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Beginner Essential Guide (BEG) for woodcarving : Chapter 2 : holding your tools and workpiece

securing a workpiece

This is one area where there are many solutions to the same problem. Depending on the size and shape of your workpiece several options are available to hold it steady while you work:

  • using clamps to secure it to a table or workbench
  • use a bench vise (or any other type of vise)
  • glue the workpiece to a larger board and clamp that onto a table or workbench
  • screw or clamp some small blocks around your workpiece either into the workbench or a larger board.

For relief carving and most carvings that have a flat underside I prefer the last option. Screw a block around the piece on each side so it can’t move when you’re carving. You can still lift it straight up and turn it around if you need to.

Carving techniques

There are a few basic practices you might want to get into from the get go. The first one is carving left and right handed. If you’re a beginner, you haven’t learned to carve with either hand so they both start from scratch. This is the ideal time to start practicing carving with your left and right hand. This will come in handy when you’re working on details or in an area you can only get to with one hand or the other. This also helps when the material has funky grain going in all sorts of directions. Instead of moving the piece or turning around the piece, you can simply switch hands.

The second is tool control with and without a mallet. In the beginning you might think that working with your hands will give you more control then using a mallet. However in many cases it is easier to apply a consistent amount of force on the tool with a mallet. There are use cases for both, in time it will become second nature and you’ll switch between using a mallet or using both hands regularly.

holding your tools

holding a gouge or V tool

While you will typically hold a chisel by the handle, this doesn’t give you the best control for fine details. It is far better to hold a gouge or V tool by the metal end, closed to the blade. this allows you to use your wrist in a firmer grip, while still having a full range of motion.

This is how you would work with a mallet and gouge.

Compare that to holding a bench chisel, you grab that by the handle. It requires less fine grained control but on average more power.

Using a mallet will give you full control over the force you put on to the cutting edge. It will take a bit of practice to get used to working with a mallet in your non-dominant hand, but trust me it’s worth it in the end.

For very fine details and work in softer woods you can just use your second hand to provide the force needed to cut. On harder wood species or species with a lot of knots, this is not ideal. This is because the softer parts will cut fine and then your cutting edge hits a harder part. It very easy to put too much for on the chisel at that time to make it slip or cut too deep.

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Beginner Essential Guide (BEG) for woodcarving : Chapter 1 : basic & essential tools

Let us first explore the vast amount of tools that are available. If you want to dive in head first, many companies offer a so called starter set of tool that will allow you to hit the ground running. However if you are still in doubt whether this is the hobby for you or you just don’t have to budget to spend a few 100 euro on tools, this is the chapter for you!

I will go over the tools you really do need to get started, some alternatives and if they are worth considering..

mallet

A mallet is used to provide the power behind your cut and once you get used to it, it allows a great deal of control. When you are just starting out in your wood carving journey a dead blow hammer or a joiners mallet can work if you already have one of those laying around. Especially the dead blow hammer is a good starting point. After carving a while you’ll soon find that a joiners is too big and clunky to give you the fine grained control you’re after when carving.

joiner mallet

joiner mallet

You could even use a big branch and make a rudimentary handle on it. This is often used by spoon carvers and carvers that work with green wood a lot. Whatever you decide to use, do not use a metal hammer. It will soon destroy the back end of you gouges.

The tool we are really after is a carvers mallet. It typically has a round head, which has a slightly smaller diameter towards the handle. This design allows a precise transfer of force to the back of the gouge. The head can made all sorts of materials such as wood, HDPE, nylon, brass, aluminum and so on. This makes for a wide variety and prices for a mallet. A metal mallet may be smaller since it has more weight, so some carvers prefer that. Other carvers, myself included are also wood turners and prefer to make their own mallets.

a simple carvers mallet

The weight of the mallet ranges from 300 grams to a kilo and can be a personal preference or depending on the type of sculpture. For larger sculptures, you will typically use larger gouges and a larger mallet so it is easier to apply more force. For a first mallet I would go for a medium weight between 400 and 500 grams. When starting out the weight doesn’t really matter that much except that your arm might get tired a bit quicker when using a heavier mallet. I personally didn’t even weigh my mallet, I just went with the bits of hardwood I had and made the largest mallet I could out of it.

