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Tips for Using the Skew Chisel

 How to use a skew chisel | Schaaf Tools

Mention the words "skew chisel," and most woodcarvers and woodturners react strongly; ambivalence is not the usual response. Instead, craftsmen seem to love or hate using the skew chisel. Those who love the tool quickly mention how many cuts a skew chisel can make, how efficiently its razor-sharp cutting edge can dispatch with excess wood, and how a well-executed planing cut leaves the wood in need of very little sanding. 

Those who despise the skew chisel complain that it takes an inordinate amount of time to learn to use well, is extremely difficult to sharpen, and can ruin a project piece in a split second. To these folks, the benefits of the skew chisel just aren't worth the frustrations it causes.

If you're new to the skew chisel, how do you make it your friend rather than your foe? If you consider the skew chisel your enemy, can you make it your friend? Here are some tips for using the skew chisel wisely and well.

1. Learn how to sharpen the blade.

The angle of the beveled edges, the width of the tool, and the type of skew chisel make sharpening the blade tricky at first. There's a real art to learning how to get all of the cutting edge equally sharp.

If you ask 3 master turners how they sharpen their tools, you will probably get 3 different answers. Watch a couple of YouTube videos and you'll see that they recommend 2 additional slightly different methods. Some folks are adamant that you use a grinder. Others use a stone. Some mark the bevels with a Sharpie so they can verify that all of the edge has been sharpened. Most recommend honing the heel and toe of the skew once the beveled edges are sharp.

Rather than getting frustrated by the different opinions, realize that there's no single best way to sharpen a skew chisel. Instead, find a method that works for you and use it consistently until you can quickly get a razor-sharp edge every time.

You may decide that the best skew chisel for you is the one you can sharpen efficiently, whether that's a round skew, an oval skew, or a flat skew. That's fine. It's crucial that you learn to get a razor-sharp blade each time you sharpen.

2. Learn the mechanics and terminology of using a skew chisel.

The versatility of a skew chisel makes it a handy tool to master. You can do roughing, peeling, and planing cuts with a single tool. You can also make beads and create pommels.

The downside of the skew's versatility is that you need to learn the mechanics of each cut. For example, how high does the tool rest need to be? At what angle do you address the wood? Do you raise, lower or turn your skew to complete a cut?

Fortunately, you can choose the type of learning approach that matches your schedule and personality. There are a plethora of books, videos, and workshops available. Several master woodturners provide YouTube video channels with free subscriptions. Resources are available, so use them to help you move efficiently down the learning curve.

3. Practice, practice, practice.

Head knowledge won't transform that wood block into a lovely spindle. You'll need to practice--a lot. You'll make mistakes. You'll ruin a few pieces with a major dig-in. These things are all part of the learning process. Expect them and learn from them.

As you practice:

  • Determine that the struggle to master the skew chisel is worth it. Keep your eye on the end goal rather than the process.
  • Use scrap wood, at first. Repurpose small or medium-sized scrap blocks into "skew chisel learning tools."
  • Practice with a few different types of skew chisels until you see whether you prefer an oval skew, a rectangular skew, or a round skew. Then really hone your skills on that tool.
  • Go beyond expecting to make mistakes. Actually practice dig-ins and run backs so that you learn the "feel' and "look" of these and can avoid them.
  • Learn where the "sweet spot" of the cutting edge is for each cut. It varies a bit depending upon the cut you're making but is always on the lower part of the blade. Working up high on the blade leads to dig-ins.

4. Use the tool frequently.

This prevents you from losing the skills you worked hard to gain. Keep at it consistently, even if you have only a few minutes to practice. A few minutes of practice each day yields better results than a couple of hours of practice once every couple of weeks. (It was true when you were learning to play the piano or baseball, and it's true when you're learning to use a skew chisel.) Muscle memory kicks in when you do something over and over. After a few weeks, you won't have to remind yourself of the process. You'll just do it.

5. Be careful.

Wood carving tools are sharp, and woodcarvers agree that skew chisels need to be the sharpest wood carving tools in your toolbag or workshop. Used alone, they can cut deeply and quickly. However, use them in conjunction with a lathe, and they become even more dangerous.

Protect yourself by:

  • Using the lathe wisely. Follow the safety guidelines for operating your lathe. Don't run the lathe excessively fast; a faster lathe doesn't guarantee better woodcuts.
  • Wearing eye protection. Wood chips from a lathe can fly fast and far. Make sure they can't damage your eyes.

Hopefully, if you follow these tips for using the skew chisel, you'll make excellent progress toward mastering a versatile but challenging tool.

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