Tools I Can’t Live Without

Tools I can’t live without. Because I make my living with them.

I’ve been contemplating this topic for some time. After reading some posts on other sites, reading inquiries by new carvers as well as seasoned veterans I decided to list my favorites.Those tools necessary to produce the widest variety of carvings such as those you see in my gallery and on my site. I’ll list the tools I use consistently to produce those very carvings. Sort of “If you were stranded on an island what tools would you want to have?” Well these are those tools. Actually they are the ones I’ve built my business on and have used almost exclusively for the past 20 yrs. Actually for the first 5 yrs or so, this collection was essentially half of what it is today. Basically 12 tools kept me in business carving happily away and producing an income. Now I’m up to 25 or so that I normally use. Do I have more than this? Sure,, I’m a tool-a -holic. Aren’t you? But it’s quite easy to use just this limited number to carve most anything I care to carve and they have carved 99 percent of the work you see. Hundreds of chisels are nice,, but not necessary.

Now if you’re a whittler you can stop reading right now. If you’re a fan of palm chisels you too can stop reading at this point.The rest of what I have to say will only annoy you to no end. I have nothing against whittling with a knife. My first carvings were done with a knife (many I made myself)  and on occasion while wandering along a path I’ll pick up a stick and whittle with my trusty pocket knife that is always in my pocket. Many people do wonderful work with a knife. I enjoy seeing the work done. But to me, there are inherent limits to what a knife can do. I need to have tools that can do the most amount of work to carve the pieces I need to carve. A knife, regardless how good you might be with one, cannot do this range of work.

And the same thing goes for palm chisels. I had a set at one time…LONG AGO…and now they are relegated to use when stripping furniture and getting the gunk out of the nooks and crannies. Quite simply I have no use for them. See, I told you I’d annoy you.

Now rather than just throw out a statement to annoy whittlers  and palm tool users I’ll give my reasons why I choose not to use them. Quite simply I’m not a whittler nor a hobbyist carver. I’m a full time wood carver. I need to produce carvings in the widest range of styles. This to me says it all, but it needs some clarification I’m sure. Really,, I can’t go around annoying everyone without some justification of my beliefs , ,,,can I ?

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87 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Todd Breitholle
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 18:09:56

    Mark, as always, it is nice to read about how you carve and the thoughts behind it. I have read many of your posts, and most of what you talk about just sinks in. I am new to carving and buying tools as I can. Your postings have helped me narrow down my tool purchases and opened my eyes to using one tool for many. Do more with less..
    Now as far as sharpening tools, I am at the very beginning. Just stropping them to keep them (somewhat) sharp. I need all the help I can get on this issue. What would my needs be for a minimalist? A wet stone and a buffing wheel with compound? And just do it? Practice, Practice.

    Thank you again, Todd


  2. markyundt
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 19:44:34

    Hi Todd,
    Sound like a solid plan to me. Get a few tools to start and add to the collection as you discover shapes that might be useful. Worked for me, still does.

    Sharpening? Ahh,, the holy grail of most sites. It’s a religion you know.Your options can run the gamut from some sand paper to some high tech gizzmo. What have I used all this time? Yup,, high tech all the way, I’m a tool fanatic right?

    A wet stone and a buffing wheel. Weeeeee!

    Why? It’s worked for centuries and it won’t set you back a fortune ( spend the $$$ on chisels) and keeps you out of trouble. I’ve tried most “systems” talked about. Not too impressed honestly. A basic stone may seem slow,,but how much are you taking off really? Mostly just touching up the bevel. Now I get impatient at times and I do have a powered water wheel. Used it as recently as last week to regrind some old chisels. Before that,,,might have been a year ago. There it sits gathering dust. I think my last stone ran about $35 bucks,,maybe,,and a couple of cloth buffing wheels from the dollar bins. A stick of compound and off I go.I used to use a combination stone, 800 one side and I think 4000 on the other. Now I have just an 800. A quick buff and my tools look like mirrors. I also have a leather strop,,,,somewhere in the shop,,don’t use that either. I use the buffer to touch up the tools when the thought hits me like,,hey,, this isn’t cutting as smoothly as it did,, or it’s leaving scratches on the wood. Just a quick touch does it.I don’t follow the rules of stropping every so many cuts,,or so many times per hour. The carving shop I started in did it this way,,other carvers I know do the same thing,,and it’s worked just fine for me and what I do. Impressive Huh?


