sharpening carving tools, pt 1

sharpening. dicey subject; more ways to skin that cat than you can shake a stick at (wow – a double metaphor. I think)

When I did my first carving DVD with Lie-Nielsen last year, didn’t put any sharpening in it; I really wanted to concentrate on the patterns & tool use. It’s meant as an introduction, so I kept things pared back some. There are many resources for sharpening instruction; a new one is Ron Hock’s book, which I haven’t seen but have heard good things about. 

I have never had the subject of sharpening on this blog, which is absurd. I do it a lot, more than some, less than others. But…I finally caved. Here’s a bit of what I do about the task of honing carving gouges.

I use oil stones; here I am just touching up this gouge on a hard Arkansas stone; which I wash with some mineral oil. I start at one end; my right hand slightly raises & lowers the handle of the tool until I feel the bevel on the stone. Then my left hand is pressing downwards to keep that contact. Now I move my whole body forward, while twisting my right hand, which results in the gouge rolling from one end of the tool’s edge to the other. My forearms are braced against my torso to keep things steady. the movement comes from way down low; legs & hips.

honing a gouge on hard Arkansas stone
further down the stone


end of the stroke

I try to keep things moving all across the stone; not on every stroke of the gouge, but over the course of several strokes I work the entire surface of the stone. This keeps it from wearing out in one spot. This particular stone is older than me & still works fine.

To remove any burr on the inside of the gouge, I use some small man-made slipstones. I just wipe the slipstone in the oil on the whetstone. Then my right hand is sliding the slipstone in & out on the inside surface of the gouge, while I roll the tool with my left hand. So at this point, it ‘s a little bit like patting your head and rubbing your belly, which I can’t do. Again, both arms are braced against my body for stability.

slipstone on inside

Both the inside and outside can then be stropped on leather – I have some that’s glued to a thin board. The leather is charged with polishing compound, and I pull the gouge backwards, (away from the cutting edge). To strop the inside, I have a small turned wooden cone, also rubbed with polishing compound. Swipe it on the inside of the tool to complete the sharpening.

That’s my gouge sharpening in a nutshell. There’s millions of ways to get your tools sharp. This is one way. The end reuslt is the ticket, if you get there by a different road, that’s fine with me.

10 thoughts on “sharpening carving tools, pt 1

  1. Thank you very much.
    This is a tutorial I needed.
    And I can’t think of a better craftsman to learn anything to do with carving from.

  2. Any thoughts on how carving tools were sharpened in England and New England in the 17th century? Any indications of sharpening stones, etc in probate inventories?

    • David: I have never seen anything from the period about sharpening carving tools; mentions in period inventories of whetstones are rare. I have seen them called “rubstones” in a couple of inventories. The most common item related to sharpening that we find is the grindstone. They are large, maybe that’s why they appear more in documents than the smaller honing stones.

  3. Thanks for the post Peter. One quick question when you have a chance: do you use a bevel on the insides of your carving tools, like Chris Pye suggests?

    • I don’t have an intentional interior bevel; but probably have very slight ones just from hand-stoning the shapes. My guess is that what Pye is carving is more sculpted than most of my work…

  4. Have you tried the patting the head / rubbing the belly experiment both left and right handed? I can do it with left hand patting the head but not with the right.
    Thanks for excellent sharpening advice. That looks like a wonderful gouge too. Rob

  5. I am researching the pewter industry. I have two references to grainstones. I believe they used the grainstones for sharpening their tools. Both references are from the 17th century.

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