Chisels and Gouges
‘Some folks carve their reputations, others just chisel and gouge.’
Chisels and gouges are two very important tools groups the first of which is a very common woodworking tool. A chisel as a flat blade to cut flat straight work and a gouge has a curved blade to cut curved and other shapes. Chisels are usually sharpened with a bevel on one side with the back of the chisel being perfectly flat. Some carving and turning chisels are double beveled for their particular application. Both chisels and gouges cut with the cutting edge perpendicular to the grain of the wood but the cut is much smoother if the cutting edge is held at an angle or skew to the wood grain. The direction and amount of the angle depends upon the type of wood and the grain. Cutting can also be easily accomplished on certain occasions and applications by cutting across the grain of the wood; this is especially true with gouge work. I will mention this at the beginning and will not talk about it again but never, ever strike a chisel with a metal hammer of any kind. Always use a wooden mallet to strike a wooden chisel or gouge handle.
Back Bent Chisel is a specialty chisel used mainly in woodcarving. The advantage of a bent chisel is that the bend in the blade changes the angle of attack of the cutting edge. You can get into difficult areas to deal with difficult grain and this tool can do that where other chisels cannot.
Bench Chisel is a term to describe a typical woodworking chisel used by cabinetmakers, furniture makers and others. It is of full size with a 5” blade and 5” handle and is usually a tang type but older ones do come with sockets. The blades are not too thick and the tops are beveled along the sides. The reason for the bevel is to allow the chisel to work on dovetails, with beveled sides, that is possible, if the sides are square like on mortise chisel or firmer chisels they will damage the sides of the dovetails. The bevels also lighten the chisels weight.
Butt Chisel is a smaller version of the bench chisel with a short blade and short handle. These are used for installing hardware such as butt hinges and are small enough to carry in the toolbox for work out of the shop. Some bench chisels become butt chisels after repeated sharpening.
Cabinet Chisel is another term for Bench Chisel and denotes the bevel edge wooden handled chisels in sizes: 1/8”, ¼”, 3/8”, ½”, 5/8”, ¾”, 7/8” and 1” are common and in increments up to 2”, after that they are usually considered a Slick. These are the common everyday chisel used by the cabinetmaker, carpenter, furniture maker and other woodworkers doing normal woodworking tasks.
Carving Chisel generally has a thinner blade and is sharpened to about 15º angle which is easier to use when hand carving as opposed to mallet carving.
Corner Chisel is another specialty tool that comes in small ¼” size for cabinet work to 1 ½” and larger size for building and boat construction. This tool has a blade that is formed into a right angle along its length with sockets on the large versions and tangs on the smaller ones. The tool is ground flat on the outside and the bevels are cut on the inside leading edges. The sharpening is a thicker angle for heavy construction work at about a 25º angle to prevent chipping of the blade. Small cabinet corner chisels have a finer 20º angle to square up mortises and other right angle joints. Also called a bruz.
Dogleg Chisel is a handy tool to have for working the bottom of shallow mortises and for truing up groundwork during the inlaying process. The offset or dogleg is usually in the shank just at where the blade starts to widen out. This offset allows the back of the blade to be flat keeping the cutting angle low for a smoother and easier cut.
Firmer Chisel is similar to a bench or cabinet chisel but without the bevels up each side. The blades are usually thicker and some old ones have a curved top to make the blade even stouter for heavy-duty work. Most handles are joined to the firmer with a socket to withstand the heavy mallet work associated with this robust tool. Some of the handles have a hoop around the top to prevent the head of the handle from splitting and mushrooming. The cutting edge bevel is ground to a 20º angle to withstand the heavy work, prevent the blade from chipping yet cut easily. The mass and strength of these tools withstand the heavy use to which these tools can be subject. Larger versions are also called framing chisels.
