Woodturning Tool Steel: High-Carbon Steel vs. High Speed Steel (HSS)
I like to divide wood turning tools into two main steel types: traditional high-carbon steel woodturning tools and modern High Speed Steel woodturning tools (HSS). My vintage woodturning tools are made out of traditional carbon steel and my modern woodturning tools are made out of High Speed Steel. The main benefit of HSS turning tools is that the edge lasts longer between sharpenings than carbon steel tools, which is important because a woodturning tool touches the wood much, much more than a typical wood chisel. Also HSS tools won’t loose their temper as easily as carbon steel tools when grinding.
Because of these benefits most modern woodturning tools that you’ll find on the market today are made out of HSS. But don’t worry, HSS woodturning chisels are affordable, and aren’t usually any more expensive than new quality woodworking chisels…and you only need about four woodturning chisels.
However, if you’ve inherited or purchased an affordable vintage set of carbon steel woodturning tools, don’t throw them out. Learn to sharpen and use these tools and add some HSS tools to your kit over time, if you feel the need to do so. Remember that a lot of beautiful turned furniture was made before HSS was introduced to the market. Just make sure that you keep a good edge on your tools, and regularly cool down the carbon steel turning tools with water when grinding.
Modern High Speed Steel tools are divided further into a few different types, including M2, Kryo M2, M4, and PM. If you’re just starting out, don’t worry about all the different types of High Speed Steel, and just get the most common (and thus more affordable, but not inferior) M2 High Speed Steel woodturning tools. If you’re interested in a comparison of the different modern steel types, I’m going to leave it to the folks over at Craft Supplies USA, who know more than I do about tool steel, and who are based in the town where I grew up (Provo, Utah):