For those interested in starting to carve bowls and spoons from green wood, the unfamiliarity and variety of the tools can be a little intimidating and confusing, especially when they see the large kits built up over many years by experienced carvers. Compounded with the frustration of limited tool availability and/or limited funds, some put off making shavings: “I’ll start next year when my adze order is filled .” or, “I’ll start when I have the money to buy all of the tools on this list.” Don’t wait. Dig in.
Well designed, sensitively crafted tools do typically work better and their cost often reflects that. However, you can get started carving bowls, spoons and other things from green wood with a very small inexpensive tool kit and begin to develop the fundamental skills and knowledge of the material. Later you can expand your options with additional tools from the growing number of talented blacksmiths doing incredible work. As with most of the things in our lives, it is better to have a few good tools rather than a bunch that don’t work well.
A good adze, for example, will cost two or three times as much as a bad one, and be worth every penny. You will form a relationship with it and one day pass it on to another lucky soul. If, however, you can’t afford a quality adze right now, or there is a long wait, there’s good news. You can start carving bowls without an adze, and without a lot of other stuff too. And you’ll be able to find wood for free — it literally grows on trees. You don’t really even need a dedicated workshop.
If you’ve already been doing other types of woodworking, you can start by using and adapting some of the tools you already have — bench chisels, vises, workbenches, coping saws, spokeshaves, planes, band saws, etc. — and pick up some specialty tools along the way. But let’s assume you are starting with no materials or tools and a small budget — where should you begin? Here are the first three tools, in order, that I’d buy to get started carving bowls, spoons, hooks, and other things from green wood.
If I had only $25 available, I would start by buying a Frosts (Mora) #106 knife. If I didn’t have $25, I would shovel sidewalks or skip some lunches, then I’d buy the knife. With that tool alone, one could carve spatulas, hooks, figures, and all sorts of other things — all while developing knife skills and strengthening his or her hands. There may be lots of reasons to own a higher-end sloyd knife, but in terms of performance, the 106 gets the job done superbly. And after hogging away lots of wood with a knife, you’ll really appreciate the capabilities of the next tool.
My second purchase would be a small axe/hatchet, providing the ability to split branches and shape wood quickly and precisely, leaving less work for the knife. Tuning up an old axe is probably the most frugal and satisfying solution, but many old, and new, hatchets generally available would require a great deal of grinding to establish an edge effective for carving; the bits are typically just too thick. Still, your first axe doesn’t have to break the bank; you may be able to find worthwhile examples available at prices to fit a limited budget. We may hear of some examples in the comment section. Robin Wood has addressed the situation with the Robin Wood Axe — a well designed axe and a real bargain. There are many makers producing wonderful axes today. Look into Jason Lonon, Julia Kalthoff, and many others.
To make spoons and bowls, you need something to make a hollow, which is beyond the realm of a straight blade. If you’ll be sticking with spoons, pick up a hook knife. For bowls (and it can hollow spoons as well) I’d buy a long-bent gouge. If it were to be my only one, it would be something like a #8 sweep and around 30mm (1 1/4″) wide, although that exact size is not at all critical. There are several good brands available through different suppliers. It opens up all sorts of possibilities due to its versatility. You can drive it with a mallet or pare with hand pressure. A mallet is pretty cheap, but you can also easily make one as simply as shaping a branch with your axe and knife. A bowl could be made, start to finish, with the axe, the gouge, and the knife.
With the axe, you could hew the exterior to shape (you’ve found a chunk of log for a chopping block by now) and even rough out the hollow somewhat. Continue shaping that hollow with the gouge and mallet. An adze is faster, but you can still make quick progress; just get in a rhythm and keep hitting that handle. Refine the exterior as well with the same dynamic duo, then refine all surfaces by paring with the same gouge. For more holding options, make a low bench or just bore some 3/4 inch holes in a picnic bench (yours) and get a couple holdfasts. Finish up with some chamfering and detailing with the knife.
So have fun digging into some green wood and exploring the possibilities with resourcefulness. With experience you’ll know what additional tools you may want to add for your preferred ways of working. I’ve written some other posts about tools, just check the topic list and search feature on the right sidebar.