Fishtail Chisel is a lightweight chisel that should probably included in Carving Chisels but I use mine all of the time where access is limited. The chisel, a tang type has a thin shank that flairs out to the finished width at the cutting edge of the blade. The shape forms a fishtail and while it works for some applications, the shank is too flexible for some purposes. The blade is sharpened on a low 15º angle like a paring chisel, is extremely sharp and makes light cuts easily. Also called a fantail chisel.
Mortise Chisel is a stout square or rectangular blade with a thick shank and joined to the handle with a socket or tang and ferrule. The squareness of these blades produces square mortises. The stoutness of the large thick blades withstands pounding with a mallet and levering against the walls of the mortise to clean up the bottoms. Smaller mortise chisels are ground at 20º while large construction mortise chisels are ground to 25º.
Paring Chisel is a long thin usually side beveled chisel used for fine smoothing and finish work. The long thin blades are flexible and the cutting edge is sharpened to the low 15º angle to provide the smoothest of cuts. These tools are almost always with tang handles and are never struck with a mallet. The length and suppleness of these chisels are favored by patternmakers and are delightful to use.
Slick is a large chisel 2” wide and wider with a long blade and invariably has a socket with a very long handle sometimes with a pad turned onto the end. These are used to shape large construction members in building and boat construction. The pad on the handle is placed against the shoulder, which is used to force the slick through the work. The length and mass of this tool make it a tool that is relatively easy to use. Slick is also a term to describe any chisel over 2” wide.
Socket Chisel is a type of chisel that holds its handle within a socket formed on the shank of the chisel. Socket is a method of attaching the handle to the blade. A socket can be used on any type chisels and most types in one form or another are to be found with a socket. This type of chisel is usually of the heavier types capable of taking pounding on the handle. One problem with socket chisels is that when the handle breaks, most people apparently just kept hitting the socket itself mushrooming it over.
Swans neck Chisel is a special type of chisel used to smooth the bottoms of mortises or other deep holes in wood. With the curve on the end of the chisel, the blade is at the correct angle to properly smooth the bottoms of mortises. Also called a Bottoming Chisel.
Tang Chisel is another type of chisel construction in which a thin tapered part of the shank (the tang) is inserted into a handle. Tang is a method of attaching the handle to the blade. There is usually a bolster or shoulder between the tang and the blade that rest against the handle. This type of construction is usually for lighter duty chisels. The tang should be properly fit to prevent the handle from splitting. Many of these types of chisels also have metal ferrules to prevent splitting.
Turning Chisel is a flat chisel that is used specifically for turning on the lathe. I have used cabinet chisels and skew carving chisels on the lathe in a pinch but most often the tools are sharpened differently to be interchangeable and I have never used a turning tool as a bench tool.
And now for a discussion about bent chisels, commonly referred to as the Gouge. Gouges are chisels with a curved or bent cutting edge that makes curved or bent cuts or gouges in the wood. Even the slightest amount of bend qualifies as a gouge. The bevel of the gouge is usually ground on the inside or concave side of the gouge and the back is flat. An in cannel gouge has its bevel cut on the outside or convex side of the gouge and the inside is flat.
Back Bent Gouge is a gouge with a shank and a short blade that has a reverse bend in the blade and is useful for low angle work during modeling and shaping. These are usually fitted with a tang handle arrangement and are seldom struck with a mallet. An unusual tool that is handy on those occasions when this tool is the only solution for tricky grain and rounded undercuts.
Bench Gouge is a gouge to do simple hollowing work such as moldings and coves. These are light duty gouges with a tang handle. Also called cabinet gouges these may be the only gouges that many woodworkers need for simple hollowing operations.
Bowl Gouge is a short stout wide bladed gouge used for making the hollow inside of a bowl as the name implies. The blade can be straight but are usually curved along its length to fit down into the bowl. The handle is also short to accommodate working inside of bowls and trenchers. Most are socketed to withstand mallet use and the end of the handle is hooped to prevent splitting.
Cabinet Gouge is another name for the group of lighter duty Bench Gouges.
