Gouge Choice

gouge choice cartoon_0003_NEWNearly all of my work is left from the sharp edge of a paring gouge.  I discussed the process and tools in some detail in this post last year — and this one.

Lately, I’ve received a few questions asking for my recommendation on a first paring gouge.  I think the best answer might be, “a sharp one,” but sharpness aside, I do have a general recommendation.  For general use for a wide variety of bowl sizes, I recommend a long-bent gouge around a #5 medium sweep, 30-35 mm wide (around 1 1/4″).  For roughing, especially with a mallet, I recommend a steeper sweep, something like  a #7.  As you add to your tool kit, it is nice to have a shallower sweep, like  a #3, that will give you the option of leaving a much more subtle texture.  Even though I have different gouges to choose from, you can really accomplish a lot with just one in your kit.

There are several options for obtaining that first gouge.  In the Hans Karlsson gouge selection, I would echo Drew Langsner’s recommendation of the H-112 for paring the interior of a bowl.  Below is a photo of the bent paring gouge selection from his catalog. (For those of you overseas, HK gouges can be found at suppliers closer to you.) The H-111 would also be a good choice.  It will leave a more pronounced texture, but is a little more versatile in terms of working smaller bowls or carving under handles.

Width of the current version of the H-113 is 35 mm, the same width as the H-112.  The photo shows a previous model.

Notice that they have reduced the width of the H-113, which I think was a good choice.  I have the old one, and I’m not manly enough to push that whole wide edge through hardwood.  I still use it often, but it is just more wide than it needs to be.  I only ever use part of the edge for any stroke.

Another thing to keep in mind is that HK uses a non-traditional system for describing the sweep of a gouge.  The circle described by a gouge of a given sweep remains constant regardless of the width of the tool.  In other words, a #90 sweep gouge is always an arc of a 90 mm circle.  That is not true in the traditional system, in which, for example, #5 gouges of various widths will be arcs of different diameter circles; the sweep is relative to the width of the tool.

In the photo above (left), my 45 mm wide #150 sweep HK bent paring gouge sits next to my 16mm wide #5 sweep long-bent gouge from Pfeil (Swiss Made).  I was just using the smaller one last night to pare the interior of a walnut bowl.  It is providing the particular texture I’d like on this bowl, but a gouge like the one I recommended as a first gouge would have worked also.  I just would have used a portion of the edge.  I have found the Swiss Made gouges to be excellent as well, for paring or mallet work.  Here you can see the selection of #5 long-bents, and the #7s.  Usually, the edge of a Swiss Made needs to be reworked a bit before it will work sweetly, even though they come “pre-sharpened.”

Of course, there are other options and other makers that are just as worth considering, and any attempt for me to mention them all here would fall short.  This is not meant to be a recommendation of one brand, maker, or supplier over another.  I have just used these brands in this post to illustrate the key concepts involved in choosing a paring gouge.  Antique tools are also a consideration.  I really enjoy using an old Addis bent gouge I picked up at an antique shop years ago.

As you can see in the final photos below, each good brand has it’s subtle differences, but they will all work well.  The person behind the gouge is the most important factor.






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19 Responses to Gouge Choice

  1. James Kuhn says:

    Hi, Dave! Excellent article! Being one of those who previously asked your recommendation for gouges I can only agree with your analysis. Based on your’s and other’s recommendations, I’ve been lucky enough to obtain several Hans Karlsson gouges. They are excellent! I had the opportunity to use all of them during my bowl and spoon carving class with Drew Langsner this past November ‘2015. While there, I also purchased a Hans Karlsson H-110 22mm-25mm Sweep, Bent Paring Gouge. I found the H-110 ideal for shaping the bottom-side of the handles of the small bowls we made from Tulip-Poplar wood. I also found it perfect for that beautiful hand done textured finish on the interior of the bowl. Again, these were small bowls. Larger bowls might require a different approach.
    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Thank you David for all of your help and unselfish sharing of your knowledge.

    Best regards,



    • Dave Fisher says:

      Thanks for sharing that experience, James. I don’t have the 110, but your experience with it’s versatility supports the idea that, especially for hollowing work, a steeper gouge is more versatile than a flatter gouge.


