origins, and they are still used today in the timber trade and to a limited extent by the carver. The African can complete a carving by means of the adze, using a variety of blades that can be interchanged in the same handle. I have also seen it used very skillfully in carving a large type of rocking horse.

Shaping and shaving tools such as the drawknife and spoke-shave, although primarily wheelwright’s tools, can be of use in carving. This overlapping in the use of tools in different trades is not surprising when in every case the basic material is the same, namely timber.

The First Kit of wood carving tools

Wood carving tools are expensive and the beginner need not make a large outlay at first. The following list is the minimum required.

  • A bench
  • 1 mallet, 2 lb.
  • 2 8 in. ‘G’ cramps
  • 4 gouges
  • 1 fiuter or veiner
  • A tin of cycle oil
  • 1 Carborun stone
  • 1 fine India or Washita stone
  • 3 slip stones to fit the gouges
  • A leather strop

The woodcarver will inevitably need some general woodwork­ing tools. The following list is in order of likely necessity.

  • Hand or cross-cut saw, 26 in.
  • Tenon saw, 14 in. Screwdriver, 8 in. blade
  • Brace and bits Rose countersink bit
  • Hand brace
  • Try square, 12 in.
  • Steel rule
  • Bow saw
  • Wing compasses

The carver’s mallet (Fig. 2)

The round, short-handled mallet is indispensable. One of medium weight, e.g. 2 lb., will enable you to start. If you can also buy two more, one light and one heavy, so much the better. Remember that the mallet, in view of its weight, is doing a part of the work for you. If you are unaccustomed to this type of wood carving tool, your wrist may complain at first, but gradually it will get stronger. When there is a pain in the wrist, it is best to give it a rest or use a lighter mallet.

The lighter mallet also gives you greater flexibility for delicate work. The heavy mallet should be used on large work and saves time and energy in roughing out. You will find that, with practice, you need not grip the mallet tightly all the time but can loosen the grip slightly on impact with the tool. This method takes the jar out of the blow and makes the whole process less tiring.

Wood carving tools - tool name mallet
Fig. 2. Carver’s mallets.

Mallets are made in a number of woods chosen for their toughness and weight. Beech and lignum vitae are the most commonly used. The latter, apart from snakewood, is the heaviest known wood and easy to recognize by the marked difference between the yellow sapwood and almost black heartwood. Do not misuse your mallet by bruising it on metal. The stonemason does use a wooden mallet on steel tools but that is another story. The Dummy mallet is favored by some carvers; it has the advan­tage of being heavy but small. Sometimes the professional woodcarver uses his hand as a mallet (plate n).

The gouge

The gouge and its near relations the fluter and veiner are the carver’s most valuable cutting tools. There are hundreds of sizes and types, varying in depth of curve and ranging in size from 2 in. to 1/8 in. There are also those with backbends and curved shafts for easier cutting on concave surfaces and the twisting undercuts in ornament carving. For general purposes, and moder­ate sized carvings, tools ranging from 1/8in. to 3/4 in. will suffice. Eight good wood carving tools will enable you to start work. Should you have the opportunity of buying secondhand tools, take it at once. I have been fortunate in this way a number of times.

Wood carving tools - tool named the gouge
Fig. 3. Tool shapes: gouges and chisels. A. Spade chisel. B. Straight-shafted chisel. C. Spade-shaped gouge. D. Straight-shafted gouge.

These tools may be fifty or so years old and are likely to have belonged to some craftsman who cared for them. Such ‘broken in’ tools are delight­ful to use, often made with finely shaped handles and well-tempered steel. You will notice that in the first kit of tools I have suggested a medium or shallow curve in each gouge. When using a gouge with a very deep curve, you may tend to cut too deeply. Remember that the surface of the form is at the base of the cut. The spade gouge (Fig. 3) has the advantage of being light and pleasant to use.

