Using the bowl gouge

10 February 2012, Woodturning in practice, Would you like to leave a comment?

To those of you familiar with wood turning, this is the most ‘productive’ tool for turning bigger pieces and as far as I am aware, the most enjoyable to use. It is easily sharpened on a bench grinder without the use of fancy jigs and its profile, although important, can be continuously re-shaped to suit different applications.

It is also a hefty thing and feels nice and weighty in use. There is little chance of it jumping around when tackling dry and dense timbers. Its most important attribute is however, its cut. Used correctly, it’s possible to get a nice smooth finish straight off the tool and reduce the amount of time needed for sanding. When turning green wood, huge cuts can be taken – sometimes removing half an inch of timber in one pass. Why not put down that scraper and read on!…

When I started turning, I was lucky enough to be introduced to the bowl gouge as my first tool and had no real choice, but to master it or stop turning. This may seem harsh, but my tutor recognised the importance of using proper tools and I did end up learning quickly!

The key to unlocking its potential is to understand the delicate balance between its bevel edge (the flat surface created on the grinder) and the cutting tip. At any given time during the turning process, whether detailing a rim or turning deep inside a bowl, the tool should be gliding on its bevel edge, following the shape you are creating. Only a slight, barely detectable motion rocks the tool onto its cutting tip and starts the cutting action.

When I first used it, I found this process impossible to control and couldn’t avoid creating ridges and profiles that were unpleasant to look at. There were also the occasions when I got a ‘dig’ – an annoying moment when the tool is introduced at the wrong angle, ripping a chunk out of the bowl! You have to relax when using the gouge and not grip it too hard. Rough turning is the perfect way to gain experience, since bowl blanks don’t need to be finished accurately but you need lots of them.

The gouge should be held and controlled with the right hand. The left hand positions the bevel edge against the work piece and exerts downward pressure on the tool rest. On very dry timber, the tool rest can be used as a fulcrum to apply pressure to the bevel edge and stop the tool moving with the contours of the grain. This takes time to master, but is certainly worth the effort. Scraper tools, whilst easy to use, tear through the timber instead of cutting. These may be okay for rough turning, but require a lot of finish sanding when used on dry wood.

The gouge is without question my favourite tool and certainly the main one I use. However, I have just purchased the Rolly Munro hollowing tool and so far I’m impressed – watch this space for a review!

Jonathan Leech

Written by Jonathan Leech

Jonathan Leech is a woodturner working and living in Cumbria. He specialises in making bowls, dishes and platters from local sustainably sourced timber. Read more or about Jonathan or see a selection of his work.

Your comments

  1. Gravatar of Rich
    Rich9 March 2012 19:18

    Hi Jonathan, Just wondering how your getting on with the Rolly Munro hollowing tool. Are you using it for bowl turning? If so do you think it is easier to use than a bowl gouge?

    I am thinking of purchasing one myself, thats why i am asking.

    By the way I love your work it looks fantastic and I look forward to reading more of your blogging.

    Cheers, Rich

  2. Gravatar of Jonathan  Leech
    Jonathan Leech11 March 2012 12:52

    Hi Rich, many thanks for your comments. It works very well and cuts beautifully, but does need to be sharpened regularly. I'd definitely recommend buying the TCT cutter block as an upgrade. At the moment I'm using a diamond file for sharpening, but will soon be using a drill press mounted polishing mop which I think will be better.
    The only problem I've encountered is with it blocking up. However, I've not been using it long and guess most of this is down to experience.
    I'd definitely recommend it - I've been able to turn bowls which I simply couldn't have done with a gouge alone.

  3. Gravatar of Steve
    Steve20 August 2012 21:31

    Hi Jonathan, great site. That yew bowl is huge! I read your blog on the bowl gouge with interest. I'm pretty new to turning and I tend to resort to the scraper after leaving ridges with the gouge. I'm going to persevere with my new half inch gouge from now on.

  4. Gravatar of Jonathan Leech
    Jonathan Leech22 August 2012 08:03

    Hi Steve, That yew bowl is almost dry, but still weighs a ton! A do hope you are enjoying the turning - it takes a little while to get used the the gouges, but persevere and you will be amazed with what you can achieve. The half inch gouge is a great choice for bowl turning - I'm sure you will master it in no time at all.

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