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Homemade cutting tools

Woodturning needs cutting tools. A full kit runs into quite a lot of money. But in past times woodturners managed with far more basic equipment. They made their own tools, or went to the local blacksmith.

Some turners still make their own. They do it to save money, because they need a special purpose tool that cannot be bought, or just because they enjoy the tool making as much as they do the turning. 

I enjoy toolmaking, though I have to admit I might not be paying enough attention to the look of the finished results. I hesitated before posting photos on this page. I fear that none of my homemade tools are likely to win a prize in a beauty contest. But they all work, and among the tools I use quite frequently, about half are either homemade or modified in some way.

Homemade cutting tools perhaps fall into three main groups:
  1. gouges
  2. scrapers and chisels (flat tools)
  3. tipped tools

Gouges and flat tools can be made from high carbon steel. This is now rarely used for commercial turning tools, apart from cheap starter sets, having been replaced with high speed steel. Tipped tools are usually scrapers, the tips being HSS or tungsten carbide.

High carbon steel used to be known as tool steel, and once was the only choice. Carbon steel tools can take a great cutting edge, and do anything that more modern tools can do. But they are less resistant to abrasive wood and lose their temper easily with heat. So they need frequent sharpening and care when grinding, and lathe speeds should not be too high. 

Carbon steel ranges from tough and strong to very hard and brittle, depending on its heat treatment.

Toolmaking needs some basic metal working equipment, such as a file, a hacksaw, a few threading taps, a grinder and a bench drill. Simple forging needs a makeshift anvil, vice, pliers and a hammer, with a heat source. See hardening and tempering steel for details.  

Carbon steel is still widely used for other purposes and can be bought, for example as silver steel, or found as scrap. Cutting tools can be made from old files, springs, motor parts and all sorts of other scrap. I have used the tines of a garden fork, the rings of ball races and screwdrivers and chisels.

Files are made of carbon steel and it used to be common practice to make them into very effective scrapers and chisels, but there is a problem. The grooves between the teeth of the file can start cracks in the steel. Though I have not known it to happen myself, this could lead to the blade breaking under stress, which would be dangerous. If you choose to convert files, you should use only thick, heavy, fine-toothed ones, grind away all the teeth and grooves, check carefully for any visible cracks, and thoroughly anneal the blade, re-hardening and tempering just the tip. A scraper made like this is unlikely to break in use, but you should not put it under severe stress, for example from heavy cutting while reaching over the tool rest, a bad dig-in, or intermittent cutting on an uneven blank. This problem can affect any steel that is corroded or grooved like a file and it is safer to buy commercial scrapers for woodturning, or use only sound, bright and thick steel if you want to make tools for heavy work (or think they might get used in this way at some future date). 

HSS cutting bits can be used to make gouges and all sorts of scraping tools, fitted into a holder that is usually made of mild steel or unhardened carbon steel. Some are long enough to fit into a wooden handle.

Tungsten carbide tips are becoming more widely used in woodturning. Not all grades of carbide are suitable however. Most tips available are intended for metal turning and cannot be made sharp enough for woodturning. The correct tips can be used to make scrapers that perform very well.

These at first sight may seem difficult to make. But there are several ways to make the flute of a gouge:

  • The flute can be forged. It needs some skill to get an even flute, and more equipment, such as swages to form the shape. Good fun to do if you have the space and inclination.
  • The flute can be ground. A small gouge can be made by grinding or filing a flat on a carbon steel rod (such as a heavy screwdriver), then using the edge of a small grinding disc to form a groove. The flute does not have to be full length - 15-20 mm long will function perfectly well. This method can be used with high speed steel or hardened carbon steel.
  • It can be drilled. Use a twist bit to drill down in the end of a carbon steel rod, making a hole at least 20 mm deep. Then just file or grind away half the hole, leaving a groove. This is the easiest method and gives an even flute. The internal surface will benefit from light grinding or polishing to reduce the minor scratches left by the drill. Even better is to drill very slightly under size then use a reamer to clean up the hole. The rod must be annealed before drilling then hardened and tempered later.

Two views of a little spindle gouge with a drilled flute of about 2.5 mm

These are very simple to make. All sorts of scrap can be used. A carbon steel bar just has to be ground to shape, hardened and tempered correctly, and fitted with a handle. Long and thick HSS bits can be fitted directly into a wooden handle and make excellent scrapers.

Chisels can be made in the same way.

A 45mm square chisel made from a vehicle leaf spring

A hollowing tool made by forging a tine from a garden fork

Tipped tools
These tools are also very easy to make. You just have to fit a wooden handle to a steel bar of suitable size, then adapt the bar to take the cutting bit, usually of high speed steel, but tungsten carbide can be used. The bar can easily be hot forged into a curve to make hollowing tools.

HSS bits can be bought from Ebay. All that is necessary is to drill a hole in the end of the steel bar with one or more tapped cross holes for grub screws that will hold the HSS securely in place.

Tungsten carbide cutting bits are usually fitted on top of the steel bar with a single locking screw through the bit into a tapped hole in the bar.

Two carbide tipped scrapers. The one in front is made from a solid carbide burr, shaped with a diamond point in a Dremel tool.

This is a tool like a woodturners' point tool, with three flats ground on a round bar, in this case of high speed steel. It is used for turning mild steel freehand. See metal turning for details. Gravers can also be made from square bar by grinding a single flat from one corner to the one diagonally opposite, at an angle, giving two cutting edges.

Please pay attention to safety, both in the making and use of tools. There can be risks if you exceed their safe limits. Don't use homemade tools if you are an inexperienced turner because you may not recognise these limits. If you can't rely on your own judgement, don't try it! 
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