Hi folks! What a week it’s been! The July issue of Stumpy Nubs Woodworking Journal is out and better than ever- we’ll talk about that in a few minutes. But the real story of the last week has been the heat. It’s been HOT! Now you have to understand that hot here in Michigan isn’t the same as Florida hot, or Arizona hot. That’s just insane, and if you live there you should know your brain is frying like an egg, and that can’t be good for it. Here in Michigan we start whining when it gets in the 80’s, and at 90 degrees everything shuts down. I can’t be in the workshop with swamp crack. It’s just not productive. And since nobody likes to see a fat guy sweat, I spent a good amount of my time this week off camera learning a new skill: Wood carving.
“But Stumpy, you just made a video about wood carving!” I did, and thank you for pointing that out. But my experience with the Arbortech Power Chisel made me want to learn other forms of wood carving, particularly relief carving. Relief carving appeals to me because it’s all about creating contrast. Before I was a woodworker I was an artist, and I loved creating the illusion of depth through deep contrast. This is a portrait I did years ago using a technique called pointillism. It’s mostly thousands of tiny dots and squiggles, so to create depth you had to use sharp contrasts between the light and dark areas, and by doing so you could make a 2D picture look a little more 3-dimensional, at least as much as you can with paper and ink. But relief carving takes the concept to a whole new level. Instead of using light and dark colors, you manipulate light itself. By lowering some objects while raising others, you create contrast through shadows. It’s still not true 3D, it’s more like 2.5D. But to me, that .5 is where the artistic expression lives. And I want to learn how to do it!
Now, I do have a tiny amount of experience in relief carving. I did a little work with stone about 25 years ago. And I also did a little wood carving with a rotary tool maybe 15 years ago. But I want to learn traditional carving, using chisels and gouges. So that’s what I did this week. I don’t mean I learned all about woodcarving in one week, not even close. But I learned many of the fundamentals from choosing the right tools, how to sharpen them, I even turned my own carving mallet. And that’s what I’m going to show you today. This is going to be fun!
Let’s start with the tools you’ll need. Carving tools can cost a bundle. It’s really insane. At $40-50 a gouge, you can very quickly invest a thousand bucks if you aren’t careful. That’s the problem I ran into. I’m one of those idiots who thinks he has to have every tool before he can start a project. Carving tool sets were made for suckers like me. But you don’t have to be an idiot. You can start small and grow your collection of gouges as you improve your carving skills. Pro-carver Mary May suggests beginning with a small set of five or six carving tools. I’ll post a link to them in the notes below the video. But don’t let the word “set” confuse you. Pre-assembled carving sets are a bad investment. Sometimes I think they throw their worst selling tools into the set just to get rid of them. Buy your gouges individually, beginning with the basics that you’ll need for your first project. Then add one or two as future projects call for them.
But where should you buy your gouges, and which brands are the best? The way I see it, you have two options. You can go for new, or you can go vintage. Let’s discuss the pros and cons of the latter. I don’t mean pros and cons of ladders. I mean the good and the bad that comes with buying vintage gouges. Fortunately, carving gouges were made by the bucket-load a hundred years ago. Brands like Henry Taylor, Addis, Butcher and the early Buck Brothers are excellent quality and fairly abundant. In fact, as a rule, if it looks really old, it’s probably worth checking out. If it looks shiny and new, be skeptical. Because places like ebay are flooded with both good vintage steel and cheap new tools that you’ll have to sharpen every three seconds. So when in doubt, try to find the brand marking in the blurry photos the seller posted, then do a Google search to see what people who know old tools say about that brand.
Of course, many sellers will just say “I don’t know anything about them.” Which is the biggest problem with buying vintage gouges online. You may get a good deal, especially if you buy them in large lots, but you often don’t really know what you are getting. Carving tools come in hundreds of different profiles, many of which look the same in photos. And older versions often aren’t marked. So how do you know if you’re getting that #5, 8mm you’ve been searching for, or a #7, 10mm? Don’t tell me you can see the difference between the two in a photo that probably doesn’t show the ends very clearly. So you can imagine how easy it is to buy a bunch of doubles and triples when you’re trying to fill specific holes in your set. It just goes with the territory. So you can roll the dice and try to re-sell them if you get gouges you don’t need. Or you can look into new tools so you know what you’re getting.
