View Full Version : Dumb guy with sharp gouges

Jamie Cowan
04-05-2008, 12:42 AM
Hey there, big fan of this site. Lots of great info for a guy with lots of questions. Why, here's one now: Recently decided carving would be fun. Bought a Pfeil starter set with a #1, #8, and a #12. Then bought a #5, and a pretty big #7 and #11. Haven't used them much yet, but really enjoy carving. I haven't used a mallet yet, as I'm sort of learning how the tools move. I can see this getting to be an expensive hobby, and I don't have any idea how to sharpen them when they get dull. Read a few articles, but they all seem to start with the assumption that you're starting with gound but not sharpened tools. Is there some sort of constant upkeep I should be doing to avoid having to start from scratch, so to speak? Also, how the heck do you sharpen something like a 15mm #11 gouge? That's a whole lot of curve. The only sharpening experience I have it with bench chisels, so the curve is kind of freaking me out. I'm not averse to spending money on good sharpening equipment, but I am a little scared of a grinder, as I don't want to lose control and overheat the metal, or come in at a bad angle and ruin a 30 dollar gouge.

Any advice would be appreciated, as I'm really lost.


Dave Lindgren
04-05-2008, 1:39 AM
Rick at Littleshavers.com will sharpen (and I mean sharpen) any carving tool for 2 bucks a pop. Response time is excellent and I have never heard anything bad about his establishment. No, I have no vested interest, just a satisfied customer. See his site for complete details.

Garry McKinney
04-05-2008, 7:24 AM

A gouge has two bevels. one on the outside , one inside. Too maintain your tools , just keeping the edge most of this is done with a strop. Basically a piece of leather , laying flat with a polishing compound on it.

You can even use an old belt. but wood craft and many other sell them, and compounds.

You start at one end of the strop, and move across it rotating the tool as you move. keeping the angle of the bevel. For the inside edge , take a soft piece of wood , and cut a grove into it with the gouge upside down , add compound to the cut curve and then stroke away from the edge to hone the inside bevel.

Learning to sharpen the edge takes a bit of time, but corectly honing the edge will keep the tool sharp for years.

If you need to really sharpen the edge, the eaisest way to learn , is refered to as a scary sharp method. It is a progression of using different sandpapers to 2000 grit. This will leave a wire edge on your tool , which you hone off with your strop. I suggest you get a book or a DVD that will walk you through the processes.
How to carve wood by Rick Butz is a good one , but the David Sabol Dvd just released is excellent as well .

Dave McGeehan
04-05-2008, 8:35 AM

The best advice I ever got regarding sharpening my gouges and knives was, "sharpen them right before they need to be sharpened." In other words, as soon as they act like they are losing their razor edge stop and use the strop. Just 4 or 5 strokes on the outter bevel and a couple on the inner keeps me carving and away from the stones. Once the edge and bevel starts to round over you must then reestablish the bevel via whatever method works best for you. I use both waterstones and/or a motorized waterstone depending on the sweep and extent of the dullness.

The best way to learn in the beginning is to try to spend some time with someone who has experience sharpening various gouges. If you watch 10 different carvers, you'll probably see ten different methods of sharpening. Through watching and doing you'll find the way that works best for you.


