Carbide Gets a Turn

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This article is from Issue 88 of Woodcraft Magazine.

4 testers, 3 projects, plenty of shavings. A small bowl, a lidded box, and a finial (shown at left) demand a broad range of turning tasks. Each turner produced one set of objects with new carbide tools, and another with their favorite HSS tools.

Can insert tooling replace traditional high speed steel tools? See what happens when 4 veterans tackle turning tasks with carbide cutters.

By David Heim

When Easy Wood Tools introduced its carbide-insert tools in 2010, I was surprised to see the reactions from some of the turners I knew. Trained on gouges and skew chisels made from high-speed steel (or even older carbon steel), these veterans were skeptical, to say the least. They couldn’t imagine how the newfangled scrapers could cut cleanly or require no sharpening. Myself, I tried to keep an open mind. I use scrapers a lot in my own turning work because I find them great for light finishing cuts. 

At least seven other companies have brought out their own sets of carbide-insert tools since Easy Wood’s introduction, and opinions about them continue to vary. So I decided to find out what woodworkers really think. I invited Alan, Andy, Sergio, and Steve—four friends from my local woodturning club—to join me for an intensive day of testing at our local Woodcraft store—The Woodworker’s Club, in Norwalk, CT. The goal wasn’t to identify winners and losers, but to learn how these new turning tools fit into the established arsenal.

My woodturning buddies brought their own high-speed-steel tools and I provided maple turning blanks and plans to follow. Easy Wood Tools and Woodpeckers provided 4 sets of carbide tools, enabling the group to get an intensive workout. Each guy made a small bowl, a spindle, and a lidded box—first with their regular tools, then with the carbide. That way, they could compare the two types of tools on identical pieces. Each project tested the tools in a different way. The shape of the spindle tested the tools’ ability to get into tight quarters and produce crisp details without breaking the wood. In bowl-turning, the tool hits endgrain twice in each revolution, so torn grain is always a possibility—a good test for smooth cutting capability. The lidded box also posed a series of important challenges: roughing, hollowing end grain, smoothing, and creating a precise friction fit. For all the tests, the turners strived for the best finish they could get right off the tool, with no sanding.

Rougher

Finisher

Detailer

Sharp edges without sharpening. Loosening a set screw on a carbide insert tool enables you to expose a sharp edge or install a new insert.

Insert tooling at a glance

The carbide turning tools shown above represent the three main types that are currently available. The types are based on the different shapes of the carbide inserts: Easy Wood and Woodpeckers, the two manufacturers who provided carbide tools for this test, offer their  insert tools in several sizes. You can expect to pay between $110 and $140 for a medium-sized carbide tool like the ones shown here. Replacement inserts cost between $10 and $20 apiece.

Traditional vs. new. Conventional HSS tools like the spindle roughing gouge shown above have the cutting edge ground like a chisel. In use, you angle the tool so the bevel rides the wood, then tilt the handle up to begin the cut. With carbide tools (right), you keep the tool level and guide the edge into the wood.

Roughing with the square insert: Carbide cuts best with a horizontal handle

The task of roughing a blank revealed a major difference in how a square carbide roughing tool works compared to a roughing gouge. To cut with a gouge, you drop the handle so the bevel contacts the wood, then raise the handle until the edge begins to take a shaving. But with the carbide rougher, you need to keep the tool shaft horizontal and the cutting edge aligned with the center of the stock. As the testing progressed, it became clear that old habits die hard. A couple of the guys had to be reminded to raise a carbide tool’s handle to keep it on the level.

Fine touch. By angling the finishing tool as shown in the photo, you can make a fine cut known as a shear scrape. This is the same kind of cut you’d make with a conventional HSS gouge.

All three inserts can make finishing cuts

Making a shear scrape is a technique that you can accomplish with steel and carbide tools. With a conventional gouge, you roll the handle so the tool’s flute faces the work, then drag the lower cutting edge along the work. To make this cut with the round carbide insert, you angle the cutting shaft and lightly touch the edge to the workpiece to shear off shavings. The diamond-shaped shafts on Woodpeckers tools register nicely on a tool rest for shear cuts. But some turners may prefer Easy Wood’s square shaft or the round shaft found on other carbide insert tools.

The detailing insert was a surprise favorite

Turns out, the detailer can do a lot more than detailing work. Using the detailer to turn spindles, Sergio got less torn grain than with his steel tools. Andy was surprised at how well the detailer could hollow out a small bowl (see photo at right). The turners agreed that a sharp-pointed detailer is more adept at producing crisp details than one with a slightly rounded tip. But both profiles produced impressive results, even when compared to tried-and-true HSS tools. Easy Wood offers both types of detailers, while Woodpeckers only has sharp-pointed detailing inserts.

Smooth finish. The carbide finisher received good reviews from everyone, especially for spindle work. The guys agreed that the tool cut cleanly and left a good finish.
Unexpected versatility. Not only did the detailer work well in tight quarters; it also hollowed bowls quickly, with less torn grain than the rougher.

Making a point. The sharp-pointed detailing inserts from Easy Wood and Woodpeckers excelled at producing fine details. 

The final spin

After a day of intensive turning, my buddies agreed that carbide insert tools are a great addition to turning technology, even though they won’t replace high speed steel tools. When making aggressive hollowing cuts with the roughing tool, the guys noted more chatter than you’d get with high speed steel tools. Bowls turned with carbide tools also showed more torn grain. But in other areas, the advantages of carbide insert tooling are too good to pass up—sharp, durable edges that eliminate sharpening downtime and produce quality results. 

Pen turners who like to work with hard acrylic blanks are certain to be fans of carbide turning tools because their hard, replaceable edges provide a big gain in productivity. Novice turners also benefit because an investment in three basic insert tools enables you to explore a wide range of turning work—no grinder required. And if your focus is making furniture rather than bowls, you still might need to turn out some spindles and tenons now and then. For these tasks, carbide is the easy answer. 

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