Sharpening and grinding wood carving tools

Bevels. The carpenter’s firmer chisel is made for chopping dovetail joints and for work of a similar kind. He uses other types for paring and mortising, and he uses gouges for moldings. These tools are, as I have pointed out, very different from the carvers. The bevel of carpenter’s chisels for average work is about 25 degrees; it is also fiat and sharpened on one side only. The carver’s chisel, on the other hand, may have a bevel of 10 degrees, or even less on small tools, and is beveled on both sides. The carver does the bulk of his work with the gouge and the bevel required here is curved. This is easy to understand for carving has a flowing motion, the gouge penetrating the wood but returning to the surface continually.

The bevel on a new wood carving tool may be too steep and may need reducing to 15 degrees or less. This can be done on the coarser type of oilstone. A steep bevel impedes progress in carving. The bevel on a gouge needs to have no upper edge and can curve gently to the sides of the shaft. When pushed by hand, the tool pivots on the rounded bevel and is easy and flexible to use. The carving tool in use develops a smooth and polished back.

Try to keep your wood carving tools in good condition.

Wipe them over occasionally with an oily rag when they are not in use to keep them free from rust. Do not allow them to blunt each other by throwing them carelessly into a drawer. You can keep them separate by using divisions in a box, or sewn divisions in a baize roll, or by hanging them on a rack. A professional woodcarver may have dozens of tools on his bench but he gets the habit of putting each one down in a way that will not damage the cutting edge.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of having sharp tools for carving. The amateur will not find sharpening easy at first but success will come with perseverance. Much time may have to be given to the process before you have a set of really useful tools. When you buy carving tools, they are roughly ground but not sharpened. For sharpening them you will need at least two oilstones (Fig. 4c), a number of different sized slip stones (Fig. 4a), oil, and a leather strop.

Wood carving tools - tool named slipstone and oilstone
Fig. 4. (a) Slipstones. (b) Using the slipstone. (c) Oilstone.

Using oilstones

Oilstones can be divided into natural and manufactured stones. India and Carborundum belong to the latter group. The natural stones, such as Washita and Arkansas, have a slower action but give a finer edge.

Commence sharpening a new wood carving tool with Carbor­undum and finish on slower stones. Dalmore stone can also be used at the early stages of sharpening. It is possible to buy Carborundum in two grades on one stone: coarse on one side and medium or fine on the other. A stone 8 in. in length is a good size for most purposes. The finishing stone, such as Washita or Arkansas, can be smaller. Arkansas, a fine white stone, is expensive but excellent for giving the tool a final edge before stropping.

Slip stones, made of the same materials as oilstones, have rounded and shaped edges for sharpening the inside of gouges, veiners, fluters, and parting tools. The kidney slip stone is tapered and can be used on tools of varying sizes.

A wooden frame can be tacked on the bench to prevent the oilstone from moving about while it is being used. The leather strop can also be tacked to the bench on a board. Oilstones will last for years if well looked after. Small chisels can be sharpened on the side of the stone so as to save wear on the broad surface. The oilstone should be flat at all times. If the surface becomes uneven, rub it down on a sheet of coarse emery cloth. Place the emery cloth on a really flat surface. A thick piece of glass is ideal.


A fine machine or cycle oil is quite satisfactory. Never use linseed oil as this will make the stone unusable. It hardens and clogs the stone. If you have made this mistake, you can redeem it by heating the stone gently in water and washing soda. For ordinary cleaning, soak the stone in paraffin and scrub with a stiff brush. It will not be necessary to do this very often provided you wipe the stone clean after use with a soft rag. A stone needs cleaning when it becomes glazed and loses cutting power.

The leather strop. This will give your tools the final razor edge. Very fine abrasives such as pumice or emery paste can be used on this. A small piece of leather can be used around the finger for the inside of the gouges.

Sharpening the gouge

There are a number of schools of thought as regards methods of sharpening. I will describe most fully the method I use myself. There is no doubt that different ways suit different people and various types of work.

Sculptors usually sharpen tools with the oilstone on the bench. This is the method I use myself, and is, I think, the easiest way for the amateur. Put a few drops of oil on the stone. Hold the tool in the right hand. Place the fingers of the left hand on the shaft, as shown in plate vn. Start slowly, keeping the angle low and the pressure even. Do not change the angle. Move the tool from side to side on the stone while at the same time twisting the right wrist. By this motion, you will ensure that all parts of the curved edge of the tool can reach the stone. But be careful not to take the outside corners off the edge.