If you are making a mallet yourself, you will want to use a piece of hardwood like maple, hawthorn, beech and so on. Tropical hardwoods are also suited, but usually more expensive. They quite dense, so they would be suited for making a smaller mallet with reasonable weight to it. Do stay away from wood species that tend to splinter like Wenge for instance. All wooden mallets wear out eventually, but these wood species might be so hard that chunks chip off after a while.

chisels, gouges, knives and more

There are many different brands out there and a handful of really good brands that are well known around the world. The idea of this series is to be an introduction, so I chose very cheap tools that should be accessible to most if not everyone. As good steel and manufacturing tools isn’t cheap you do get what you pay for. that being said even cheap tools can work well, but you will spend more time honing and sharpening them as they will probably have difficulty holding a sharp edge.

As with the mallets you could start with what you have, but most of you won’t have gouges. You can do wood carving with a regular chisel, a pocket knife, a box cutter or even a scalpel type tool, but that will be limited to whittling and chip carving. Also, some of these tools aren’t meant to be used like this, so safety is a concern.

Instead I selected very cheap tools that have a similar form and function to what I use regularly at a very affordable price. As said before they have some downsides, so I would consider upgrading after completing this course if you are going to continue to carve.

Besides brand and Quality, the basic tools you will need are a few gouges and a V tool. different tool companies may describe them in different ways, but for the most part a gouge is described by two numbers, the first being the depth of cove of the gouge and the second being the width of the cutting edge.

So, a 3/8 gouge will have a depth of 3mm and a width of 8mm. For a basic set I recommend a 3/8 and a 5/20 gouge. V tools use the same system and a good intermediate is a 12/6 (12mm deep, 6mm wide).

So now we have selected our set of three tools to start out with. If you are going for good quality brands these 3 tools alone will cost you between 60 and 100 EUR depending on brand, vendor and possible discounts. So even the low end of this (some of which were off brand copies of well known brands) was too much in my opinion for people just trying out if they even like carving.

So I decided to look around for very cheap alternatives and ended up with some of the well known Chinese vendors. The set I eventually chose is sold by Banggood and costs less then €20 for a set of 14 tools. That is quite the difference! For that price you even get a rasp with 4 different grits on each side and a pouch. Obviously they won’t be of the finest quality, but perhaps good enough to get a taste of the hobby for a very good price.

…. and then I received them. The are made from some type of soft metal and are really thick (not in a good way). The weren’t very sharp out of the box, which is fine and maybe safer for shipping. So I sharpened them with my water stone grinder. This usually takes seconds and takes off very little steel. That did not happen in this case. It took quite a while and when it was finally somewhat sharp, it lost a few millimeters in length.

So even though this is an extremely cheap set and I really wanted it to be sufficient for some basic exercises I can’t recommend these at all. Even with the temporary sharp edge, the steel was still too thick and soft to be efficient. I could have ground the heel down some more to make a thinner cutting edge, but then that would have made it way too fragile for harder wood species.

What I recommend instead is getting a good quality V tool only and using some regular chisels. The V tool is a must in my opinion as it is a very accurate and time saving tool. The 3/8 gouge is almost flat, so a narrow chisel can do the job (I’ll adjust some of the exercises for it). In case you don’t have any chisels I would still recommend getting at least the 3/8 gouge, but if you do have them we’ll make them work. A set of standard bench chisels can be found for around 20 EUR on amazon. These will be of sufficient quality as soon as you sharpen them and flatten the backside (some cheaper brands have a more hollow back side).

wood selection

Most if not all wood species can be used for carving, but usually hard wood species are used. The ideal wood for beginners (and pro’s as well) is lime or basswood. Although it is a hard wood it’s soft enough to allow easy carving and it doesn’t have too many crazy knots or grain direction in it.

Again, for this course use whatever wood you can get your hands on but try to avoid very soft wood such as pine. Even some pallet wood can be used HOWEVER fair warning when using any reclaimed, upcycled or otherwise reused material… There may be bits of metal (old screws/nails/barbed wire), stone or other foreign materials in there. None of these are very good for the sharp, somewhat fragile edge of your gouges. Even though the set we’ll be using doesn’t break the bank, there are more fun things besides regrinding a chipped edge… such as carving.

