Wood Turning Tools (Basic Beginner Tool Kit)

Traditional HSS Gouges

To be successful in wood turning, you need to have a good set of chisels and gouges made of good quality high speed steel (HSS for short). There are two types but do the exact same thing. The traditional style of chisels’ and gouges’ have been around for many years, in fact centuries. These cutter’s are made from a hardened steel called high speed steel and is preferred by wood turners because of it strength when sharpening. High speed steel won’t lose it’s hardness due to friction when sharpening on a bench grinder or a belt sander. Which in turn should provide you with many years of use along with smoother and cleaner cuts.

However, there’s a little bit of a learning curve with these types of cutting tools. It’s the angle that you have to hold the tool to get the desired cut. But with a little practice and patience you should be good to go. Also with the traditional set of chisels and gouges you’ll need to learn how to sharpen them properly to maintain their cutting edge. Yes, this is also another technique that you’ll have to learn but it’s not very complicated. Wood turners have been sharpening their own tools for years and if they can do it so can you.

Pick An Easy Wood Project

So for your first project try to find something simple to make such as wooden mallet or maybe a handle for one of your hand tools like a hammer. The reason for this is it doesn’t have to be beautiful and there’s not much detail work that goes into it the making of it. If those things don’t tickle your fancy there is always wooden pen and pencil turning which are pretty cool. These types of projects should be enough to get your feet wet with the different styles of gouges and chisels.

What I like about the traditional wood gouges and chisels is that they’ll teach you the basics of woodturning and woodturning is a skill that’s fun to learn plus it’s traditional. Of course this is just my opinion. I’m a believer in challenging myself because the reward of satisfaction is much sweeter through the process of learning with a little bit of struggle. I had a college professor tell me once “that the learning is in the struggle” and he couldn’t have been more right.

Sharp Turning Gouges

Most if not all new spindle gouges and skews will not come sharpened and if they do they’re really not that sharp to begin with. Before you try out your new set of turning tools inspect them well, because a dull tool cutting tool isn’t a friend. With the traditional types of turning gouges and skews you’ll need to have a bench grinder of some sort such as an 8″ one because your lathe cutters will need to be sharpened from time to time. This is just the nature of woodturning.

Some consider this to be an annoyance. While others look at it as just another skill that they can obtain. Sharpening your tools really isn’t that big of a deal once you get a handle on it plus there’s a bunch of angle guides and tutorials to walk you through the process. The bright side to having to grind your tools to get them sharp again is you can change the degree of the angle on your tools to whatever you need at the time.

Riding The Bevel

With the traditional style of turning gouges, hand position and tool angles are important to turn wood properly. Before I forget I want to mention that these gouges and chisels whether they are carbide or the traditional type are for wooden spindle work only. Don’t try to use these for bowl turning because the result could be dangerous, safety first people. The design of spindle gouges aren’t made to take the stress of end grain work to turn a bowl.

When using the traditional lathe tools there’s a term in woodturning called “riding the bevel”. It’s a term that wood turners use to describe how to position your gouges and skews to the wood blank.

  • Make sure that the business end of your gouge or skew is held firmly on the tool rest of your wood lathe.
  • Then slowly move the tool’s beveled edge towards the spinning stock until it makes contact with the wood.
  • Keeping your gouge intact with the tool rest, start moving it backwards and at the same time raise the handle so that cutting will start to produce shavings. Once you see the shavings you’ll know that the correct angle has been achieved.
  • When cutting, angle your chisel in the direction of your cut. Once you’ve reached the point of where your cut needs to stop roll your gouge to close it.

I’m sure by now you’ve probably done at least a little research on traditional vs. carbide wood turning tools even before reading this. You probably found that both types are expensive but the traditional gouges and skews are a little cheaper. That’s another factor why wood turners especially beginners gravitate towards this style.

Main Gouges And Chisels + 1 Other Cool Tool

There’s a lot of different types of woodturning gouges and chisels to choose from. So many that people get confused or even frustrated in trying to figure out which ones to buy. Well the good news is there are only a handful that a person needs to get started which will get you a long way in woodturning. So my suggestion is don’t spend a whole lot of money right away. Just get the basics to get your feet wet.

Each one of these turning tools vary in size which means you don’t have to buy the smallest gouge or chisel nor do you have to buy the biggest one either. If you’ve read any of my other articles you know that I like to go the middle of the road. This includes price, size and quality. With that being said let’s go over some of these to get a better understanding what is does.

