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Notes From the 'Net
By Mike Bloomquist, with Doug Evans and Loren Woodard
Email Mike at m.bloomquistATverizonDOTnet or visit his web, Wooden Dreams Woodcarving


We start this issue off with a blast from the past, sorta.  The topic is ages old, but the thread is only a year and a half old gem that that I'm been saving.  After that?  Well, you'll have to read for yourself.

Burnishing Wood

...Not sure where the message is that Ivan refers to here, but it starts a very interesting conversation on burnishing.  A little background... burnishing is a wood finishing technique where the wood is rubbed with smooth piece of harder wood or a polished piece of harder material and a lot of pressure.  It leaves behind a very hard glossy finish as a result of crushing the surface of the wood. Ivan begins the thread questioning the longevity of the effect.

Hi Joe,
Your point on burnishing is well taken.  I don't do any burnishing either. You recall my quoting Eduardo that the carving has to last "500 years."  In time the compressed fibers will revert to their original shape, spoiling that sharp edge you worked so hard to create.  The edges and surfaces that retain their shape best through the years are those that are cut with a sharp tool.  The fibers are cut off clean rather than compressed.  Even smoothly sanded areas lose their sparkle before the tool cut surfaces do, because the tool cut surfaces don't have imbedded grit.

Most carvers don't have to worry about these details, but for someone who puts their work up "to last 500 years," these "picky" details are important.

Ivan Whillock Studio
122 NE 1st Avenue
Faribault, MN  55021
Visit my website at

First up with a reply was Glenda.

 To you both, I have to agree with you - I had tried that,  didn't know what it was called at the time but to me it was a waste of time and also when  I applied water, the fibers stood right back up, so lesson learned.
Glenda Allen
You're Welcome to visit some of my art at:

Arnie related some experience he had with burnishing.

I haven't seen such a product but could you use some type of smooth, stainless steel ball, cylinder, or other in a rotary tool to burnish.  If you lightly brushed the carving with a oil like tung oil and then burnished the area, wouldn't it stay longer?  I bet someone would have a good product if they could  produce power burnishers and a liquid that you could brush onto the carving that would make the burnishing permanent.

Arnie Webster

Loyd offered some readily available ways to burnish.

I haven't seen any reference to burnishing wood using just the handle of a chisel or other smooth hard wood. that is an old trick and simple.

Lloyd Smith
Dundas, Ontario, Canada

Bill offered more first hand experience, more techniques and defends it for the ages.

Hi all:

I'll jump in on the "burnishing" discussion and offer a few comments.

First, I often use burnishing in my carvings, especially on facial  areas, hands and the like. It is useful for producing a hard-shiny surface on antlers, hooves, finger nails, and hundreds of other surfaces, including raise lettering.  The results are more than satisfying.

I use a piece of hardwood - maple in preferred. I've also used  discarded drum sticks of late. They come to me free, and can be  shaped on a belt sander to fit most any purpose.

About Ivan's comment that a person should carve for 500 year s... I  greatly respect him as a carver and artist, but it seems to me that  any carving that reaches 500 years will face much greater challenges from air, light, dirt, insects, humidity, oxidation, handling and  misapplied finishes than any burnishing that was originally applied to its surfaces.

Burnishing will serve its purpose as a valid technique for texturing wood long after my great grandkids (God willing) are gone, and anyone who happens upon one of my carvings will be less concerned about the surface burnishing than they will be about the fact that the carving survived that long in the first place.

So my suggestion is "go ahead and burnish". But use hardwood like maple to do this, instead of using a metal burnisher.

List Owner

My books are for sale at: http://wwwoodcarver.com/Books/Books.html
W.F. Judt,
46 Harvard Cres,
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan,
PH: 306-373-6649
Email: bjudt@sasktel.net
Website: http://www.wwwoodcarver.com

Sheri came out of lurk mode briefly (you should do it more often Sheri).

My 2 cents...I was very pleased when I discovered burnishing.  Particularly since I carve birds for the most part.  Great for beaks/bills. Seal with non-water bearing sealer or seal and burnish.  The resulting gleam sets it apart from the remainder, providing a contrast in surface look. Good for metal, other hard surfaced objects carved.

I suspect if I did fine portrait carving, I would like it for face detail, particularly if I used carved eyes rather than glass.

Sheri Lew
Littleton CO

..........back to lurk mode..........

Then Ivan replied to Bill's earlier message.

Hi Bill,

Of course you know the "500 years" quote I cited  is a metaphor Eduardo used to make the point that a responsible artist thinks not just of the present but how a work will endure.  One cannot control all of the many variables that might take place, natural or unnatural - in even less than 500 years - but it behooves us to take the best possible course on those factors that we CAN control.

