Ultimate DIY bowl gouge

About eight months ago, I made a video on how to make your own bowl-turning gouge at home for just a few dollars.  This might be the most controversial video I ever made (at least until I made a video about the SawStop).  The idea is that you can set a high speed steel, metal lathe bit into a shaft and then shape the end to make it suitable for wood turning.

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There are a lot of advantages to this approach.  For one thing, it’s cheap. HSS cutters can often be found at flea markets and tag sales for just a dollar or two each.  I once bought a box containing 50 cutters for only $10.00.  Buying used ones is no problem, since you’ll be reshaping the tip anyway.

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Another advantage is that the steel in these bits is extremely hard and durable.  Most modern turning tools are made of high speed steel, but there are several grades and formulations of HSS.  Lathe turning bits, are generally very hard, and incorporate cobalt, an ingredient which makes them both very hard and quite brittle.  You wouldn’t have much luck making an entire turning tool out of cobalt steel because it would likely snap.  But you can get all the advantages of cobalt steel by setting a tool bit into a more flexible, mild steel handle.

Probably the biggest advantage is that you can own dozens of tips for a small sum of money and play around as much as you want grinding different geometries for different tasks.  I started out with a basic bowl or face plate cutting profile, but since then, I’ve also ground round and square-nosed scrapers, curved bowl scrapers, and narrow detail tools.  Each of these profiles takes just a few minutes to shape, and they sharpen up just as quickly as your regular lathe tools.

I can’t claim too much credit for this approach.  Everything I’m doing here is based around the Oland tool, which has existed since the mid 1980s.  For several decades, cash-strapped turners have set a HSS bit into a mild steel bar and gone to work.  But even though the basic idea is old, I can claim a few innovations as mine.

For one thing, I might have come up with the idea of setting the tool tip into a pipe (maybe not; it’s totally possible someone else came up with it before me.) Either way, using pipe allows you to skip the tricky and time consuming step of drilling a hole straight down a piece of round steal stock.  With a correctly sized pipe-nipple and tool bit, the pieces just slide together with no trouble.  I’ve also found that there are a number of tool bit sizes that almost fit into pipe-nipples.  For these bits, you just need to knock off the corners with your grinder, and they’ll slip right in.

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I think I’ve also pioneered some of the tool shapes that I use.  For instance, the square-nose cutter that I’ve made is very effective at smoothing the outside of shapes, and it’s quite similar to many of the square carbide cutters on the market.  In fact, many people have asked me why I bother with this approach rather than just use carbide.  I think it’s pretty obvious: these bits cost much less money, they can be custom shaped, and they can be re-sharpened dozens of times.  You can’t do any of that with carbide.  

So, the controversy.  I’ve taken a fair bit of crap online by people who insist that this tool is not a gouge, but rather a scraper.  And you know what?  They’re totally right.  This tool does cut with a scraping action, and it doesn’t have a central flute like a proper gouge would.  If I were going to remake this video, I would probably refer to it as a bowl “tool” rather than a gouge. 

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On the other hand, who cares?  If you have a cheap, flexible tool that allows people to get into bowl-turning safely, then who really cares what you call it?  For myself, I initially thought that this tool was just going to be a placeholder until I bought a “proper” bowl gouge.  But it’s been almost a year since I first made my bowl-tool and I’m pretty happy with it.  I’ve turned many bowls, from tiny salt cellars to big salad bowls, and I’ve even sold a few.  All the bowls pictured in this article were made using only homemade tools, and perhaps one round-nosed scraper that I bought an estate sale.  The tool works equally well on dry wood and green, and it leaves a good finish.  Until I have a lot more money, I just don’t see buying a commercial bowl-tool.

I should probably point out that commercial bowl gouges are more flexible and versatile.  They do a variety of cuts and can even do scraping cuts for finish work.  I suspect that if I got a real bowl gouge, I’d like it and I’d probably use it.  But I don’t think I’d stop using my homemade tools.  Now that I’ve learned how to make and use them, they’re just too handy to put down.  I even use them for spindle work sometimes, especially when the profile seems just right.  Also, since these are metal-lathe bits there would be no problem using them to turn aluminum or brass in my wood lathe.  Try that with your expensive Sorby gouge.

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Rex Krueger