The basic tools used in woodcarving are knives, chisels, gouges, power carvers, sanding items and sharpening supplies.
I have seen some pretty fancy knives being used for whittling and carving. While there are many great knives produced by individuals and carving tool companies, the best value for the beginner I have found is the Swedish slloyd knife. If you look around on the internet you can find one for around $10. The steel used in these knives is excellent and will hold a great strong edge for a long time. They come in various sizes of blade, 5″ down to 1″. It is advisable that you also get yourself a decent bench (utility-all purpose) knife so that you do not resort to using your carving knife for anything but carving.
Chisels and Gouges
When I began carving, I made the mistake that most beginners do. I placed quantity above quality. I now have a world class collection of tools that I will never use again, cluttering up my workshop. Bad tools will only serve to frustrate and perhaps, injure the beginning carver and may be the reason why some give up carving before they’ve really even started.
In the world of carving there are tools not worth a dime, decent tools and quality tools. Understand that the following advise is only my opinion, but my opinion is based on my own experiences as a beginner and the advise of some other professional carvers that I have the pleasure to know and learn from.
To get you started, remember to only spend your money on decent and quality tools even if you must purchase them one at a time in the beginning. There are some decent tools which can be found on some of the internet auction sites. For about $40 or less, You can get a set of 6 starter palm tools. These brands include but are not limited to Miller Falls, Crown, Sculpture House, Warren and Woodcraft just to name a few. They are of sufficient quality to sharpen and hold an edge well and can allow you to gain carving experience. If looking on auction sites and other internet carving tool sites, do not take their word for how good these tools may be (that’s how I wound up with a nice collection of garbage), ask someone with more carving experience than your self for their recommendations. A starter set should contain at least a straight chisel, a veiner, a gouge, a skew chisel and a v-tool.
When you have decided that carving is for you, it is time to look into the higher quality end of carving tools. These can range in price from $20-$100 or more, for a single tool. The progression in the quality of my carvings has equaled the quality of the tools I have amassed. As this can be a huge financial commitment over time, it is not recommended that you go out and spend your nest egg just to have a set of pretty tools. If you are independently wealthy and can spend what you like, please buy complete sets of top quality tools and feel free to buy me a set or two. I will forever appreciate it. However if your just trying to get by like I am, purchase tools as you need them. You can buy a tool a month or every 2 months depending on what it is you can afford. Over time you can build a wonderful set of tools, that other carvers will envy. I purchased my first set of real tools after requesting cash as a birthday gift. Everyone’s gift combined allowed me to buy a 12 pc set of quality tools. I now build onto that set one or two tools at a time and I have to say I have a nice selection of tools without breaking the bank. Quality tools are brands such as Stubai, Pfeil (Swiss-made) and Two Cherries although there are many others. Many carvers I have met also swear by Flex-cut(PA), made in the U.S. and considerably cheaper than their overseas competitors.
There is a great investment in good tools and the beginning carver is encouraged to take care of his/her tools by using them properly and keeping them safe, clean and dry. A cap on the end of the tool protects it nicely while in your toolbox. You can make these from rubber tubing, cork or Styrofoam. Tool edges should not be banged against each other, nor should they be allowed to fall from the work surface. If humidity causes a problem with rusting, lightly oil the metal.
Micro tools, palm tools, mallet tools and sculptors tools
Carving tools come in many different sizes and shapes. Tools manufactured outside of the U.S. have a numbering system you must understand in order to know what you are buying. There are usually 2 numbers separated by a slash. The first number represents the curvature of a blade. 1 = a flat chisel and 9 = almost a semi-circle. The higher the number, the more curve to the blade. The second number will indicate the width in millimeters. American tools will have this number in inches.
Micro tools can be extremely small and tools widths get wider as you move on up to the largest, the sculptors tools. mallet tools are constructed differently so that they will take the force of being struck repeatedly. Do not use a mallet with micro or palm tools as you will destroy the tool. Do not use a hammer in place of a mallet. Generally, the price of tools gets higher as the sizes get larger.
There are many fine rotary and reciprocal carving machines on the market. For a beginner, I would recommend a good quality dremel-like tool with a flex shaft attachment. This will be an adequate set up to get you started but if you will be doing a lot of power carving I suggest the investment of a quality rotary carver such as Foredom. There is a wide variety of bits that these rotary machines will take. From wasting wood to roughing out, to fine detailing and sanding. Chains saws, grinding tools and routers round out the power carving basics and what you need will be determined by the size of your carvings and the effects you wish to produce. Wildlife carvers also use micro carvers, which is just a smaller version of the basic rotary tool, for details such as feathers and scales. Wood burners can also be used to burn into the wood for small details
sanding supplies should include power sanders, scrapers, sandpaper, riflers, files and other abrasives. For sandpaper, the larger the number, the finer the grit. Start with a lower number, working to a higher number depending on the finish you desire. A crumpled up Kraft paper bag can be used for a very fine sanding.