The Society of American Period Furniture Makers

Tools and Techniques => Carving tools and techniques. => Topic started by: JamesT on November 29, 2010, 03:20:50 PM

Title: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: JamesT on November 29, 2010, 03:20:50 PM
I have been on a carving tear as of late and I have a dumb question.There are carving chisels/gouges and then there are these gouges that have no numbers.What is the difference between the two.I realize one is finer and the other one seems heaver steel.
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: marymaycarving on November 29, 2010, 07:12:49 PM
Can you explain a little more? Are the ones without numbers antique? Are they labeled with a brand name or stamp? Very few of my older antique English gouges are numbered, but they are absolutely wonderful tools - usually finer and more delicate compared to the bulkiness of some of the newer ones.
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: Tom M on November 30, 2010, 08:06:56 AM
You might be referring to pattern maker's gouges.  These are much bigger than carving gouges. A pattern maker would make the mahogany patterns that sand and resin would be pressed into to make the forms for castings.

 I understand there are two types: in-channel / out-channel (I think this is what they are called).  They would have a bevel on one side only (inside / outside).  With the bevel on the inside the pattern maker could carve the outside shape of the gouge (a groove).  With the bevel on the outside a cylinder could be formed.

I don't have any pattern makers gouges, but think a nice pattern maker's gouge would be great for making swing hinges.  I made one for a card table in white oak using a carving gouge, and broke a large chunk of steel off.

Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: JamesT on November 30, 2010, 12:01:16 PM
Hi Mary and Tom, I guess I should have put more info in.They are antique and they have maker stamps but no sweep numbers.I think they must be pattern makers gouges as Tom said but I have used a couple of smaller one's for carving and had no trouble.I have been searching around and there really isn't much out there in terms of defining what different chisels are.Not that it matters much.Just use them when you can.I was just curious is all.I have found the addis with the masonic logo to be my favorites.They really feel good in your hand and as you run your fingers over the steel it just makes me...LOL
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: John Cashman on November 30, 2010, 01:09:52 PM
As Mary wrote, many older tools don't have sweep numbers or anything besides the maker's name stamp. The Addis chisels you mention might. The Masonic logo is actually Ward and Payne, who had bought the S.J. Addis name and made the tools. They were the most recently made tools with the Addis name. There are lots of tools made by many makers, and they have never come up with a common numbering convention. And if someone tells you the numbers between two systems are off just by one digit, it isn't so. It's much more complex than that. For a good comparison of modern tool makers and sweeps, check out  For antique tools, forget it.

But to get back to your original question, you may in fact have some patternmaker's gouges, as Tom M pointed out. If they are really long, that's what you have. Other gouges were a bit heavier or longer than carver's tools, and were used by carpenters, joiners, sash makers, etc. You can use them for carving, but they might be a little too beefy for some tasks, but they're great for roughing out. Or they might just be earlier unmarked carving tools.
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: JamesT on November 30, 2010, 01:59:57 PM
Hey John thanks for that link.Thanks for the addis history as well!Also note that a lot of carving chisels that come out of England are hand made by individuals so they won't have numbers.I have a few of those.Another question would be this what are the marks that the chisel makers make when they make their own forge marks?I am not sure how to phrase this but the hand forge mark is what?What do the other marks represent?
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: JamesT on November 30, 2010, 02:02:23 PM
I also wonder if some of the bigger gouges might be used for architectural type carvings.Big stuff.
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: marymaycarving on November 30, 2010, 05:25:40 PM
I have a question for those antique tool gurus. There are all sorts of antique English tools available on e-bay (I try to stay away from that - dangerous!) or auctions sometimes. Why is it that most new high quality gouges are made from companies in Germany, Switzerland and Austria? Where are all the antique German tools? Do they tend to stay in families and pass them down? Maybe just the accessibility to English tools is easier. Maybe there was just an over-abundance of them. Just wondering... Who's hiding those wonderful antique german gouges! Or Italian???
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: jim vojcek on November 30, 2010, 06:25:44 PM
John, when I click on the link you supplied,I get a foreign language !