Keep testing..

..the edge by gently drawing your thumb across it. You should also hold the tool to the light. If you can see the edge, the tool is still blunt. You may see it in one place only; if so, then give this part extra attention. If you now feel the inside edge, you will notice that a slight burr has formed. Take this off with a slip stone that fits the curve. Hold the slip stone in the hand and rub it against the tool. Keep the angle low. Now draw the tool briskly along the strop, keeping the blade almost flat. The wood carving tool should now be ready for use. Test it on a piece of wood.

Another method.

It is a common practice among cabinet makers and professional woodcarvers to sharpen the gouge as follows. The tool is held in the left hand, the elbow crooked with the handle against the side of the body. The stone is oiled and held in the right hand and rubbed up and down against the bevel of the gouge, the inside of the curve facing the operator and the stone behind the tool. At the same time, the blade is rolled in the fingers of the left hand, the edge so contacting the stone at all points.

A lightweight stone is used, often the side of a slip stone. The burr is taken off in the manner already described. This may well be one of the best ways of sharpening a gouge but it needs a lot of practice and before trying it I advise you to watch a demonstration by an expert.

Sharpening the carver’s chisel

Put a few drops of oil on the stone. Stand facing the short end of the stone. Rub the wood carving tool up and down the length of the stone, keeping the angle steady and the pressure even. Look at the polish on the bevel to see if the whole width is making proper contact. Repeat on the other side. As I have already pointed out, for carving, the angle of the bevel should not, as a rule, be more than 15 degrees, and can be less. It is useful to have varying types. Some very useful spade chisels are very slim in section, with angles that resemble a knife-blade.

If the chisel is beveled on one side only,

sharpen this side as described above. Turn the tool over, hold it flat on the stone, rub a few times. This will loosen the burr. Reverse again, using your fine oilstone. Place the tool at the end of the stone. Do not use much pressure. Draw the tool toward you. This will push the burr back from the edge. Repeat on the other side, keeping the tool flat on the stone. Repeat these move­ments until the edge is clean. Finish all chisels on the strop. The edge, if sharp, should now be invisible when held against the light.

The methods described can be adapted to the sharpening of all other carving tools. Back-bent and deeply curved tools need extra care and patience. Wipe the tools clean before you start carving. Oil makes a penetrating stain on the wood.

Grinding and grinding stones

A new wood carving tool is only roughly ground. If you have no grindstone, the Carborundum oilstone will serve. The process of grinding will be slower but equally efficient. In the case of the gouge, work on the bevel until you have obtained the right angle. This may take time and really hard rubbing. See that the edge is straight. If it is not, correct it before you start grind­ing by the method described in the paragraph on damaged tools.

Although the grindstone need not be considered an absolute necessity for the beginner, it is very useful to possess one when tools are damaged or worn. At the same time, a tool can be very easily spoiled beyond repair if the grindstone is badly used. Water is an essential part of grinding to prevent overheating in the metal. Grindstones are usually fitted with a water trough for this purpose. Before investing in a grindstone, a demonstration of its proper use is advisable. Some are operated by hand, and these need a second operator to turn the handle. The grindstone operated by the feet leaves both hands free to hold the wood carving tool and is convenient for the carver working alone.

Damaged tools

If your tools have nicks, wavy edges, or any faults of this kind, they must be attended to before sharpening proper begins. If you have no grindstone, you can straighten the edge by rubbing it down on medium Carborun with a blunting action, holding the tool at right angles to the stone and pressing firmly as you rub in one direction, using oil. Look at the edge. It may be straight but of uneven thickness. This can be remedied by the usual sharpening action on one of your coarser stones, giving the thick parts of the edge extra rubbing. Examine the edge continually until it appears as a thin, even line. Continue sharpening with a finer stone, and then strop.

Using the Gouge

As the types and shapes of the gouge can be numbered in hun­dreds, uses also are many and varied. Although for a carving in the round one or two can suffice, it is in the more complicated forms of relief and ornament carving that it is just as well to have a good selection. In the first stages of such carving and after the design is drawn on the wood, the gouge is often used in a chop­ping action, the tool being held in an almost vertical position.

