I started out in woodcarving not knowing much. I had some general novice woodworking skills, some middle of the road household tools and not much else. When I actually began carving, I didn’t know any other woodcarvers so I was a true self-taught hand carver, toiling away in the basement in the middle of the night while my family and the rest of the world were fast asleep, using whatever tools I had at hand. Some things came easily, other things I struggled through, but little by little, I learned. It would have been great to have had an experienced carver guide me along, but that was not to be. If there was any advice I would give to a beginner carver, which he would carry with him through all his future years of carving, it would have to be some tips on accumulating tools.
Initially, I thought I needed to have a whole bunch of different sets of tools and being on a budget; I wound up with a whole bunch of useless tools. I was buying economy tools and judging the value on how many tools I bought vs. how much I spent. It didn’t take long for the inferior tools to frustrate me and to come to the conclusion that I was going about things the wrong way. I soon came to accept that a quality tool was easily worth its price and if cared for, could last a carver’s lifetime and perhaps generations longer.
The first tool purchase should be an all purpose carving knife, not a utility knife, not a bench knife but a knife made specifically for carving. I personally recommend the 1 1/2” Mora Frost carving knife. It is a top quality knife at an economical price. It can be found many places on line for $10-$20. It is made in Sweden of laminated steel and is a strong knife that will hold a well sharpened edge with only occasional stropping needed. You should also at this time purchase, sharpening stones, a strop and some decent polishing compound. Your carving tools will only be as good as they are sharp. A dull tool is a dangerous instrument in any hand.
The next tool purchase should be a 6 piece set of top quality carving chisels and gouges. These should be full-size professional tools. If you buy a larger set, you will find that there will be a few tools that you will never really use. It is wise to spend your money on tools that you will want to use often. I recommend Pfiel (swiss-made) tools. They are a well constructed balanced tool and come pre-sharpened from the factory. You will not be disappointed. A starter set should include a 60 degree v-tool, a straight chisel, a skew chisel, a veiner, a #5 gouge and a #9 gouge. These are the basic profiles that you will use again and again. From this point on, chisels and gouges should be purchased on a need by need basis, or from a personal preference point of view. There are over 1200 profiles of woodcarving tools manufactured today. There are detail and roughing knives, palm chisels, micro chisels, bent, dog leg chisels and more, all to be considered when fleshing out your original set. Try out different brands, different styles of handles and different sizes and weights. Other carvers’ recommendations can guide you but the tool must feel good in your hand or you will not reach for it. Remember to be careful reaching for any chisel, injuries seem to occur more often when reaching for or putting away the tools rather than when you are actually carving.
When contemplating before beginning a carving, imagine where the difficulties will lie and try to purchase a chisel which will make the job easier. When estimating a commission carving, I will sometimes include the cost of a certain chisel which will be used. You can purchase one chisel every month or every two months and before long will have a set which many will envy and you will have a core selection of chisels that you not only will use but that you will look forward to using.