By L.S. Irish
As a beginning carver, the choice of carving tools available can be overwhelming. Which tools you really need to learn this craft and which tools you really will use can be a hard decision. There are several basic tool shapes that are standard to this hobby. The primary carving blade is the bench knife.
The bench knife has a thin blade that will be about 1 3/4 inches to 3 inches long, and tapers to a point at the tip of the blade. The entire straight faced edge of the blade is sharpened to provide you with an ability to cut lines into the wood and to whittle away long slivers of excess material. Short blades are usually referred to as bench knifes where a longer style blade will be called a Sloyd knife. Bench knife styles are also marketed under the names of ‘detail knives’, ‘whittling knifes’, and ‘straight knives’. Of all the tools that you will purchase, this one is the main stay of your kit and it is worth the investment for any beginner to begin with an excellent quality of blade. There are many fine examples of detailed carving that are done using only the bench knife.
The second style of tool that you will be using is the gouge. Where the bench knife tapers to a point, the gouges end with a blunt cut. The full length of the blade is either rounded for c-curve gouges, tightly rounded for u-curved gouges also called veining tools or parting tools. The final edge of the blade is sharpened to slice out the wood. Gouges remove great quantities of wood at a time and so are used to do the rough cutting in carving.
This tool comes to a sharp “v” point at the tip creating a deeply scored line in the wood. “V” gouges are available in a variety of angles from very tight “v”s to widely open “v”s. Use this one to carve along joint lines in the design and for detailing as the beard and hair in a North Wind pattern.
Chisels also have only the final edge of the tool sharpened, however the end will be cut in a flat end or angled end. These flat blades are used for the stop cut in relief carving, for removing large areas, and for crisping corners. They are also excellent for scraping the final surface of your work to leave a clean smooth finish. Chisels cut at an angel are called “Skews”
There are many specialty carving tools that have been developed over the years. For undercuts and removing the background areas in tight corners you might want a dog-leg skew. There are also bent gouges, backbend gouges, spoonbit, and fishtails available for your use. As your craft is developed, like most carvers, you tool kit will increase with a variety or knife shapes. Tools also come in a variety of widths from the micro carvers that are used for very fine detail and miniature works to the large fish tail gouges and awls that remove great quantities of wood with one stroke.
There is a wide variety of specialty knives available to the relief wood carver. This photo shows just a few in my tool kit. To the left is a dog leg chisel used to clean the background wood under deep ledges or undercuts. The three knives to the right are detail knives for fine line work and for cutting into small, tight areas.
Tool Pattern Cuts
Each tool creates it’s own pattern of stroke in the wood. Use a scrap of softwood to practice and explore each of your new knifes. Remember also that each individual blade style can create a variety of strokes depending on the depth of the cut and the angle of the blade entry into the wood. A c-curve gouge will make a beautiful tear dropped shape stroke that both tapers into the cut and then back to the surface of the wood. Yet if you hold it upright at a very slight angle and push into the carving you can make fish and dragon scales with the blades imprint.
From your left to your right in the image above the patterns have been made with the following tools; bench knife, chisel or skew chisel, gouge, v-gouge or v-point chisel, and u-gouge or veining tool.