Turning Archive 2004

Retro Lathe Tools *LINK*

Bob Smalser, Seabeck, WA

I don’t consider myself any great shakes as a turner, but I’ve used lathes occasionally.

Back in the late ‘50’s - early ‘60’s when I was the principle sweeper, plank holder, sharpener and gofer in my uncle’s boat yard, he had a graceful old Victorian wood lathe among his line shaft machines converted to electricity. I don’t remember the make, only that it didn’t get much use except for making a few tool handles and the occasional fancy thwart or folding table post…. and I was drawn to it, probably because it was the quietest machine inside the shed. I eventually succeeded in him showing me how to use it one rainy day, and I remember him having me hand hone his ancient lathe tools as the first step. Those tools were all dark-patina’d carbon steel, and I remember how smooth they cut when freshly honed.

During the following 30 years, I worked off and on in several large commercial shops with larger modern lathes and modern HSS tools…mostly Sorby. Most of the work was spindle turning paper-split half and quarter-round moldings for Colonial and Victorian furniture reproductions, and what I remember mostly was sanding. I don’t like sanding, or grinding tools for that matter, and I didn’t remember doing a lot of either with Uncle Paul’s old lathe.

So fast forward another decade, and I have my own newly-acquired lathe and the HSS tools that came with it….and I was back to sanding and grinding again. So why not try a few shop-made carbon tools, says I? The old chisels of Uncle Paul’s childhood are plentiful at the tool auctions and are dirt cheap to boot. So I convert a few using the traditional methods I was taught 40 years ago at the link below and try them:


The big inch-and-a-half roughing gouge ground to a 45-degree bevel easily fills its cannel with long, thick shavings.

The parting tool makes clean shavings in long noodles.

The flat scraper cuts so fast it buries itself in shavings….

…as do the fingernail gouges…

…and the skews take such fine whispers of wood decorating the tool rest that the starting point for finishing is now 100 or even 120 grit paper, cutting my sanding in half…

…and best of all, I’ll never have to grind these tools again, only touch them up on the fine novaculite stone occasionally as in the link above.

So seriously, why am I the only guy I know using old-fashioned carbon tools in preference to high-speed steel?

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