I went both routes. I’ve been thinking about carving for a long time, so I began buying old tools on eBay. Then, after I learned what specific gouges I needed for the first projects I wanted to do, I discovered that I had everything except those basics. So I bought new tools to fill those gaps. In the end I assembled a set of about 35 gouges for about the price of a used car, when I really only needed five or six to get started. You see what I mean about how fast things can get away from you? Don’t go down this rabbit hole. Start small and grow your collection slowly. I’ll put a link to Mary May’s brand suggestions in the notes below the video as well.
So, you’ve got your gouges, what’s next? You’re probably going to need a mallet. These things come in all shapes and sizes, from compact brass chisel tappers to giant wooden tater mashers. Since I was already broke from buying the gouges, I decided to turn my own mallet. And I’m glad I did. Not only did it save me about $40 over the cost of a commercially made wooden mallet, but it was a lot of fun. It’s also an excellent way to get rid of some scraps and cutoffs you’ve been holding onto for the last decade, all organized with the length written on the ends and filed away in lofts above your shop and in giant stickered piles outside. I tell my wife I’m saving all this wood in case I need to turn 10,000 mallets to fight off the zombie apocalypse.
I decided to go with white oak. I figure if it was tough enough for the hull of “ol’ ironsides”, it’s tough enough to tap the end of a carving gouge. I don’t use this lathe much, in fact these Rockler carbide turning tools are still brand new. So I decided to use this opportunity to try them out. This is actually my first experience using carbide turning tools. I have to say, I like them. Traditional steel turning tools require a lot of skill. You have to understand bevels and angles and blah, blah, blah. With carbide tools you sit them on your tool rest and scrape the wood away. Some of the older wood turners complain that carbide tools are cheating. And I agree. You don’t have to learn complex sharpening techniques; you don’t have to sharpen them at all. You just select the tool with the profile you want, and get to cutting. I really think these tools are opening up the world of wood turning to a whole new generation of hobbyists. And that’s a good thing.
I left the head of my mallet as large as I could because I wanted as much weight as possible on the end. Of course that extra size makes it a little awkward for light tapping, but that’s the trade-off that comes with wooden carving mallets as compared to the more compact metal versions. We’ll be making a short video about the turning process to help you make your own in the upcoming August 2016 issue of Stumpy Nubs Woodworking Journal. Now, we have our gouges, we have our mallet, are we ready to carve? NO! We still have to learn to sharpen.
Learning to sharpen your gouges is as important a skill as any in wood carving. Razor sharp tools are a pleasure to use, they are safer, and they can mean the difference between a fantastic carving experience and a frustrating swear session that will turn you off the craft forever. As with any tool, there are a gillion ways to sharpen them. I’ll put a link in the notes to a video showing you how to sharpen by hand using diamond stones and leather strops. But since I have this nice, beautiful wet grinder here, I’m going to use that. And I’m glad I have it, because my vintage gouges needed a lot of work. Quite often they will come looking like this. The edge has been ground to a fingernail profile. Now there are some specific situations where you may want this shape, but not very often. I asked Mary May about it, and she said that it’s better to leave them like this, because you don’t know how far up the shaft the maker tempered the steel. But what do I need with half a dozen fingernail gouges? They’re pretty much useless to me. So I went ahead and repaired the ones that wouldn’t require me to grind too much of the length away. This is the most dramatic example, but it will also make it easier for you to see how the process works. First I use the stone grater to transform my Tormek’s wheel to the course grit, which is about 220. This makes it easier to grind a blunt end on my gouge. I want to take it all the way back until I restore the sharp corners.