Faust M. Ruggiero
04-05-2008, 8:48 AM
Hey Jamie,
If you ask 10 carvers how they hone their chisels you will not only get different answers but probably a heated argument. The correct way to sharpen a chisel is what works for you. Just like your bench chisels you might use different angles for different woods and uses. Sometimes you might choose to keep the edge straight and sometimes it is better to allow the corners to round over a bit. If you carve a lot you will even buy a couple of the same tool and sharpen one differently from another. I own 200 chisels. By friend and mentor, a professional woodcarver probably owns twice that. Though he taught me to carve and sharpen the tools, I do hone mine a bit differently than he does.
I grind my rough edge but do not grind to a wire edge. I use a pink Norton 6" wheel and an extremely light touch. If you choose a grinding technique that suits you better, like a slow water cooled wheel, that's OK too. You are only shaping the rough bevel.
Next use your favorite sharpening stones. Your technique will vary with the shape of the tool. You might choose to work a 30mm #7 sideways while you move back and forth in the normal fashion with a skew or straight gouge. Find your own way but in the end you need an even wire edge. Except for straight chisels and skews, I never touch the inside of a gouge with a stone of any grit. There is a slight bevel inside but I don't do that with a stone. I usually work only to a 1000 grit ceramic stone. Again, choose the stone that works best for you.
Now I will make the purists moan. I hone all my chisels with buffing wheels. I keep two grinders with four different wheels. I use a gray compound to remove the lines made by the stone. My wheels are the ones with the tight stitching so the wheel is firm. Avoid the temptation to use felt wheels or 3M fiber wheels. You need some give in the wheel. I still haven't touched the inside of the gouge. Once I have removed the stone lines I have turned a wire edge on the inside. Now I move to another buffing wheel dressed with white compound. This is a finer pumice. I lightly buff the inside of the gouge to remove move the wire edge to the back then turn the chisel over and rebuff the back. Now I go back and forth until the wire edge is gone and the chisel is perfect. This will produce the sharpest edge you have ever used. The reason is the buffing wheel will produce almost no saw edge.
Now you will ask how to buff the inside if a chisel with a flat buffing wheel. I use the corners of the wheel and I have one wheel that is a bit soft and will allow me to push the concave surface into it a bit.
Please remember to aim the edge down, so the rotation of the wheel is away from the cutting edge. This is the opposite direction you hold the tool for grinding. A buffing wheel will grab the edge if you aim it into the wheel.
After a period of using the tool, you will need to rebuff. Use only the white wheel. By the way, don't mix compounds on the same wheel. The coarser compound will take over. When you have buffed so many times that you begin building a rounded shoulder behind the cutting edge, the tool will feel sharp but be hard to push. Then it is time to lightly grind away the shoulder. If you are careful, you will not even disturb the cutting edge.
Experiment and expect to use up a bit if length in the learning process. It takes time.
Use your mallet a lot. It is easier to control the tool with light blows than by pushing with your weight. You will learn shearing as you go.
Happy carving and sorry for the long read.

You will learn h

Jamie Cowan
04-05-2008, 12:02 PM
The longer the read, the better! I want to thank everyone who has responded to my original message so far, it has been about 11 hours since I posted it, and already have four great responses. And I posted in the middle of the night! Dave Lindgren's response addressed the question I meant to add, which is "can I just send them out to somebody smarter and more experienced?" He sensed that, I guess. Thank you, Dave.
Garry McKinney came through with the answer to my question of constant upkeep, and confirmed and elaborated on what my tiny little mind sort of suspected but didn't know--and gave me some tips to get started. Thank you Garry.
Dave McGeehan passed along the great advice to "sharpen just before they need sharpening," which answers another question I meant to ask. He also had some good advice about spending time with someone who is further along in the carving game than I am. I'll now start hanging around the Pfeil section at Woodcraft looking for somebody who looks like he knows what he's doing, and try to become his new best friend. Thank you Dave.
Faust M. Ruggiero, who has just about the coolest name ever, has written in with some great technical advice. Particularly the part about buffing with the edge down. As soon as I read that, I could envision a gouge stuck in my forehead from doing it the other way. He was kind enough not to point out that I could kill myself, but still got the point across. Also, good point about one compound per wheel, I hadn't thought of that, but it makes perfect sense. Thank you Faust.
I was beginning to feel like the sharpening was going to be harder than the carving--yeah, I guess I do think that--but so far the advice has been great, and I really appreciate all the help. SMC rocks!

Matt Bickford
04-05-2008, 3:31 PM
If you have a comfortable way of honing bench chisels freehand then you are well on your way. Use the the same method of steps, stones, strops, rouges, leather, whatever on the primary bevel, just add a twist. I am right handed. I put my left finger in the channel and my right hand holding the handle very low while twisting the tool on its bevel. When that's done follow it up with a few slip stones held at a slight angle on the back. This will make a small back bevel and turn the edge. If you don't have a comfortable way of honing bench chisels freehand, learn one. All guides, from the MKII to tenoning jigs to dovetail templates to mortising with your router, prevent you from possessing a skill set that can carry over to different aspects of the hobby. You do not need new wheels, stones, grits, NOTHING except for something to do the interior. I use slip stones others uses dowels and sandpaper.

Sharpening is part of the hobby and should not be outsourced. It will take a little while but is a necessary skill. You may make a less than ideal shape out of the gouges a few times so you'll need a way to regrind the bevel. Hold the gouge at a near-90-degree angle and touch it against your grinding wheel (or you can do it on a stone if you're comfortable with that) until there is a uniform "U" shape defined by the gouge's shape. Then readjust your grinder to the desired angle and grind slowly until the flat area you just created at 90 degrees is just barely gone. Then go to the stones and give it another try.