Some nice wood species for carving can be found in a home improvement center under the label “hardwood” this could be anything from meranti, sapele or oak. You could also check out a local lumberyard and see if they have any left over pieces from custom orders. These offcuts are usually sold at a discount. Meranti is a good species to start with as well it can chip out if mistreated… but we’ll get to that in a later chapter.

securing a workpiece

This is one area where there are many solutions to the same problem. Depending on the size and shape of your workpiece several options are available to hold it steady while you work:

  • using clamps to secure it to a table or workbench
  • use a bench vise (or any other type of vise)
  • glue the workpiece to a larger board and clamp that onto a table or workbench
  • screw or clamp some small blocks around your workpiece either into the workbench or a larger board.

For relief carving and most carvings that have a flat underside I prefer the last option. Screw a block around the piece on each side so it can’t move when you’re carving. You can still lift it straight up and turn it around if you need to.

Carving techniques

There are a few basic practice you might want to get into from the get go. The first one is carving left and right handed. If you’re a beginner, you haven’t learned to carve with either hand so they both start from scratch. This is the ideal time to start practicing carving with your left and right hand. This will come in handy when you’re working on details or in an area you can only get to with one hand or the other. This also helps when the material has funky grain going in all sorts of directions. Instead of moving the piece or around the piece, you can simply switch hands.

The second is tool control with and without a mallet. In the beginning you might think that working with your hands will give you more control then using a mallet. However in many cases it is easier to apply a consistent amount of force on the tool with a mallet. There are use cases for both, in time it will become second nature and you’ll switch between using a mallet or using both hands regularly.

Exercises

holding a gouge or V tool

While you will typically hold a chisel by the handle, this doesn’t give you the best control for fine details. It is far better to hold a gouge or V tool by the metal end, closed to the blade. this allows you to use your wrist in a firmer grip, while still having a full range of motion.

This is how you would work with a mallet and gouge.

Compare that to holding a bench chisel, you grab that by the handle. It requires less fine grained control but on average more power.

Using a mallet will give you full control over the force you put on to the cutting edge. It will take a bit of practice to get used to working with a mallet in your non-dominant hand, but trust me it’s worth it in the end.

For very fine details and work in softer woods you can just use your second hand to provide the force needed to cut. On harder wood species or species with a lot of knots, this is not ideal. This is because the softer parts will cut fine and then your cutting edge hits a harder part. It very easy to put too much for on the chisel at that time to make it slip or cut too deep.

carving lines

remark: I will update this page later with some pictures and a video once that is done.

This exercise will allow you to practice carving with both hands. I would suggest using a softer wood such as lime but you can use hard wood if you like, you might have to use the mallet though where as you can just use both hands on softer wood. With this exercise we are familiarizing ourselves with the V tool. A very important tool for separation surfaces, defining edges and carving lines.

The exact dimensions of your work piece aren’t really important. Take any rectangular piece and mark and even number of lines on it, about 10mm or half an inch apart. if you can get 6 lines on it, that would be ideal, if not you can always draw a line across the centre of it and use both sides as a line

We will use the V tool to carve out the lines. Carving from left to right with the right hand and from right to left with your left hand. This way both hands get equal amount of practice with each set of lines. You don’t have to carve very deep, it’s better to use a second pass instead. If you carve too deep in a single pass, the wood in front of you tool has too much support and applying the force needed to carve through it, might split, splinter or crack the wood.

How deep is deep enough? That depends on where you are cutting, how dense the wood is and some other factors. This is something you will get a feeling for while practicing.

for the first set of lines (line 1 and 2) point the V tool straight up. This will allow you to carve a V shape with 2 equal sides. Focus on keeping that V straight up and try to carve as close to (or on) the line as you can.

You might get some uneven sides or strange lines in the groove you’re cutting. This is because the V tool is slightly tilted in one direction. The result doesn’t have to be perfect. This exercise is all about getting to know the tool and practicing controlling it.