  3. David
    Nov 08, 2009 @ 11:22:55

    I like the thoroughness of your approach in these articles. Although I am much newer to carving, I find I concur with much of your reasoning. I have a few knives, but rarely use them, preferring full size gouges and chisels. This preference, in my case, is based mostly on ignorance. Somehow I decided to buy 4 full size Pfiels before I had ever seen a carving tool in real life (I ordered them online via. WebTV about 13 years ago, a huge expense at the time). I have never used any other tools except for a little Dockyard gouge, which I like. It is not like me not to experiment with other brands, but that is how completely satisfied I am with my Pfiels. I would never discourage anyone from buying: Sorby, Taylor, Two Cherries or Stahl tools because I am sure the steel quality is good, but I love everything about Pfiel and am not reluctant to mention it.

    I read an article once about how the Swiss collectively decided that since they had few natural resources and were landlocked in a restrictive trade environment(mountainous terrain),to produce goods of such high quality that people would endure extreme difficulty to travel there and buy them regardless. Hence, watches, clocks, chocolate, secure banks, cutlery and most importantly–carving tools.

    Other thoughts:

    I use the straight profile chisels a lot for shaving convex bulges. A skew would work, but I get a more controlled slicing action with the straight profile, and they are easier to strop using my system (more on this later).

    I like your emphasis on firmly anchoring your work. I would like to read more about your techniques for this as I am always looking for new and better ways to hold my work firmly while maintaining 360 degree access.

    I got tired of spending hours rubbing my gouges on stones when I wanted to reprofile them, so I bought a Worksharp 3000. It has proven very useful in three ways: It speeds getting the white line down to a point where I can finish it on the waterstones, the scratches run vertical along the bevel, so that when I am going from wheel to stone (I roll the bevel horizontally back and forth over the stone) I can see the contrasting scratch pattern and adjust the angle of the tool so that I am covering the whole bevel, rather than being to tip forward or heel back. With the addition of a foot pedal I can strop quickly without changing my carving position. A Tormek would work too, but it costs twice as much, about 4 gouges worth. Gouge cost has become my standard pricing unit. I bought a beef tenderloin today for 1.25 gouges ($50 US).

    Thanks for the great blog. Hope you don’t mind the long post, but I’m guessing not.



  4. markyundt
    Nov 08, 2009 @ 18:15:19

    You’re right I don’t mind your post at all. I enjoyed it.

    As I stated early on, I have nothing against knives. But for the type of work I do they really don’t apply.Others apparently are interested in a variety ( as the instructor I mentioned suggests) but they are sent in the wrong direction as far as tool selection goes based on what other hobbyists suggest from the local carving club or what they have been trying to use.And the theme that I question is ” I can’t /don’t do that work, but here are the tools you’ll need”. I’ve even had new carvers , and a few seasoned ones, in my shop, that tell me I’m not using the right tools! I ask, “can you carve this with your tool selection?” No? Then where am I doing something wrong? And seeing the type of work that can be done with chisels ( limitless) I have some reservations when a new carver asking for advice as to what tools to buy they are automatically directed to knives and palms without ever asking what type of carving they are interested in doing. Much of this may be attributed to many wanting to simply whittle, they are familiar with knives or only have knives, aren’t familiar with just what a few well chosen chisels can actually do, aren’t comfortable with using chisels,haven’t been taught just how to effectively use a chisel and get over the mind set that they are for “mallet work or big jobs” which is entirely untrue. A common topic is carving out the bowl of a spoon. Everything from Forstner bit, carbide grinders, scorps, adzes, spoon gouges and I don’t know what special whiz bang gadget is needed,,,but give me a simple #5 and I’ll do a spoon bowl from shallow ( as most end up) to a ladle if you want it in a matter of minutes. And if new carvers are told,,get a tool with “heft”,,,Why? Get fishtails,,,Why? You want to carve architectural work,,you need a knife. Why? They themselves don’t carve architectural work yet they suggest a knife? OK,,someone wants to carve caricatures which I don’t do. I only have to look at Fred Zavadils masterpieces for inspiration and discover he too uses full size chisels. Now his go to the extreme but couldn’t he stop at any point along the way and make them look any way he wished? And then turn around and carve full size statuary, architectural work, furniture pieces using the very same chisels. What could be done if they were applied to the most common of carvings. I tend to think they aren’t because most haven’t been exposed to just what these are capable of. Let alone how to effectively use them.
    Granted , just because I make my living doing this stuff in no way makes me an authority. But based on the situations, shops, jobs I have been fortunate enough to experience, that experience has taught me that hobbyists approach carving from what might be a limited perspective. Again, not that I’m an all knowing Grand Poo-Bah,,but it’s quite easy to see just where some shortfalls as to the tools, approach,techniques and outcomes can be radically changed with just a bit of tweaking. Unfortunately tweaking necessitates changing mind sets.