Carving Gouge is much thinner and lightweight, than other gouges and usually not as long and invariably fitted with a tang handle and sharpened to 15º angle.
Fishtail Gouge similar to the fishtail chisel this gouge is usually small and light duty. The nature of the fishtail limits the useful life of this tool. The blade keeps getting narrower as the tool is repeatedly sharpened. An advantage is that the tool can get into places its wider counterpart cannot. Also called a fantail gouge.
Firmer Gouge is a heavy-duty thick bladed tool fitted up with a socket and hoop handle to handle the repeated blows from the wooden mallet. These tools can take a lot of abuse and have application in large ship and building construction as well as tool making and mill work. The cutting edge is sharpened 20º for finer work to 25º angle for heavy-duty gouge work.
Paring Gouge is a long thin bladed gouge used for pattern making and fine carving work. Fit up with a tang handle these tools are used with hand power and are not struck with a mallet. The angle of the cutting bevel is a low 15º angle for smooth effortless cutting. Some of these tools were sharpened with the bevel on the inside, called in cannel sharpening.
Socket Gouge can be any gouge that has an iron socket formed on the shank of the blade into which a turned wooden handle is inserted. The handle has a taper on the end to precisely fit in the metal socket. This type of handle/tool connection takes the most abuse when pounding with a mallet. Unfortunately many were used without handles and struck with iron hammers and have mushroomed over. These can be restored if you have access to a forge.
Spoon Gouge is another handy tool for working inside of concave surfaces such as bowls and deep carvings. The spoon is bent along the blade in the same direction as the sweep of the curve of the gouge. This enables the tool and handle to be at the lowest angle possible. Some are light duty and have just a small spoon at the end of the shaft; others are large and have the hollow spoon shape along the entire blade. The cutting edge bevel is usually sharpened on the inside or concave side of the gouge to a suitable angle for the type of work that it is being used for. Rough out work will have a greater angle than will fine inside smoothing which needs a shallower angle to work properly.
Tang Gouge is any gouge that is attached to the handle by a sharp tapered end on the shank of the blade. Some have bolsters or shoulders, swaged on the shank to prevent the tang from working deeper into the handle splitting the wood. Many gouges with tangs also have iron or brass ferrules around the handle where the tang goes in.
Turning Gouge is almost always a long blade tang fit into a long handle. The longer the blade and handle the easier a turning gouge is to control. Like long half cylinders the turning gouge is used to rough out work on a lathe as well as doing the intricate hollows and coves of turning spindles and for roughing out faceplate work. The end is sharpened different from cabinet gouges in that the angle is much steeper angle of 30º. The tool is not usually honed, as some prefer a burr on the cutting edge of the turning gouge. The end can be ground straight across for roughing work or the cutting end can be rounded like a thumbnail for more delicate turning on an inside radius.
Chisel and gouge handles fall into two basic types, those for tang tools and those for socket style tools. The wood for tool handles should be of a hard, strong and stout wood that will resist splitting and breakage. Boxwood, apple wood, beech, hornbeam and maple make excellent tool handles that resist shock and splitting. Hickory, white oak, ash and elm work well especially for socket handles with ferrules and hoops. Dogwood, ebony, rosewood and other dense and strong woods can make good handles. Ferrules are cylinders of metal; iron or brass that reinforces the end of the handle where the chisel or gouge shank and tang enters the wooden handle. A hoop is an iron or brass, reinforcing ring that is placed in a rabbit turned or formed around the top of the handle where the mallet strikes the tool. As the wood is struck with the mallet it spreads out and the hoop prevents the tool handle from splitting. The shape of the handles varies but some standards have come about. Having different types of handles for different types of tools gives you a visual clue to the tool by the shape of the handle, which can facilitate picking the tool from all of those cluttering up the work bench.
Cabinet Handle has octagonal handles in cross section with turned rabbit for a hoop and a turned bulbous knob just before the rabbit for the ferrule of this tang mounted chisel or gouge. The cove before the bulb knob gives a place for the fingers and thumb to grip the tool and the octagonal handles give control when using a mallet.