You didn’t mention your itty bitty carving tools you bought in Wesleyville about 100 years ago.
That’s a good memory — and I still have them! I was like a kid in a candy store, and Greg was super patient.
Excellent post, David. Next bring in the simplest sharpening media for these three basic tools.
Thanks, Tico. Good point, as sharpening is one of those very important skills to develop. In keeping with the budget restraints of the post, I’d recommend a pack of assorted grit wet/dry sandpaper. Something like from 400 to 2000 grit. I used to use that a lot — still do once in a while. Can be wrapped around a dowel or laid flat — pretty versatile. You just have to watch your direction so as not to cut the paper. Sharpening is one of the topics in the right sidebar list, and I also mention it on my FAQ page at the website.
Regarding to woodworking hand tools and your quote “one day pass it on to another lucky soul”, I’d like to remind of a book written by the French artist Maurice Pommier, translated in English and published by Lost Art Press as “Grandpa’s Workshop”. I read it some time ago, fell in love with its depth in the pics and stories – so I translated it for my children in German. It does not deal so much with the money behind the tools. Instead it show a lot of how craftspeople build up a relationship to their tools – and what it’s worth to care about it, so that you can pass it to the next generation of woodworkers.
And so it is with our first tools, as you describe it, Dave: Most of us will know: Our first tools often stay long term companions, no matter, if they (in retrospective) work bad. They got a place in our hearts, mark our first steps in a down-to-earth-craft. The first cut remains the deepest.
Beautifully expressed, Rene. Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts and reminding me of such a wonderful book.
I look forward to your post!! And the comments of your readers as well, like a kid at Christmas ! So helpful and always so cheerful you have a wonderful love of carving and it shows !! Maybe its time for a Book ? It would be an instant hit !!
Thanks, Brian. I’ve learned a lot from reader comments. I appreciate your confidence regarding the book possibility.
so how ’bout for woodcuts-what do you use to carve them–
Hi Marie. Do you mean for woodcuts, as in cutting the blocks for woodblock prints? If so, I just use my general carving tools, but sets like this https://www.woodcraft.com/products/pfeil-swiss-made-palm-handled-carving-tool-set-c-6-piece are traditionally used for cutting woodblocks/woodcuts.
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Bowl carving rookie here – I want to get started and based on some of your blog posts, I am thinking just a gouge at first would be a good choice. I’ve read in some of the comments below your various posts and it seems that pfeil is sort of going downhill and often the gouges require a lot of prep work to get working correctly. I have done a lot of that in my life and would like to avoid it. I am considering the HK gouges, but I assume I would need to get the hooped striking gouge so the whacking doesn’t split the handle. Do these hooped versions work just as well for paring as the paring-specific HK gouges? Hopefully I can get a hold of HK somewhere – since it looks like country workshops is out of them…
I have not used the HK hooped striking gouges, but I see no reason that they wouldn’t pare well too. The HK Paring gouge handles are an odd shape for mallet work, and I’ve never used them with a mallet. That said, most carving gouges do not have a hoop at the top, and hold up absolutely fine for mallet work — including the Pfeils. Personally, I have not noticed the quality of the Pfeils declining. The quality of the sharpening of them has always seemed to vary — perhaps depending on which worker sharpened it. But they rarely come truly ready to go, but even tools that come perfectly sharpened will have to be resharpened eventually.
Ken and Angela Kortemeier are planning to supply some of the HK tools as CW once did http://www.mainecoastcraft.com/soon—tool-sales.html, Until then, you can try some of the European suppliers. Just do a search under “Hans Karlsson Tools”.
Having purchased a #5/30 Pfeil gouge, I can offer what I felt I needed to do to it before it made the quality of cut I wanted:
I flattened the bevel, so that it wasn’t quite as round, with a bench grinder and diamond stones (~20 mins.). In one of David’s older blog replies he addresses this issue. Then I smoothed the first inch of the inside flute to get rid of the grinding marks and flatten the surface to the edge. Working parallel to the edge using water and 500/800/1500 grit wet/dry papers wrapped over a round slipstone, the flute cleaned up to a mirror finish fairly quickly (~20 mins). Before this, the cut quality showed serrated striations.
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