Lightweight Carving Tools
Monday 01 September 2008
Chris Pye tests a selection of travel-friendly carving tools
Many carvers get itchy fingers when they are away from their bench, on holiday, perhaps, or travelling on business, and would love to find a way of keeping in touch with their passion.
One of the main difficulties is holding work - you can make a portable bench, but this will need the car. Carving tool rolls can be quite hefty, never mind the sharpening stones, and what about the wood? Unless you intend pulling a custom-fitted trailer or caravan as you go, you must make some radical choices about what you take from your workshop. If you are backpacking, your choices will be even more drastic.
The exercise I have been running in my mind is this - what would be the lightest kit I could take with me that would enable to have some fun carving?
Some manufacturers have already had these same thoughts and offer some interesting solutions. If you are prepared to temporarily alter your working practises by taking up smaller projects, do away with a bench, hold your workpiece in one hand and carve, whittling fashion, with the other. In addition to this you will need to reduce both the type, size and number of tools you use, and what you need to sharpen them, to a minimum. If you do so you will find some tools and equipment out there aimed directly at helping you carve while travelling light. Luckily you can always find wood - it does grow on trees after all.
ToolsThe problem with having other select tools for us carvers is that the manufacturers who make them don't know what we want to carve. However, since carving tools can be made to perform a variety of functions, we can adapt and do very well with a selection of the most useful blades. I would suggest you get very familiar using whatever tools you manage to assemble, and the way you intend to use them, before setting off!
Flexcut 11-piece carver setThe Flexcut 11-piece Carver Set from Craft Supplies is a nifty tool roll that pockets 11 of the shorter Flexcut blades and a handle into which they individually slot. The roll is accompanied by an instruction manual and a piece of basswood (Tilia americana) on which a leaf pattern is printed as a starting project.
The set isn't actually aimed at travellers as such - more beginners, as the instruction manual clarifies - although it works very well in this context.
The smaller Flexcut blades are thin and keen and the knurled plastic handle is arguably the most comfortable around for single-handed use. The blades are held firmly but there is a little side-to-side play that bothered me a little to begin with.
Using the Sheffield List, width and sweep range from a broad 16mm No.4 to a 7mm No.7 for quick wood removal, and from a 1mm No.10 veiner to a 5mm 60 degree V-tool for detailed carving (see photo 1). There are no spoon gouges (and the 'flex' will not get you deeper than a straight tool since it is in the wrong place), or skews.
All in all this is a good selection at a good price. You could certainly carve a lot with these, and other Flexcut blades are available to extend your range.
Warren Deluxe traveller's carving kitThe six gouges in the Warren Deluxe Traveler's Carving Kit are more conventionally shaped (see photos 2 and 3). These and six knife blades slot into a cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa) wood handle and are locked very securely in place with the spanner supplied (see photo 4). The tools themselves are neatly arranged in a strong vinyl-covered steel case and available from Tools for Working Wood.
When assembled each gouge is about 210mm in length. This is a little shorter than my normal gouges and it does make them a bit heavy to use with just the one hand. Beautiful though
it is, I would certainly consider reducing the length of the handle if I wanted to use them consistently this way. On the other hand they would be fine back in the workshop as they are.
I have never come across Warren Cutlery before although apparently the company has been making carving tools since 1927. I found the blades a little thick for my taste but well-tempered and capable of holding a good edge. Although 'ready-sharpened', some of the cutting angles of the tools were rather high.
Basing my assessment on the sweeps on the Sheffield list, there are two spoon gouges (an 8mm No.6 and 6mm No.8), three straight gouges (an 8mm No.6 spade, 8mm No.8 and a 4mm No.9), and a 6mm 60 degree V-tool. This differs somewhat from the description in the catalogue but nevertheless is a useful mix of medium and deep gouges.
I think I would have included a flat gouge for smoothing surfaces but this is where you could substitute the knives - a mix of semi-straight and curved blades for detailed and heavy work.
I thought this set was very reasonably priced.
You can certainly do a lot of carving and it wouldn't be difficult to grind other blades to slot into the handle and extend the set more to your personal liking.
Oar carver pocket knifeI would certainly supplement a gouge set like those above with the blade or point of a sharp knife, such as the Oar Carver Pocket Knife from Tools for Working Wood (see photo 5). The designer of this knife, Ross Oar, is well known in the USA as a folk- and figure-carver and a teacher.
This is a superbly-made little pocketknife with two short and tough blades - 1 3/4in and 1 1/8in. Its high-carbon, high-chromium (D2) steel is commonly used by the best knife makers to take the stresses of such thin, rigid blades. These blades are modified 'Wharncliff' pattern, with a long point and cutting edge. They don't lock, but this shouldn't be a problem provided you use proper cutting techniques.
The Oar knife has a belt pouch (see photo 6) and, outside of this travelling context, I have found it very useful as a quickly available knife in the ordinary run of workshop carving - which is no surprise if you have seen what American whittlers can do with a simple knife.
So now you have a few tools, how do you go about keeping them sharp?
Sharpening and stroppingIt's obvious to assume that you would begin your travels with well-sharpened tools, so no grinder will be necessary. You will though need something handy to touch up the edges and strop for keenness.
Eze-Lap diamond 'wallet' stonesThe Eze-Lap Diamond 'Wallet' Stones (from Craft Supplies Ltd) (see photo 7) are not really stones as such but credit-card-sized sheets of stainless steel alloy onto which millions of polycrystalline diamonds have been permanently bonded. You can use them dry but I prefer a little water as this keeps the fine dust from drifting.
These thin sharpening plates measure 50x85mm (2x3 1/4in) and tuck into a neat plastic wallet. One plate is described as 'super fine', and feels something like a hard white Arkansas. The other is 'medium' and feels like a fine India stone. Between them they offer a very compact means of touching up an outside bevel and edge.
3M Micro Abrasive film3M Micro Abrasive Film (available from Tools for Working Wood) is very hi-tech stuff (see photo 8). Fine abrasive is bonded to A4-sized sticky-backed, tough paper. A sample pack of five sheets contains a range of grits from coarse 40 micron (fine India) to the finest 0.03 micron (black Arkansas).
You can cut the sheets to size and attach them to almost any flat smooth surface and sharpen the outer bevel, or make slipstone-shaped sharpening sticks as you need them.
This is quite remarkable material. It will wear out more quickly than real stone although being lightweight and lasting surprisingly long it is ideal for travelling needs. A little water helps stop dust migrating and make the film last longer.
'genuine horse butt' strop leatherIn a Katmandu museum I saw a cannon barrel made from leather - which had been well fired - so I wasn't surprised by the thick hardness of the 'Genuine Horse Butt' Strop Leather sold by Tools for Working Wood. It is hard enough to be used without a wood backing and thick enough to use the edge as a slip strop (see photo 9).
Micro-fine honing compoundYou shall need to dress your strop with a fine abrasive. The Micro-fine Honing Compound is the typical block used for loading buffing wheels, having been designed to melt with heat. While perfect in terms of its abrasive qualities, I've always found the dressing a little brittle and it flakes off leather. Melt and mix with the same amount of tallow or suet and you will have a pliable abrasive which will stay permanently in place.
Now you have your tools and sharpening bits, you can go on holiday with the knowledge that if you get the urge, your carving tools are at hand.