Here is the evolution of my acquiring woodcarving tools over the past 20 years.
For the first few years of carving, I only had about 5 woodcarving tools. I was taking classes from Konstantinos Papadakis in Minneapolis (he is a master woodcarver from Greece), and he recommended the Dastra (Frank Mittermeier) tools. 20 years ago these tools came unsharpened, unhoned, and with a thickness of metal on the tip. All of them had to be ground down and then many hours on the sharpening stone. The first gouge took 20 hours to sharpen (I didn’t quite understand the process) – I’ve gotten a little faster over the years.
My first set of tools were straight gouges as follows:
Then I discovered fishtail shaped gouges! I would really recommend getting a few of these just to see how they work. They fit into those corners nicely, and really are sweet to work with – not as bulky as the straight ones. Not the best tools if you are really doing hefty work, as they don’t have the bulk of metal to support a lot of pounding, but for light mallet work and pushing the tools through, they are great. I notice when I am packing up my tools to go teach somewhere, I always end up packing up my most used and favorite tools – they always end up being fishtails.
Then when I was studying carving at the City and Guilds College in London, I had the opportunity to go to the markets and buy some antique English carving gouges. Wow! If only I had money when I was there! I was a starving college student, and gave up meals just to get one precious carving gouge. But it was worth it! OK, OK, that’s a little over dramatic – it really wasn’t that bad. I managed to pick up about 30 gouges – many of them Addis brand – and some hand made. They are really my prize tools – if only they could talk – some of them I am sure are over 150 years old. How many generations of master carvers used these? What stories they could tell… Windsor Castle maybe? Westminster Cathedral? I can only imagine… Just the worn handles feel incredible.
Throughout the next decade of so I bought several different brands of carving gouges – Swiss Made or Pfeil (from Woodcraft), Stubai and Henry Taylor. I would say that most brands that are Swiss, German, or Austrian are good professional quality.
I then re-discovered Dastra (Frank Mittermeier) brand tools (I’ll also put a plug in here that I am selling them on my web site – www.marymaycarving.com). They have changed quite a bit from 20 years ago. They no longer need to be ground, and have changed from a black oxide finish to a smooth polished finish. These really are good, professional tools.
Since I learned how to carve with very few gouges, I rarely have need for the specialty gouges such as back bent or spoon bent. I was forced to figure out how to make the few gouges that I had do many jobs that they weren’t made for – but it forces you to be creative!
One thing I have had to stay away from is e-bay and on-line auctions – simply because I’d go broke – just say NO. They occasionally have full sets of Addis brand antique English gouges. So… if you are in the market for some really good quality antique gouges, they are out there – probably ranging from $15 to $30 each, but it has been so long since I bought them, I may be way off.
So, now after over 20 years of carving, I have about 150 gouges. I really only use about 20 of them regularly. Then I just look at and admire the rest – maybe pet them occasionally. You just can’t have too many…