Turning Tools and Their Uses: A Basic Look

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Woodturning, whether basic or advanced, is one of the most artistic aspects of woodworking. It is also provides a quick way to gratification, because many, if not most, smaller projects can easily be completed in a single evening, allowing the woodworker both a method of expression and of relaxation, to which is added a great sense of accomplishment. For the beginning woodturner, though, confusion comes in many forms: the number and variety of woodturning tools creates a lot of problems with decisions about getting started.

The beginner's tool categories are simple, but some tools may not be present in every type of beginner's set--roughing gouges are a good example, because they're not much help in light duty and miniature turning. And, of course, each turner develops custom configurations from the basic tools as they learn the craft, and their own needs. But for the beginner, confusion may rule more often than not, so a look at the different jobs of gouges, skews, scrapers and parting tools may help a prospective or new turner select a decent set, or a decent array of single, turning tools.

For an example, a five piece Crown HSS Beginner's Turning Set, consisting of a 3/8" spindle gouge; a 3/4" roughing gouge; a 1/2" skew chisel; a 1/2" round nose scraper; and a 1/4" parting tool works. For smaller work, a mini turning set, consisting of 1/8" and 1/4" spindle gouges (no roughing gouges on mini sets); 1/4" round nose scraper, 1/4" skew chisel and a 1/8" parting tool--the mini-tools. Make sure the turning tools have been sharpened and honed before starting.

For ease of turning, and fast finish, along with modest cost, something on the order of soft maple, or butternut or a similar wood is recommended for testing your new tools. Prepare at least two pieces for bowl turning and two more for spindle turning. Sample sizes are variable, but for the regular lathe, a 2" x 2" x 12" turning square, along with a 6" or larger bowl blank, work well. 

Start by checking the difference in size of the varied tool types--mini versus standard. Most of the mini tools are about 10" long, while the full-size tools are no smaller than 15" and may range up to 24". Given enough time, you'll discover that there are a great many other tools, both smaller and larger, than those described here.

Begin with the roughing gouge: this gouge is square across the tip--that is, the arced shape has its edge on the same plane all around. The roughing gouge is the tool used to take the wood from square (or other non-round shape) to the early round stages, and is designed to remove material quickly. As roughing gouges get wider, their arc tends to become flatter. Roughing gouges are usually used on spindle stock, turned between centers.

Bowl gouges have deeper flutes and remove wood faster than spindle gouges, but are meant mainly for use in end grains, unlike the roughing gouge. The results tend to be smoother than those left by roughing gouges. This is a gouge type that creates a lot of different opinions as to what angle of flute is best: the simplest procedure is to get a standard gouge (HSS) and try the original angles. If those don't suit, start grinding different angles until you reach one that you really like, that really suits your style of bowl making.

Spindle gouges are shallower and more refined versions of roughing gouges, removing less material--usually--with each pass and bring round objects closer to their final shapes. They are generally ground in a fingernail shape, in a half arc, versus the flat nose of the roughing gouge. Diameters are usually smaller. Like the roughing out gouge, the spindle gouge is used to quickly remove material. Their shape also makes them suitable for cutting beads and coves. Spindle gouges are useful even in finishing up the surface, as they're needed to clean up hollows and similar spots where skews don't work.

Skew chisels  are used to refine the surfaces produced by the gouges. Properly used, a skew chisel can take a long, long ribbon of wood from the piece the gouge has turned round. Turn as long a strip of pared wood as possible if you want to test your own skills and tools. It quickly becomes evident how the tool cleans up the surface (more easily illustrated with the woods listed than with woods such as red oak or pine).

Scrapers are clean-up tools for those doing face turnings. Scrapers do a nicer job on end grain woods than most other lathe tools. This means face turning, of course, but may also mean the edges of raised bands on spindle turnings. Specialized hook shaped scrapers are also available for bowl turning.

Parting tools are useful in several areas that have nothing to do with their names. They do nicely in cutting deep grooves, and cleaning up the bottoms where skews may narrow things down too much. And, of course, parting tools are used for parting your finished work from its resultant scrap that remains on the lathe. 

Steels: Today, high speed steel (HSS) is almost the de facto standard for turning tools. Carbon steel, which will take a finer edge faster, is cheaper to make, but blunts more easily when woods being turned are abrasive, as is often the case with exotics today (teak is an excellent example, as is cocobolo, rosewood--both have mineral inclusions). Carbon steel tools are more easily sharpened, but don't hold that super sharp edge as long, though they do work better in woods, such as Tigerwood (Lovoa klaineana) and Zebrawood (Microberlinia brazzavillensis) and black walnut (Juglans nigra), that tend to tear with less sharp tools. Carbon steel can also lose its temper because of the high heat generated while turning. HSS can turn blue and still retain its cutting abilities.

Carving Gouges

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Carving Chisels

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