Carve the next set of lines while holding the left edge of the V tool straight up. You will notice as you carve that one side of the groove is vertical and the other at an angle. This is the preferred way to carve along the outside of an image to create an outline. Basically hold the V tool in a way that the vertical edge is on the good side of the carving and the angled edge is on the waste side of the carving.

Repeat this process for the last set of lines, holding the right edge of the V tool straight up.

When you are done, you should end up with something similar to the picture below. Don’t worry if your lines aren’t straight or you had some tear out or any other mistake, it’s just a practice piece after all.

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Beginner Essential Guide (BEG) for woodcarving : introduction

Introduction

Welcome to my Beginner Essential Guide for wood carving for beginners. This guide will focus on manual carving with (full size) gouges and a mallet. I might include a chapter on power carving with burrs, whittling or chip carving (with knives) but the focus will be on manual carving with gouges. The biggest advantage over power carving in my opinion is the relaxing effect, less noise and a lot less dust and debris when you’re done.

Before we get to the fun stuff, we will go over some theory first, but I’ll try and keep it short and sweet. My goal is to get more people started into the wonderful world of wood carving. There are some basics you will need to know and some tools you will need to start. That will take up the first few chapters, but after that it will mostly be exercises and demonstrations to aid in explaining a specific topic.

I will include lots of pictures and some short video to demonstrate the key points of the theory and show you how I would do it.

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New workshop – part 1 – foundation and building

In 2020 we’ve bought a vacant plot to build a new house. It borders on the back end of my parents yard so we’ll neighbours one the new house is built. We’re still working with an architect for the house, but long story short it was easier to build the workshop now. Since the new garden is about 60m deep it was a lot easier to get the concrete poured before the house was built and in the way. Honestly I just wanted to get started on the new shop I confess.

The new shop will be almost 22m² and has a small section to side I intend to turn into a little office. Not a work office, but a dedicated place for the 3D printer and laser engraver and other “low dust” hobby activities. At the moment this is in the house and kind of scattered around.

Foundation

After doing some research about concrete foundations and the stability of the soil in the area I decided on digging a “skirt” around the side so the concrete is less likely to freeze and crack over time. Since some of the machinery I use is quite heavy I also put in some steel netting for extra strength. Since everyone likes that new shop feeling and layout I decided on filming the build and will eventually make more video’s when I move into it.

Construction

A week or 3 later the truck showed up, delivering a nice all in one package to build my new shed. The build only took 2 days for the walls and the roof. After that is was another day to put on the shingles, mount the doors and storm protection etc.

I don’t have any video on doing the shingles as that might be a bit boring (and I forgot). I did film the build though. I don’t really have any fantastical stories to add so I’ll just insert the video here 😉

I think I’ll put some nice chairs on the little porch and maybe hang some lights, just turn it into a cosy little corner to take a breather from all the making.

Next up is installing some rain gutters and the wall to close off the office space. Stay tuned for more workshop fun.

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Bar Skittles

The video on the skittles game

I’ve always wanted to turn a chess set, but the idea of making so many identical pieces just doesn’t seem that appealing to me. This got the little gears in my head thinking of other games with matching pieces, that don’t necessarily have to be identical. I also wanted to make a game my 4 year old son could enjoy.

I finally landed on bar/table skittles which has 9 pins that are usually identical. My twist on it was going to be to make each pin from a different wood species.

I turned a first pin freehand, deciding the shape on what looked good while I was turning. That first pin became the “master” to serve as a reference for the other pieces. Mainly the height of the head and body would have to be relatively close to look nice. This master was turned from an unknown wood, that looks like walnut when finished. I call this type of wood chunka wood.

The next pin I turned was in Wenge. This is quite a dense and heavy wood, so when I had a pin about the same size as my master I realised it would be much heavier. and so I had the brilliant idea of making each pin roughly the same shape, but make the ones from heavier wood skinnier so the weight would be approximately the same.

I continued to do this for the rest of the pins, purely guessing the needed width of the pins to get similar weights. I thought that would make the game more fun as it would matter where you put the pins on the board.