Jim Vojcek
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: John Cashman on November 30, 2010, 07:07:22 PM
Jim, I just tried the link and it does go to the English page. Some of the menus are in German, and there is a German-only page. The translation on the English page is rough, but his English is better than my German.
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: John Cashman on November 30, 2010, 07:23:35 PM
That's a good question Mary. Besides antique English tools, I've only ever seen a few German and Swiss tools. All of the old German carving tools I've seen have been from around the WWII era, and I suspect they may have been brought home by GIs. Soldiers love souvenirs. But you are right, there should be more. I think there is a German eBay. We could look there.

I also think that the antique English tools are not as old as most people believe. There has been a little bit of research for the bigger names, like SJ and JB Addis, but it's a hazy field. Something tells me that, the older the tool, the more likely it is that it got used up, or broken opening paint cans. I often think that's why the seldom-used (and seldom sharpened) tools like spoon gouges seem to make up an inordinate percentage of antique carving tools on the market.

Here's a wild theory. Did Germany have scrap metal drives during WWII and before, the way we held them here? Because conditions in Germany were so much more dire, and Patriotic fervor so intense, did workmen donate tools to make weapons? It's a reach, to be sure, but it might be interesting. Germany did some strange things. For example, because strategic metals were restricted by the Allies in the 1930s, Germans used pure nickel for all their coins, so that they could be melted down when the time came for alloying steel.

Sorry for the wild tangent.
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: albreed on November 30, 2010, 09:14:28 PM
Mary- I bought over a hundred carving tools from the master that I worked for in 1974. He was Italian and trained in Italy before coming to the US. None of his tools were Italian, almost all English. Maybe the English made the best tools.....? I don't know. Most of them have no sweep no's on them, but that's typical, as you said-Al
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: klkirkman on December 01, 2010, 05:20:55 AM
I was trained essentiually as a pattern maker in the U.S.  circa 1950s.

The most highly valued chisels and gouges in that trade at that time were mabe in the U.S. by Buck Brothers. As I recall now, they had a stamped enblem that was the head of a buck, or something similar.

By the 1960s, the quality of their new tools had sharply declined and the old timers would no longer purchase them. 

The thing I recall most about using the vintage versus newer tools was that the Buck Brothers stuff seemed to hold an edge many times longer than the competitors.

Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: Antiquity Period Designs, Ltd. on December 01, 2010, 08:33:32 AM

I too was trained as a wood patternmaker.  I bought several sets of Buck Bros. chisels and gouges from retired patternmakers as well as inheriting my Dad's sets.  There is a stamp on each chisel and gouge.  These old sets hold the edge very well as you stated.  Years later I bought a new set of carving tools from BB but the steel was poor.

The chisels and gouges come in both bent shank and straight shank.  They also made a set of gouges with a removable handle (I have this set) so it would take up less space in your tool box.

If you find an old set of BB chisels and gouges at a flee market or antique store/show buy them.  Most dealers don't know the quality of these old pieces.

Dennis Bork
Antiquity Period Designs, Ltd.
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: dkeller_nc on December 02, 2010, 09:48:31 AM
Mary - the reason that so many antique chisels and carving tools are english is because of Sheffield. Sheffield was one of the first "integrated" steel making cities on an industrial scale, where high-quality coal, limestone and iron ore were found in one place. 

Sheffield became "the" place to get steel and the cutler's wares made from it in the 18th century because the "arts and mysteries" of correctly judging the carbon content of steel to yield high-quality tools was well-known there (and not so much anywhere else).   The manufacturers of Sheffield continued their reputation into the 19th century - so much so that anywhere else had a hard time competing with them.

For example, large-scale steel making for tools was pretty much unknown in the US before Henry Disston started doing it in the 1850's - 1860's.  Even then, steel was very, very expensive and highly prized.  It took Dale Carnegie's gamble to scale up the Bessemer process in the 1870's before steel became cheap, readily available, and of high quality.
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: marymaycarving on December 02, 2010, 08:00:44 PM
That makes a lot of sense. So, the tools that are stamped "Sheffield", (which I have a few of and are very good quality) can go as far back as 18th century? That's interesting. I wonder then whether the "sheffield" are older than the "addis" or around the same time? My guess is that "addis" is newer. I need to go through my tools and study them a little more.

