Let’s talk about woodcarving

Let’s talk about woodcarving 2017-06-26T23:59:57-04:00
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Fishtail Gouges ?


I am getting ready to carve the 2 Newport shells (concave and convex) and can not find 2 of the gouges Mary May lists on the DVD instructional videos. Specifically a #5 x 5 mm fishtail and a  #10 x  5mm fishtail. Anyone been able to find these gouges?

David Turner

Raleigh, NC

Hi David,

Sorry for the delay in responding. Been cruising through the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. Life is rough. But I'm back!

You should be fine with a #5, 4mm or #5, 6mm or #10, 4mm or #10, 6mm. You can also go up or down a number, such as a #4 or #6 in similar sizes. You probably won't be able to find them in fishtail, as often anything less than 6mm do not come in fishtail. Hope this helps!


I have some fishtails but am put off by the fact that it seems that they wouldn't last as long as other shapes. Maybe I am "old school" but I would expect at least one lifetime out of my tool purchases. Have you tried the alongee tools as an alternative and what do you see as the advantages/disadvantages of them. Thanks.

Hi David,

I am brand new here but have been carving more than a few decades and I can tell you it would take a LONG time to use up fishtail tools.  I love them and have more than a few.  In fact I would like to be active enough to sharpen one away!!  I have used up turning tools though..... Cost of doing business as they say.

Here is where I buy all of my Pfeil tools.  Great service and prices but you have to wait for them to come from Canada but it's no big deal.


Hi to All:

Here's our website link for Pfeil Swiss Made Fishtails ...but of course we have ALL the Pfeil tools as well:


Happy to be of service to Mary's Students and Followers!

I have heard this argument against fishtails quite often, and I would still strongly recommend using fishtails. I have been carving for over 27 years, and none of my fishtails have gotten smaller - or at least that I can tell. If they have, it is such a small amount, that it doesn't really make a difference in the quality of the tool. The usefulness of the tools outweighs any potential issue. If for some reason it does get smaller, just think of it as a smaller tool, but still very useful 🙂

The only reason a tool should actually shorten in length is if it is dropped, broken, or chipped and would have to be re-shaped on a grinder. The microscopic amount that is taken off at each sharpening should not affect the length or shape.

So, the bottom line is - I love fishtails. In all the time I have been carving I have never had a tool that changed shape to such a drastic amount that it was no longer useful.

Hi Mary. Would you say fishtail gouges work well for in the round wood carving too? I can't seen an obvious reason why not, but then I see most people tend to use tapered/allongee for projects like animals, people and so on. I ask because for me it's a bit easier getting quality fishtail gouges of the short taper variety - in the sizes I need for your classes - than it is with straight or allongee. Might be worth mentioning I'm a beginner and I've been using just two tools for the last few weeks and am open to anything 😄

Many thanks for your great videos and friendly, welcoming approach.

Hello Jof,

It really depends on how you are carving "in the round". If you are holding the carving in your hand - really referred more to as "whittling" (which I stay away from teaching this process, as it never works well for me - I bleed), then you will probably be better off using shorter palm gouges and carving knives (I think those are what you are referring to when you say "tapered/allongee"). Using full-length gouges with this type of carving can be very dangerous and difficult to control. The best way to use the long handled gouges is by clamping your work to the workbench and holding the gouge with both hands.

I use fishtails whether I carve relief carving or 3-dimensional. They are just all-around nice tools to use.

Be careful and have fun!

Hi Jof,

Different tool shapes evolved from the needs of individual carvers and their individual carving styles. Straight gouges and chisels have a difficult time reaching into many areas of a carving due to interference between the tool body and the work surfaces. Tools with reduced bodies (alongee and/or fishtails) allows the carvers to reach areas inaccessible to full bodied tools while sacrificing some strength in the tool shaft. Carvers that work with large tools and heavy mallets, and those who do only moderately detailed work with few recesses tend to prefer full sized straight thicker bodied tools while carvers who carve fine details with lots of recess have more of  a need to be able to reach into those areas with the tool corners. Alongee tools just seem to be a compromise between the two and are not as available. Fishtails tend to be lighter, more delicate, but are more versatile in tight spaces.  There is no reason why they can't be used  for "in the round" carving as long as the limitations of the tool are respected.

What I believe Mary is referring to is that the term "in the round" means different things to different people in that it can mean either a type of carving where the work is held in one hand while the tools are held in another (as Mary says, "whittling" or flat plane and/or Scandinavian carving which normally uses knives, palm gouges, and similar tools), not a carving style that Mary teaches or practices,  or can mean carving completely (more or less 3 dimensional) around the object where the stock can be held in any number of other ways and both hands are normally used to manipulate the tools. It is my belief that Mary's preference for fishtails reflects the details found in her work and they definitely have their advantages. I like them all with their advantages and limitations, it gives me justification to have more tools, and I find myself reaching for my fishtails more often than I used to.  Have fun

Thanks Mary, thanks Michael. Superb answers - very much appreciated.

When I say "in the round" I'm not referring to whittling but rather "sculpture" of the kind with the larger tools which are usually used with both hands - as per Michael's clarification. I do enjoy whittling but it's not possible to achieve the sorts of things I want to do... I shudder to imagine whittling out a 1/10th scale sculpture of a rearing horse 😂 Plus the way the force is applied aggravates my carpal tunnel in a way that I don't get with the two-handed tools. That said, one reason for raising the question is that I noticed my palm tools were able to get places my allongee gouges of the same dimension could not get so easily. Doesn't happen often, but I wondered if it will limit me in the future.

So it sounds like fishtail gouges are the way to go! If I may ask another question, though: do you find those gouges are significantly more fragile than straight or allongee? I'm thinking specifically regarding sharpening or accidentally "hooking out" wood (not sure the term) when you've undershot a stop cut?