carving gouges

I’ve got a number of questions lately about carving tools. Which ones do I use, what do I recommend, etc.

 Here is some of the answer. The carving tools I use are a mixture of new & old. They all generally work, some better than others. I have some English, German, Swiss, American.

 I mostly lean towards the older tools; but I have many new (in the last 25 years) tools. Most of those are the Swiss-made tools, (Pfiel is the name of the company that makes them, I think). These days I have found some of their tools a little lightweight, which I don’t like.  

I imagine the “antique” tools I use are not all that old, maybe early-twentieth century. I have never really studied gouge-history, but I bet someone has and there must be a rundown of various gouge-making firms, like Butcher, Addis, Buck Bros, Henry Taylor. I have tools from all these & mostly like them.

 First, as for sizes. This picture is what I generally send people who ask what size tools do I use the most. A set of gouges like this will go a long ways in carving 17th-century style patterns.

carving tools' profiles


I’ve collected my tools here & there over the years; and some have come from Alexander’s collection as well. (as always, thanks JA) As for manufacturers, I guess most of my old ones are British. There’s no magic in the British ones, but they are generally nice.

The museum where I work once bought some tools, and in a money-saving mood, we chose the smaller versions of some Austrian tools, and I find them hard to use. I hit these things pretty hard, and the smaller tools feel like they can’t take it. I haven’t had a problem with them, I just don’t like the way they feel. I prefer a larger, full-size tool. Pfiel (sold through Woodcraft & elsewhere) make some carving tools in two sizes as well, so I recommend the bigger versions if you go that route. I bought some Ashley Iles last year from and for new tools they seem well-made. They are large, and strong.

gouges old & new


This picture shows a bunch of tools I use a lot. From the top, two Henry Taylor gouges, one old one new. A W Butcher gouge, one of my favorites. Then a new Ashley Iles gouge, and a very nice, although small, Sheffield-made gouge.

Here is a comparison between the two Henry Taylor gouges. I don’t think the “old” one is all that old, (I’d guess 25 years or so?)  but there’s a noticeable difference between the two. see the detail of the bolsters, the new one doesn’t quite fit the ferrule that well, and the handle’s a little cockeyed too. Not a terrible big deal, but it makes the old one more appealing to me.

Henry Taylor gouges


detail, Henry Taylor gouges


This is one of my favorite gouges. Again, I doubt it’s all that old. But nice & stout where it needs to be, and well made.

W Butcher gouge


NOW, the V-tool is the real killer. It’s a hard tool to find one that’s the right shape. I have a Pfiel one that I bought 20+ years ago, and have changed its shape through sharpening over time, and I do most of my V-tool work with it. I have since bought new ones, same size, same maker. Different shape. Some of those failed (chipped cutting edge!) – I also have an old German one that I use a good bit. It’s a very nice example. This photo shows, from right to left, Pfiel, Ashley Iles, one from Hamburg (no name) and a Stubai from Austria. Look at the detail of their V-shapes, that’s the thing to look for. The closer it comes to an absolute point at the junction of both “wings” the better it is. That’s where the Stubai in this group loses out, the Pfiel and the German ones have the best shape. Ashley Iles is pretty good, probably better than the newer Pfiels I have bought in recent years.



Here they run just as above, from the left, Stubai, German no-name, Ashely Iles, and Pfiel (Swiss-made). the German & Swiss are the best, cleanest cuts, sharpest lines. the other tw0, being a little rounded at the bottom, bump along a bit, leaving ridges inside the lines.

V-tool shapes & lines


To learn more about V-tool shapes, have a look at Chris Pye’s website. He has an e-book dedicted to just this one tool. I skimmed it, and there’s good stuff there about the proper shape for this tool. (one of the proper shapes, anyway)

Hope some of this helps with questions about carving tools. it’s a start anyway. I”ll be doing some more carving this summer, and will try to add some blog content here on the subject.

Here’s a recent, nearly-done  panel I have been practicing, just so we have a carved panel after all this talk about the tools:

practice panel

Joined chest; cutting till parts

till detail, PF chest

The interior compartment inside a joined chest is called a till. These are commonly found, sometimes the till is gone, and the notches in the stiles and rails are all that remain.  I was cutting the notches for one recently, and I am often struck by how much of this oak you can cut away and still have a piece strong enough to stay together.