So then the Sheffield tools were probably exported to the woodworkers in the rest of Europe. The only other thing I can think of is that many of the other woodcarvers in the mainland of Europe hand-forged their own, and with no stamps or identifying marks, they do not become "collectable", and therefore get lost in great-grandpa's tool chest as "those old rusty screw-driver looking things". What I wouldn't give to go wandering around some of those old European attics!

And remember - it IS possible to have too many carving gouges (so, Al - want to sell some of those English tools???) hee hee
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: Follansbee on December 02, 2010, 09:11:53 PM
I remembered that Addis worked in London, and searched on the web, and found the toolie-people had run down much of the Addis story; seems that Sheffield lured one of them away from London & up to Sheffield. here;s a link to what I saw:

I'm not in the shop right now, but I have a couple of nice German carving tools that are oldies, I'll look at them next week. But like most of us reading these carving threads, the bulk of my old carving tools are English. There's even new English carving tools, Joel Moskowitz sells them. They are nice but a little bulky.

My assumption is that blacksmiths, not carvers, would make carving tools before this sort of thing was industrialized...

Peter Follansbee
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: chamfer on December 02, 2010, 10:37:56 PM
James et al,

This thread has generated a number of interesting responses and has gone on some interesting tangents, but I'm not sure your basic initial question has been answered. And, I'm not sure I can answer it to your satisfaction, either, but have finally decided to give it a try. In part, because I find such basic definitional questions to be useful/interesting, but mostly because this thread has intersected a number of my interests.

As I think you already surmise, sweep numbers on gouges indicate carving tools. However, as others have noted, not all carving tools are so numbered. So, how to tell the difference between firmer gouges and straight carving gouges if no sweep numbers are present? (I'm mostly referring to 19th and early 20th century English/American gouges, consistent, I believe, with your initial question.)

In larger sizes, firmer gouges can be distinguished from carving gouges by the presence of distinct shoulders which narrow down to a shank which continues back to the bolster. Also, the inside of the gouge has a fairly uniform depth and is recognizable as a portion of a cylinder. This can be seen in the lower gouge in the first photograph below.

By contrast, the carving gouge lacks such shoulders and simply tapers inward to meet the bolster, as evidenced by the upper gouge in the first photograph. Also, note that the inner wall of the carving gouge gets shallower as it approaches the handle. This allows for the carving gouge to be relatively delicate at the cutting edge, yet be heavy enough toward the handle to be driven with a mallet. This is why shortened carving gouges, which have been ground/honed back over the years, look so stubby and chunky.

I've included the second photograph primarily to show that both gouges are, indeed, fairly heavy near the handles.

In smaller sizes, firmer gouges sometimes have shoulders and sometimes do not. In the latter case, it can be a little trickier telling whether it is a firmer gouge or a carving gouge (if no sweep number is present). In the third photograph (in the next post) one of the gouges is a firmer and the other is a carving gouge. Pretty difficult to tell from the top view. However, as shown in the fourth photograph (also in the next post), the firmer gouge has flat "shoulders" at the edges of the gouge, which continue the full length of the blade. By contrast, the carving gouge begins with a flat shoulder at the bolster, but this transforms into a rounded area which nearly terminates in an arris at the intersection of the inner surface. This allows the carving tool to be more "delicate" at the cutting edge and work in close to other details without fouling them.

Firmer gouges can be used in carving, but can be somewhat of a handicap because they lack the finesse at the cutting edge. However, they can be useful for roughing work, both for carving and general work in the shop. Regarding the latter, it can be useful to think of them as somewhat analogical to a "roughing" plane in situation where access for saws may be limited.

