Turning Archive

starting with a bowl gouge *PIC*

John K Jordan

(I wrote this over an hour ago but the power went off as I clicked "post". Sorry if this duplicates what someone posted in the interim - I didn't check.)

>>>What is a name of a good quality gouge and would a 5/8 be a good overall starting tool cant afford a whole set at this time

There are actually two things you need: a bowl gouge and a way to sharpen it.

There are many good bowl gouges available. You can spend a little or a lot and there are some differences such as flute shape and how long it will hold an edge.

Lots of turners, including myself, like the Thompson tools - well made with special 10V steel that seems to stay sharp longer. However, they are pretty expensive.

There is another issue that is important for a beginner - you have to learn to sharpen the gouge. A "fingernail" grind, or one with the sides ground back is probably the most useful for bowls for several reasons but it is difficult to learn to grind by hand. Beginners often grind away much of their first gouge just by learning to sharpen. In this case, a less expensive gouge might be better to start with, then get a better gouge later. A less expensive gouge will certainly cut wood!

Some people advise only to buy the better gouge and one with certain flute shapes but the bottom line is it doesn't really matter much - they all basically cut the same. Before the 10V and other special steels became popular, everyone used tools made from High Speed Steel (HSS). Before HSS was popular, everyone used carbon steel and still made bowls. HSS and better steels do have certain important advantages compared to carbon steel such that you can't even find new carbon steel tools now.

A very important thing about non-carbide lathe tools is you HAVE to be able to sharpen them. The old saying is "if you can't sharpen, you can't turn." There are lots of options for sharpening a bowl gouge but the one used and recommended by most people is the OneWay Wolverine system. It consists of a base you mount under a standard or 1/2 speed bench grinder and an arm with a v-pocket that fastens to the base. A flat, adjustable tool rest will also fit in the base. For spindle and bowl gouges, you also need to buy a Varigrind jig which makes it trivial to grind the complex curves of the gouge. These things are available from Amazon and lots of other places, for example:

You can also find lots of videos on the Wolverine/Varigrind if you are a video watcher.

The Wolverine system is not real cheap but are definitely a worthwhile investment that can be used the rest of your life. I have several on different grinders, some I bought used.

There are other options and you can even make a useful system for about $10.

Look for the "Cheap Sharpening System" on this page:
Here's a direct link if it works:
Josh Bowman from the Chattanooga woodturning club spearheaded this, I did some graphics and such for it. Several people have made these and they work well. You could use this for quite a while then get the commercial sharpening system later.

Another thing about buying a bowl gouge. There are decisions about the size and the flute shape. The flute shape doesn't really matter - there are subtle differences in function but all of them will cut wood and make bowls. This size is a personal preference and depends a little on the the size of bowls you turn. I personally consider a 5/8" a huge gouge perhaps more appropriate for large work. A 1/2" gouge might be more reasonable. I know professionals who prefer a 3/8" gouge for even large things and has the advantage of allowing detailed work. I consider the 3/8" gouge perfect for smaller bowls up to about 8" diameter. When beginning, you might be wise to make a bunch of 4"-8" bowls first before tackling bigger things.

One tradeoff with gouge size is the larger the gouge, the stiffer the shaft and the more you can have it overhang the tool rest. Perhaps a 1/2" would be best to start.

The gouges I use the most are all Thompson but I have other older gouges from Crown, Sorby, and others. I haven't kept up with what's available today, especially with the inexpensive gouges, but I'm sure someone else here can recommend options. I've heard some people buy inexpensive HSS sets from Harbor freight.

One more unsolicited comment: some of the best woodturners out there recommend learning spindle turning as well as bowl turning, even if you never plan on turning spindles. Spindle turning will quickly teach you the fine tool control that will let you turn anything. Some people start and stick with bowl turning and, in my opinion miss out on so much.


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