We know the nature of the material, that certain effects that seem fine now will reverse themselves in time.  If we know how to prevent that reversal, why not do it?  We try to use glues that will last, finishes that will endure, and carving techniques that won't put our work in jeopardy.

Recall, I didn't say YOU shouldn't burnish.  I said I don't and explained why.  I think that is useful information for those who are deciding whether it is appropriate for their work or not.

To quote myself, "Most carvers don't have to worry about these details, but for someone who puts their work up "to last 500 years," these picky details are important." Arrogant, isn't it, for someone to aspire to create carvings that will last 500 years : )!

Then, again, maybe it would be better if the work did crumble!  Look at all the attention Leonardo's failed fresco experiment has gotten!

Ivan Whillock Studio

..And Bill gently gets the last word.


Would that your carvings and mine both received as much attention as they deteriorate over time <grin>


Gouges... species, sub-species, how to identify them in the wild, and how to use them...

Not a complete course here, but a couple good book references and descriptions of some unusual ones.  Charlie Briggs starts it of with several questions, and a wealth of information follows.

Hey Guys & Gals of the list,
I have a question in regards to using gouges that I am sure you can help me with. Over the years I have noticed that there is very little written about how to use gouges, there is plenty of info on how to sharpen them but not so much on when to use what gouge.  If the answer would be so long winded and you tell me to buy a book, that's OK please  just tell what book to buy.
*Is the answer as simple as using the flattest gouge that will work for you at that time?
* Someone once told me that gouges are designed to cut across the grain, when I try that the wood usually splinters and chips.
* Some gouges have a different angle or bevel at the cutting edge, what is the reason for that? Does it have something to do with the hardness of wood you are trying to carve that determines which angle you should use?
*I have a few gouges that I inherited that have the bevel on the opposite side of the gouge, it is like the cutting edge is reversed. How and when would they be used?
Thanks in advance for your help.

Vickie responds first with a good book reference.

Look for a book by Richard Butz. Name of book: "How to Carve Wood". 
Good Book!!! best of luck. You need answers, this book has them.

(There are two beginner's woodcarving books by Rick Butz. 
"How to Carve Wood" is published  by Tauton Press.  -Mike B.->)

Some fabulous answers from Maura wrapped up with an unnecessary disclaimer.

Wow Charlie.  
... just tell what book to buy.  I recommend Elements of Woodcarving by Chris Pye and Essential Woodcarving Technique by Dick Onians and it certainly wouldn't hurt you to read anything by E.J. Tangerman
*Is the answer as simple as using the flattest gouge that will work for you at that time?  Depends on what you are carving.  If you are carving out a flat surface, perhaps but if you are carving a rounded section of something, you would want to use the gouge that is the closest shape and size.  If you are removing waste, larger, more rounded gouges remove more wood quickly.  Sometimes gouges are used to texture, smaller for small detail.
* Someone once told me that gouges are designed to cut across the grain, when I try that the wood usually splinters and chips.   Gouges pretty much work the same as chisels, any time you go into the grain, the edge will ride into and chip out along the grain.  You can carve with the grain and right up to about a ninety degree line across the grain.  Edge needs to be very sharp.  To get the other 2 directions, you need to turn the piece (or you) around or learn to become ambidextrous. (Editor's note - Ambidextrous is way better.)
* Some gouges have a different angle or bevel at the cutting edge, what is the reason for that?  You need to account for both the hardness of the steel and the hardness of the wood.  Smaller bevels (approx.15-20 degrees) will give a more delicate tip and works well in softer woods but will dull faster in harder woods.  If doing mallet work or working in harder woods, you want to increase the angle of the bevel (approx 20-25) to give more strength and durability to the edge of the tool.
*I have a few gouges that I inherited that have the bevel on the opposite side of the gouge, it is like the cutting edge is reversed. How and when would they be used?  These are back bent gouges, and meant mainly for getting up and into hard-to-reach areas on high relief and in the rounds.  (They) can get where other tools can't . . . very useful for the graceful lines of acanthus when backed into a corner.

The things I said are only my opinion and the things that immediately come to mind.  There is lots to learn about gouges, chisels and their applications and modifications.  Read up a bit if you must have someone tell you how to use your tools but the best teachers are practice and experience.  Some people do entire carvings using only a pocket knife, some people whittle away with only one chisel or gouge, others have complete lines of carving tools and use their tools for task-specific purposes.  Chisels and gouges are inanimate objects, they don't really do much of anything, it is what you do with the tool that either makes it dance or stumble.
Maura carvin' in nyc

Peter Watson chimed in on one of the questions.