  2. James Kuhn says:

    I forgot to mention. The original reason I purchased the H-110, Drew suggested a Gouge as an alternative to the ‘Spoon Knife’. Wanting to try as many techniques as I could, I gave it a shot with one of Drew’s Gouges. I found it worked quite well. Too, well in fact. Got a little aggressive with the Gouge and let’s just say my ‘spoon’ became a Spaghetti Strainer. I’ve always learn more from my mistakes than any successes I’ve ever had. For the record, I’m very proud of that spoon…err, Spaghetti Strainer. It’s my first.


  3. Addis gouges approach the mystical, in my experience. Consistently thinner blade section means a smaller bevel so that the heel is closer to the cutting edge, most modern tools don’t come close to that.
    I’m reading The Lost Carving by David Esterly, about his reproduction of Grinling Gibbons work, highly recommend it to any carver.


  4. sms2yd says:

    You said the Pfeil gouges need to be reworked to get them to perform at their best. I’m just beginning to explore bowl carving (I mainly do furniture making), and don’t have much experience tuning carving gouges. Do you mind going into what you do to rework the the gouges other than regular sharpening?




    • Dave Fisher says:

      Sean, basically I just mean sharpening, but I’ll be more specific: In my experience, the Pfeil gouges come seemingly sharp, but with the bevel too rounded near the edge. As a result, the tool handle has to be raised too much at the start of the cut and the tool is not as responsive as it should be. To get rid of that abrupt rounding near the edge, I just go to a relatively aggressive sharpening stone and work the bevel until it is flat and I have a slight burr on the upper side of the edge. Then I work through the rest of the usual sharpening procedure. In reality, the bevel I produce ends up being slightly convex over the entire length of the bevel — that is ok, especially for hollowing work. But you want to stay away from that abrupt rounding near the edge.

      I assume the rounding from Pfeil is a result from aggressive work on their power buffing wheels. Sometimes it’s not too bad, depending on what worker has done the sharpening I guess.


  5. Ben Griswold says:

    Something that I am starting to notice that I want to change on the gouge’s I already own is a comfortable place to grip on the shank. I will often use two hands to push my larger 1.5″ straight gouge- it is quite the workout. It seems to me that having the socket on the Hans Karlsson would offer a more comfortable place to your other hand for better control? Do you find yourself gripping the socket area of the gouge your other hand? I am just starting blacksmith and am going to make myself some gouges so these pictures really help.


    • Dave Fisher says:

      That’s a good point, Ben. I hadn’t thought too much about it, but in most carving grips, the lower hand is holding at least part of the metal shank of the gouge itself. Usually, makers at least round those edges a bit so they’re not sharp, but some don’t do that as well. On those occasions, I have touched up the corners with some fine wet/dry sandpaper. Strictly speaking, the Hans Karlsson’s are not socket gouges, but that wide elongated bolster gives the same rounded gradual transition as a socket gouge. And it is comfortable.

      Good luck as you make your gouges. Glad the photos have helped. One more additional reference that may be of some help is that the Pfeil gouge in the middle of the bottom two photos is ten inches overall.


  6. James Kuhn says:

    I hadn’t really given much thought to how I hold the Gouge, either. Primarily because my hands are all over the tool when I’m using it and rarely do I use one ‘grip’ very long. I do notice I steer with one hand down by the shank of the tool and the other gripping the handle. IMHO, the Hans Karlsson handles are very comfortable and well thought out. Plenty of purchase and shaped for proper leverage. Although, some might find them too large?


  7. Emil says:

    Hi Dave,

    I have a coupon from woodcraft. I want to get a v gouge. The have Pheil brand gouges you know.

    Could you recommend a handy spec that you like to use a lo please?




  8. Emil says:

    Do you ever use a dog leg gouge Dave?


  9. Dave Fisher says:

    I don’t have any of the Hans Karlsson dog leg gouges, but I have tried them. They are nice for cleaning up the central area of the hollow of some bowls. I use spoon-bent gouges instead and find they let me reach into the same deep recesses. But they must be sharpened properly to work well.


    • Emil says:

      What is a spoon-bent gouge? Is there a size of straight gouge that you seem to use regularly?


      • Emil says:

        Or more specifically. Would a straight 113 be of any use with the bowls?


      • Dave Fisher says:

        For paring the hollow, I use bent gouges, sometimes called long-bent gouges. A spoon-bent gouge is more abruptly bent near the business end of the tool. As far as sweep, a steeper sweep will work with a wider variety of bowls, but will leave a stronger texture than a shallow sweep — just a matter of preference.


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