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4 Woodturning Chisels to Buy for Spindle Turning

four woodturning tools on a wooden workbench including a skew chisel, a detail spindle gouge, a rouging gouge, and a diamond parting tool

The four woodturning chisels that I use for spindle turning are: Roughing Gouge, Diamond Parting Tool, Detail Spindle Gouge, and Skew Chisel. These four tools will be discussed in detail, further below. I have other chisel shapes that came to me over the years, but I rarely use anything beyond these four woodturning tools. You can click on each of the four below thumbnail images to see a close-up of each chisel profile.

Roughing Gouge

roughing gouge

A roughing gouge is primarily used for turning a square turning blank (or any other non-cylindrical shape) into a cylinder shape. Some detail work can be done with a roughing gouge, but this heavy-duty woodturning tool specializes in waste removal.  

 

Diamond Parting Tool

Diamond parting tool

A diamond shaped parting tool is primarily used for “parting”, or setting the different depths and transitions of the different parts of the wood spindle. The diamond shape aids in preventing the tool from binding in the cut of the spindle. 

Detail Spindle Gouge

Detail spindle gouge

A detail spindle gouge is used for creating finer curved details in the coves and beads (especially the coves) when turning a spindle. It’s also great at refining other transitions where the skew chisel can’t safely go. With a fingernail grind (pictured above) I find that a detail spindle gouge can satisfactorily start coves in place of a skew chisel. 

Skew Chisel

Robert Sorby 3/4 inch skew chisel

A skew chisel is used first for making V-cuts for beads & coves and also for cutting spindle pommels (the transition between square and round sections on a spindle). It is then used for fine finish cuts and cleanup, which will allow you to skip sanding on many parts of a spindle.

1 Roughing Gouge

Will Myers turning a cherry spindle on a woodworking lathe using a sorby roughing gouge

As mentioned above, a roughing gouge is the workhorse of woodturning tools. It needs to be strong and should hold an edge for an extended period of time.

Robert Sorby 3/4 inch roughing gouge with a lathe in the background

When I was looking to upgrade to a modern roughing gouge, a friend who is a professional woodturner recommended that I purchase this HSS 3/4-inch roughing gouge made by Robert Sorby. 

Robert Sorby 3/4 inch roughing gouge Wood turning tools guide in front of a wood turning lathe

Larger roughing gouges can be helpful when turning spindles from large pieces of split wood, but a 3/4-inch roughing gouge is a good size for most spindle turning work. This roughing gouge is made of M2 High Speed Steel, so it will get a nice edge, that lasts a good while between sharpening.

Robert Sorby 3/4 inch roughing gouge Wood turning tools guide

2 Diamond Parting Tool

Will Myers turning a cherry spindle on a woodworking lathe using a parting tool and calipers

My vintage diamond parting tool is 1/8-inch thick, which I prefer for removing as little wood as possible, when I’m doing detail work. Modern diamond parting tools usually come in a 3/16-inch thickness, which isn’t too bad, but I find 1/8-inch diamond parting tools vibrate less than 3/16-inch diamond parting tools. And you will find parting tools that aren’t diamond shaped (flat on the sides), will bind easier in the cut than the diamond shaped tool.

Detail spindle gouge with a lathe in the background

Unfortunately it’s a little difficult to find new 1/8-inch diamond parting tools made by reputable companies. Crown (in Sheffield, England) has been known to make good woodturning tools in the past, and they make a new 1/8-inch diamond shaped parting tool. However, the reviews of their 1/8-inch diamond parting tool (see here) makes me think that Crown may have dropped the ball on the quality control of this tool, and maybe other tools. So I’d recommend that you either go with a new 3/16-inch diamond parting tool (made by Robert Sorby or Henry Taylor) or find a vintage 1/8-inch diamond parting tool. Below I’ll also list a new 1/8-inch parting tool that looks good, though I haven’t heard of the brand before (Stone Mountain).

woodturning parting tool chisel in a hand in front of a wood turning lathe

Because a parting tool doesn’t do as much work for me as a gouge or skew chisel, I’ve found that I haven’t needed to upgrade to HSS from my old carbon steel diamond parting tools. I have also even seen some woodworkers use 1/8-inch mortise chisels in place of a parting tool to set the depths of their spindle transitions. Again, this may not be ideal, due to the possibility of binding, but it shows that sometimes you can improvise. Here are some options for diamond parting tools:

Woodturner using a turner's gate with a bedan tool to turn spindle tenons on a lathe

If you decide to get into Windsor chair making or other furniture making that requires turning tenons on your spindles, then a “Bedan” style parting tool (found here) can be added to your tool kit, along with with an attachable sizing gauge (found here), sometimes called a “Turner’s Gate” which will help you cut very accurate tenons. I’m not a Windsor chair maker, so I haven’t added a Bedan tool to my kit yet. These tools are pictured above and below.

Woodturner showing a turner's gate with a bedan tool for turning spindle tenons on a lathe

3 Detail Spindle Gouge

woodturning spindle gouge or detail gouge in a hand in front of a wood turning lathe

A detail spindle gouge is really quite versatile, and a lot of spindle work can be done with this woodturning tool. I have several different sizes of detail spindle gouges (5/16-inch, 1/2-inch, and 3/4-inch), but I find that I mostly use my 1/2-inch detail spindle gouge. As mentioned above, I add a thumbnail grind to my detail spindle gouges so that I can tilt my tool and get better cuts with the side of the tool, which makes starting coves easier, if you don’t fee so comfortable using a skew chisel.  

