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  gouge.  I think the best answer might be, “a sharp one,” but sharpness aside, I do have a general recommendation. For roughing, especially with a mallet, I recommend a steeper sweep, something like  a #7 or #8 30mm wide (or so) bent gouge.  You can also do the final surface with that, but the texture will be more pronounced.  As you add to your tool kit, it is nice to have a shallower sweep, like  a #4 or #5 bent gouge, 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 brand options.  In the Hans Karlsson gouge selection, I would go with the #90 sweep 35 or 40mm wide bent gouge or the #55 sweep 30mm wide bent gouge.  The #90 sweep will be more useful for large dough-bowl styles, while the #55 sweep will be a bit more versatile and able to cut in tighter arcs like undercut handles and such.

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 diameter circle, regardless of that tool’s width.  That is not true in the traditional system, in which, for example, #5 gouges of various widths will be arcs of different diameter circles (i.e. In the traditional system, 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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27 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.


  10. Amber says:

    Hi Dave,

    My husband has just started getting into wood carving. He has made some utensils and is now interested in carving some bowls (small condiment-sized and salad dinner bowls). For Christmas I would like to by him one or two long-bent gouges to get started. Most tool recommendations for bowl carving that I have found online seem to be for much larger bowls (e.g. 30-40mm gouges often seem to be suggested as one of the first tools to get). For bowls with a diameter around 4 to 7 inches, what width would you recommend?

    If it’s helpful to know, his only tools right now are a carving knife and spoon knife by Svante Djärv. He would like to get a hatchet and an adez, but I think he knows exactly what he wants in that department, so it’s probably best I not guess :). I will likely go with the brand Pfeil.

    I would also love to have advice on sweep. If I understand correctly, the steeper the sweep the more versatile the tool becomes, i.e. can be used on a variety of sized bowls, but the more pronounced texture. Versatility, I am guessing is the most desirable feature given his limited tool set.

    I really appreciate any advice you can offer me. And I thank you for all the direction your blog and your responses to other’s comments have provided me.



    • Dave Fisher says:

      Hi Amber,
      You’ve really done your homework, and your understanding is right on. For bowls like those you mentioned, I would recommend the following two bent gouges: #8 sweep 18mm, and #5 sweep 16mm. Those sizes are in Pfeil’s range. The #8 can be used for roughing out as well as for leaving a pronounced texture, while the #5 can refine the surface, leaving a more subtle texture if he so chooses.


  11. Amber says:

    Thank you SO much, Dave!! This is incredibly helpful!! Your generosity is much appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Kevin says:

    Hi David. I am posting a second time because I forgot to check the box to be notified of replies via e-mail, but I cannot delete the first post. Sorry for the confusion and double post. I hope you will reply to this one so I receive the alert. Thanks!

    I have made many spoons and only a few bowls but it seems like my interests are progressing in that direction. I recently made two bowls that turned out nice enough that I “have the bug.” I am purchasing the HK 55-30 as, according to Maine Coast Craft, it is the closest to the HK Pairing gouge you use and recommend. I’ve read a few of your blog entries on tools and I am trying to buy (as close as I can get) to “one gouge to do everything.” I have two discount adzes that “get the job done” and also two straight gouges that are medium range. I’ve used these tools and they seem weakest at leaving a consistent surface that is both an even curve and also free of divits and knicks. I tend to use my spoon knives to cleanup any tear out in the bottom most part of the bowl. I am hoping that the pairing gouge can clean up any problems left by my other less than ideal tools. This is the first truly premium hand tool I have bought (I usually cleanup second hand tools or make cheaper tools work) and I want to make sure I’m getting the right thing, and also wanted to ask if there is any setup involved with the HK tool. I’m also *pretty good* at sharpening my straight gouges and spoon knives but am wondering if there is anything different about this one. Am I good to try and just keep the same profile it comes with over time? Thanks so much, my goal is to “get a feel” for how the tool is supposed to work when it is brand new and setup right, and then try and keep that sense memory and keep the tool in that same shape. Thanks again. -KH


  13. Dave Fisher says:

    Really what makes a gouge a “paring gouge” is that you are pushing it rather than propelling it forward by blows from a mallet. So any gouge can become a paring gouge. Typically, you can do either with the same gouge. I hit my standard Pfeil (for example) gouges with mallets and I pare with them. The handles of the HK paring gouges are more designed specifically for pushing rather than mallet use. The important thing for the use you describe is to get a BENT gouge, regardless of maker, so that it will be able to better follow the contour of the hollow. So, if you’re going with HK, just make sure its a BENT gouge as opposed to a STRAIGHT gouge.

    I understand what you mean regarding your desire to have the tool come set up with proper geometry and a good edge. Many of the premium makers will come with a decent edge, but often with dubbing near the edge. See this post about that https://davidffisherblog.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/whats-wrong-with-this-edge/ HK will come with no dubbing and ready to roll. That’s not to say that it may not be better to adjust the bevel depending on what work you are doing, but in general, the tool will be ready to use and maintain as-is. The same is often true with other premium blacksmith-made tools.

    I hope that helps in your decision. Don’t hesitate to ask for further clarification.


    • Kevin says:

      This is fantastic info, and in my mind worth to extra money for the HK if it gives me that “this is how a proper tool is supposed to feel” experience. I used a Mora spoon knife for a while that I sharpened myself, and thought it was good. Then I bought a Robin Wood spoon knife and had a “holy crap” moment when I used it that was literally nore instructional than any on-line instruction I had watched to date. I’m predicting a similar experience with an HK gouge.
      I do need furthter clarification on something. MaineCoastTools uses a different numbering system than Mr. Langsner did, so I’m having some trouble making sure I’m buying the right tool. After some back and forth with them it looks like what he called the HK-112, they call the 90-35 bent paring gouge. Do you think this is the same gouge you recommend, and will be a good general use gouge for me to leave good surfaces on the inside of the bowl and on the concave (undercut) parts of the bottom of the bowls?
      Thank you also for encouraging me to seek further clarification. It is inportant to me that I am not abusing your generosity with your time, or being a pest! Getting your permssion to ask further questions means I don’t have to stress about that!


  14. Dave Fisher says:

    Thanks for pointing out the outdated numbering system, Kevin. I’ve updated the post to reflect the clear system used by HK that is also mirrored at The Maine Coast Craft School’s site.

    Depending on the size and design of the bowl, the 90 sweep may prove a little too shallow for the undercut portions under some handles and such. However, it will leave a more subtle, less textured surface on broader, shallowly curved areas like the interior of most bowls. The 55 sweep is steeper, and can therefore get into more areas without the corners digging in, but it will leave a more bold texture on many areas. It seems to me that the 55-30 will be the best choice for you in terms of versatility. I love mine. Just make sure it is the BENT paring gouge version, in this case.

    You’re very welcome. Best wishes for your carving!


  15. Late to the conversation, but I found the same to be true. Chris Pye demonstrates how he “commissions” all his tools to reshape the bevels to a lower angle that is is better suited for carving. Maybe not an issue with Karlsson’s gouges (I haven’t used any), but most come from the factory with an outside bevel that is at too steep an angle. I just got a new Pfeil 35MM #7 short bent and I took some time to reshape the bevel at a lower angle. It is also slightly rounded below the bevel to follow the curve of the shaft. It works wonderfully now for bowls.

    Let me add my deep appreciation to Dave Fisher for so generously and thoroughly sharing his craft with others.


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