The curve of the gouge is selected to fit the curves of the drawing, the wood carving tool being driven into the wood almost at right angles. Cutting tools should be used in this way when establishing the design of relief or cutting shallow detail on work in the round. It is in fact equivalent to drawing. However, when you are roughing out or carving in the round does not drive the gouge in too deep. By doing so the gouge can get stuck or broken as you try to get it out. A safe method, in this case, is to let one corner of the cutting edge remain visible; often both corners are above the surface of the wood.

Hand-pushing the gouge

The hand-pushing of tools (plate x) plays a major part in wood carving. A skilled carver pushes, twists, and is in a sense drawing the form as he cuts. This kind of skill takes time to perfect but you should practice using the wood carving tool in this way, and the tool must be razor-sharp. The left hand that holds the shaft of the tool must rest on the carving and act as a brake. The tool is therefore in perfect control. Hand-pushing can be dangerous if this latter rule is not observed.

Fixing handles

As handles are usually sold separately you may be obliged to fix it to the blade yourself. The following method is quite simple. Wrap the blade in a protective cloth and put it in a vise with only the shoulder protruding. You will find that the handle has a small hole drilled in the end but it will not be large enough to take the tang. Press the end of the tang into this hole and hold­ing the handle firmly twist it back and forth. By this method, the tang acts as a drill. When the hole is long enough for the tang to enter the handle to within an inch of the shoulder, tap the handle home with the mallet. The thick square end of the tang will hold the blade firm in the handle.

Abrasive Tools

Although abrasive tools are widely used in conjunction with wood carving, they can do more harm than good if used thought­lessly. Train yourself, at first, to do without these aids. You will make a much better carver if you rely on the sharp edge of your gouge and chisel.

Shaping tools

Tools such as the rasp have a long line of ancestors but the Surform tool with a removable blade is a comparatively new arrival and has proved to be a very useful tool for the amateur wood­worker. This type of tool has to some extent replaced the rasp. It has the advantage of a smooth cut combined with rapid cutting action. The blades are flexible and I have used them at times without the frame. The blade is held in both hands and slightly bent while working. It is, however, brittle and should not be bent too much or it will snap. For large surfaces, it is best to use the blades in their proper frames. These tools can be obtained in a number of shapes and sizes.

The rasp

The medium and smaller sizes are of most use to the woodcarver. Very large rasps with heavy teeth need arduous labor to be really effective. The rasp should not be used near the finished surface of the carving as the scoring marks can go fairly deep. It can be most useful on large works, for ‘pulling together’ shapes that are too vague, for shaping sweeping convex or concave forms, for establishing a plane, and opening the way to further cut with the gouge. Used without thought, the rasp can weaken form or make the work dull and soft in character.


The riffler is a type of rasp that can be bought in all shapes and sizes and is therefore useful in awkward corners and for removing wood from inaccessible places. The riffler, like the rasp, has a fraying action on the wood. Again it must be pointed out that normally it is better to cut the wood. It is all too easy for the amateur to turn to rasps and rifflers when tools are blunt or a little extra skill is required.


The scraper is not often used by the carver. However, a small 1 in. scraper set in a handle can sometimes be useful for cleaning out the flat background of high relief. It is held at a high angle to the work and used with a scraping action. A chisel can be adapted for this purpose. Frequent re-sharpening is necessary as the scraping has a blunting action on the tool. Do not resort to scraping if the wood can be carved in one of the usual ways.


When using sandpaper, get a supply of all grades. Do not use the paper across the fibers of the grain as this will scar the wood and the scratches are very difficult to eradicate. Try to work with the grain, using the finest grades for finishing. The smooth finish given by sandpaper is suitable for rounded forms, flat surfaces, and for woods where the maximum amount of grain figure is desired. Used indiscriminately, sandpaper can blur small forms and take the sharpness from the detail. Remember that making a shape smooth does not automatically make the shape a good one. If what you intend is to give your carving a smooth finish, go all out for this. Tool-cuts with their edges just blurred over by sandpaper will give a very unpleasant result.

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