This next photo is the front stile for the chest I’m building now. This stile is red oak, and it’s about 3 1/4″ wide by 1 3/4″ thick. Clustered up near the top end of the stile are several cuts into the stock.
  • First, the two mortises, for the front and side upper rails. These are 5/16″ wide by about 3 3/4″ high. The one for the front rail is about 1 1/2″ deep, the other about 1 1/4″ deep.
  • Each has two 1/4″ holes bored in them, those for the front rail go all the way through the stile.
  • There is a groove running along each edge, into these mortises, for the beveled panels.
  • Additionally there is a notch cut across the inner face of the stile for the till bottom. this notch is about 3/8″ wide and about the same depth. It is positioned so that the till bottom is flush with the bottom edge of the upper rails.
  • What is missing from this photo is one more assault on this piece of wood – the hole bored into the stile for the hinged end of the till lid. This hole is usually about 3/8″ in diameter and about 1/2″ deep, and right near what will be the top end of the stile, after the extra wood is trimmed off the top. It will be about 3/8″ away from the mortise for the side rail.
That’s a lot of cuts into this piece of wood, all in the same neighborhood. Sometimes I am amazed that the stile can take it.
mortises, till trench & pin holes


Here’s an original that didn’t make it. Here we’re looking at the inside of the upper front rail. The till side and top are missing, but the bottom is in place. This chest is a little different, in that it’s a joined front fixed to board sides and rear. So the busted stile here has only one mortise in it, but where the side mortise would be in a standard chest, a rabbet was cut instead, to receive the board side. Wooden pins were driven through the front stile into the edge of the board side. There’s no telling when this inner face of this mortise broke away. This chest saw some neglect; but it might very well have happened when the piece was being built. One of the great things about oak is how well it splits, but one of the troubles with oak is how well it splits.

inner front rail, smithsonian chest
Alexander shot these photos many years ago. We were quite excited to be able to see inside the mortise, and see that it doesn’t need to be any great shakes in there, just get the wood cut out so the tenon can fit in. Notice that the end of the tenon does not reach the bottom of the mortise. A critical point.
busted mortise, inside upper front rail


One time Alexander & I taught a class in joinery. A blacksmith student in the class gave us a phrase that has stayed with me:  “I don’t care how weak it is, as long as it’s strong enough.”

one more box

I meant to add this shameless plug to my previous posting tonight.

small oak box, on sale


I only have one of the small oak boxes left from the website.  approximate dimensions are H:  5 1/4″   W:  14″  D: 9″  

When this one goes, the price for the small boxes will go back up to $600 plus shipping. I’ll make more in the fall. As it now stands, this one is $5oo including ground shipping in the US.

Here’s a couple of detail shots of it:

front detail


small box open


On a completely different note, after catching conjunctivitis from the kids, I was out of work for a while…tomorrow I head back, hopefully not speading germs…

But my wife has no choice really, she has to take her chances like I did. Today we got to take a walk  by ourselves while the kids were in school… we made it all the way out to the “church” where we got married 7 years ago this week.

this was the place


If it hadn’t been for my sisters writing to us this week, neither of us would have caught on that it was our anniversary! Too swept up in trying to stay one step ahead of sick kids, and not really succeeding.  So, I needed help, but here it is – Happy Anniversary Maureen. maybe I’ll catch on next year…

I always get this part wrong

There is an element used on some joined chests that I often get “wrong” and I’m down the road to doing it again. Some chests feature “brackets” – small decorative pieces fitted underneath the bottom front rail. (I’ve seen them called spandrels, but that’s not what they are. My copy of Harris’ Illustrated Dictionary of Historic Architecture is somewhere…but I can’t find it right now.  Alexander suggests keeping this book in the bathroom, but with the kids around now, some of the reading material there has changed…)

Here’s one of mine on our kitchen table. I made it flush with the rail and stile, which it sometimes is in period work, and I pinned its tenon – which most often is not the case. For some reason, these things are usually un-pinned. There is a nail driven up through the tip of the bracket into the bottom edge of the rail. I guess they just rely on that to keep it in place.

bracket, PF table


I have a chest I’m making for the museum that I want to put brackets on, and I already bored pin holes in the bracket mortises. I hadn’t double-checked my bracket notes – so that is what this blog post sort of serves as for the future. Many brackets are recessed from the face of the rail & stile. some are flush. Most are not pinned. all are nailed near the tip.  There are many used on the stuff from Ipswich, attributed to Thomas Dennis and his apprentices. Here is probably the best example, and note that it’s not pinned.

bracket, Thomas Dennis chest


Here’s another, not far from Dennis in space or time, but a different shape. But also flush, not pinned.