Someone once told me that gouges are designed to cut across the grain, when I try that the wood usually splinters and chips. 

The first thing to remember is that the reason the gouges are curved is so the corners are out of the wood this way it won't split. For the same reason the deeper gouges take of more wood because you can and still keep the corners out.
It was only after they made them curved for this reason that they discovered the use of the curve for shaping.

There's another little snippet to add to the information you are going to get.:-))


Woodcarvings and Wildlife Sculptures

Woodbutcher Jan suggested a solution to difficult cross grain cuts (In addition to a sharp tool).

For across grain carving I use skew chisels which are on an angle.  Works great for me Charley
Woodbutcher Jan

Lloyd Smith addressed the same issue.

I think that your gouges are not sharpened properly; it sounds as if you have a fingernail shape (edges swept back -Mike B.->). this will cause splintering. It is ok for turning but not for carving. The edges should cut before the centre of the gouge (edges swept forward).

OK, I may have been wrong... between Maura and Ivan, we may have a complete course.  Read on....

There are many types of gouges.  Some are designed for one-hand carving--palm handled tools, for example.  Others are designed for two-hand carving and mallet work.  Those you can identify by the fact that they have a shoulder that keeps the tool from being driven into the handle when it is malleted.
(You may even have some gouges that were intended for shop work--carpenter's chisels, or even turning tools.  Some of these might well have incurve sharpening.  These are not all that useful for carving.)
In the aggregate the tools are called chisels.  A gouge is a chisel that has a curve from corner to corner which is called the sweep.  The sweeps vary from almost flat (usually stamped with a #3) to U shaped (usually stamped with a #11).  The higher the number, 3-11, the deeper the sweep.  (A flat chisel is usually stamped with a #1, a skew or corner chisel with a #2.)
In general, you use the tool that will keep the corners clear of the wood.  If you are leveling a background, for example, you might use a #3 gouge, because that has just enough sweep to keep the corners clear, but not so deep that it makes grooves.  On the other hand, with a flat chisel--a tool that has no sweep--the corners would likely dig in.  When you make a deep cut, then, you would use a deeper sweep--again, to keep the corners clear of the wood.  (Some have a rule of thumb whereby they use a tool at no more than 3/4 its depth to always keep the corners clear and to never force a cut.)
There are three basic uses of a gouge.  (1) a concave cut--with the tool "rightside up," (2) a convex cut with the tool "upside down," and (3) a plunge cut--with the blade nearly perpendicular, as when you make a plunge stop cut.  As you see, you can make a wide variety of cuts with a single gouge.  (Efficient carving generally dictates that you use as big a tool as you can for the space or the shape, to avoid pick-picking at your project, which usually results in nervous, fuzzy edges.)
If the wood is good carving wood, and the tool is sharpened to a fine edge, you can make clean cross-grain cuts.  Those are big Ifs because sharpening a carving tool is an art of its own which takes some practice to perfect.  It's worth the time an effort to learn, however.
Most carvers avoid against-the-grain cuts because in the wrong direction the grain snags the tool down into the fibers and causes tearing.  If you feel that the tool is being pulled into the wood by the grain, reverse the direction of the cut.  If the cut is not then clean, take a good look at the sharpness of the tool.
Ivan Whillock Studio
122 NE 1st Avenue
Faribault, MN  55021
Visit my website at
Visit my Picture Trail album at

Gordon suggested a second reference that's on my top five.

Hi Charlie;
Your questions are producing all sorts of answers and I hope you are setting up a file to keep anything that appears to answer your questions , especially anything that Ivan Whillock posts in reply to a carving question, you will not get any better "free" advice that is carving related.  I can't count the number of  Ivan Whillock posts I have filed away over the years, everyone a gem in itself.

I know someone suggested a book by Rick Butz , it's a good suggestion, but if you really want all your questions answered about woodcarving gouges /chisels etc  and something you will continue to use in the future as a reference fun years to come, do yourself a favour and buy Chris Pye's two volume set second edition called, Woodcarving, Tools, Materials and Equipment, it is the woodcarvers bible on gouges and chisels .  Pye's book came out as a single volume originally and some copies are still available , so if you find one of these that is available buying it would still be a good investment.

Gordon Paterson
Dowlling, Ont.Can.

(I have a copy of the original, single volume issue.  Even so, the added material  was very much worth buying the more expensive two volume edition so now I have both.  -Mike B.->)

OK, Gang, you now have the last of the gems from my archives.  Time to ask new questions out there.  Till next time, keep them edges keen, the chips piled high, and don't let the warm Spring weather and outdoor chores keep you too long from the woodcarvin'.

Keep on Carvin'
-Mike Bloomquist->

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