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.
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.