Bowl Gouge Basics – Beginner Guide (parts, use, sizes, grinds)
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Bowl Gouge Basics – Beginner Guide
Bowl gouge basics are the foundation of wood bowl turning. The bowl gouge is probably the number one most recognized wood turning tool and for a good reason.
What is a bowl gouge? A bowl gouge is a hand tool used to cut and shape wood bowls on a lathe. The bowl gouge consists of a handle connected to a sturdy metal shaft. The metal shaft has a center groove along the top portion known as a flute. The leading edge, or tip, of the bowl gouge is ground with an angled bevel which makes a sharp cutting edge that cuts wood as it rotates on a lathe.
A bowl gouge can be used to make an entire bowl without the aid of any other turning tool if needed.
It is better to have multiple bowl gouges of different sizes and different grinds to make wood bowl turning as efficient as possible.
In this article we are covering the following topics:
- Steel Used To Make Bowl Gouges
- Four Bowl Gouge Cutting Techniques
Let’s jump in and start with identifying the various parts of a bowl gouge.
Bowl Gouge Basics – The Parts
The bowl gouge is a pretty simple tool, but let’s take a closer look and identify all the parts.
At the tip of the bowl gouge is the cutting edge. The cutting edge is the entire curved area around the top edge of the gouge bevel.
Gently rubbing your finger against the cutting edge reveals how sharp it can be.
Directly under the cutting edge, on the outside, is the flat, smooth bevel surface. The bevel is used as a skid or guide when we “ride the bevel.” Keeping the bevel close to parallel to the cutting surface is the key to this technique.
At the bottom of the bevel, opposite of the top cutting edge is the heel. Most of the time the heel is not a critical component. However, if you cut a tight curve, the heel can interfere and actually burnish the wood as it rubs the surface.
To eliminate this rubbing effect of the heel, the heel area can be ground back making the bevel narrower and capable of turning tighter curved areas.
The shank or shaft of a bowl gouge is formed from steel rod that is then milled to shape and hardened.
In the center of the bowl gouge is the hollowed out concave area called the flute. This area is usually ground out of the solid steel as part of the gouge milling process.
Handles for bowl gouges are traditionally made from hardwood, but can also be made from metal or other materials.
The length of a bowl gouge handle contributes to the balance and leverage available when turning.
More massive bowl gouges, designed for removing larger amounts of material at one time, typically have longer and heavier handles which increase leverage advantage for the turner.
Most wood-handled tools usually have a ferrule or collar around the wood end where the shaft or shank connect.
A ferrule, many times made of metal, prevents the wood handle end from splitting.
The steel used to make the bowl gouge shaft or shank can be made from many different metals.
Older gouges were made of high-carbon steel and required sharpening often, which wore the tool down quickly.
Today, the most commonly used bowl gouge steel is known as High-Speed Steel or HSS. HSS is a steel alloy made from elements like molybdenum, tungsten, and chromium which can withstand high temperatures without losing its hardness as quickly as high-carbon steel.
There is another type of steel, referred to as M2 steel, which is a particular formulation of HSS designed to be even more resistant to wear, easy to grind, and long-lasting.
Recently, Cryogenic M2 steel has been introduced to bowl gouges as yet an even harder, longer lasting option.
It is believed that the cryogenic steel tempering process conditions the steel altering its properties better than all other processes.
Look along the shank of the bowl gouge or the handle for a mark or a stamp indicating what type of steel was used to make the gouge.
Bowl gouges are usually sized by the width of the flute. Some manufacturers, however, use the shaft diameter when labeling their gouge sizes.
Typically, the width of the flute is the stated size of a bowl gouge. So a bowl gouge labeled as a 3/8” gouge usually has a 3/8” wide flute and a wider 1/2” wide shaft.
When ordering bowl gouges, make sure the width of the flute and shaft are clearly defined. If this information is not clear, make sure to clarify the flute width before ordering.
For example, some manufacturers will call a gouge with a 1/2″ wide shank a “1/2″ bowl gouge,” when most others call a 1/2″ wide flute a “1/2″ bowl gouge.”
The length of the bowl gouge shank is not as much of a factor as the width of the cutting tip and flute. Narrower sized shaft gouges are typically a bit shorter than wider gouges, but not by much.
There are several different bowl gouge flute shapes. The shape of the flute is created by the shape of the milling tool used to mill out the flute area.
Some bowl gouges, especially older models are made with deep “V” shape, or a deep “U” shaped flute designs. Both of these gouge shapes are generally regarded as less desirable because they can catch or grab easily and don’t provide a smooth even cut.
The most popular bowl gouge flute shape is the parabolic or modified shorter “U” shape that leaves an even thick path of supportive metal at the base of the gouge. Another name for this gouge profile is a “super-flute.”
Most current bowl gouge designs incorporate some version of this Super-Flute design.
The bowl gouge manufacturing and design is rather simple, a handle fitted with a steel shaft which has a flute-shaped groove milled along the top edge.
It is up to us, as wood turners to shape the tip of the bowl gouge to fit our specific needs. We need to decide what “grind” to create at the tool’s business end.
The term “grind” generally means the specific profile, bevel angle and side wings present on a bowl gouge.
There are many different options available for bowl gouge grinds, here are a few of the bowl gouge basics grinds:
Remember at the beginning of this article I said you could turn an entire bowl with one bowl gouge? Well, that is very possible, but specific bowl gouge grinds offer different advantages at times.
Each bowl gouge can have a different grind and serve a different purpose. Because of this, we can order, for instance, three identical 1/2” bowl gouges and shape the tips of each different making them each good at a certain specific task or multiple tasks.
Most of the grind profiles shown above can be used for the majority of the time turning a wood bowl.
Each grind has a slightly different bevel angle, and the bevel angle ergonomically affects how you turn the bowl.
Short-winged bowl gouge grinds, like the traditional, fingernail and the 40/40 grind, are good general use gouges. These gouges also perform well with punky, loose-grained woods, like spalted pecan.
Longer-winged bowl gouges, like the Irish and Ellsworth grinds, have the added advantage of being able to make scraping and shear-scraping cuts using the cutting wings against the bowl surface.
If you haven’t started . You’re going to love the final results.
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