Palm Handle is a short stubby type of handle that is a rounded mushroom shape knob into which is inserted small tang chisels or gouges. The wide topped knob spreads out the pressure of the tool to the hand and gives good lateral control because of the surface of exposure to the grip. Does not have the leverage advantage of a longer handle.
Pattern Maker Handle is similar to the Round Handle but has turned round cylinder handles but with the same bulbous knob on the end and is slightly longer. The long flat nature of the tool does not tend to roll like other chisels and gouges.
Round Handle in both single taper and double taper is a common chisel and gouge handle. While turned the style is very simple and can be for both tang or socket applications. One problem with round handles is that they tend to roll and there is nothing worse than a sharp chisel or gouge falling on the floor after rolling off the bench. A good overall handle on a tool that will be used for handwork and with a mallet.
Socket Handle is any style handle that has a turned cone, which fits, into the metal tapered socket on a tool with a socket for the handle. The fit should be tight to insure that the stresses are spread out evenly along all surfaces of the end grain of the wooden handles. Some are turned with shoulders that engage the top edge of the socket and are flush on the outside surfaces.
Tapered Handle in an octagonal cross section is my favorite tool handle. It does not roll of the bench, it is easy to control and can be used for handwork as well as light mallet work. I start with square stock and taper off the corners. I then taper off the flats toward where the tang enters the tool. It is wider at the back to disperse the force of the palm of the hand against the tool as well as provide a wide area of surface to strike with a mallet. The octagonal shape is easy to grip and provides excellent control of the tool.
Turned Handle for both socket and tang applications can have some nice curves. Turned on a lathe these handles will have swellings on the back end to provide a good hand surface as well as one that can be struck with a mallet and can have a slight swelling near the ferrule or socket for a thumb and finger rest. Decorative beads, lines, moldings and details can also be turned into the surfaces of the tool handle. Some of the older designs have quite pleasing designs, details and decorations to make them beautiful as well as functional. Turning Tool Handle is much longer than the regular chisel or gouge handle. Usually with a large ferrule to reinforce the end of the handle to the force to which it is exposed during turning the length gives a necessary leverage advantage necessary. Both longer and larger in diameter, it is shaped to fit comfortably in both hands and smooth enough to provide a good grip for control of the turning tool. The size is necessary for strength required for the constant forces of turning. A traditional flaring at the end or a knob turned on the end gives a tactile reference when picking up the tool.
Taking care of chisels and gouges should be a matter of course, always protecting the cutting edge, using only wooden or rawhide mallets, never metal hammers and keeping the blades clean, the handles in good repair and the edges very sharp. You can use a chisel roll made of leather or canvas to store your tools or you can make a drawer that keeps the tools separate. You can also make a rack on the wall of the shop or in a toolbox to hold the tools in position. If the ends of the handles become frayed with repeated mallet work, it is a good idea to file off any mushrooming of the wooden handle. Smooth over the top of the handle to insure that the mallet strikes it squarely. I prefer a round carver’s type mallet as they strike the same with every blow and do not have sharp edges that can split tool handles. Treating the handles with periodic applications of linseed oil will consolidate any frayed and dried out wood and make the tools look good. A very light coat of linseed oil on the blades will prevent rust from forming, also keeping the tool sharp and bright retards rust. When fitting up new socket handles make sure that the outside taper of the handle matches the inside taper of the socket exactly. When fitting up tang tools into handles, make sure that the square tapered mortises are exact to fit the metal tang. If the mortise is too small, the tang will split the handle when it is driven in place. I apply rosin to the tang of the chisel as well as the socket to help secure the handle in place. Keep these tools sharp and prevent the cutting edges from knocking into each other and other metal objects. Always be aware of the cutting edge of the tool and its relationship to you and you will never be accidentally cut by your sharp tools.