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The Scoop on the Oval Skew Chisel


The oval skew chisel--along with its cousins the rectangular skew chisel and the round skew chisel--is a workhorse of a tool for wood carvers who turn their pieces on a lathe. Some woodturners swear by the tool and use their oval skew chisel virtually any time they use a lathe. Others try using an oval skew chisel and then swear they'll never use one again. Let's answer frequently-asked questions about the oval skew chisel to find out why this tool causes such a diversity of opinions.  

First, what are the main types of skew chisels?

Skew chisels are classed as rectangular (AKA: traditional or flat), oval, or round. The classification is based on the shape of the profile or cross-section of the skew's blade.

How is an oval skew chisel similar to a rectangular or round skew chisel?

In many ways, the 3 types of skew chisels are the same. They are very similar in appearance. The metal blades are similar in length and shape. The wooden handles of 3 different skews made by the same company could be virtually identical. All 3 types of skews come in varying widths.

A round skew chisel, a rectangular skew chisel, and an oval skew chisel can all perform the same cuts. They can all do peeling cuts, planing cuts and V-cuts. Each one can be used to make beads or spindles. All can be used at different cutting angles, and all of them have a "sweet spot" on the cutting edge that cuts the cleanest.

How does an oval skew chisel differ from a rectangular or round skew chisel?

The answer to that lies in the profile--or cross-section--of the skew's blade. It is easy to see the difference if you hold a skew chisel of each type in your hand and look at the top of each blade. A rectangular skew chisel has beveled blades that, taken together, form a rectangle. The profile of a round skew chisel's beveled cutting surfaces forms a circle. And, if you peer down the length of an oval skew chisel, you'll see that its profile looks like an oval. The "skinniness" of the oval depends upon the width of the skew chisel; a wide chisel results in a skinny oval.

What are the benefits of using an oval skew chisel?

Skew chisels, regardless of their profile shape, are versatile tools that can quickly and efficiently perform a variety of cuts. The combination of a very sharp skew chisel blade and a wood block that is spinning several hundred times a minute results in the ability to displace considerable amounts of wood in a hurry.

Another benefit of using a skew chisel--oval or another shape--is that you get a superb finish which requires minimal sanding. A craftsman who masters the use of an oval skew chisel can quickly turn a piece AND equally quickly finish it. The skew chisel makes both actions efficient.

Why would you choose an oval skew chisel over a skew chisel of another shape?

That's a particularly intriguing question since the traditional skew chisel used for hundreds of years prior to the 20th century wasn't oval; it was flat. If your dad or grandfather used a skew chisel, it was probably large, heavy, cumbersome--and flat.

It wasn't until the 20th century that someone--no one seems to know who--decided that a skew chisel with an oval profile would work better than the traditional flat skew chisel. Catalogs started showing pictures of oval skew chisels and writing glowing descriptions about how they made spindle-making and bead-rolling easier. Some people switched to the oval shape and actually found it easier to use. Others tried it and decided that the traditional flat skew chisel worked better for them.

The difference of opinion continues. Only now, it's intensified by the fact that some woodturners prefer the round skew chisel over the oval or the flat shape.

Why do some carvers avoid using an oval (or rectangular or round) skew chisel?

Even folks like Alan Lacer, who have mastered the skew chisel and use it often, admit that the skew chisel isn't easy to learn to use well. He goes on to say that, because it is difficult to learn well, a skew chisel should be the first tool a beginning carver learns to use. According to Alan Lacer, a skew chisel is the "best teacher I know of in all of woodturning, because if you can handle a skew chisel, you can handle anything."

Learning to handle a skew chisel well requires hours of practice. That's a real sticking point for busy carvers and woodturners who feel they can't justify taking time from a busy day to practice judging how the fulcrum on an oval skew chisel moves as they turn beads or make V-cuts.

Woodturners who don't take the time to practice often learn the hard way just how frustrating a catch, run back, or dig-in can be. In a split second one of these errors can seriously damage a piece and require it to be totally reworked. A few instances like that can be enough to make even hardy woodturners toss their skew chisel into a corner and leave it there for a long time.  

Is an oval skew chisel harder to learn to use than the other types are?

The rounded profile of the oval skew chisel allows it to glide more easily along the tool rest. That's a plus, especially for a hobby woodturner learning how to use a skew chisel. An oval skew chisel is also a little easier to roll or pivot since a smaller section of the rounded blade contacts the tool rest. This aids in the turning of beads or spindles.

The oval shape of the tool does increase the difficulty of gauging the location of the sweet spot. As the tool is turned, the fulcrum moves. This means that the sweet spot of the blade moves. Woodturners have to account for this change in order to get good clean cuts.

That's the scoop on the oval skew chisel. (We also gave you a half-scoop on the rectangular skew chisel and the round skew chisel.) Happy woodturning.



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