How to Make Small Carving Tools
By Mike Burton
I learned to
carving tools out
of necessity. I do intricate,
detailed carvings, and the selection
of small carving tools in catalogs is
painfully limited. Solution? I started making my own.
Not only can I make unusual sizes and shapes,
but the handles are shaped to fit my hands.
Plus, these tools are very inexpensive.
Give them a try—there’s nothing like
the feeling of using a tool that
you have made yourself.
Supplies and Equipment
The raw material of these carving tools
is drill rod, a tool steel available in various
diameters. You can buy it from local
machine shops or industrial suppliers
for about $2.50 for an 18-in. length.
You’ll also need a metalworking vise,
but it doesn’t have to be fancy. Be sure
it has a flat “anvil” area for flattening
the rod. My vise cost $15.
For heating the rod, use a MAPP gas
torch ($35 at home centers). This is just
like a propane torch except it’s designed
for MAPP gas, which burns hotter than
propane. You can’t use MAPP gas in a
common propane torch.
A selection of files, small grinding
stones and a small diamond hone will be
needed for shaping the tools.
The flame from a MAPP torch is even more
dangerous than the flame from a propane
torch, so follow these safe work habits.
■ Prepare a safe work area. Remove sawdust,
rags, finishes, wood scraps and any
other flammables from your work area.
■ Keep the lights down low. This makes it
easier to see the flame, and easier to judge
the color of the heated rod.
■ Avoid tip-overs. The torch is top-heavy,
and easy to tip over. I found an old, widemouth
coffee pot that the cylinder of my
torch fits into. When I’m not using it, the
torch rests steady in the pot. You can rig
up something similar.
■ Wear safety glasses. Tiny pieces of hot
steel and scale can be dislodged at just
about any stage in this project. Always
wear your glasses.
■ Manage the heat. Whenever possible,
work on long (18-in. or so) pieces of rod.
Cut the finished tool off the end. If you
need to heat a short piece, grip it with
locking pliers. Don’t try to use drill rod
thicker than 3/16 in.; MAPP gas won’t be
able to get it hot enough.
The Basic V-Tool
The simplest small tools are filed directly into the drill
rod, without any forging. This small V-tool is a good
Click on any image to view a larger version.
1. Form a v-shape with a triangular file on the end of an 18-in.
piece of 5/32-in. drill rod. Bending the tip of the rod will give you
room to work.
3. Form the cutting edge with a file and diamond hone, then
straighten the shank. If this is the only tool you’re making, proceed
to heat-treating (Photos 10 and 11) and attaching a handle (Photo 12).
2. Refine the inside with a diamond hone ($10). You may need to
file down the plastic sides of the hone so it will fit in the tiny V.
Gouges, Chisels, and Skews
Very small gouges, chisels and skews can be filed directly from drill rod, just like the V-tool, using a small rat-tail or
flat file. Refine the inside with a rolled-up piece of 320- to 600-grit sandpaper or a diamond hone. Larger tools need
to be forged, as shown below.
4. Flatten the tip of the drill rod for larger tools. Heat the tip
to a bright red glow with a MAPP torch, quickly place it on the
anvil section of the vise, and hammer it flat.
5. For wider tips, first thicken the end of the drill rod by heating
it to bright red and pounding the end to “upset” (compress)
it. You can make the rod half-again thicker this way. After
upsetting, heat the tip again and flatten it.
6. Make a crease to further widen the tip by hammering it against
the edge of the vise. For more width, make several creases in a
fan pattern. Heat the rod again, and hammer out the creases.
7. Use a swage to hammer the heated rod into a gouge shape.
The swage is made from a length of 3/16-in. drill rod and a large
bolt. The rod fits on a groove filed into the head of the bolt with
a 1/4-in. rat-tail file. Sandwich the red-hot tool blank between
the rod and the groove; then hammer.
8. Use a socket as an anvil to open up or form gouge shapes.
Different socket sizes can be used for gouges of different shapes.
This is also a good method for making curved detailing knives.
9. Grind the inside to refine the shape of a gouge using a
cone-shaped grinding wheel in an electric drill or rotary tool.
Roughly form the bevel, but don’t sharpen yet. The tool must
first be heat-treated.
10. Slow cooling on an electric burner (annealing) will reduce
stresses built up in the metal during forging. Heat the first 1/2 in.
of the tool tip bright red, keep it red for 30 seconds, then place
between the coils of a burner set on high. Every 10 minutes,
lower the heat until the tool is cool.
12. Attach the handle last Heat the handle
end of the tool and hammer the last 1/2 inch or
so square to prevent twisting. Drill a hole in the
handle, add a bit of carpenter’s glue and pound
the handle onto the tool. For bent tools, hold the
shank with locking pliers and pound on the pliers.
Give the bevel a final grind, sharpen, and
you’re ready to carve.
11. Tempering produces a hard, durable edge. Heat the tool tip to
a bright glow for 30 seconds, then plunge into cold water. Polish
the end of the tool to a mirror shine with fine sandpaper or emory
cloth. Heat the tool slowly, keeping the flame about an inch
below the cutting edge. When the edge turns a medium straw
color, plunge it into cold water. (You may want to practice this!)