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Lack of concentration and thoughtlessness cause accidents.

A sharp tool is a safe tool and a blunt one is more likely to cause accidents. A blunt tool requires more effort to cut through wood than a sharp one. In applying that extra effort the tool becomes unstable and behaves in unpredictable ways when exiting the wood. The use of a mallet can often reduce the effort and unpredictability.

Most chisels and gouges are two handed tools. Both hands should be on the tool with the blade hand resting on the wood. Keep both hands and all fingers behind the cutting edge at all times. Always carve away from your body and that of anyone else. Never carve towards you or anyone else.

Never carry a carving tool around unless necessary. When doing so always carry it point down by your side with your thumb close to but not on the cutting edge.

Never use a carving tool to point or to gesture.

Never perform another, separate task whilst holding a carving tool. Do one job at a time.

When not using a carving tool put it on the work bench parallel to any others that may be there. Always have all such tools pointing in the same direction, preferably with the cutting edge away from your body. Do not lay tools down with their cutting edges projecting close to where your hands are working.

Always ensure that your work is securely fastened to a stable bench or surface while carving it.

Never try to catch a falling carving tool. Never carve in sandals or open toe shoes.

When sharpening tools always follow the manufacturer’s published safety instructions particularly when using equipment such as grinder/polishers. Always wear safety goggles when using such equipment.

Most accidents occur during placement in or retrieval from a tool roll, take great care at this stage.

All wood creates dust in sanding, if not sawing. All that dust is potentially harmful if inhaled. Some of it is toxic and some causes cancer. Always wear a mask when carrying out this process. Also consider dust extractors. Remember the dust that builds up on clothing, even when a mask is worn.

When using finishing products such as sanding sealers, oils, stains, paints and polishes always read and follow the manufacturer’s safety instructions. Many of these products give off harmful vapour and should not be inhaled. Application should take place in a well ventilated environment. Oil impregnated rags can spontaneously ignite so they should be washed carefully, left to dry flat and then safely disposed of. 

Vigorous use of a mallet can cause flying chips of wood. Consider eye protection. Tough gloves should be worn when using rasps.

If using knives when carving very many other safety considerations come into play which cannot be dealt with here. However, always wear slash proof gloves.

Carvers should be up to date with their tetanus jabs.


Although the Club does have, and makes available, some tools for the use of members during meetings, members should start to acquire their own tools as soon as possible. Tools are expensive and great care should be taken over their selection. Sets of tools are not the best way to acquire them for reasons set out elsewhere. Although second hand tools are less expensive than new ones, there are a number of reasons why acquiring them can be a false economy and these are stated elsewhere. The decision is yours.

A better idea is to buy individual tools made by a premium quality manufacturer. These include; Henry Taylor, Ashley Iles, Pfeil, Robert Sorby, Ariou and Kirschen etc. Beginners should confine their purchasing to the types and sizes indicated on the list below. The numbers shown on the list are those taken from the “Sheffield List” which in each case indicates the type of tool and/or the shape of the curve of the gouge. The size shown is the width of the gouge or chisel. Some foreign makes such as Pfiel, (but not Kirschen) do not all follow the Sheffield List and have their own system or systems which although similar to the Sheffield List, are different.

Tools that you should acquire

Chris Pye recommends, as an initial selection, the following:


No.   2      3/8  or 10 mm skew chisel*

No.   3       ¼ or 6mm “flat” gouge (straight)

No.   3       ½  or 13 mm “flat” gouge (straight)

No.   3       ¾  or 19 mm “flat” gouge (straight)*

No.   6       ¼ or 6mm medium gouge (straight)

No.   6       ½ or 13mm medium gouge (straight)*

No.   6       ¾ or 19mm medium gouge (straight)

No.   9       ¼ or 6mm quick gouge (straight)*

No.   9       ½ or 13mm quick gouge (straight)

No.   9       ¾ or 19mm quick gouge (straight)

No. 39      3/8  or 10mm V-tool (parting tool)*


It will be noted that there a five tools marked with an asterisk.  These are considered to be tools that should be acquired before others on the list.

The three tools suggested as first buys are:

Skew chisel  No 2 (2 sweep) 

Straight gouge  No 3 (3 sweep)

Straight V tool  No 39


Most people will be better off buying three good quality tools initially rather than buying lots of poor quality tools , sets of tools or second hand tools that may be unusable .The three can be added to at any time as need is identified and experience increases.


This is not to say that second hand tools should not be bought as many experienced carvers would justifiably say  that some of the steel used in the past was of a higher quality that some today. It is also said that an old tool with the craftsman owners name visible on the handle demonstrates that the tool was a cherished one that served the owner well. Certainly the presence of a manufacturer’s name such as “Addis”, “Herring”, or the words “Gold Medal” stamped on the metal is a good indicator of quality.


The problem with used tools is being able to identify the presence of corrosion that would render the tool useless from the presence of corrosion that can be dealt with satisfactorily and being able to actually remedy it. Even pitted surfaces can be remedied, in some circumstances, by a suitably experienced person, using small grinders etc. Fortunately, our Chairman, Mike Tuck, through his training as a toolmaker , is well able to make these judgements and often make a somewhat corroded tool useable. He is also well able to advise on the selection of appropriate and useable used tool for sale from club stocks to members.