Detail spindle gouge with a lathe in the background

You can buy a detail spindle gouge with a thumbnail grind already on it, but you can also add the thumbnail grind with a grinder and a jig. I find it hard to create a thumbnail grind without a jig. Some people can do it, but it’s tough for me. Down a little further on this page I share the grinding system that I now use (the Wolverine Grinding System with VARI-GRIND jig) for woodturning tools, which I adopted a couple years ago after talking with woodturners who are much more experienced than myself. Once setup, this system makes a thumbnail grind very quick. Here are some detail spindle gouges that would be good to buy:

4 Skew Chisel

Will Myers turning a cherry spindle on a woodworking lathe with a skew chisel

I have both square shaped skew chisels and a newer oval shaped skew chisel. They both work fine, but the oval shaped skew is a bit more comfortable in my hands when doing detail work.

Robert Sorby 3/4 inch skew chisel with a lathe in the background

I have skew chisels from 1/2-inch to 1-inch, but prefer a 3/4-inch skew chisel. Some professional wood turners prefer the 1/2-inch skew chisel, but I sometimes find it hard to see what I’m doing. And I find the 1-inch skew chisel to be a little big for some detail work. The 1/2-inch skew chisel is also known to catch easier if you aren’t as experienced.

woodworker holding a Robert Sorby 3/4 inch skew chisel with a lathe in the background

The 3/4-inch skew chisel size is a perfect compromise for me. This is the 3/4-inch HSS oval shaped skew chisel that I own (made by Robert Sorby). I know a couple professional woodturners who use this skew chisel. I sharpen my skew chisels with a slight radius so that I can take less aggressive cuts when entering the wood, so when the Sorby skew chisel didn’t arrive perfectly sharpened, this was a non-issue for me, because I planned on sharpening it anyway. That’s how I am with any woodturning tools or chisels. I don’t let the manufacture decide on the sharpening for me! So ignore any online reviews from shoppers who were disappointed that their tool didn’t arrive with a perfectly sharpened edge. You can see this convex bevel below on my vintage skew chisels:

Two woodturning skew chisels in a hand in front of a wood turning lathe

This convex bevel looks like the camber that I put on my jack plane irons, and it’s created in just about the same way on the grinder, rotating it back and forth, but at 15 degrees (for a 30 degree combined angle).

Two woodturning skew chisels in a hand in front of a wood turning lathe

 Woodturning Accessories to Buy

Below are a few woodturning accessories that you will need when getting started in woodturning, along with some optional accessories that you may decide to buy down the road (or not at all).

Spring Calipers

Will Myers turning a cherry spindle on a woodworking lathe using a parting tool and calipers

Spring calipers are small gauges used to let you know when you have reached the correct diameter of a section of your spindle turning when using your parting tool. Having a few calipers is convenient when turning spindles so you don’t have to continually change the diameter for different sections of your spindle, especially if you are turning four table legs and want to keep the same sizes for each of the legs. You can certainly get by with just one caliper to start with, and buy another one or two when you notice an inconvenience. Somewhere between 6-inches and 8-inches is the most common size, which can handle most spindle turning needs.

If you look at different woodturning caliper sets, you’ll see they usually come with three types of spring calipers: outside calipers, inside calipers, and spring dividers. For spindle turning I only use outside calipers. So I’d recommend that you don’t buy one of those sets.

Box full of antique vintage calipers

I have found a lot of good vintage calipers, usually under $10 a piece, and often for a couple dollars at tool swaps or flea markets. Sometimes they’ll even be thrown in when buying a used woodturning lathe. You can find a lot of vintage outside spring calipers on Ebay (see link below). Because I have so many vintage calipers, I haven’t had to buy any new calipers. But most inexpensive outside spring calipers should do the job just fine. Here are a few affordable options that you can compare:

Some cheaper woodturning calipers come with sharpened tips. To prevent catches, you should blunt and round the sharp tips with your grinder or with a metal file.

If you don’t want to buy calipers just yet, you can also make a “Go No-go” gauge out of scrap wood. This is helpful if you are turning tenons or other repeated diameters. However, I find it a bit time consuming to make a gauge for every diameter of a spindle. Another option is Peter Galbert’s “Galbert Caliper” (found here). I haven’t used it, but it does look like it would improve speed and safety. The one drawback I see is that you have to rely on your eyes to reach the right diameter of the scale, as opposed to using spring calipers which just drop over the spindle when the correct diameter is reached. Also, spring calipers can take measurements directly from another spindle, whereas with the Galbert Caliper you need to know the measurement.

Wolverine Grinding System with VARI-GRIND jig

Wolverine Grinding System with VARI-GRIND jig sharpening a roughing gouge for woodturning

Sharpening woodturning tools is a very regular task when making furniture, and unlike most other woodworking tools, most of the work is done at the grinder, and very little sharpening is done on honing stones. Also, for me (and many other people) it’s a little difficult to achieve acceptable results with freehand grinding woodturning tools.

For these reasons, I invested in a jig system that works with the same grinder that I use for sharpening my handplane irons & bench chisels. Several different woodturners recommended the “Wolverine Grinding System with VARI-GRIND jig”. I’ve found that the best price for purchasing this grinding system is on Amazon for around $140, and you can find it here.

This system, when accurately mounted under each grinding wheel allows much more simple grinding of detail spindle gouges and roughing gouges. In the picture above, you can see how easy it is to set the angle for my roughing gouge, simply by extending the Vee-arm out.