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Today we shall discuss gouges. We won’t actually discuss them since I can’t hear you talking but if you don’t mind looking strange you can talk really loudly and I’ll try and listen.

We’ve already talked about knives. They are the number one tool in your tool box. Today we shall discuss gouges. I believe gouges are the real work horses in any woodcarver’s arsenal. As you go deeper into this pursuit you will definitely want to add some gouges to your toolbox.

Why Are Woodcarving Gouges So Odd?

The first thing I noticed about gouges is how odd they are. I don’t mean they look odd but they are numbered odd. At my local woodcarving club someone would yell “Frank, do you have a number 3?” or “Ernie, I really need a number 9 but I might get by with a number 7”.

What’s up with the odd numbers? Well, gouges are called by their ‘sweep’ which basically defines their curvature. A number 1 gouge is a flat chisel while a number 11 is a semi-circle (U-gouge). In between are the 3, 5, 7, and 9. The sweep has more curvature as the number gets higher. The net affect of all this is that if you want to make a deep cut you want more sweep (a 9 or 11 maybe) and if you want a flatter cut you want less sweep (like a number 3).

There are also even numbered gouges (2, 4, 6, 8, and 10) but they don’t seem to be used as much around these parts. I recommend you stick with the odd gouges.

What About Those Other Numbers?

Oh yeah, there are other numbers. Bill might want a 13mm #3. What Bill wants is a 13 millimeter #3 gouge. The 13mm is the width of the cutting edge. 13mm is about ½ inch so in American terms Bill wants a ½ inch #3 gouge.

If you are going to be buying gouges you will want to get used to converting millimeters into inches as several brands of gouges are listed in millimeters. If you remember that 13mm = ½ inch then 26mm = 1 inch and 6mm is about ¼ inch. I know it’s not very American to learn the metric system but to buy the tool you want it’s worth it!


There’s another gouge out there that doesn’t fit with the standard sweep designations. That’s the v-gouge. This gouge is shaped like a V. This is a very useful gouge and I don’t know any serious woodcarver who doesn’t own one. In fact, the first gouge I bought was a v-gouge. It has many useful jobs that I’ll cover in future articles.

V-gouges are designated by the width between their top edge tips and the degree of the V which could be anything like 45-90 degrees (I’m sure there are others). If Bill wanted a 26mm 45-degree v-gouge he would be asking for a v-gouge that is 1 inch between the tips and has a 45-degree angle.

Palms and Mallets

There are two basic sizes of gouges: palm and mallet. Each size has its place and many people, me included, own some of each.

My first purchase of gouges were palm-sized. The reason being was that I was doing more caricature carving than any other type of carving. Caricatures are smaller and generally can be held in your hand while you carve. I needed smaller tools that I could hold and work with one hand.

As the size of my carvings grew I started using vices to hold my carvings as I worked. This freed up my other hand so I purchased some mallet tools and a mallet. Sometimes I use the mallet tools with the mallet but many times I find myself holding the mallet tools with both hands. Both techniques are very useful.

As far as mallets go the traditional type is a wooden cylinder and the modern type has a rubber-like head. The wooden mallet transfers more energy to the tool but is harder on the hand. The rubber mallet transfers less energy to the tool but it is easier on the hand and bounces back some helping prepare for the next strike. My mallet has the rubber-like head.

The Knife That Thinks Like A Gouge

I’ve been trying out a new tool called a hook knife that I got from Mike Komick. This is a knife where the blade curves into a shape kind of like a fishhook. You don’t hold it like a regular carving knife but like an ice pick as you will be using the curve of the hook to do the cutting.

This knife can be useful for roughing out bowls and spoons and other areas you want to scoop out. At times it has an advantage over gouges because it can get into areas that gouges cannot. It won’t replace your gouges but it is a nice specialty tool.

The Part Before The End

There is much more to gouges than I had space to cover here. There are bent gouges, spoon gouges and bent back gouges. There are skew gouges. There are sizes in-between palm and mallet. The list goes on and on and almost all of these variations are for advanced carvers. If you stick with the basics at first you’ll do just fine.

I talked about this with knives and it goes for mallets as well so it’s worth repeating. Some handles feel good to some folks and terrible to others. You don’t want to put good money into a tool that fatigues your hand. That brings me to another point. Buy a good quality tool if you are serious about this hobby. I would rather have five quality tools than ten tools of lesser quality.

Gouges can be dangerous. Do not use big movements to cut. Always know where the gouge will go if it slips. I refuse to sit next to people who can’t control their tools. They aren’t safe.

The ‘Getting Started Series’ encompasses six articles
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