I’ve had inquiries from a number of people who have signed up for the class I’m giving at The Marc Adams School of Woodworking in May, about what materials and equipment it will be useful to have on hand besides their carving tools. Most students I encounter, whether new to carving or having practiced for some time without formal instruction, do not have their carving tools shaped and sharpened in a manner that will allow them to work as efficiently as possible or produce the results they desire. This is a basic introduction to my shaping and sharpening equipment.
The majority of modern carving tools are capable of performing as well as any tools of the past. Modern tools when purchased may come to you sharp and might cut cleanly, but they are typically not shaped in a manner best suited for optimal performance. Before the end of the 19th century, carving tools did not come from the maker sharpened. The only people who were purchasing tools were professional carvers who during their apprenticeships had been given formal instruction on sharpening and caring for their tools. Those traditions had been passed down from generation to generation, but were rapidly being lost during the first half of the 20th century. I spent too many years striving to understand, and recreate those traditions while working full time as a professional conservator/restorer.
Books that taught carving, including chapters on sharpening, to the public began to be published in the third quarter of the 19th century and I examined as many as I could find, attempting to translate the words on the page to actual practice. Over the decades a greater number of early carving manuals have become available and I continue to seek them out. I also collect more recently published instruction books to get a feel for how others have trained in woodcarving, worked at it professionally, and ultimately began to teach it to others.
One goal I have for the class is to shorten the length of trial and error time students often go through attempting to get to the place where they can just concentrate on carving. My years of trial and error have allowed me to now know that any tool I pick up will carve as well as it possibly can, the only limitations to the outcome of a project will be my own skill. The tool will not be blamed.
For sharpening the bevel of carving tools I use two bench stones seen here in the walnut boxes I made for them.
I use only oil stones for sharpening carving tools. The lower stone is a man-made, approximately medium grit India oil stone. If a tool needs shaping as opposed to regular maintenance, I will start with this stone. If there is a lot of metal to be removed, you might start on a coarser stone or a motorized grinder can be used very carefully. Above is a wide, natural Translucent Arkansas stone. These are expensive but will last several lifetimes are are hard enough that they maintain their flat surface for years. I use this stone after the India or for flattening a bevel that has been rounded over after repeated stroppings.
Slip stones are used on the inside surface of carving gouges. They are used to create inner bevels if desired or to remove the wire edge created when working on the outer bevel. Several different shapes are needed for the different curved edge profiles of the tools. Again, medium India stones are used first if creating an inner bevel, then Translucent Arkansas next. In the upper right corner is a Soft Arkansas slip stone. The grit is roughly equivalent to medium/fine India stones and I use them interchangeably. You’ll need one or two hard stones with knife edges to work on V-tools.
I also use several sets of the slip stones designed by the woodcarver Chris Pye and made by Norton. Each set of different thickness stones comes with either a course or medium India stone and a Translucent Arkansas stone that are square with each edge a different radius allowing them to more closely fit a large variety of gouge profiles. Can you get along without them? Sure, but I appreciate Pye’s thoughtfulness towards fellow carvers and ability to work with a company to create a new product that benefits all carvers.
Finally both bevels are stropped with some type of fine abrasive. Traditionally the abrasive is applied to leather which is glued or nailed to wood forms. In the middle of the photo is a flat rectangular block with a this leather cover works similarly to the bench stone on the outside bevel. Around it are pieces of wood with rounded edges covered in leather that mimic the slip stones. The abrasive is a mixture of chromium oxide, a metal polish in liquid form, and tallow heated together to create a paste.
Loose pieces of leather, both thick and thin, are used without a wood backing for wide flat gouges or narrow gouges.
This was the first woodcarving instruction book I purchased, I was lucky in that it was probably the best available at the time. It can still serve as a good introduction to woodcarving.
It was originally published in 1963 as “Practical Woodcarving and Gilding”, updated in 1972 and I purchased the 1979 edition in 1980.
There I learned about inner bevels, the “line of light”, how to sharpen a V-tool, the perils of uneven sharpening, and leather strops.