American Woodworker

Important Information >>


How to Make Small Carving Tools


How to Make Small Carving Tools

By Mike Burton

I learned to make small carving tools out of necessity. I do intricate, detailed carvings, and the selection of small carving tools in catalogs is painfully limited. Solution? I started making my own. Not only can I make unusual sizes and shapes, but the handles are shaped to fit my hands. Plus, these tools are very inexpensive. Give them a try—there’s nothing like the feeling of using a tool that you have made yourself.


Supplies and Equipment

The raw material of these carving tools is drill rod, a tool steel available in various diameters. You can buy it from local machine shops or industrial suppliers for about $2.50 for an 18-in. length.

You’ll also need a metalworking vise, but it doesn’t have to be fancy. Be sure it has a flat “anvil” area for flattening the rod. My vise cost $15.

For heating the rod, use a MAPP gas torch ($35 at home centers). This is just like a propane torch except it’s designed for MAPP gas, which burns hotter than propane. You can’t use MAPP gas in a common propane torch.

A selection of files, small grinding stones and a small diamond hone will be needed for shaping the tools.


Working Safely

The flame from a MAPP torch is even more dangerous than the flame from a propane torch, so follow these safe work habits.

■ Prepare a safe work area. Remove sawdust, rags, finishes, wood scraps and any other flammables from your work area.

■ Keep the lights down low. This makes it easier to see the flame, and easier to judge the color of the heated rod.

■ Avoid tip-overs. The torch is top-heavy, and easy to tip over. I found an old, widemouth coffee pot that the cylinder of my torch fits into. When I’m not using it, the torch rests steady in the pot. You can rig up something similar.

■ Wear safety glasses. Tiny pieces of hot steel and scale can be dislodged at just about any stage in this project. Always wear your glasses.

■ Manage the heat. Whenever possible, work on long (18-in. or so) pieces of rod. Cut the finished tool off the end. If you need to heat a short piece, grip it with locking pliers. Don’t try to use drill rod thicker than 3/16 in.; MAPP gas won’t be able to get it hot enough.


The Basic V-Tool

The simplest small tools are filed directly into the drill rod, without any forging. This small V-tool is a good example.

Click on any image to view a larger version.

1. Form a v-shape with a triangular file on the end of an 18-in. piece of 5/32-in. drill rod. Bending the tip of the rod will give you room to work.

3. Form the cutting edge with a file and diamond hone, then straighten the shank. If this is the only tool you’re making, proceed to heat-treating (Photos 10 and 11) and attaching a handle (Photo 12).

2. Refine the inside with a diamond hone ($10). You may need to file down the plastic sides of the hone so it will fit in the tiny V.


Gouges, Chisels, and Skews

Very small gouges, chisels and skews can be filed directly from drill rod, just like the V-tool, using a small rat-tail or flat file. Refine the inside with a rolled-up piece of 320- to 600-grit sandpaper or a diamond hone. Larger tools need to be forged, as shown below.

4. Flatten the tip of the drill rod for larger tools. Heat the tip to a bright red glow with a MAPP torch, quickly place it on the anvil section of the vise, and hammer it flat.

5. For wider tips, first thicken the end of the drill rod by heating it to bright red and pounding the end to “upset” (compress) it. You can make the rod half-again thicker this way. After upsetting, heat the tip again and flatten it.

6. Make a crease to further widen the tip by hammering it against the edge of the vise. For more width, make several creases in a fan pattern. Heat the rod again, and hammer out the creases.

7. Use a swage to hammer the heated rod into a gouge shape. The swage is made from a length of 3/16-in. drill rod and a large bolt. The rod fits on a groove filed into the head of the bolt with a 1/4-in. rat-tail file. Sandwich the red-hot tool blank between the rod and the groove; then hammer.

8. Use a socket as an anvil to open up or form gouge shapes. Different socket sizes can be used for gouges of different shapes. This is also a good method for making curved detailing knives.

9. Grind the inside to refine the shape of a gouge using a cone-shaped grinding wheel in an electric drill or rotary tool. Roughly form the bevel, but don’t sharpen yet. The tool must first be heat-treated.

10. Slow cooling on an electric burner (annealing) will reduce stresses built up in the metal during forging. Heat the first 1/2 in. of the tool tip bright red, keep it red for 30 seconds, then place between the coils of a burner set on high. Every 10 minutes, lower the heat until the tool is cool.

12. Attach the handle last Heat the handle end of the tool and hammer the last 1/2 inch or so square to prevent twisting. Drill a hole in the handle, add a bit of carpenter’s glue and pound the handle onto the tool. For bent tools, hold the shank with locking pliers and pound on the pliers. Give the bevel a final grind, sharpen, and you’re ready to carve.

11. Tempering produces a hard, durable edge. Heat the tool tip to a bright glow for 30 seconds, then plunge into cold water. Polish the end of the tool to a mirror shine with fine sandpaper or emory cloth. Heat the tool slowly, keeping the flame about an inch below the cutting edge. When the edge turns a medium straw color, plunge it into cold water. (You may want to practice this!)

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker April 1999, issue #72.

April 1999, issue #72

Purchase this back issue.