As to the sweep numbering system(s), yes it seems very confusing. The origins of the London Pattern/Sheffield List system aren't entirely clear. But, there is some circumstantial evidence that it arose in London, possibly associated with S. J. Addis, and introduced into Sheffield (sometime between 1870 and 1880) by Ward & Payne (who bought the rights to the S. J. Addis marks after his death) and J. B. Addis.  London was the pre-eminent center for carving activity in England, and the Sheffield makers worked hard to overcome a prejudice against non-London-made carving tools. To the point that Ward & Payne actually had a London stamp made up to use in conjunction with their S. J. Addis mark.

However, I believe some of the confusion about the sweep number regime is due to a lack of understanding of the system. It is often assumed that every gouge of a given sweep number is supposed to have an arc determined by the same radius. Not the case. Instead, the width and depth of each sized gouge in any sweep are proportional. For those who might be interested, I've written a short article outlining my surmise as to how this system might have been developed: (

The continental sweep number systems are built along very similar lines, but differ from the London Pattern in a more complex way than simply being different by one number (as already noted by John). I have no idea which system is the earliest.

As has been noted, Sheffield did emerge as one of the pre-eminent centers for producing steel and edge tools during the 19th century. This emergence was built on a very long tradition of iron and steel working there (and in Birmingham), which had resulted in a good sized highly skilled work force. However, according to David Hey ("The Development of the English Toolmaking Industry during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries"), Sheffield's rise to dominance in the 19th century was mostly due to this skilled work force, locally available sandstone suitable for grinding, and a plentiful supply of water power. The local iron ore was unsuitable for high quality steel, so most of the raw materials for blister/cementation and crucible/cast steel production was imported from Sweden in the form of wrought iron bars.

I have a number of older carving tools, and have to say that they seem to have been pretty consistently made of very high quality cast steel which was properly heat treated. Additionally, as Mary has noted, they have a delicacy, yet toughness, that makes many of the currently produced tools (especially from England) seem very clunky and clumsy by comparison.

(Incidentally, the emergence of the Bessemer Process had little, if any bearing, on high quality edge tool manufacture. That process resulted in a lower quality, inexpensive, steel suitable for railroad rolling stock, rails, boiler plates, etc. At least as late as 1910, most edge tools were still being made from crucible/cast steel. After this, tool quality steel was later produced by one of the electric furnace processes.)

Hope this has been of some interest/use.

Don McConnell
Eureka Springs, AR
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: chamfer on December 02, 2010, 10:39:26 PM
Hi again,

Here are photographs # 3 and 4.

Don McConnell
Eureka Springs, AR
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: John Cashman on December 03, 2010, 12:19:18 AM
Thanks Don, that was very helpful. Thanks also for the reminder about Hey's article. I've unburied my copy of Gaynor's book to read it again.

I think some of us get too wrapped up on the various sweeps and trying to figure them out. It's very interesting from a historical perspective, and I enjoy that aspect of it very much. But it doesn't help with the actual carving.
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: albreed on December 03, 2010, 06:13:55 AM
Thanks for all the good historical info, everyone.
On steel- You can actually tell what the properties of steel are just by scraping your finger over the edge of a sharpened tool.(NOT LENGTHWISE!) I know what the kind of steel I like feels like when it's sharp. Some steel will feel brittle and some will feel more "dead". I was speaking with Michel Auriou of rasp fame last summer and we agreed that it's definitely possible to tell, for instance O1 from A2 just by the feel. To prove this to Tom LN, MIchel separated the A2 from the O1 plane blades in a random pile without looking at them. This isn't magic or myth, just based on a lot of experience with steel. You can do it with some practice.
I sell Stubai carving tools, and I can definitely tell the steel is tougher and has a harsher feel to it than Pfiel, for example. It's harder to sharpen, but it holds the edge. Steels are just different. As a carver, I like a lot of old tools for the lightness and the patterns, some of which are hard to find today. The Stubai and Heitmann V-tools, for example, are far nicer to use than the Pfeils because they are thinner and easier to modify. I've been really surprised by the Stubai V's. I can actually use them right out of the sleeve, which saves at least a half hour of sharpening that most V's need, in my opinion, before thy're good for anything. Sometimes one brand will have some advantage in a particular sweep that you like, so you'll mix and match.
In chisels, I think there's nothing better than a Witherby. They seemed to have figured out the steel thing and are pretty consistent. Old Buck paring chisels seem to be good also, as well as some old Ward and Paynes; they seem to hold a good edge.
I guess you just need to figure out what you are looking for in steel characteristics, and then be able to recognize it when you feel it.
And could someone explain to me what A2 is good for?-Al
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: John Cashman on December 03, 2010, 09:25:05 AM
I have no doubt that Al and Michel can figure out if steel is good by feeling it. I'm not that good. But since I started carving I have found another way that helped me a little, and that's using a strop. I've found that the hardness of steel in carving tools is usually just a hair softer than in plane irons or bench chisels. It strops easier. I'd never stropped, or tried to strop, a plane iron before I began to carve. Most plane irons don't strop too well -- they polish a little, but not as much or as quickly as a carving tool. And because they require more pressure, the edges dub much more. A2 irons really don't strop well at all. You can barely see them get a "shine." The same goes for O1 and A2 chisels.

