by David Fisher
First of all, bowl carving does require a bit more of an investment than spoon carving. Spoon carving is a great place to start with this sort of work, requiring only a small hatchet, a straight knife, and a hook knife. I realize that with enough patience you could carve a bowl with nothing but a pocketknife, but allow me to suggest a more reasonable tool kit.
I am not in alliance with any toolmakers or retailers, and I am not promoting one brand over another. There are many excellent maker's tools that I have never tried; in fact, I really haven't tried many. So please don't assume that I am concuding that these tools are the best tools, or the only tools you should use. There are many good toolmakers today, and just as in the past there are some tools being made that will not serve well. I'll share with you the ones that I use that have served me well, in the hope that it might be of some help. Your style and preferences may warrant other choices.
The left photo above shows the four tools that would make the most basic bowl carving kit for me. It includes (beginning on the left) a sloyd knife. In this case, it is a Frost's model 106, but there are many excellent sloyd knives available. See my links and sources page for more information. I only use two adzes. If I had to use one it would be this 22 ounce adze by Hans Karlsson with a blade width of 2.25 inches. I handled it myself, but you can also order it with a handle. See more about adze selection at my blog here. I also like this Hans Karlsson bent paring gouge that is 40 mm wide, but similar gouges made by Pfeil and others serve well too. The important thing is to have a long-bent gouge to work the interior of the bowl. My axe is a Gransfors Bruks carving axe. Gransfors has changed the grind options since I purchased mine a decade ago. They now offer left, right, and symmetrical. Mine was essentially a grind about halfway between a right-hand grind and a symmetrical grind, with a much steeper bevel on the right side and a more extended, shallower bevel on the left side. Having some bevel on the left makes it easier to sculpt concave areas such as where the sides of a bowl flare back out to handles. You can slowly increase the amount of bevel on the left side with each sharpening. Given the choices among Gransfors axe grinds now, I think I would probably go with the symmetrical grind. But so much of it is what one gets used too. There are many other excellent axes being made by talented smiths (actually more and more it seems). Tools like these will last you a lifetime and go on to serve some other fortunate soul.
If you want to expand your kit, I would recommend tools like those in the photo on the right. The first on the left is a drawknife. It can really help to shape the outside. I have a few, and they are all old ones. There are many good ones out there. As for all of these tools, good honing is of utmost importance. Next, a spokeshave is especially helpful on the rim of the bowl. A large compass helps with layout and relative measuring tasks. A couple more gouges will give you more options in terms of the boldness or subtleness of the surface. My other adze is a Pfeil (Swiss Made) that required some regrinding. It has a tighter sweep and a tighter arc from front to back. This is useful for tighter areas and bowls with steeper sides.
As a final suggestion, I would recommend keeping your tool kit as small as you can to do the work you wish to do (but no smaller). Get to know these few tools very well and they will become extensions of your hands and mind. And you'll have fewer tools to store and keep sharp. Simplify.
Using an axe or adze, obviously, has potential risk and can result in a serious injury. Depending upon the age, dexterity and maturity of a particular child, it may be unwise to allow them to swing an axe or adze. Even if they don't hurt themselves, it may end up being a frustrating experience. There are alternative methods that will allow them to build their skills and have success. These methods will also work for a person of any age who lacks axe and/or adze, or does not feel comfortable using them.
For hollowing, I would suggest a gouge and mallet. These are excellent tools for the job, even for an adult. The adze is faster, but you can remove a lot of material quickly with a gouge. I recommend a carvers mallet (round head). Although I normally use a wooden mallet that I turned, I have one of these Wood is Good mallets, and have been very pleased with it. They say it results in less impact on your joints. Mine is the 20oz., but they have lighter ones. http://www.woodcraft.com/search2/search.aspx?query=mallet A straight gouge with a deep sweep (#8) for the rough out, followed by a bent (long-bent, not a short-bent spoon gouge) gouge with a medium (#6) sweep (A bent gouge can better follow the curving interior of the emerging bowl). For a more subtle surface then maybe another bent gouge with a flatter (#3-5) sweep for the final cuts. Width of gouges would be determined by the size of bowl and a person's strength. The wider the tool, the more edge there is to drive through the wood. I think 25mm or so is a good choice for kids. If you are stronger and bigger, go with something like 35mm. I have Hans Karlsson and Pfeil Swiss Made. They are both excellent brands. There are other great brands too. You usually get what you pay for. Better to have fewer and better tools. You could carve an entire bowl, start to finish, with a mallet and a 35 mm #8 gouge.
