Woodturners need cutting tools. In past times, they made their own tools, or went to the local blacksmith. Most people now buy at least the basic kit ready-made. But homemade tools are still useful. Some turners still make their own tools. They do it to save money, or because they need a special purpose tool that cannot be bought. Some do it because they enjoy the tool making as much as they do the turning.
I enjoy toolmaking, though I have to admit I don’t pay enough attention to the look of the finished results. I hesitated before posting photos on this page. None of my homemade tools will win a prize in a beauty contest. But they all work, and among the tools I use quite often, about half are either homemade or modified in some way.
Homemade tools for woodturning fall into three main groups:
- scrapers and chisels (flat tools)
- tipped tools
Homemade Tools – equipment and materials
Gouges and flat tools can be made from high carbon steel. This is now rarely used for commercial turning tools, apart from cheap starter sets. High speed steel has replaced carbon steel. Tipped tools are usually scrapers, the tips being HSS or tungsten carbide.
High carbon steel was known as tool steel, and once was the only choice for making tools. Carbon steel tools can take a very good cutting edge. They can do just about anything that modern high speed steel tools can do. But they are less resistant to abrasive wood, so need frequent sharpening. And they lose their temper easily with heat. So they need more care when grinding, and lathe speeds must be lower.
Making tools needs some basic metal working equipment, such as a file, a hacksaw, a few threading taps, a grinder and a bench drill. Simple forging needs a makeshift anvil, vice, pliers and a hammer, and a source of heat such as a charcoal fire or a blowtorch. See my post on hardening and tempering steel for details.
Carbon steel, though rarely used for woodturning tools, is still widely used for other purposes. You can buy it, for example as silver steel, or find it as scrap. You can make cutting tools from old files, springs, motor parts and all sorts of other scrap. I have used the tines of a garden fork, the rings of ball races and screwdrivers and chisels.
Files are carbon steel. It was once common practice to make them into very effective scrapers and chisels, but there is a potential problem. The grooves between the teeth of the file can start cracks in the steel. Though I have not known it to happen myself, this could lead to the blade breaking under stress, which would be dangerous. If you choose to make scrapers from files, you should use only thick, heavy, fine-toothed ones. Grind away all the teeth and grooves and check carefully for any visible cracks. Then thoroughly anneal the tool, re-hardening and tempering just the tip.
A scraper made like this is unlikely to break in normal use. But you should not put it under severe stress, for example from heavy, intermittent cutting on an uneven blank. A bad dig-in could also break a weak tool. This problem can also affect corroded steel. So it is safer to buy commercial scrapers for woodturning, or use only sound, bright and thick steel if you want to make tools for heavy work (or think they might get used in this way at some future date).
You can use HSS tool bits to make gouges and all sorts of scraping tools. You just secure them in a holder that is usually made of mild steel or unhardened carbon steel. Some tool bits are long enough to fit into a wooden handle directly.
Tungsten carbide tips are becoming more widely used in woodturning. Not all grades of carbide are suitable however. Most tips available are for metal turning and cannot be made sharp enough for woodturning. But you can use tips of the proper grade of carbide to make scrapers that perform very well.
These at first sight may seem difficult to make. But there are several ways to make the flute of a gouge:
- Forge the flute. It needs some skill to get an even flute, and more equipment, such as swages to form the shape. Good fun to do if you have the facilities.
- Grind the flute. Make a small gouge by grinding or filing a flat on a carbon steel rod (such as a heavy screwdriver), then using the edge of a small grinding disc to form a groove. The flute does not have to be full length – 15-20 mm long will function perfectly well. You can use this method with high speed steel or hardened carbon steel.
- Drill the flute. Use a twist bit to drill into the end of a carbon steel rod, making a hole at least 20 mm deep. Then just file or grind away half the hole, leaving a groove. This is the easiest method and gives a uniform semi-circular flute. The internal surface will benefit from light grinding or polishing to reduce the minor scratches left by the drill. Even better is to drill very slightly under size then use a reamer to clean up the hole. You must anneal the rod before drilling, grind the bevel, then harden and temper it later. I’ve made several of these drilled gouges in various sizes, and use them often. They are all small, but larger gouges could be made this way too. Ready-made small spindle gouges are often too thin and flexible for safe use.
Two views of a little spindle gouge with a drilled flute of about 2.5 mm
These are very simple to make. All sorts of scrap are suitable. You just have to grind a carbon steel bar to shape, harden and temper it correctly, and fit it with a handle. A long and thick HSS tool bit will fit directly into a wooden handle and make an excellent scraper. You can make chisels in the same way.
A 45 mm square chisel made from a vehicle leaf spring
A hollowing tool made by forging a tine from a garden fork
This tool was hot forged, in the same way that I made this hook wrench. I hardened and tempered its tip.
Homemade tools with HSS or carbide tips
These tools are also very easy to make. You just have to adapt a steel bar of suitable size to take the cutting bit, either of high speed steel or tungsten carbide. It’s easy to hot forge the bar into a curve to make hollowing tools.
You can buy square or round HSS tool bits from Ebay. All that is necessary is to drill a hole in the end of the steel bar with one or more tapped cross holes for grub screws that will hold the HSS securely in place. More simply, you can just glue the bit into the hole. Heat will release it later if necessary.
You can silver-solder or braze flat section HSS tool bits to the top of the bar, with or without making a step for them. I used this method to make a ‘fluteless gouge’.
Tungsten carbide cutting bits usually go on top of the steel bar, with a single locking screw through the bit into a tapped hole in the bar.
Two carbide tipped scrapers. I made the one below from a solid carbide burr and shaped it with a diamond burr in a Dremel tool.
This is a tool like a woodturners’ point tool, with three flats ground on a round bar, in this case of high speed steel. You use a graver for turning mild steel freehand. See my post on turning metal in a wood lathe for details. It can of course be used for wood, too. You can make a graver from square bar by grinding a single diamond-shaped flat from one corner to the one diagonally opposite, at an angle. This gives two cutting edges.
Please pay attention to safety when using homemade tools. There can be risks if you exceed their safe limits. Don’t use homemade tools if you are an inexperienced turner because you may not recognise these limits. If you can’t rely on your own judgement, don’t try it!