    I too would not discourage anyone from buying any tool. Well OK,,those dozen chisels for 10 bucks in the bargain bins,,but you know what I mean. But many times suggestions are made not for logical reasons but simply because that’s what the person happened to buy at the time, got used to it, and that’s what they use. Great. But was or is it the best choice. Are they familiar with other “identical” chisels from different makers? Even my direct replacement of the 5/12 was nowhere close to it’s twin I already own. Would many know the difference, even from the same source? I don’t know.But I don’t suggest them just because I happen to own them. Many have a variety of chisels. Were they bought for specific reasons that one mfg. makes a better # 2,,and another makes a better veiner ,#7 or whatever? Or were they bought on the fly or the simply they were handy and at a better price?
    Sharpening? If it works for you , do it. Once you know the principles of sharpening, what the ideal outcome should be, you can get away with most anything and make it work. If you can do it using a chunk of concrete and an old red brick,,go for it. There just happen to be some methods I personally don’t care for though. And there are things I like to tweak on my own chisels to give them the qualities I look for. Are they important? To me they are. Would others notice a difference? Maybe, maybe not. What I do to them might be considered sacreligious to some ” THAT’S NOT HOW THE FACTORY DOES IT” Well , the factory is supplying them to carvers of all ranges. They just don’t suit me.

    You like using a straight or skew chisel, fine. Do you get good results? If so terrific. Since you’re used to doing this and you’re comfortable doing it, are the results as good as can be had? I don’t know, I haven’t seen your work up close. Is there another way that could produce the same , if not better results using another tool? Maybe , maybe not. What if there is, are you open to that possibility and willing to try it? Many aren’t. There is a certain amount of struggle for some to get to some point and then be willing to say,Maybe there is a better way and give up on some hard won effort. That,, or the thought of “more practice” will turn out a better carving.

    Ahhh,, don’t get me started on carving positions, lighting, securing a carving, what I consider proper technique, tools that I see being used that are useless ( in my opinion) that are suggested. Many times if you look at the results,,you’ll soon discover why I can’t agree with what was posted. And fortunately here, on this blog,I won’t get banned for a month for expressing my suggestions as to what should/could be done to achieve better results. Not just by talking about it,,but by actually carving a sample for my answer.


  5. Steve
    Nov 09, 2009 @ 03:52:20


    Your comments on using full size tools has been very thought provoking. I have been carving for close to 3 years and have been using knives and palm tools. Of course I wear a protective glove since the carvings are primarily held in my left hand. A month or so ago I purchased a few full size Pfeil tools and an 18oz mallet for removing waste wood. This saves a lot of wear and tear on my hands! I was impressed with the control that the tools provided, with or without the mallet. After reading your comments I purchased 7 more Pfeil full size tools yesterday (don’t tell my wife) and have played with them a little. Again, I like the feel and control when compared to palm tools. I should also mention that they seem to be safer to use since your hands shouldn’t get in front of the sharp edge.

    However, using the tools does not seem natural yet. I assume this will come with use, as you mentioned. My biggest challenge to using the full size tools seems to be developing ways to secure the work. I have been carving human figures that are from 4″ to 10″ tall. I suppose I could invest in a carvers vice. If I do, I will have to start adding a blank section of wood to the bottom of my carvings to screw (or clamp) the vice to. In my little bit of experimentation, I simply clamped the carving to my workbench with some woodworking hand clamps. This seemed to work fairly well. I saw a photo of a carver working on a relatively small (12″?) Christ, for a crucifix, by apparently securing it against bench dogs (no clamps).

    Do you have any recommendations for how to secure relatively small work?



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