It’s always nice to have the right tool for the job on hand, but sometimes we might be tempted to substitute something else if we don’t. Woodturning tools can be expensive, so can you get by with using normal chisels?
Normal chisels are not recommended on a lathe because they can’t always withstand the forces generated by them. They may break or get caught, and you also risk becoming injured or knocking the wood off the lathe. Instead, you should use two-handed lathe chisels or gouges with the proper handle length.
Woodturning chisels have hardened curved blades that don’t buckle under pressure, and the long handles make it easier to grip with two hands. Read on to learn more about the proper tools to use on a lathe.
Why You Can’t Use a Normal Chisel
Standard chisels are smaller tools designed for cutting hard materials by scrapping or hammering with a mallet.
The beveled blades are much thinner compared to woodturning gouges and are mainly used for carving details and patterns. Woodturning chisels will be far more substantial than your standard chisel, made of thicker material, and they’re designed to take the forces of a lathe.
Also, the handles on regular chisels are much shorter because they’re one-handed tools, while lathes chisels and gouges have longer handles that require two hands. That way, you can use your body weight and lean in as you work on the machine.
What Chisels Can You Use On A Lathe?
Woodturning chisels work best on lathes, and a basic woodturning kit usually comes with 5-8 tools, and each one has unique characteristics. All beginners should start with these before adding any other tools to their collection.
While there are thousands of available tools for woodturning, let’s go over some of the essential tools and their uses (source).
Spindle Roughing Gouge
A roughing gouge is a large tool that is capable of shifting a lot of weight. It has a full curve with a straight grind and is mainly used for creating a rough shape, hence the common term “roughing it out.” You can use this tool to turn a square blank into a round object.
Once the basic shape is created, then you can move onto different tools to fine-tune the details.
The spindle is also known as a shallow-fluted gouge, and its function is to create details, like beads and coves. Woodturners can also use spindle gouges to shape the wood or bore holes. With practice, you can develop a “scooping” method to enlarge the hole, but try and avoid undercutting the sides.
While the functions of some woodturning tools are somewhat interchangeable, spindle gouges can catch if you were to use them like a bowl gouge, for instance.
The skew chisel is for planing wood, which leaves a beautiful finish without any sanding, and it’s also used for creating fine details. There are many different tasks a skew chisel can perform.
The skew chisel can be intimidating to newcomers at first, but once you learn how to work with it, it’ll become more manageable. The foremost thing to remember is to give it your full attention while you’re using it.
If you are using the skew for planing cuts, use the middle part of the blade and avoid the corners. If the corner hits the moving wood, it can cause a catch, potentially damaging both the tool and the machine.
As the name implies, this tool parts the wood, meaning it produces gaps in the wood as you turn it. The parting tool can be used for various reasons. For instance, some people use it to make a spigot, or as a scraping tool.
If you are working between centers, it would be better to stop before going all the way through, and then finish the job with a saw. Remember to turn off the lathe first before using the saw.
This gouge is also known as the deep-fluted gouge. The bowl-shaped center of the gouge is deeper than the spindle and has a straight grind. In addition to using a bowl gouge for shaping bowls, you can often use them to do spindle work.
You can choose between the traditional grind or the “fingernail grind.” The fingernail grind is a bit more challenging to work with, but it’s incredibly versatile and can be used for different purposes, like roughing, detailing, or shear cutting.
For best results, turn the bowl’s exterior first before doing the interior, and use the tool rest for an even cut.
The swept-back grind is basically the same as the regular bowl gouge, but it has a different grind. It’s U-shaped, and the nose comes to a point. This way, the wings and the nose of the tool acts as cutting edges.
You can use a swept-back grind for scraping or finishing. You can grind with the wings first and then finish the details with the nose.
Your basic kit may come with a scraper. It’s a flat and broad tool mainly used to refine the surface of the wood. You can use it to make cuts towards a specific shape, or clean up surface marks left by another chisel.
If the wood is knotty, use a heavier scraper. It will be able to plow through the bumps with ease. This tool should be used with a light touch (with very little pressure).
How To Avoid Catches
Catches happen when the chisel is not able to cut the wood material. Instead, the tool grabs or rips the wood fibers. When this happens, the rotating wood will slow down or come to a complete stop. The force of the impact can cause breaks or injuries if you’re not careful.
The best way to prevent catches is to cut in line with the wood grain fibers and avoid overloading.
Here are a few situations that can lead to overloading:
- Woodturning without a tool rest support
- Diving into the wood rather than focusing on making an even cut
- Moving towards a corner with too much wood at once
Having the proper tool rest support makes a big difference. It evens the weight distribution, which reduces the risk of overloading.
Diving into the wood will apply too much pressure, and the wood will quickly overwhelm the tool. Cutting the wood evenly across the surface will prevent overloading, and the tool won’t catch so easily.
There is a plethora of wood types, but not all of them are suitable for lathes. Maple and walnut are popular choices. Soft maple is easy to turn and work with. Walnut is a harder type of wood and will require sharp tools.
You can turn cedar on a lathe, but some types may be challenging. For example, red cedar is a popular favorite because it is very soft. However, it’s also brittle and knotty in some areas, so catches may happen. And when they do, it can break the entire piece.
Lathes and lathe cutting tools tend to be expensive, so you’ll want to prevent damage to them. The manufacturing process for lathes and the materials used help contribute to the price (source).
There are many moving parts involved, which means there will be a large amount of machining and calibrations to make sure the parts work together correctly. The cast iron needed to keep the lathe stable is not cheap either.
Also, these machines have to be assembled with precision because any minor flaw will affect the rotation. And the motor has to be in tune with an excellent performance so that it can run for hours on end.
Sharpening Your Tools
Keeping your chisels sharp is essential for woodturning because sharp tools mean better results and less frustration. It also means fewer catches. To sharpen them properly, you’ll need a wet grinding stone and diamond honing paddle (source).
Each tool will need a different approach to sharpening. It’s always a good idea to review instructions on sharpening each one, especially if you’re a beginner.
The goal is to sharpen the edges to create bevel angles. This can be done by pushing the edge against the wheel or paddle and removing equal amounts from both faces. Any point on the nose should be centered at all times.
If you have difficulties sharpening your tools, you can send them to a professional, and they will do the job for the right price (source).
While it may be tempting to use normal chisels on lathes, it would be best to go with blades that are designed explicitly for woodturning. These tools are easier to work with and produce better results. You also won’t have to worry so much about damaging them.
There are six to eight basic woodturning chisels, and all of them create a wide variety of cuts. With plenty of practice, you’ll be making beautiful wood pieces in no time.