Selecting Turning Tools
and Sharpening

Selecting Turning Tools Overview: This article will focus on selecting tools for beginner woodturners from the vast array of alloys currently available. Specific uses and the jigs necessary to set-up and to sharpen these woodturning tools on an ordinary dry grinder will also be covered.

Selecting Tools: Quick Tips

  • Woodturning tools are basically divided between spindle tools (used to turn spindle projects like pens, table legs etc.) and bowl turning tools (used to turn bowls, platters and other faceplate type projects).
  • Numerous tool alloys are available for woodturning tools, however, two main types are commonly used by today’s woodturners when selecting turning tools – M2 High Speed Steel (HSS) and ASP 2030 and 2060 series, or what is sometimes referred to as Powder Metal technology steel.

Spindle tools are used
to turn writing pens

  • M2 HSS is the industry standard alloy, with an edge than can last approximately 5-6 times as long as traditional high carbon steel. M2 HSS can maintain its edge even if “blued” during the grinding/sharpening process. M2 HSS tools are very economical and offer excellent value.
  • ASP or Powder Metal steel is available in two main alloy configurations ASP 2030 and ASP 2060. ASP steels can hold their edge up to 4.5 times that of traditional High Speed Steel, depending on the particular alloy.
  • ASP steels offer exceptional edge life and are slightly more expensive than M2 HSS, offering extended edge life. If you’re working very abrasive timbers, or prefer longer edge life on your tools, a few ASP tools in your shop will be a welcome addition to your chisel inventory when you begin selecting turning tools.

Bowl gouges were used to turn this Honey Mesquite salad bowl

  • Spindle Gouges are measured by the diameter of the round tool shaft. Most Bowl Gouges are measured by the width of the flute, with the diameter of the shaft being approximately 1/8" larger than the width of the flute.

Selecting Turning Tools: Basic Needs for Beginner Turners

When selecting turning tools as a beginner woodturner, you need to decide what type of woodturning you want to do (spindle work, bowls, or some of each) and what size lathe you will be using. Obviously, large projects on large lathes require larger tools and you can use smaller sized tools with small and medium sized lathes. Here is a basic recommendation list to get you started, organized by the type of tool, assuming you want to do a variety of spindle and bowl projects and you’re turning on a 12" swing lathe, or less.

  • Spindle Gouges: 1/4", 3/8" and 1/2" Spindle Gouges. These will be your mainstay for spindle work, details and fine detail work. They can also be used on the outside of bowls for detail work, but not on the inside. Spindle gouges are unsuitable for bowl hollowing work.
  • Bowl Gouges: 1/2" Deep Fluted Bowl Gouge for rough-out work and bulk wood removal. A 3/8" deep fluted gouge would also be very useful for fine cuts and tight quarters work.
  • Detail Gouges: If your budget allows it, a 3/8" or 7/16" detail gouge would be useful for reaching long distances off the tool rest. Detail gouges feature a shallow flute, which adds rigidity to the shaft.
  • Parting Tools: Two main styles are useful here… A 3/16" Diamond Parting tool for general work and longer parting cuts and an ultra-thin kerf 1/16" thick tool for minimal waste in box work.
  • Scrapers: A good, thick Scraper is a great tool to use occasionally during bowl turning. The best scrapers are thick and wide with the 3/8" x 1” round/half round nose being a good overall choice.
  • Skew Chisels: If you’re doing a lot of spindle work, a Skew Chisel is a must have to produce glass smooth surfaces right off the tool. A 1" skew chisel would be a good choice.

Micro Turning Tools: If you anticipate doing lots of bowl and platter detail work, or smaller spindle type projects such as pens, small inlays, vases etc, a good micro turning tool set is necessary.

Henry Taylor Tools offers a 5 piece set that includes 1/4" and 3/16" micro spindle gouges, a 1/4" micro round nose scraper, a 5/32" micro parting tool and a 1/4" micro skew chisel. This is an excellent set, one I use every day for various types of detail work.

Henry Taylor micro
turning tools

When selecting turning tools, bear in mind that many woodturning tools have multiple applications. This means that one turning tool may, in effect, have many different uses.

Selecting Turning Tools - Sharpening on a Dry Grinder

Once you have finished selecting turning tools for your lathe, you need to learn how to properly sharpen them. You can either try to sharpen them freehand, or use a sharpening jig. For most woodturners, I recommend using a jig to sharpen their tools. Jigs allow consistent, uniform bevels and will make your woodturning experience easier and more enjoyable. Sharpening jigs are easy to learn to use and allow you to concentrate on turning wood, not learning to freehand sharpen, which can take years to master.

Basic Recommendations for Setting
up a Dry Sharpening Station

  • 8" Slow Speed Grinder (1,800 RPM), or 8" High Speed Grinder (3,600). Dry grinders have two wheels, one on the left and one on the right. A typical set-up would feature one course wheel on the left, which is used for bulk metal removal, profiling and damage repair. The right wheel would feature a fine wheel, which is used for general sharpening and touching up the edge.
  • For a typical woodturner, use a 56, or 60-grit wheel for the course side and an 80, or 100-grit wheel on the fine side.
  • Both the white Aluminium Oxide and the blue "SG" Ceramic wheels from Norton Abrasives are excellent for sharpening high speed steel woodturning tools.
  • For a sharpening jig, take a look at the Kelton Sharpening Jig, the Woodcut Tools Tru-Grind Sharpening Jig, or the Oneway Wolverine Sharpening Jig. All of these are excellent sharpening jigs that will serve you well.

Need More Help? If you are struggling with sharpening and would like see how Steve sharpens his bowl gouges on wet and dry grinders, check out the sharpening chapter in our 2 hour, 20 minute step-by-step video on bowl turning.

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Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.

Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.