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Dick Belcher on Sharpening Wood Carving Tools

Schaaf Wood Carving Tools Diamond Sharpening Stone

What's Your Sharpening Process?

I’m not going to bury the lead. If you talk to three different carvers, they’ll probably have three different ways to sharpen their tools.

Here’s the bottom line: If the tools are sharp, and you’re able to carve the shapes and details you need with them, that’s what matters. Especially for the beginners and hobbyists out there. 

Carver #1 - Dick Belcher

Today, we’ll start with Dick Belcher’s sharpening process. Dick is a professional carver and carving teacher, with more than 40 years’ experience using and sharpening wood carving tools.

He knows a thing or two.

First, a couple things to understand: All gouges have two bevels – inner and outer. This is different than a chisel, which has a single bevel.

Every cutting blade is a series of microscopic saw teeth. If not properly sharpened, instead of getting smooth slices with those nice curlicues, these edges will mash and tear the fiber of the wood. Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself (I know I have), and it can be especially discouraging for beginners.

When you shape your tool, the objective is to create a bevel that is flat from those saw teeth back to the heel.

carving with schaaf tools gouge


For Dick, it’s a three-step process:

  1. Use a medium/coarse bench stone to shape the outside lead bevel
  2. Use a fine stone (such as an Arkansas slip-stone) to remove the burr created on the top inside cutting edge. This creates a micro-bevel.
  3. Final hone with a strop and abrasive compound to put a polish on the cutting edge and remove any burr that may still exist.

The last step - we’ll call it step 4 – is maintenance on the cutting edge.

4. Strop your tool after every couple hours of cutting. This keeps the sharp edge from forming a burr and keeps those micro saw teeth from clogging with resin from the wood.

Eventually, long term usage of a tool will begin to round the flat bevel, making it more difficult to push through the wood. This will require repeating steps 1-3 to restore the flatness of the bevel. Sorry folks, you will have to resharpen your tools!

What's Best For My Project?

You’ll want to shape your tool differently depending on how it’s going to be used.

When shaping the outside bevel, you have two choices depending on whether the tools will be hit with a mallet or not.

Choice 1: Short bevel  ¼” or less width.  When using a mallet to drive the cutting edge through the wood, the short bevel gives you extra strength backing the cutting edge.  When you start your cut using a mallet, you are holding the tool at a higher angle to drive the edge in than if you were carving by hand only.   The subsequent blow with the mallet is driving the cutting edge across the bottom of the divot that you are slicing. At this point, the short heel gives you not only strength, but a pivot point to start the cutting across the bottom of the divot. 

Choice 2: Long bevel  ¼” or more (as wide as ½”).  When using hand pressure only, you enter at a lower tool angle, creating a thin shallow divot (removing a thin wood shaving). This does not require that extra blade strength. If you were to use a mallet, the saw teeth that make up the cutting edge wouldn't have enough strength and would chip away or break from the heavy force of the blows.    

Spirit carving with carving mallet and schaaf tools chisels

When sharpening gouges for customers, unless otherwise specified, Dick will put a medium bevel on the tools (somewhere in between choices 1 & 2) so that the tools cut well by hand, but can also withstand mallet use.

For beginners, its often recommended that you begin sharpening the old fashioned way, with a stone (as opposed to with a belt grinder).

According to Dick, for a beginner, the process he describes above takes approximately 45 minutes per tool to achieve the proper degree of sharpness to cut wood with ease.


Check out the next part of this series here: How to Sharpen Your Wood Carving Tools with a Diamond Stone - Video Tutorial by Joe Dillett

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