Carbide Woodturning Tools For The Beginner


The alternative To Traditional Wood Turning Tools

For those of you who don’t want to take the time to learn how to use the traditional types of wood turning tools I have good news. There’s another type that’s available to you which will put you on the journey of wood turning right away. Carbide woodturning tools have been on the market for some time now. People like this style of turning tools because of their ease of use. That’s right literally no learning curve. They take out all of the guess work on how to properly hold and angle your gouge or chisel.

Some wood turners who have been turning for awhile with the traditional types of tools look down on carbide. They say if you don’t turn with high speed steel you really aren’t learning the skill to woodturning. I say that’s a matter of opinion and you know what they say about opinions. I say everybody’s journey is different and with that being said, the approach will more than likely be different. So let the haters’ hate just choose what you think will give you a more enjoyable woodturning experience.

What’s So Attractive About Carbide Tools?

What are some other reasons why carbide cutters are so attractive? Well they stay sharp for a long time. Anywhere from 25 to 100 times longer in fact. The hobby wood turner may only have to replace the carbide cutter 1 or 2 times a year depending on how much they turn and what kind of wood is being turned. What’s really cool about carbide is when one side gets dull, all you have to do is loosen the set screw that holds the carbide cutter in place and rotate it around to another side.

This allows you to save a lot of time because you don’t need to stop to resharpen your tools. This way you can continue to turn your wood project within a matter of a minute. Some people have a hard time trying to get the perfect edge on traditional wood turning tools which is why some new wood turners give up because they can’t get the right angle grind on the gouge or chisel. Which makes carbide cutters more appealing.

One of the drawbacks to these tools is they do cost a little more money upfront than the other style. The money can be offset through the use of the tools. You don’t need a bench grinder which the cost of that alone isn’t cheap. If you absolutely cannot get the hang of grinding your traditional tools free hand, then you’ll need some kind of sharpening jig to get it right. Which you guessed it, more money out of pocket. It just depends what your situation is. If your looking for a fast way and easy way to get into woodturning then carbide may be the way to go.

Carbide Tool Design

The carbide turning tools are similar to HSS but different in how they work. At first glance you’ll notice that the carbide holder is normally in the shape of a square rather than rounded with a flute. I have seen some styles that are rounded across the top and down the sides BUT they all have a flat that runs the full length of the bottom of the tool. It was designed like this for a couple of reasons. While the flat part of the bottom is placed on the tool rest all you have to do is make sure that the turning tool is parallel with the floor. From there you just slide it forward into your wood project and it should start cutting.

When held parallel to the floor it transmits all of pressure downward into the tool-rest. This is considered a benefit because with high speed steel tools you expend a little energy in controlling your gouges and chisels whey they are braced against your body. With the carbide turning tools it eliminates all that. Which in turn you don’t get fatigued as easy which allows you to turn longer.

These tools happen to come in a couple different sizes. The large size and by large I mean the total length of the tool can be used for larger spindle work like chair or table legs. Pretty much anything that has a significant length to it. The smaller type of carbide turners are just shorter in design. These are normally used for small wood projects such as pen turning or finials.

The handles come in different designs and each vary in the way they look. Some come with what I call two different hand positions. What do I mean by that? Well basically two handles that have been turned on a single spindle. This is done for better hand position and comfort when you need to choke up on the handle for finer detail work. Others come with just a normal handle like you would see on traditional turning tools. These may be something that you want to consider if your’re planning on buying carbide wood turning tools. Try and find the best one that’s going to feel comfortable in your hand.

What Are Some Benefits?

Well there’s a few things that set carbide turning tools apart from high speed steel. You can turn wooden bowls with these. You don’t need to go out and buy a different set of carbide turning tools like you would with the traditional type of turning tools. They’re pretty forgiving in the way that you use them too. You can move them backwards and forwards along the top of the tool-rest as you make your cut. Which means you don’t need to roll the chisel on its side to engage the wood properly. Through the design of the carbide turning tools the chance of a dig-in or a catch is significantly reduced.

Carbide tools are capable of lathing away a massive amount of wood in a short amount of time. The cutters were designed with this in mind so don’t worry about dulling the edge. So how is this possible? Well the carbide inserts are made from stronger steel and actually scrape away wood instead of cutting like HSS. Matter of fact about the only thing that’s stronger is diamond. Some wood turners have figured out how to prolong the life of their head-cutters Through the use of a diamond hone and a little lapping fluid. More about that later though.

