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Thursday 17 April 2014

Balinese woodcarving tools

A friend recently returned from a trip to Bali and brought back some woodcarving tools that she purchased whilst there. Balinese woodcarvers are famous for their skill and the beauty of the work that they produce, so it's interesting to see the similarities and differences between these traditional carving tools and the European-style ones that I'm used to working with. Although this isn't the complete set, I thought it would be nice to share them with those of you who also have an interest in such things...

The chisels are designed to be mainly used with a small mallet (not shown, but similar to the one on the photo below) and are made from good-quality tool steel, without a wooden handle. The one on the right of the all-metal tools shown in the pictures is a flat chisel, the others have a slight sweep (curved cutting surface). They are tempered at the cutting end, so the edge is very sharp but the untempered steel behind it would give a bit of cushioning of blows and strength to the rest of the tool in use.

The gracefully shaped tool shown on the far right is very comfortable when held in the hand and is possibly the most unfamiliar-looking to a European carver. It functions a bit like a hook knife (or crooked knife). The blade is spear-shaped, with the point curled upwards. It also has a flat surface on one side and two cutting edges on the other, so that it can cut in either direction. This would be used to give a fine finish to the surface of a carving.

The axe is razor-sharp and feels great in use too. The haft (handle) looks as if it is made from Black Palm (also known as Black Palmyra) timber. This palm is commonly used throughout tropical Africa and Asia for a variety of purposes and the timber from the outer part of the main stem is dense and hard, becoming softer towards the centre. In this way, the palm is different from many other timbers that become denser towards the centre of the trunk.

Image by Jos Dielis from
As you can see from this photo, Balinese carvers tend to work sitting down and sometimes hold the wood being worked on between their feet. It's a method used all over the world but is quite different to the traditional European method, which involves standing at a bench or carving stand to work. I suppose that sitting on the floor wouldn't have been so appealing to medieval carvers in a cold, wet Northern European winter!


  1. Hi Alistar lm in bali and would love to get some traditional wood carving tools for my husband do you know where abouts you friend got them??

  2. Hi Tazz, I don't know I'm afraid but I hope that you can locate some. Have a great trip!

  3. Thanks for the article, and I get the ideas you are presenting to us, but from a purely "quality" perspective, whose tools do you prefer? As a small business, all other things being equal, I would prefer purchase from a small, US company. But it sounds like all of these chisels are produced overseas. I have the Ray Illes mortising chisels, and like them, is his brother as skilled at carving tools? IS the quality of the Illes chisels higher than the others? These are just some other things I consider, but the "quality" is of course first. Any additional advice for me?

  4. Hi Lois, thanks for getting in touch.
    The Balinese tools shown were certainly made from good steel and fine work could be produced using them. I'd say that they might possibly take a little getting used to, for people accustomed to Western-style wooden handled tools.
    I haven't had a lot of experience using US-made tools: some Ramelson ones got returned to the vendor as they were badly formed (the blades ground off-centre for instance) and the steel was poor quality in my view. I'm sure that other makers in the States are producing higher quality kit though and would be interested to look at and try them.
    Many of my tools are older British-made ones by firms such as Herring Bros, Addis and sons and Ward and Payne. They are generally of excellent quality, if in good condition. Unfortunately those companies don't exist any more, even though the tools can still regularly be found in auctions etc. in the UK.
    Of contemporary British companies, Henry Taylor used to be great (some of my favourite tools are by them) but the shaping of the tools could always be a bit variable and I've heard that the quality isn't quite the same now as it was. Robert Sorby tools are generally good.
    As for Ashley Iles: I love my 'Ray Gonzalez' hooked skew but don't really like my other Ashley Iles tools - the steel isn't great in my view and it is a real struggle to get a decent edge on them, only to see the blades blunt again far too quickly for my liking. However, some of my friends swear by their Ashley Iles tools, so you might love them too! I do like my Ray Iles inshave but he doesn't make many tools really suitable for my kinds of woodcarving.
    Other European companies making very good quality tools include Pfeil, Dastra and Stubai, Two Cherries tools are okay. Bristol Design tools are excellent but the company (I believe it was German) that made them originally has stopped producing tools, so the stocks are slowly disappearing as they are being sold. None of these makers produce tools that are very cheap but they are generally worth checking out.
    I hope that this brief (and far from comprehensive!) rundown has been helpful Lois. Most of the companies mentioned probably ship to the US and you may even be able to find tools made by the old British companies as well.
    All the best and good luck with your carving,

  5. i would like to buy Balinese woodcarving tools can you please tell me where i can found them?

    1. Hi Bradley, thanks for getting in touch. I'm afraid that I don't have any leads to pass on to you. My friend got them at a woodcarving workshop somewhere in Bali, that's all that I can tell you. Good luck with your search.