As it turns out, my non-scientific guesstimation wasn’t very accurate. The lightest piece wieghs 43 grams and the heaviest comes in at 78 grams.

By now, you probably realised I like experimenting and making things up as I go along. Sometimes that works out and sometimes it’s a bust. the end cap that goes on top of the post was made from a mystery hardwood, that started out as part of the leg of a garden table. It was meant as a practice piece, but I liked the look of the wood when I was done, so it became another example of protoduction (where a prototype ends up as a “production” piece).

the knocker is made from either Japanese cherry or a species of plum. Those two piles of branches got mixed up, when I reorganised my workshop. the design of both pieces was again some protoduction, were the only constraints were the size of the holes in them and a groove in the end cap to attach the string to.

The last piece of the puzzle is the base. I didn’t have a nice bit of timber, so I glued up some pine beams I had laying around. these actually were supports from a delivery that came on a pallet. With this one I didn’t spend as much time finishing as I want to make a new one in a better quality material. If you finish it nicely I might never replace it…

the base is around 40cm in diameter and 5cm thick. In the final version I will cut out, burn or inlay a grid to place the pins on. All in all, I’m happy with this result. It’s not the best looking but it’s functional, so my son gets to play with the game while I look for a nice bit material for the base.

finally for the post I used a piece of dowel I had and rounded off one end so the end cap can turn on it loosely. All in all I’m very happy with how it turned out and it really is a fun a simple game for the entire family.

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A beginner’s guide to pen making – part 3

embellishments

Now that you know how to make a basic pen, it’s time to discuss how we can add a little extra bling. Personally I like the elegance of a simple design in a pen, but there are many options if you would like to try something different.

side note: these examples are merely to show techniques. they aren’t made to look beautiful and aren’t finished to a high degee. Some pictures will have some dust or paper particles in them.

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Turning segmented birds

My latest youtube video shows how I turn my segmented birds. This certainly wasn’t my idea, I found pictures of this online while researching project ideas.

I immediately fell in love with these little creations and found they’re a great way of using up scraps. The idea is to glue up a blank where the sides and top are of a contrasting wood to the main body. The main body blank should be around twice the thickness of the side/wing pieces. This will ensure that most of the material being turned away while shaping is taken away from the wing parts. It can be a bit hard to imagine what the end product is going to look like, so I will demonstrate with a few diagrams.

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A beginner’s guide to pen making – part 2

Pen turning tools

Like I mentioned in the overview, there are many tools for pen turners. Some are optional, but useful, others are needed. let’s start with the basic tools first. Obviously I’ll assume you are using a lathe as this is a tutorial series for beginning pen turners. Any lathe will do and if you aren’t sure what to get I suggest starting with a mini (second hand) lathe. once you know what type of projects you enjoy making, you can upgrade it. this is true for several other tools and equipment as well. you’ll see in the pictures that I’ve started with a cheap set of turning tools and upgraded the ones I used most often. The same goes for the safety equipment, you can start with a full face mask and a throw away dust mask. But do start with a full face shield! Safety glasses are not enough!

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A beginner’s guide to pen making – part 1

Overview on making a basic pen

In the first part of this series I’ll show you all the steps involved into making a basic slimline pen. I’m using this as the kits are the easiest to find and make. The parts you have to make are identical so this keeps it nice and simple. Some other pens have different tube sizes or lengths or might require a different radius between the start of the tube and end.

Please inform yourself on how your power tools work or seek out instruction on the basics of wood turning. Accidents do happen and you are responsible for your own safety.

A slimline pen kit (and many others) consist of the following parts:

Slimline pen kit diagram
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Turning nesting dolls (Matryoshka dolls)

Preparation

Find and prepare a template you like. Print and cut out a template of each doll so it has a quarter of the final shape. The easiest way is to cut out the individual dolls from the full template and glue them to some cardboard. Then cut out half of each doll, so you end up with negative template you can hold to your work piece.

TIP

In case you are planning on carving, the dolls after turning you might want to scale each doll (template) a bit. That will give you more wall thickness so there is material to carve.

Refer to images 1 and 2 for examples of the nesting doll templates. I found this image via a quick google search, but you can easily make your own shapes and templates.

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