Basic Introduction to Turning Tools

Woodturning, whether basic or advanced, is one of the most artistic aspects of woodworking. It is also provides quick gratification, because many, if not most, smaller projects can easily be completed in a single evening, allowing the woodworker to relax and experience a sense of accomplishment. For the beginning woodturner, though, confusion comes in many forms; the number and variety of woodturning tools present a lot of decisions to be made when 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 individual turning tools.

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.

Steels: Today, high-speed steel (HSS) is almost the go-to standard for turning tools. Carbon steel, which will take a finer edge faster, is cheaper to make but blunts or dulls more easily when turning abrasive woods, such as many exotic species. Carbon steel tools are more easily sharpened, but they don’t hold that super sharp edge as long, compared to today’s high-speed steel, which can remain sharp up to six times longer than carbon steel. Carbon steel can also lose its temper because of the high heat generated while turning. However, a high-speed steel tool can retain a high hardness at temperatures up to 500°C. 

Let’s 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 it 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 they are meant mainly for use in end grains, unlike the roughing gouge. The end 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 and that really suits your style of bowl making.


Spindle Gouges are shallower and more refined versions of roughing gouges that remove 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 gouges, the spindle gouges are 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 can 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. It quickly becomes evident how the tool cleans up the surface.


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. Square Nose and Round Nose 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 off or removing your finished work from its resultant scrap that remains on the lathe.


Replaceable Tip Turning Tools are the last type of tool that should be explored.

What is a replaceable tip tool? A replaceable tip tool is just that; it is a tool with a removable cutting tip that can be rotated or removed once it has become dull, allowing you to always have a sharp cutting edge.

What makes them different from traditional style tools? Some traditional style tools have a steep learning curve and can be difficult to learn. Replaceable tip tools are simpler to learn. Keep the tool flat on the rest, parallel to the ground and advance slowly into your work. These tools allow you to easily cut from left to right or right to left. Another major difference is that most replaceable tip tools do not require sharpening like traditional style tools, which can be difficult to master at first. Some can, however, be resharpened, such as ones produced from high-speed steel, but most are treated as disposable when dull. Let’s take a look at the four most common profiles or shapes.

Square Tip: used primarily for turning square stock round. Able to remove massive amounts of material quickly and efficiently.

Round Tip: used for finish cuts and works especially well on end grain. Easily creates coves in spindles and bowls.


Diamond Tip: can be used to create details in spindle work, such as coves, beads, and other fine detail work.

Parting Tool: can be used to cut deep grooves, to create flats for spindle turning, and of course to remove your finished work from the lathe.

Back to blog