Start with the #5 and work your way up to the 11.

Matt Bickford
04-05-2008, 4:01 PM
PS if you feel like you've butchered your #5 (or another) while trying to learn this I will regrind the bevel for you for the cost of shipping in both directions...aka free. I would rather help somebody struggle to learn than endlessly pay for a service. Just remember: learn to freehand a bench chisel and work your way up the sweeps. If you can't do the #5 you won't be able to do the #7, let alone the #11. The same equipment is used.

Dennis Peacock
04-05-2008, 4:01 PM
If you have a comfortable way of honing bench chisels freehand then you are well on your way. If you don't have a comfortable way of honing bench chisels freehand, learn one. All guides, from the MKII to tenoning jigs to dovetail templates to mortising with your router, prevent you from possessing a skill set that can carry over to different aspects of the hobby. You do not need new wheels, stones, grits, NOTHING except for something to do the interior.

Sharpening is part of the hobby...........

No truer words have been said. I just wish I had of learned this long before doing woodworking for over 30 years. :o
Thanks Matt...!!!

Jamie Cowan
04-05-2008, 8:30 PM
Matt Bickford, you make a good point--sharpening is part of the hobby. Also a good point made by suggesting that I work my way up. That makes sense. Thanks for the exceptionally generous offer, I promise I'll only take you up on it if I really get into trouble. I've always done okay with the bench chisels, and to be honest, never really thought about it being any different with sweeps. Then I bought some. And then a couple more. Then I started thinking about sharpening them. Then I got worried.

Matt Bickford
04-06-2008, 1:14 PM
You're correct in thinking that it's not much different from bench chisels. The steel is the same so the order of steps is the same. The only difference is that instead of removing the burr by rubbing its back flat on the stone you do it with some sort of slip stone and you hold it at a slight angle.

The beauty of gouges is that you don't need to mantain an edge that is perfectly straight across like you would with a chisel. If there are slight waves in the profile its ok because you are honing a specific point on a gouge at all times. with a chisel you are honing the entire bevel at one time, thus the need for the flat back.

An edge that is on a single plane is ideal, don't get me wrong, but slightly waves don't qualify as a butchering if the gouge cuts like its sharp, is holding an edge and the profile doesn't get in the way of itself.

Jamie Cowan
04-06-2008, 3:54 PM
Thanks again, Matt, and everyone else who helped with this question. I think I got a little panicky while looking at my #11 and #12. Probably not as big a deal as I made it out to be, but I'm certainly glad I finally posted. I got some great info on technique and various philosophies and approaches to sharpening these suckers. I've really enjoyed what everyone has contributed, and hope this thread continues, as I'd love to see what everyone has to say. I'll be posting my results as I get along. Thanks.

Dave McGeehan
04-06-2008, 5:20 PM
Matt has made some very good points, especially:

1: If you know how to sharpen chisels, you are more than half way there already.

2: As super-picky as I am about the shapness and uniformity of my gouges' edges, they are not as critical as the edge of a plane iron or bench chisel.

As you've see via these posts, everyone uses a different method. I rarely use a grinder for my gouges unless I drop one and damage the edge. As long as I don't let the edge get too dull I can bring it back using a strop or a stationary waterstone.

I also have a rule that I adhere to: when I am done carving for the day each carving tool I used must be able to painlessly dry-shave hair from the back of my hand before it's put away. The reason I do this is when I start each carving session I like to focus my initial energy on carving instead of sharpening.

Sam Yerardi
04-06-2008, 7:23 PM

I agree 110% with Faust and Matt. Everyone has their own methods, and each work great for them. One thing that helped me was to start nailing down just what TYPE of edge a chisel or gouge is SUPPOSED to have and then focus on how to get there. Once you get that down, then there is a world of ways to get there. And the comment about doing your own sharpening is GOOD ADVICE. Once you get over that hurdle (and it's really not as steep as you think - it's more deciding which hurdle to go over) you will be ruined forever because you will begin (if you're like me) to relax when you sharpen and hone and it becomes therapy (at least for me anyway - my wife says I need to get a life ;)) and sometimes you spend more time sharpening than carving but you don't regret it (at least I don't :)).