bracket, Capen chest of drawers, 1685


The project I am working on is a copy of a chest by John Savell. I have made these chests many times, but this time I decided to add the brackets. When Alexander & I (with Trent’s help)  studied this group of  chests back in the early 1990s, we only found one with brackets. Since our 1996 article, there have been three more chests found, and still no more brackets. And it’s a good thing, because the ones on this chest are pretty sorry examples.
joined chest, Jn Savell 1660-1687
Here is a detail shot by Alexander of one of the brackets. A little hard to see in this view, but it’s recessed back from the rail & stile. I think there was a knob near the tip of the profile that has split off.
bracekt, Savell chest


And here is another detail, same chest. No pin. recessed from face of stile & rail. barefaced tenon. Don’t know if there is a rear shoulder, but there certainly isn’t a front one. And the tenon is “stepped” i.e. there’s a cut at the bottom of the tenon – the mortise is not as high as the bracket is.  I have stepped bracket tenons, but in the opposite direction. I have made them fit mortises that are chopped just below the rail – with a chunk of wood left in the stile between the bottom of the rail mortise and the top of the bracket mortise. BUT I was making it up as I went along. I really haven’t looked at period brackets in enough detail.

detail recessed bracket


The carved design on the Savell brackets really left us feeling pretty disappointed. At the time we used to say that the Savells couldn’t do anything different from their standard joined chest. But the desk box we had in the article used a side panel that is carved in a successful design, using stock motifs from the group. But all its edges are straight…

desk box, William Savell, 1675-1700


Enough. I have one more, then it’s quits. I found a Thomas Dennis bracket with pins. So I’m not totally off the mark, just mostly off…

chest bracket, Thomas Dennis, 1676

extra-curricula work, baskets & spoons

I’ve just started working with a white ash log I got some time ago, I have  been splitting it open and starting some turned chairs. Ash often grows very straight, and splits & turns beautifully. Strong, but not too heavy, it is an excellent choice for chairs. I have worked with it for as long as I have counted myself as a woodworker.  One very disturbing thing about ash is the effect the emerald ash borer is having on this tree. see I hate to think that we might see this tree wiped out, much like the chestnut and elm… 

small ash basket


One thing I use to make a lot of from ash is woven baskets. I learned basketmaking in white oak to begin with, at Country Workshops back in the mid-1980s. But here in southeastern Massachusetts, ash outnumbered white oak by far.  So I ended up learning how to produce splints from ash (as opposed to “splits” from oak.) The way ash splints are made is to pound apart the growth rings in the wood. Using a heavy hammer (I use a 3lb hand sledge hammer) you pound upon the growth-ring plane of the log. The early spring wood crushes, and the growth rings come apart. These become the splints. They can then be split apart, or scraped to produce smooth material foe weaving baskets.

One method I learned about making ash splints was to pound billets of wood, instead of pounding the whole log. First the log is riven just as you would for chair parts; halves, quarters, eighths, so on. Then small sections are shaved at a shaving horse into pieces about 1 ½” wide by maybe 1” thick. I hold this billet of wood on the stump, and pound upon the growth ring layer with the sledgehammer. Each blow overlaps the previous. I pound all down the length, then flip the piece over and pound the same way on the opposite face. At this stage you can see the early wood crushing and the growth rings separating.

pounding ash billet


Once I have hammered the whole thing, I stick one end out past the edge of the stump, and hammer on this overhanging end. This makes the whole thing flap apart. Presto, you get many, many layers of splints in a hurry.

pounding splints apart


growth rings delaminating


I am just using the off-splits from busting this log apart for chairs. There are some nice, slow-growing sections that will give me a bunch of splints without too much effort. The stock is pretty short, so that means small baskets; but I’ll make some for the kids to hold their junk in. Maybe I can get rid of some more plastic stuff. Before I became a joiner, I made lots of baskets; and I still have some of my favorites around the house.

basket of spoon stuff


One keeps my spoon carving gear. As some of you have heard me go on about, there is a great class this summer at Country Workshops in carving Swedish-style spoons and bowls. I keep my spoons-in-progress in this white oak basket; along with the knives I use for that work. I have been reviewing some of the articles, etc about spoon-carving. Among that stuff is this roughed-out spoon Jogge Sundqvist made during the shooting of his video in 1988. It was split out from a rhododendron branch, then part of the shape was sawn with a small frame saw. A little knife work and the spoon was well-defined. I don’t remember why he didn’t finish it, but I have kept it as an example of the first stages of forming the spoon.

Jogge's roughed-out spoon


another view


Here’s another of his, I have used this one for 20 years now.

jogge sundqvist spoon 1988


side view


Here’s some pertinent links:

the class at Country Workshops, and the video available from them as well:

Kari Hultman is gearing up for the class as well. See her posts here:

Jogge’s site:

Del Stubbs’ site. This one takes time, there’s tons of stuff to see there