  1. Roughing Gouge
  2. Spindle Gouge
  3. Skew Chisel
  4. Parting Chisel
  5. Calipers

Roughing Gouge (45 Degree Angle)

This gouge is the first one that anybody that uses a wood lathe will use when rounding out a square piece of stock. This gouge normally won’t leave a nice smooth finish and really it’s not designed to be used that way. It’s main purpose is to knock off the corners of the work piece. Since there are so many sizes to choose from, I would go with a 1″ rouging gouge. It’s a pretty good size plus there aren’t many sizes smaller than this. You can always go bigger or smaller if needed. For those that want to know the gouge itself is typically ground to a 45 degree angle

Quick tip: A nice little trick when using the roughing gouge is you don’t have to stop your wood lathe to see if you have rounded out the wooden blank. All you have to do is lay the bottom part of you roughing gouge on top of your project while the lathe is turned on. If your gouge bounces around you still have some roughing out to do. If it doesn’t, you’re rounded out and from here we can start using the spindle gouge.

Spindle Gouge (Grind To Whatever Degree Is Necessary)

The spindle gouge is the next tool you want to use when done roughing out your wood blank. This particular wood gouge does several different things. You’ll notice that it looks a little different from the roughing in that the flute is shallower and also it comes with a more pronounced bevel. This design allows for a smoother cut and detail work such as coves and beads.

For the sizes of your spindle gouge think about getting two different sizes such as 1″ gouge and 3/8″ gouge. The smaller spindle gouge will allow you to do smaller detail work easier than the larger of the two. What’s nice about these particular turning tools is you can hop on your bench grinder and shape the beveled end to the desired angle that you need it to be. So another tip that I have is learn the popular angles to achieve the desired look of your projects.

Skew Chisel (25 to 55 Degree Angle)

The skew chisel is different than the roughing and spindle gouges in shape and uses. It’s a great tool for various things but demands your undivided attention when using it. When turning wood with the skew you need to be careful how you present the chisel to the wood. The rule of thumb when using it is to only use the middle 1/3 of it when planing down the wood or shaving it. If done correctly, the end result should be a nice smooth surface that’s ready for sanding.

Inexperienced wood turners sometimes forget that if improperly used the toe part (the top point) of the skew will cause a catch or a dig-in which can be a little startling. Don’t get me wrong, the toe edge of the tool has its uses that you’ll find handy such as carving your work piece in different designs. The skew is able to carve beads, coves and sweeps in wooden spindles. It’s also great for removing large amounts of wood quickly when done right. An example would be when tenons need to be carved for chair and table legs.

For those who are new to woodturning the 1″ skew is nice choice for a few reasons. It’s easier to learn on plus sharpening isn’t as difficult as some of the smaller skews because there’s more surface face to better see what you are doing. This size chisel is also pretty stable as well which will be a benefit when getting a handle on the basics.

Now the angles of the skew chisel can be ground anywhere from 25 to 55 degrees. But the happy medium or compromise is a 40 degree angle.

Diamond Parting Chisel (50 Degree Angle)

The parting chisel is what the name implies. It has several uses but the main purpose that it does is separates your work piece from the scrap ends when your done turning the project. It’s also handy for cutting grooves in your project that needs to be a specific diameter and this can be done in conjunction with a set of calipers. An example would be anything that has a tapered surface like a baseball bat. One thing to keep in mind when parting is not to cut all the way through your work piece. Instead cut most of the way through then stop the lathe and finish cutting with a hand saw. Normally the parting chisel has a 50 degree angle on both edges.

The diamond parting chisel comes in a few different sizes and for wood turning beginners the 1/8″ is a good middle of the road choice. It has the strength that you’ll need and can more than handle some of the larger projects that you may want to do such as bowl turning.

Calipers

Calipers are important in woodturning especially if you plan on turning duplicate spindles for table legs or possibly spindles for stair banisters. The wood calipers work hand in hand with the diamond parting chisel to make the depth of the cuts as precise as possible when forming multiple coves and grooves in your spindles. When you purchase calipers it’s a good idea to pick up at least 2 maybe even 3 so that you can set each one of them to a specific measurement for different depths. One good thing about the calipers is they are inexpensive compared to your other turning tools. Figuring out how to use them properly is also straight forward and easy.

This is not only a huge time saver but also keeps you from getting confused on what depth to keep setting your calipers to when you make a cut on the spindle. Something that also needs mentioning is some calipers will come with pretty sharp points that needs to be ground to more of a round point. The reason is so that when you’re gauging the work piece it cause a dig-in like the skew chisel does.

Pros’ And Cons Of HSS Gouges And Chisels

Pros’Cons’
HSS gouges and chisels are cheaper than carbideTechnique has to be learned for good results
Cutting results are smoother which requires less sandingGouges and chisels require sharpening
Traditional gouges can be ground to any desired degreeYou have to invest in a good bench grinder