If you turn wood for long enough, it is quite likely that you will gradually tweak the standard turning tools to suit your own preferences. They can slowly evolve over time, by accident or design, for example to a different grinding angle or edge profile. If you look at tools belonging to another turner you may think that, while some would need re-shaping before you could use them yourself, others seem worth copying.
Some well-known turners have taken this a step further and put their own signature tools on the market. I’ve bought some of them and perhaps you have too.
I believe though that these tools often have little or no advantage over the traditional ones. Few of them will make you a better turner. Only practice does that. If you know what you are doing, you can do a good job with almost any tool. For example, I like a shallow fluted spindle gouge for turning small bowls (not with the normal spindle grind of course), while most people prefer a deep fluted one. You can use either. An Ellsworth bowl gouge works very well, but that doesn’t mean my gouges don’t.
Alan Lacer skews
I recently purchased a couple of Alan Lacer skew chisels and wrote about them here. They are excellent tools, well made (except for a problem with the grind described in that post), nicely finished, heavy and strong. The main difference between the Lacers and other skews, apart from their weight, is the shape of the edge. It has a straight section at 90 degrees to the side of the blade and a sharp curve down to the short point. It gives them what I think of as a ‘humped’ appearance. I wasn’t sure that I would get on with this shape, but thought that if necessary I could reshape the edge.
After a trial, I’ve decided that I don’t like the Lacer edge profile. I re-ground them to a gently curved edge as popularised by another turner, Richard Raffan, and now like them better. It’s just a personal preference. I’m not for a moment suggesting that Mr Lacer got the shape wrong or that they aren’t a good buy.
There are several types of skew chisel – straight edge, curved edge, oval cross section, rolled sides and round bar. At one time you could buy a square section skew with a diagonal edge going from corner to corner. But I think we can learn from the old time production turners from the 19th century. They had to work hard to make a living and didn’t like to waste time or money. Their tools were tried and tested over generations, and had were effective and efficient in use. Their skew chisels were straight-edged, with long bevels. This made them easy to hone. That was important because they used carbon steel, which doesn’t keep its edge as well as modern high speed steel.
They also used wide square chisels, with no skew angle. They are partly interchangeable with the skews. But the square works well for planing. It’s nice that you can just flip it over to get a fresh edge, so one sharpening lasts twice as long. The skew is better for detailing and cutting end grain.
End grain trimming
Easy end grain trimming is one of the main purposes of the skew angle. When cutting in with the long point, with the chisel placed vertically on its edge on the rest, long point down and with the bevel perpendicular to the cylinder, the skew angle keeps the edge clear of the wood and catches are less likely.
If you use a square-across grind for this cut, you have to tilt the tool to the side to keep the cutting edge clear. So the Lacer, with no skew angle at the long point, is not ideal for end grain trimming. Nor is any tool with rolled edges on both sides. Of course you can still use them for this cut. The Raffan curved edge meets the long point at a skew angle, so works well for end grain trimming.
Both the Lacer and the Raffan skews can peel cut very well. The Raffan curved edge does not leave a true cylindrical shape without a separate planing cut. Both can peel down to an existing cylinder without the short point marking the wood.
So after a while I shall probably grind the Lacers yet again. This time, to a traditional old-style straight-edged skew, with a nice long, honable bevel.