How To Properly Tighten Carbide Cutters

One thing to keep in mind when changing or rotating the the headcutter is torque. The right way to do it is never use the short part of the allen wrench to tighten down the set screw, use the longer part when tightening down. The carbide cutters don’t need to be gorilla tight to work. So put the long end in the set screw and tighten down by hand. The short end of the wrench is used so that you have the leverage to loosen the allen screw to either change out the headcutter or rotate it to a sharp side.

Can’t Loosen The Headcutter Set Screw? (Find Solution Here)

Sometimes what happens when we use carbide wood turning tools is the set screw won’t come loose. Well the good news is I have a solution and it’s pretty easy especially if you have a drill press. If not a regular drill will work fine too. The trick is to find yourself a good sharp drill bit that’s just big enough to drill OFF the head of the set screw without drilling into the carbide insert.

Once the set screw head has been removed, you can now slide the insert off of the remainder of the screw. Grab some pliers or channel locks turn out the set screw which should be pretty easy since there isn’t any pressure on it since there’s no more head. Replace the set screw with a new one and you’re good to go.

Tool Rest Positioning

The position of the tool rest to lathe should be raised high enough where the carbide headcutter comes in contact with the center of your work piece. The tool rest should also be locked down as close to the project as possible without coming in contact with the wood. Always spin by hand to make sure clearance is there. From this point it’s just a matter of plunging your carbide rougher into the material. If you have good shavings then you know the rest is in the right position. If not stop the lathe and adjust accordingly.

How Are They Named?

  • The Rougher (square shaped or square shaped with a slight radius)
  • The Finisher (round shaped headcutter)
  • The Detailer (diamond shaped headcutter)
  • The Hollower (shape of the tool itself has a curve with a round cutter)

The Rougher (Square And Radius Square Inserts)

The carbide rougher with the square insert should be the first carbide wood turning tool that you use on a brand new project. As the name indicates it roughs out a square wooden project to round. Something else that the name tells us is that when used the surface of your project isn’t going to be very smooth. Which is why other carbide inserts are needed. This thing can hog out an incredible amount of wood in very short amount of time. Great for turning tenons to be held by chuck for bowl turning for example. If you’re in the business of making tables and chairs well this cutter cuts tenons for those as well.

The square insert of the rougher can be used in other ways and not just roughing out a project. If you’re turning a square vessel that needs a crisp ninety degree angle, this headcutter excels at that. Bowl turning is another example when you might find this cutter handy especially when a wooden bowl needs flat surface and square corners on the interior of the bowl. The outside curvature of the bowl can also be shaped with the roughing cutter. If your turning spindles that require a precise tenons then this cutter would be the one you would use.

As iv’e said before, carbide wood turning tools are easy to use and safer due to minimized dig ins and kickbacks. But due to the shear squareness of the roughing cutter you still have to be aware of the corners. They will still dig into the wood if you’re not careful. So stay focused and take your time when using these for the first time until things become second nature.

The Difference Between R2 And R4 Carbide Inserts

The round radius carbide cutter is a preferred choice of many who use this style of turning tools. It further minimizes catches and dig ins’ that’s associated with woodturning. It can do pretty much all the things the square cutter does. These types of cutters come in a few radius’s. The 2″ and a 4″ are probably the most common.

For those who don’t know what’s meant by a cutter having a 2″ radius.Take a compass measure 1″ from point to point. Draw that circle on a piece of paper. Now from the center of that circle to any outside edge is the radius. This dimension is made into the carbide cutter. Since the cutter is so small you can barely see the radius. Yep, probably some useless information for most but for others curiosity there you have it.

Save On Wear And Tear

To save on wear and tear of your square cutters there is a simple thing you can do. If you by any chance have a band saw or even a table saw in your work shop why not put it to good use. I’ve seen a lot of wood turners take their wooden blank and set up the old band or table saw to saw off the corners of it before they rough out the project. Can you imagine how much time and wear that saves? Might as well get your moneys worth from these cutters.

The Finisher (Round Shaped Headcutters)

The finishing tool comes with two round types of cutters and both can be used to put a smoother surface on your project. The first round type is flat across the surface just like the square roughing insert. This one should be the one that you use next once you’re done roughing out. The finisher is a great tool when curves need to be turned on a project such as a funky looking vase where is flares out from the base. Yea, this tool can be used for roughing but will take longer to get where you want to be. More or less used for fine shaping beads and coves. It also makes short work when hollowing out bowl blanks as well.

