Woodcarving can be as simple or as complex as the project requires or as the carver cares to make it, and so can the wood carving tools used. An amazing amount of work can be done on small basswood or butternut carvings with just a chip-carving knife or an X-Acto knife. Add a few gouges and your range of carving possibilities increases.
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Power carving tools such as a flexible-shaft tool can help speed up the carving process and produce effects that you cannot get with hand tools. Large power tools, such as a band saw, belt sander, drill press, and chain saw, fill out the woodcarver's shop. For carving small, hand-held craft objects, such as duck or shorebird decoys, caricature figures, and chip carving (decorative designs on flat surfaces like the sides of jewelry boxes), basswood is an excellent choice. It is soft and easy to carve, the close grain holds small carved detail, there are few knots or blemishes, and it is stable when dry. However, basswood's softness makes it difficult to apply a stain evenly an carved surfaces or attain a glossy finish. Most basswood carvings are painted. For sculpture with a natural wood finish, walnut, mahogany, cherry, or butternut provide rich color with an attractive grain pattern. Butternut is very soft and the easiest to carve with hand tools. Walnut, mahogany, and cherry are rich in color, moderately difficult to carve because of the dense grain, and they take finished well. Gouges and a mallet will be needed for these woods.
Knives and Chisels
Chip-Carving Knife - Probably the first tool any carver starts with is a knife. Its primary use is for whittling and chip carving. The blade is about 1 1/2" long, and has a handle designed to fit the hand. Like gouges, it should be made of high carbon steel that will hold an edge for a long time.
Carpenter's Chisels - These chisels have a flat edge (#1 Sweep). They are not usually used for sculpture, because the edge of a flat chisel tends to dig into the wood, twisting and plunging the tool deeper on one side than the carver may have desired. They can give a crude, unschooled look that may be desirable on some types of sculpture .
U-Gouges - Gouges are the work horses of carving. U-gouges are designated by the width of the cutting edge (in inches or millimeters), the sweep, or amount of curvature of the edge (an arbitrarily assigned number), and the shape of the shaft (straight, bent, spoon, and back bent). Gouges can be purchased: - in widths from 2mm (1/16") to 60 mm (2 3/8") - in sweeps from #2 (a barely perceptible curve) to #11 (a very deep, half round curve) - in straight, bent, spoon, and back-bent shapes
V-Gouges - V-gouges are designated by the width between the top edge tips and the angle of the vee bottom edge. Gouges can be purchased:
- in widths from 2mm to 30mm - in 60° (#12 sweep) and 90° (#13 sweep)
Bent and Spoon Gouges - These specialty gouges are used to get into inaccessible spots on a carving that a straight gouge can't reach.
Bent gouge: the entire length of the shaft is curved.
Spoon gouge: the final 1 1/2" of the shaft is deeply bent in a spoon shape.
Back bent gouges: a spoon gouge with the curve reversed so the cutting edge is convex instead of concave. These specialized tools are seldom used, but when needed, are invaluable.
Skewed Chisel - A skewed chisel's cutting is angled back from the leading edge at a 45 degree angle. They come in straight, bent, and spoon shapes and in varying widths. These are specialized tools and are seldom, if ever, used.
Palm Tools - Most of the above tool shapes can be purchased as smaller palm tools. A chip-carving knife and an assortment of palm gouges are all that is needed for creating small carvings in basswood or other soft woods.
Mallet - The traditional mallet for carving is cylindrically shaped and made from a heavy, dense hardwood. I prefer using a rubber mallet. While it doesn't have the driving power of a wood mallet, it is less noisy, easier on the chisel handles, and has some spring that brings the head back up for the next swing.
Power Carving or Electric Wood Carving Tools
Rotary Tool (Dremel) - A rotary tool is a hand held power tool with a variety of rotating accessory bits and attachments that can be used for cutting, carving, sanding, polishing and many other applications.
Foredom Flexible Shaft Tool - Foredom tools have a motor (1/8 - 14 HP depending on the model), and run at up to 20,000 RPM. A flexible shaft extends from the motor to a hand piece that holds a wide variety of burs used for cutting and texturing wood. Its variable-speed capability is operated by a foot controlled pedal.
The Foredom tool is an invaluable tool that can speed up carving. It reaches into small places that chisels can't go, models wood with almost disregard for the grain direction, makes sanding quick and easy, and allows the creation of textures that can not be made in any other way.
Burs and Accessories - A wide variety of burs are available to fit the several different styles and sizes of Foredom hand pieces. Burs that may have been intended for other purposes can be used for woodcarving, such as single cut and double cut carbide burs (intended for metal work). Burs with needle-sharp points of tungsten carbide and burs coated with industrial diamonds can be used for texturing wood. Drill bits can placed in the adjustable chuck hand piece for drilling holes. Small sanding discs and drums are also available for sanding and finishing.
Band Saw - A band saw has a long, thin blade welded into a loop. An electric motor powers the blade around two large wheels. The band saw is the woodcarver's most often used large power tool. It quickly cuts off scrap wood, saving you the work of removing it by hand. To cut out a small carving, trace a pattern of the subject's front view and side view onto the block of wood. Cut out the side view. Save the two end pieces and put everything back together again. Next cut out the front view. Now that most of the scrap wood has been removed, begin rounding out the woodcarving with chisels.
Drill Press - The drill press is another invaluable shop tool. It drills precise holes, but other attachments can be added, such as a sanding drum.
Belt Sander - A belt sander is another tool that comes in handy for doing so many things that come up during a carving project. Once you have this woodcarving tool, it seems indispensable.
Planer and Joiner - The planer and joiner are tools used to surface wood, giving boards flat sides. If you plan to laminate boards into larger blocks for carving, flat surfaces are necessary.
Chain Saw - A chain saw is a very useful tool to rough out logs for large carvings. For shop use, most prefer an electric model. A specialize woodcaring tool.