For roughing the outside, I would use the same technique -- mallet and gouge. The straight #8 gouge above would be great for roughing. Later, In many convex areas a double-bevel flat carving chisel (#1) can be very useful. Really, many wood sculptors use these same techniques when roughing out pieces. Most of them aren't familiar enough with axes and adzes to rely on them. Once it is roughed out, one could then safely use the drawknife, followed by spokeshaves. The drawknife is normally very safe, but a spokeshave is even safer. I feel very comfortable allowing young children to use a spokeshave with supervision. Plus, they are very effective tools.
Sharpening is important and it requires some practice to develop some skill and understanding. Having said that, the principle is nothing mysterious; Hone and polish two adjacent surfaces until they meet along a line that has no flats or nicks. The more acute the angle, the easier the tool cuts, but the more fragile the edge. Somewhere is an ideal balance between ease of cut and durability of the edge. This varies by the tool and situation, but it is usually around 25-30 degrees.
I tried many sharpening methods at the beginning. What I usually go with now are diamond "stones". Just about every tool I sharpen is curved, and therefore have a tendency to wear softer stones unevenly. I have been happy with DMT's dia-sharp models. Mine are in the 2x6 size; coarse, fine, and extra fine. I use an extra fine ceramic stone for a final polish, followed by a strop. I see that they now make an extra extra fine diamond stone, which could substitute for the ceramic I guess. I also use Arkansas stones at times. I have tried water stones, but they dish very quickly with curved tools. For the inside of the curves I use a diamond cone and a fine ceramic rod or Arkansas slipstone.
If you can't make the investment in stones right away, wet/dry sandpaper works well. lay it on a flat surface or wrap it around a dowel, whatever is appropriate for the job. All of these methods just represent different ways to arrive at the same result.
I would recommend getting the book Woodcarving Tools, Materials, and Equipment by Chris Pye for an excellent overview of sharpening and care of tools.
Usually, I make things out of the wood that becomes available. Often this comes from a yard tree that has had to be taken down. Some pieces of it might be useful for my work. Sometimes I will pick up a piece or two of a fallen branch in the woods while on a walk. Sometimes, I can use shorter chunks of logs that a sawyer had to cut off of a longer log. Sometimes I will ask around if I'm looking for a particular species. Basically, I am able to use wood that most often would otherwise rot or become firewood. Still, those pieces have to be carefully screened for knots, checks, and other things that might cause problems in the finished bowl. Most pieces don't make the cut.
I love the woods and I prefer trees that are standing, of course. They are the most beautiful then. But things happen and I can give a tree new life as a special object. I feel priveledged to work with such a warm, wonderful material.
When I get access to a good green log, I leave the pieces as long as I can (and still move them). When I get them home I lay them in a shady spot and paint the ends with two coats of latex paint. With the bark intact and the paint on the ends, the moisture doesn't escape too quickly. I find that in most cases, logs are quite usable six months later or even longer, especially with decay-resistant species.
When I'm ready to use a log, I'll cut a couple inches off of the painted ends (to get rid of any checks and reveal the unpainted end grain), split it, and have a look. One long half might be cut into two pieces, and so on. I'll start working on one chunk, and while the others are waiting, I'll keep them in a plastic garbage bag. They're ok for weeks that way depending on the temperature. Maybe a little mold on the outside when you get to it, but that hasn't been a problem. Anyway, that's what has worked for me.
Go to this post at my blog for a photo sequence explanation.
Here is a post on my blog about that.
In addition to the information available on some of the other pages here at the website, I have multiple posts on my blog related to this question. If you go there and look under the "holding" category, related posts will come up.
Check out my blog post on that here.