Now the round cutter with a raised edge works in the same way. Due to its design it doesn’t necessarily scrape away at the material. Instead it shears it away much like the traditional spindle gouges. To get this carbide insert to work properly, you do have to slightly rotate the gouge on its side to get that shearing you’re looking for. So if you don’t sanding this cutter will provide you with the best possible surface that carbide has to offer. Plus it’s great when turning softwood because the tear out is minimized where you’ll still have some of that when using the regular round carbide insert.

The Detailer (Diamond Shaped Headcutter)

This tool is great in so many ways. The insert is diamond shaped which will allow you to decorate your project in just about anything that you can think of. Such as you ask? Well coves and beads can be turned with this tool. Round decorative circles on the base of a vase. Grooves and beads on the outside of a wooden bowl. Intricate designs for spindle work can be created with the detailer too. If you have hard to reach places on your project the detailer is your go to tool for reaching and cleaning them up.

The carbide detailer is useful for turning tenons that require a dovetail to mount to a chuck on the outside of bowl. It can also cut tenons that are dovetails on the inside as well. Why are dovetails important in woodturning? Some of the chucks that you may have to acquire for bowl turning have the shape of the dovetail machined into the jaws of the chuck. So for it work correctly, you’re going need the detailer to shape the tenon to fit it properly.

The Hollower (Shape Of The Tool Itself Has A Curve With A Round Cutter)

So let me start off by saying that this carbide tool may or may not be one that you would buy right off the bat. If your not going to be turning vessels that have a small opening while the body has been hollowed out, there’s no need for this particular cutter. My advice to you is buy the rougher, finisher and the detail carbide gouges first. Take them for a spin and get used to them before moving onto the hollower. The hollower is great for scraping or shearing out places due to its swan neck design that you can’t otherwise get with the straight finishing tool.

When hollowing out a vessel, it’s more about feel and technique as well as some experience to get it right. The carbide hollower makes it easier because it’s fitted with a finishing carbide insert. With the round insert comes better versatility to reach those pesky angles to provide the smoothest finish possible.

How Do You Tell If Inserts Are Dull?

Well that’s pretty easy to answer and straight forward. When the carbide headcutter becomes dull you’ll hear chatter and feel more vibration as you plunge the woodturning tool into the wood. You’ll also notice that you have to use more force to get it to cut. The traditional spindle and bowl gouges have different tell tale signs to let you know when they’re dull.

Can Carbide Inserts Be Sharpened?

Yes, they can but keep in mind that whatever inserts you plan on sharpening will never be as sharp as a brand new carbide insert. However if there aren’t any dings or chips taken out of the cutting edge, you can prolong the life of the inserts. If you choose to go this route you’ll need a diamond stone that’s 600 grit on one side with 1,000 grit on the other. Don’t invest in a regular knife sharpening stone because it won’t work. Carbide is pretty tough stuff and diamond is the only thing on the market right now that can accomplish sharpening carbide. You’ll also need some lapping fluid as a lubricant to help get that edge your looking for.

So the good thing about sharpening your carbide cutter inserts is that it only takes about a half minute to sharpen. Clean off any pitch that may be on the cutter and apply a little lapping fluid to the 1,000 grit side. Next put your insert face down in the lapping fluid with the bevel side up. Don’t make the mistake of sharpening the bevel side and if you do throw the carbide insert away.

Keeping Track Of The Sides

Once you’ve made it this far, take your index finger and in a circular motion start moving the insert all the while keeping it in the lapping fluid. After a few seconds you should notice the fluid starting to look black instead of clear. This is normal and what you want, it means the diamond surface is tuning up the carbide cutter. Once done chances are you’ve ground off the face indicators so you’ll have to mark them in a different way to keep track of the dull sides. So this is what you can do, take a black sharpie and on the bottom of the cutter make a line and align that mark parallel with the handle when you tighten it down.

Pros And Cons Of Carbide Tools

Very easy to learn on and straight forward.The carbide turning tools are a little more expensive than HSS.
Less down time because carbide don’t require sharpening.
Carbide wood turning tools don’t leave as much of a smooth surface as traditional woodturning tools.
Carbide turning tools can be used for both
spindle and bowl turning.
Since these are more of a scraping tool than a shearing one, you will have more sanding to do.