When I’m finished, you can see a crescent moon shape on the end of my gouge. This shape is your guide to proper gouge shaping. Whether you are completely grinding away the end like I did, or just repairing a damaged edge, you want to blunt the end so that you get this crescent shaped flat. On smaller chisels, this will be harder to see, so use a bright light to catch its reflection. As I grind a new bevel on my gouge, I want to keep an eye on that shape. I am only grinding where I have to make that flat area disappear. I’m not going to grind evenly back and forth across the entire bevel, that will just give me another fingernail profile. Instead, I am going to be grinding more from the center and less as I go toward the corners, removing only that crescent shape.
Once I get it down to a tiny sliver, I’m going to re-grate my stone to the fine, 1000 grit texture. This will slow down the removal of material, which is important, because if I grind too much away in the middle of the gouge, or too much at the corners, I’ll end up with a misshapen bevel and have to start over. This can happen fast if you’re not careful, sharpening gouges is not the same as sharpening chisels. It’s all about taking your time and keeping an eye on the end to shape the bevel evenly. Once the light stops reflecting off the edge, I’m finished.
Now this 1000 grit bevel is sharp, but not sharp enough for wood carving. I really need to polish it up for that. I can go straight over to the leather stropping wheels, but I have a secret weapon, a Japanese water stone wheel. This sucker is 4000 grit. I admit that not everyone is going to have one of these unless you are really into sharp tools, and I mean obsessively into them. But it will put a nice polish on your edge, so much so that the manufacturer says you don’t need to strop on the leather wheels afterward. Of course that only applies to the bevel. The inside of the gouge will need to be stropped on the profiled wheels. And if you don’t have a Japanese water stone wheel, you can strop your bevel on the wide leather wheel as you would any other tool. Just be careful you don’t round your edge over by holding it at too much of an angle. You may find it easier to hold the gouge this way so you can rock it back and forth while keeping an eye on the bevel. A sharp carving gouge should effortlessly cut through soft wood without tearing any fibers. Take your time to get them as sharp as possible before you begin a project, and return to the stropping wheel every 15 minutes or so to touch them up. That will keep them sharp and you won’t have to spend all that time regrinding your edge again on the stone unless you chip or otherwise damage your edge.
So, we’ve got our tools. We’ve sharpened them all. Time to choose a project. There are all sorts of templates available online and in various books. But if you are just starting out in relief carving, you really should consider taking an online class from someone who is a skilled teacher. At least for your first project. You may think it’s a simple matter of pushing the gouge through the wood, but there are tips and techniques that make a huge difference. I selected a dogwood flower lesson from Mary May’s website because I like dogs and I like flowers. I had to pay for it, in fact I opted to get a monthly membership so I could take several lessons. And I’m glad I did, because I learned a lot of things that I didn’t even know I didn’t know. For example, I learned how important it is to work with the grain, not just to avoid tearing the fibers, but to avoid chipping off delicate parts of the design, such as the points on my leaves. I learned that I have to keep an eye on grain direction even when I am defining the edges, using stop cuts to avoid splitting the surface into the wrong area. I learned all sorts of things, and even though I made some mistakes, I was really encouraged with the way my first carving came out. And I enjoyed the process immensely! You can see a video of the entire process and the final result in the upcoming August issue of Stumpy Nubs Woodworking Journal.
Which reminds me… did you check out the July issue yet? We’ve been working hard to include more content in each issue, and the July issue is the best one yet. There are twenty videos embedded in the pages- including some that were contributed by other well-known woodworkers. There’s a new project gallery to show off the work of our readers and help inspire your next project. We even added a Q&A column to discuss interesting tidbits. And the “Just for Fun” section is filled with humorous quotes. Stumpy Nubs Woodworking Journal is far more than a newsletter, it’s a digital woodworking magazine that is growing fast. Subscriptions are still free, so take advantage by visiting stumpynubs.com and clicking on the subscribe link. And don’t forget, we send free tools to random subscribers. I just sent out a bunch of diamond sharpening jigs and we’ll be doing more soon. So, subscribe today and then sit back and have yourself a cold one, because you’ve earned it my friend!
Blue Collar Woodworking, Stumpy Nubs and Mustache Mike are trademarks of Midwestern Trading Company, Michigan, USA
Copyright 2013-2016 MWTco