By Joshua Farnsworth
In this twelfth hand tool buyer’s guide, we’ll cover the basic tools that you’ll need for getting started in wood carving, specifically wood carving gouges and wood carving mallets.
What are Carving Gouges?
A carving gouge is a curved chisel, used for wood carving, bowl & spoon carving, etc. Carving gouges can be used on both green wood and dry wood.
What to look for in carving gouges?
Carving gouges come in a huge variety of sizes, differentiated by different variables: Sweep, Width, Out-canel vs. Incanel, Single bevel vs. Double Bevel, Full size vs. Intermediate size vs. Palm Handled, Straight vs. Skew vs. Bent, etc… It’s enough to make your head spin! For now we’ll just focus on two variables: Size number (width in millimeters) and Sweep (curvature).
And for wood carving purposes, we’ll just be looking at straight, out-canel gouges, where the sharpened bevel is on the bottom of the blade. Bent gouges are specialty tools that allow you to approach the work at a steeper angle, as with bowl carving and other projects that involve carving out a cavity. And In-canel gouges are more used for specialty tasks, such as window sash work.
Sizing classifications differ depending on if the manufacture is (or was) in Europe or in Britain. The British included a skewed size in the lower sizes, and the Europeans didn’t, so that can make it difficult to compare apples to apples. But fortunately, the most popular modern manufacturer, Pfeil (A Swiss company, pronounced “File”), has become the standard for carving gouges, due to their quality and affordability, so their sizing system is most commonly used. The carving gouge sweep sizes lie on a spectrum from #1 (a flat carving chisel, with no curve), up to a U-shaped #11 sweep (the largest curve). And the largest sweeps are #12 through #16, but they aren’t curved, but v-shaped (e.g. “V-parting tool” or “V-gouge”). V-gouges are used to outline the elements of a carving, preparatory to giving the carving depth with the less-curved gouges.
In the case of Pheil carving gouges, the first number printed on the handle is the sweep, or curvature, and the second number is the width of the blade in millimeters. Below are a couple examples of caving gouge sizes. In the first photo you’ll see a Pfeil Swiss made carving gouge, with the marking “5/12”:
The number 5 refers to the curvature, and the number 12 refers to the width (in millimeters). So all the sizes on the above chart have a #5 sweep. Below is one more example, to provide a point of reference:
The gouge is stamped with 8/13. The number 8 would be the sweep, or curvature. The number 13 would be the width (in millimeters). So again, all the sizes in this chart have the same sweep (or curvature) of 8.
In the above video Bill Anderson talks about the basics of wood carving tools for beginners. He specifically discusses sizes, and shows some introductory carving techniques. You can also read the accompany article here.
Like with any chisel, the quality of the steel is the most important consideration. You want a carving gouge that will not only get very sharp, but hold the edge as long as possible. Another consideration is the shape and comfort of the handle. The Swiss Made Pfeil gouges have flat faces on the handle, which aid in gripping, and help prevent the gouge rolling off your workbench.
Which Carving Gouges Should You Buy First?
Some people opt to buy a set of chisels, but others recommend that you don’t go out and buy a whole set of carving chisels. It may seem like you’re getting a better value if you buy a set (which you are, if the sizes are exactly what you want), but you may not find all the sizes useful for what you plan to carve. It may be best to buy one or two carving gouges at a time, based off of what you plan to carve. If you’re taking a live introductory wood carving class (like our 18th century carving class, with Kaare Loftheim) or an online wood carving lesson (like these excellent classes filmed by Mary May), the instructor will tell you which carving chisels you will need for each particular project. For example, here are the different carving gouges students will be purchasing for the 18th century carving class (where they’ll learn to carve a ball and claw foot):
- PFEIL”Swiss Made” #12 Sweep, 4mm V-Parting Tool
- PFEIL”Swiss Made” #3 Sweep, 25mm Wood Carving Gouge
- PFEIL”Swiss Made” #5 Sweep, 16mm Wood Carving Gouge
- PFEIL “Swiss Made” #5 Sweep, 25 mm Wood Carving Gouge
- PFEIL “Swiss Made” #8 Sweep, 13 mm Wood Carving Gouge
If you have a picture or drawing of a carving that you’d like to replicate, then you can use a wood carving gouge size chart provided by the manufacture of your gouge. For example, you can use the size charts in the Pfeil catalog to determine which sweep and size will match the curves in your carving (you can view and download their catalog here).
Where to find good Carving Chisels?
Which brands of carving chisels / carving gouges are best? Here are a few popular brands of new and antique carving chisels (the below links lead to where you can buy these carving gouges):
Best Brands of New Carving Gouges:
- Pfeil carving gouges
- Auriou carving gouges
- Henry Taylor carving gouges
- Ashley Iles carving gouges
- Stubai carving gouges
- Hirsch carving gouges
- Two Cherries carving gouges
Best Brands of Vintage Carving Gouges (below links lead to Ebay searches):
- Addis carving gouges (very well respected maker for edge-holding ability)
- Marples carving gouges
- Buck carving gouges
- Stormont carving gouges
- Butcher carving gouges
- Henry Taylor carving gouges
- Herring brothers carving gouges
- Bushman carving gouges
- Eskilstuna carving gouges
- Tyzack carving gouges
- Sorby carving gouges
- D.R. Barton carving gouges
- Ward & Payne carving gouges
Any good brands that we’re missing? If so, email us here.
Also, here are the wood carving gouges that Bill Anderson displayed in the above video:
- New PFEIL “Swiss Made” carving gouges (click here)
- Used PFEIL “Swiss Made” carving gouges on eBay (click here)
- Other used carving gouges on eBay (click here)
- New PFEIL “Swiss Made” Intermediate Size Carving Tools Set of 6 (click here)
- New PFEIL “Swiss Made” Intermediate Set of 7 Tools (click here)
- New PFEIL “Swiss Made” Intermediate Carving Set, 12 piece (click here)
- Other new quality gouges on Highland Woodworking (click here)
Carving with a joiner’s mallet would be a little aggressive and tiring. Using a metal hammer would destroy your gouges. So we recommend that you use a small carver’s mallet for any carving work that requires tapping.
The mallet can be made from scrap hard wood turned on your own lathe, or can be purchased at flea markets, antique stores, or from online sellers.
The harder the wood used on the mallet head, the longer it will last. The handle should be comfortable, and easy to hold on to. Here are some different wood carving mallets for different price ranges:
Chip Carving Knife
Another common wood carving tool for woodworkers, is a chip carving knife. You may have seen a chip carving knife like this used in my marking & measuring buyer’s guide, but yes, it is actually also used for carving wood, specifically for chip carving, whittling and furniture ornamentation.
- Here are some highly-rated chip carving knives on Amazon
- Here are chip carving knives at Highland Woodworking
- Here are chip carving knives at Ebay
Here’s a video that I filmed of Mark Thomas chip carving a pair of wooden clogs:
(You can see the accompanying article here)