How do you decide on which gouges?

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Forum topic by AGolden posted 11-29-2021 04:32 AM 529 views 1 time favorited 7 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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158 posts in 667 days

11-29-2021 04:32 AM

Topic tags/keywords: question gouge carving relief carving

I started off with a very minimal set of gouges (v-tool, 7mm number 9 sweep, 20mm number 5 sweep) I thought (probably like a lot of people) that once I encountered a situation where I need another gouge I would buy it and eventually end up with a set that is useful for the type of work I do.

Here is the problem, I am not sure how to assess what I need. for a particular situation what is the best way to tell what you need and when? are there rules of thumb for when to get wider chisels with tighter sweep vs narrower chisels with a wider sweep? is it worth buying an in between size gouge or is it better to get gouges with bigger size differences and just shoehorn your existing gouges into tighter or wider spaces? Let me know how you built your collections!

For reference I am interested in doing surface carving with similar motifs to the work of Peter Follansbee,

(also for those of you worried about me ruining that project with bad carving, the carved fore-pillar of this harp is going to be ~3/8” thinner than it is now so the existing mediocre carving will be removed before it is finished, this is just practice)

7 replies so far

View Dark_Lightning's profile


5008 posts in 4442 days

#1 posted 11-29-2021 03:01 PM

Knowing that I wanted to carve wood as a hobby when I retired and would have time for it, I started buying carving tools 20 years ago. When I worked as a mechanic, having the correct size wrench, for example, is obviously important. I have the entire complement of Pfeil palm tools, the Henry Taylor Acorn palm tools and a few from Ashley Isles. That may seem to be an expensive way to go, but when I look at a cut I want to make, I don’t want to make do or drop everything and go buy the tool I want. Plus that expense is smeared out over 20 year’s time. The nearest store to me for carving tools is 41 miles away. I don’t make money on my carvings, but my time is still valuable to me.

-- Steven.......Random Orbital Nailer

View mpounders's profile


1011 posts in 4228 days

#2 posted 11-29-2021 06:14 PM

It somewhat depends on the style of carving you do. I own a large number of gouges, full size, palm tools, and micro tools, so some of it depends on the size of carving I am working on. I often try to use the largest tool possible for shaping areas and work my way down to smaller tools for details. I use a lot of #11 gouges in different sizes and I grind the wings back to a thumbnail profile. This allows me to reach different areas than a regular grind allows and I also turn these tools on their side to get several different profiles out of the same tool. Some of my tools are duplicates in size, so that I can simply switch tools if one gets dull or is damaged. (I teach carving and I don’t always have time to fix a tool when I am teaching). I started with Flexcut tools and replaced those with better ones when I could afford to, so I already knew which profiles I preferred. I also use knives and skews frequently and they seem to allow me to do anything I wish. Occasionally I will buy a larger tool or a different profile if it seemed to allow me to do something easier. For me, it is about purchasing tools that will make the process easier or quicker. i don’t need one inch tools for the smaller carvings I prefer to do. But it is very tiring and difficult to carve a full size bust without larger tools. You learn to use what you have, rather than buying one of every single size available. I own sets of metric and standard wrenches and sockets, but sometimes an adjustable wrench is all I really need to do the job.

-- Mike P., Arkansas,

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5056 posts in 1238 days

#3 posted 11-29-2021 08:02 PM

Good question. I am a beginner when it comes to carving. You’d be hard pressed to find someone better than Mary May, so have been watching her videos and following along and slowly buying all of the sizes she recommends in stages. You can create a free account to see the list here:

View sansoo22's profile


1972 posts in 987 days

#4 posted 11-29-2021 08:56 PM

Good question. I am a beginner when it comes to carving. You’d be hard pressed to find someone better than Mary May, so have been watching her videos and following along and slowly buying all of the sizes she recommends in stages. You can create a free account to see the list here:


Thanks for that link. Carving is something I’ve thought about dabbling in but never knew exactly where to start. This looks like a solid place to start without spending a ton to learn if I like it or not.

View ClaudeF's profile


1434 posts in 3040 days

#5 posted 11-29-2021 10:05 PM

Since you’re going to be doing relief carving on the harp, you might take a look at Lora Irish’s web site.

Look through her tutorial on carving a flying goose. She does it all with a minimal set of gouges and a knife or two, and she explains in the tutorial why she uses the different ones, and where.



View CV3's profile


150 posts in 2513 days

#6 posted 11-30-2021 06:09 PM

I do alot if smaller projects so the detail is smaller, for the most part the widest gouge I use is a 12mm. I use the same #’s you listed. In addition I find a #3, #7 ,#8 and #11 very useful. I have two of most of these in sizes that are the most usfull to what I do. What you have and these, in sizes that fit your work, would offer a lot of options.

View Phil32's profile


1632 posts in 1236 days

#7 posted 12-01-2021 05:02 PM

Relief carving is essentially a series of stop cuts coupled with shaving cuts up to the stop lines. Some carvers choose gouges matching the curvature of their stop lines – pushed or tapped vertically into the line. The shaving cuts are then made with gouges ranging from #2 to #7. Currently I prefer a#3 or #5 fishtail gouges. No gouge is limited to a single cut shape. I rarely use more than five gouges for even my largest reliefs. My tool preferences have changed over the past 80 years. Keep in mind that each new profile you add to your carving tools is a unique challenge of your sharpening skills. Tuning up a #11 gouge is very different from sharpening a skew.
Finally, when considering anyone’s advice on carving tools (including mine), take time to look at their projects.

-- You know, this site doesn't require woodworking skills, but you should know how to write.

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