Your first project was probably suggested to you and a suitable piece of wood supplied. This is not the case with the second project and you should start your planning for the second project while still working on the first. Apart from deciding on the design etc, you will have to obtain a suitable piece of wood (hopefully lime), which may take some time and effort. The club holds only limited stocks of wood for carving and that is mainly for first projects only.

1   Have you found a suitable design?

Select something that is within your capability. Preferably select a design from the “Woodcarving” magazine or a woodcarving book that has not only photographs of the finished article but also scale drawings from at least the front, sides and rear elevations. These should also have a stage by stage set of instructions on how to carve the item. Anything less than this information will require you do far more work than is necessary.

2   Have you the appropriate piece of wood?

The appropriate wood for you is lime. If you pick the wrong wood you could end up with a carving that does not work, is too difficult to continue or is in some other way unsatisfactory. Generally appropriate wood is only available from specialist timber dealers. See the “Woodcarving” magazine for details. Sometimes members arrange small group trips to Yandles and other wood suppliers.

Exotic woods can appear attractive in the piece but can spoil the finished product by having too strong a “figure”, i.e. the grain pattern being too pronounced and hiding detail.

Terry Porter’s book “Wood Identification and Use” published by GMC Publications is an excellent source of information about the characteristics of wood and even the health hazards connected with various types.

3   Have you considered the tools that you need?

Fortunately the club has a selection of tools that beginners can use until they can acquire their own. However, some projects do require specialist tools that the club does not have. Some members may well have these specialist tools.

4   How do you propose to hold your wood while carving it?

Holding wood is not only a safety issue but also one of practicability. Different types of carvings require different holding techniques and equipment. Consider these issues and research solutions through the “Woodcarving” magazine or woodcarving books.

You should always discuss these matters with an experienced carver before committing yourself.


1   Physical objects in your possession or control

Ornaments that you may own are a good starting point. Car boot sales and charity shops are places where these things can be found at a reasonable cost.

2   Other physical objects

Memorials of one type or another can often be inspirational. They are generally works of great artistic merit. Museums and art galleries are places well worth visiting for ideas.

3   Magazines

Anyone starting woodcarving should have regular access to the “Woodcarving” magazine as it is an amazing source of information on the topic and has many projects showing on a stage by stage basis how to create the object shown. Often there are specific beginners’ projects. In addition to photographs it has scale drawings from all four elevations (sometimes more) which will enable the carver to transfer the shape to wood.

4   Books

There are numerous specialist books on the subject and the better ones have ample photographs and drawings. Most cater for a range of abilities but some are introductory.  It is important to remember that many of the greatest carvings were originally carved in stone so the work of people such as Michelangelo and Rodin, to name. These should not be overlooked when researching.  Guide books to places of historical interest  as they can be a good source of inspiration. For carvers with an interest in animals, wildlife books are invaluable.

5   Libraries

It is easy to overlook libraries as sources of inspiration and information. Quite often they are able to provide you with the additional photographic information that you need to gather around you before you start. Most carvers, beginners or otherwise, discover that they have too little visual information for their needs when well into their projects. The topics to look for are many and diverse but include woodcarving, sculpture, churches (and cathedrals), history, wildlife, regions and towns etc.

6   Internet

Most people realise just how useful the internet is as a research tool. A search under “woodcarving” will reveal a multitude of sites relating to the topic but wider searches will often be necessary.

7   Clubs and teaching institutions etc

All clubs are different but most, if not all, will have a collection of old issues of the “Woodcarving” magazine and books on the topic. Some individual members will have much relevant material. Most professional teachers will have a portfolio of their work and some will have photographs of their student’s work. They will often have web sites of their own. Clubs will often hold exhibitions of members’ work and so too some teaching institutions and many will have web sites, often with “Galleries”.

8   The wood

From time to time a piece of wood by its shape and character will inspire the carver to create a particular shape. To do this successfully will require a fair degree of artistic ability as well as carving experience.



First, a brutal message: anyone taking up woodcarving also takes on a second hobby at the same time, sharpening.  This not once a week, month or year, but about every twenty minutes.  Blunt tools lead to disappointment, frustration, accidents and people giving up

Manual methods

The basic minimum of equipment needed does not have to be expensive.  For most needs and anything short of radical re-grinding of tools all that is needed is the following: a fine textured oil stone of the kind that can be found in many tool and hardwear shops (often as a two sided combination stone), a small slipstone (also fine and obtainable from some tool shops), a small can of general purpose oil such as “3 in 1”, an off-cut of stout leather of about 8 inches by 2 ½” (obtainable from an old style shoe shop, or an old belt) and a metal polishing paste of the type that can be bought from motor accessory shops. The leather should be glued to the wood, rough side up.  For advice as to how to use these items see any book on woodcarving or get hold of Henry Taylor’s excellent leaflet on sharpening that does, or did, come free with their products.