It's a good comparison for those who want to try. I haven't attempted to strop a large enough number of non-carving tools to say if there is a difference between brands, but I can tell the difference in hardness between individual tools. I can tell the difference in stropping a Stubai and Pfeil, for instance, but I think they are equally good tools.

It has made me wonder if carving tools are made intentionally a bit softer because they must be stropped, as well as the fact that they don't experience the same stresses that bench chisels and plane blades do. If my carving tools were made and hardened like tools made from A2 steel, I don't think I would still be carving. Maybe someone will make carving tools with replaceable unobtanium inserts like they do for bench chisels.

I think it was Al who once pointed out another important quality of good steel -- it has to rust. If it won't hold rust, it won't hold a very good edge, either. I haven't put all my tools out in the rain to test the theory, but judging by the blades on many knives I own, I think it's correct.
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: dkeller_nc on December 03, 2010, 12:35:38 PM
I think it was Al who once pointed out another important quality of good steel -- it has to rust. If it won't hold rust, it won't hold a very good edge, either. I haven't put all my tools out in the rain to test the theory, but judging by the blades on many knives I own, I think it's correct.

This is a bit off topic for the thread, but this adage isn't quite as universally true as it was a few years ago.  Specifically, several high-end kitchen knife makers have figured out how to make a "high carbon", "stainless" steel.  Wustoff is one such maker - I can confirm that the steel in their kitchen knives is every bit as tough (not brittle) as the plane irons and carving tools that I have, and will take an incredibly keen edge, something that SS316 or SS304 won't.  And they are quite rust-proof, though they aren't stain-proof.
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: albreed on December 03, 2010, 01:00:26 PM
I agree about the kitchen knives. Just in the last few months I've been using one of those knives and it's way better than the average "stainless", which I find useless. The ones I use the most still  rust, but the other is pretty good.
John- Maybe carving tools strop easier because they're narrower than the plane irons, and you get more pressure-Al
Title: Re: carving chisels versus firmer gouges.
Post by: lwllms on December 05, 2010, 12:18:30 AM
"....And could someone explain to me what A2 is good for?"

I was hoping someone would step in here with an answer. I'll try.

A-2 is good for critically machined machine parts, like gears, where it's best for the part to be hardened but to have minimal dimensional change during heat treating. The carbide inclusions in A-2 can add wear resistance to relatively flat and lubricated surfaces. Those same carbides, though, just tend to fall out when they end up on a fine detail like a cutting edge. They do that because they're not structurally part of the steel. Unfortunately the high heat treating temperatures required to form those carbides also causes the steel that houses those carbides to be coarse grained which is another problem for a good cutting edge.

The other good use for A-2 is to demonstrate the "dead feel" you mentioned in your post. I'm not the least bit surprised that Michel Auriou can separate high carbon steel irons from A-2 irons by feel or by hearing the different sounds made when just running a thumb across the edge.