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Monday 1 July 2013

Renovating a vintage second-hand (or third- or fourth- or fifth-hand!) 'Addis' woodcarving tool

'Tools contain a virile grace which is inextricably bound up in the substance of the materials. Moreover, the intrinsic appeal of the basic work or tool is often enhanced by accumulated wear from generations of use and also the patina which time has lent them. This metamorphosis is an example of a dynamic or evolving art that occurs naturally, unlike the manipulated dynamic art of the present day' 
Tony Murland

My friend Patrick recently kindly gave me an old woodcarving gouge. I just thought I'd chat a bit about it and what I did to bring it back into use. Hopefully this post may interest other woodcarvers out there as we all seem to be, to some extent, tool nuts. It may also be of interest to people who are thinking of buying second-hand carving tools for the first time.

First impressions

The gouge had been kept in a fairly damp environment and had developed some surface rusting, but the main stress points (such as where the blade meets the 'shoulder' [or 'bolster'] - the flared bit that butts up against the handle) seemed sound and unlikely to break when the gouge was used with a mallet.

The rusting inside the concave face of the blade (the 'flute' or 'mouth') was not too bad. This is important as rust pitting on the convex, outside face of a blade like this can frequently be removed when sharpening, as part of the bevel of the cutting edge. However, deep pitting on the inside, concave face would interfere with the cutting edge. This would make the gouge hard to sharpen effectively and would leave marks on cut surfaces.

I did clean off the worst of the rust on the blade by gently grinding it away and also oiled the steel to protect it from further damage. Some people like to remove the forge blackening on blades like these anyway, as the black can come off on your hands and dirty the surface of the work.

The handle of the gouge was almost certainly not the original one. 'Addis' tools from around the time that this one was made tend to have handles like the ones on the image below.

Image from
The handle on my gouge looks very much like a 'Henry Taylor' made replacement handle, which are currently available. It was fitted slightly crooked and felt a little too short for comfortable use. Better to remove it, plug the hole in it and redrill for use on a more suitable, longer bladed tool.

Time for a new handle

I had decided to rehandle my new gouge to make it more useful and because it wasn't the original one anyway. The old handle was carefully levered off using a flathead screwdriver. The new, longer handle was shaped from a piece of ash (Fraxinus excelsior) wood, using a bandsaw and sanding belt then finished with some linseed oil. Unfortunately, I don't have access to a lathe at the moment so couldn't turn one, but this handle serves very well. 

It was important to take care that the hole drilled to fit the 'tang' of the blade (the spike that goes into the handle- see below) was as close to the centre of the handle as possible, so that the blade would not be offcentre or crooked and so feel awkward in use. Fitting a new handle also gave a chance to examine the tang for straightness, rust damage and other weaknesses, which were happily not a problem with this one. I drilled the hole for the tang into the new handle with a drill bit of a suitable width, then redrilled, to just enough depth to accommodate the widening of the tang, with a wider bit. A piece of masking tape wrapped around each bit served as a marker to make sure that the drill bits went in to the correct depth and no more.

Old Woodcarving Tools

How old is the gouge that I was given? According to Gary Laroff's very interesting essay on the history and markings of Addis tools (which can be seen here: it was probably made by J.B. Addis and sons in Sheffield in the early 1900's, during a period up until around World War Two.

It is amazing how old some of the carving tools that one finds (and uses) are! An Addis gouge recently seen in a local tool shop (on sale for about normal price) was made between 1852 and 1864. Many of my own carving tools were made around 1890.
Unfortunately, very old and much-loved tools will eventually be sharpened back past the tempered steel of the cutting edge, to where the steel is softer and unable to hold an edge in use. The blade can be carefully retempered, but the handle and/or the blade may be too short for comfortable use by then and the tool may be of more worth as a curio than as a working carving gouge.

The steel of very old tools can also become a bit brittle over time. Having said that, woodcarving chisels and gouges by makers such as Addis, Herring Bros. and Ward and Payne are frequently the best that you could hope to find. If that sounds like a bit of misplaced woodcarving patriotism, a fellow woodcarver called Jo Seitfudem, who comes from a Bavarian woodcarving family, recently told me that he feels the same way. The knowledge of steel working and tool making in London and Sheffield back then seems to have been much greater than today.

I recently learned (from Charles at Bristol Design) that the techniques of tempering the steel were very different for older tools. In metal blade manufacture using hot processes (i.e not shaping the steel when it is cold by, for example, filing it to shape) the hot steel is plunged, when at a certain temperature, into a liquid (such as water or oil) to quench it. This helps to give it certain properties, for example a particular hardness suitable for the job it is intended to do, as well as relieving stresses set up in the metal during the shaping process. In old methods of tool manufacture, arsenic salts were used in different concentrations in the quenching bath to accurately cool the metal to a particular point. By going along a line of varying concentrations, the steel could be very accurately cooled and tempered at the desired rate. Unfortunately, arsenic is also very toxic and was very poisonous for the skilled manufacturers using it. Nowadays, accurate thermostats mean that such dangerous techniques no longer need to be used.

Yep, sometimes it's a good thing that they don't make 'em like they used to!

To regrind or not to regrind?

I also needed to decide whether to re-grind the cutting edge of the blade to make it square across. Some folks love to have the corners of the cutting edge swept back into a curve, so that the blade slices through the wood grain. Some prefer to have cutting edges at roughly right angles to the centre line of the blade.
I decided to keep the rounded , 'bullnosed' cutting edge as this sweep (curvature across the width) of blade is very useful in lettercutting and for carving eyes, both of which purposes would find use for a bullnosed gouge. Before reshaping a second-hand blade with no obvious damage done to it, I like to think why the previous owner would have kept the edge of the blade the shape that they did. Perhaps they had a good reason?

Here's how the renovated gouge looks:

You may have noticed that the ferrule (the brass cylinder that goes around the handle at the end nearest to the blade) wasn't replaced on the new handle. Well, to be honest it didn't seem necessary and could be a bit of a hassle to fit when the handle was not lathe-turned. 
The shoulder of the gouge blade is big and well-made and should be enough to stop the spike of the tang being driven into the handle by use and so causing it to split. If the gouge was likely to have more aggressive use then fitting a ferrule could be useful but this one is probably to be used more gently anyway.

And the final test?
It cuts really well on my current project and is comfortable to use. I'm very happy with it. Thanks very much to Patrick and I hope that you have enjoyed this look at bringing a vintage woodcarving gouge back into use. If you did, then you may also be interested in this post, about the names marked on many old carving tool handles. 

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