The problem with manual methods is that they are easier to use with flat tools rather than rounded gouges. Also, manual methods tend to require more skill and experience to become proficient than the powered methods. 


Powered methods

Modern sharpening machines make regular sharpening quicker and easier as it is essential to keep a keen edge by honing it before it gets blunt. If the tool is honed regularly it won’t be necessary to put it to the grindstone again, unless changing the bevel angle.


If you have £100 - £200, or more and don’t want the effort you can buy an electrical system from a carver’s supplier. They are based on bench grinders/polishers and must have the wheel turning away from you at the top.  They should have a “rubber wheel” one end and either a compressed paper, leather, felt or stitched rag wheel at the other


Rotary polishing or honing machines can often be made by using an old bench grinder from a Car Boot Sale, but in such cases it MUST be modified so that the wheels are running AWAY from you at the top rather than running towards you as it was originally made. This is a vital safety measure. Before attempting any such modification, it is strongly advised that advice is sought from a suitably experienced person. Our Chairman, Mike Tuck is such a person.


Mike also runs short sessions with beginners, showing them how to use, in particular, a rotary polishing and honing machine which is always available for the use of members.


Best quality source of data first, with others in descending order

1   Fully illustrated project with all drawings

The “Woodcarving” magazine (and good books) now commission top carvers to produce articles that explain on a step by step basis how to carve featured items. The steps are not only excellently photographed but there are scaled drawings from all relevant elevations that can be easily transferred to wood.

2   A physical object

With a physical object you can view it from all angles, measure it, photograph it and make drawings etc from the photographs. It is useful to have it available to refer to at all stages of the carving process.

This does not apply only to inanimate objects but can be a person who can be posed for photographs and therefore for tracings from those photographs.

3   Photograph

This is not as useful a source of information as the physical object referred to above because it is two dimensional rather than three and therefore does not yield information as to depth as the object does. It gives less detailed information about the sides and little or nothing about the back, unless there are also photographs of these other elevations. Often photographs are not taken head on to the subject but are “three quarter” views. Generally you will need a head on view and sometimes (often) a three quarter view as well Three quarter views alone, particularly of people, often lead to unflattering and distorted carvings.

If you are faced with the task of carving an object simply from one photograph you should strongly consider the feasibility of re-photographing the subject for the purpose of additional tracings or drawings. Sometimes there are other photographs of the subject in books etc which could help.

If all else fails you should consider making a model from clay before carving.

Black and white photographs are said to yield the most information due to the greater contrast.

4   Paintings, drawings (artists) and pictures of these

These all suffer from the same problems as photographs mentioned above but they often have additional drawbacks as far as the carver is concerned. They often lack the sharpness, definition and clarity of photographs and therefore will not yield as much information as is needed. Additionally, from time to time artists make mistakes with perspective etc (greetings cards to name but one), making it even more difficult for you.

Again here a clay model helps to sort out the problem before it finds its way onto the wood.

5   An idea, but no object or picture

 First, research the subject to find useable images. Next, a model may have to be made.


Arranged in order of the quickest and most effective way first, in descending order.

  1. Short, two or more, day introductory course given by one of a number of professional carver/teachers, including the following: Andrew Thomas (Wareham); Zoe Gertner (Thornbury, Devon);Chris Pye (Herefordshire); Michael Painter (Austrey, Warwickshire). Typically, full two day courses are highly intensive, include guidance on sharpening tools and are designed to get you started. They are, however, expensive.

  2. Chris Pye’s on-line learning site is worth considering and this can be found

  3. Next and at least as effective, are short courses (often about one week) in places such as Austria (Geisler-Moroder). The problem here is expense and perhaps time.

  4. Local education authority run evening classes. There are a number of problems with these. First, they are not provided by all authorities. Second, they vary enormously in quality with some giving very little tuition for the term fees. They sometimes provide little more and sometimes less, by way of help than carving clubs. Often they try and cater for too many people at a time. Some classes are no doubt good.

  5. .Local woodcarving clubs such as Ringwood Woodcarvers are places where carving can be learnt. These groups do not provide formal tuition but do increasingly cater for the needs of beginners by providing basic guidance. Ringwood Woodcarvers are always developing ideas to help newcomers to learn and develop their skills without destroying the informality of a club atmosphere. Popular projects as well as skills are constantly under consideration. Having said that however, learning by attendance at meetings alone is considerably slower than the first two, if not three, routes set out above. Typically, the cost works out to be about £3.00 per meeting.

  6. Self teaching. This is extremely slow, not very satisfying or efficient, even if combined with regular reading of the “Woodcarving” magazine (necessary in any event), all the appropriate books and watching the excellent teaching videos and dvds that are available. This is easily the slowest way to learn woodcarving.


    Probably the ideal way for beginners to get started is attend a two or more day introductory course given by a carving professional and to immediately following this join a local wood carving club. By starting this way they learn very quickly the very basics and at the same time discover whether carving is for them before they commit themselves to any great expense. Actually, the very first thing they should do before even starting the introductory course is to buy a copy of the “Woodcarving” magazine from WH Smiths.

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