carving chisels versus firmer gouges.


Well-known member
Thanks for all the good historical info, everyone.
On steel- You can actually tell what the properties of steel are just by scraping your finger over the edge of a sharpened tool.(NOT LENGTHWISE!) I know what the kind of steel I like feels like when it's sharp. Some steel will feel brittle and some will feel more "dead". I was speaking with Michel Auriou of rasp fame last summer and we agreed that it's definitely possible to tell, for instance O1 from A2 just by the feel. To prove this to Tom LN, MIchel separated the A2 from the O1 plane blades in a random pile without looking at them. This isn't magic or myth, just based on a lot of experience with steel. You can do it with some practice.
I sell Stubai carving tools, and I can definitely tell the steel is tougher and has a harsher feel to it than Pfiel, for example. It's harder to sharpen, but it holds the edge. Steels are just different. As a carver, I like a lot of old tools for the lightness and the patterns, some of which are hard to find today. The Stubai and Heitmann V-tools, for example, are far nicer to use than the Pfeils because they are thinner and easier to modify. I've been really surprised by the Stubai V's. I can actually use them right out of the sleeve, which saves at least a half hour of sharpening that most V's need, in my opinion, before thy're good for anything. Sometimes one brand will have some advantage in a particular sweep that you like, so you'll mix and match.
In chisels, I think there's nothing better than a Witherby. They seemed to have figured out the steel thing and are pretty consistent. Old Buck paring chisels seem to be good also, as well as some old Ward and Paynes; they seem to hold a good edge.
I guess you just need to figure out what you are looking for in steel characteristics, and then be able to recognize it when you feel it.
And could someone explain to me what A2 is good for?-Al

John Cashman

Well-known member
I have no doubt that Al and Michel can figure out if steel is good by feeling it. I'm not that good. But since I started carving I have found another way that helped me a little, and that's using a strop. I've found that the hardness of steel in carving tools is usually just a hair softer than in plane irons or bench chisels. It strops easier. I'd never stropped, or tried to strop, a plane iron before I began to carve. Most plane irons don't strop too well -- they polish a little, but not as much or as quickly as a carving tool. And because they require more pressure, the edges dub much more. A2 irons really don't strop well at all. You can barely see them get a "shine." The same goes for O1 and A2 chisels.

It's a good comparison for those who want to try. I haven't attempted to strop a large enough number of non-carving tools to say if there is a difference between brands, but I can tell the difference in hardness between individual tools. I can tell the difference in stropping a Stubai and Pfeil, for instance, but I think they are equally good tools.

It has made me wonder if carving tools are made intentionally a bit softer because they must be stropped, as well as the fact that they don't experience the same stresses that bench chisels and plane blades do. If my carving tools were made and hardened like tools made from A2 steel, I don't think I would still be carving. Maybe someone will make carving tools with replaceable unobtanium inserts like they do for bench chisels.

I think it was Al who once pointed out another important quality of good steel -- it has to rust. If it won't hold rust, it won't hold a very good edge, either. I haven't put all my tools out in the rain to test the theory, but judging by the blades on many knives I own, I think it's correct.


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I think it was Al who once pointed out another important quality of good steel -- it has to rust. If it won't hold rust, it won't hold a very good edge, either. I haven't put all my tools out in the rain to test the theory, but judging by the blades on many knives I own, I think it's correct.

This is a bit off topic for the thread, but this adage isn't quite as universally true as it was a few years ago.  Specifically, several high-end kitchen knife makers have figured out how to make a "high carbon", "stainless" steel.  Wustoff is one such maker - I can confirm that the steel in their kitchen knives is every bit as tough (not brittle) as the plane irons and carving tools that I have, and will take an incredibly keen edge, something that SS316 or SS304 won't.  And they are quite rust-proof, though they aren't stain-proof.


Well-known member
I agree about the kitchen knives. Just in the last few months I've been using one of those knives and it's way better than the average "stainless", which I find useless. The ones I use the most still  rust, but the other is pretty good.
John- Maybe carving tools strop easier because they're narrower than the plane irons, and you get more pressure-Al


albreed said:
"....And could someone explain to me what A2 is good for?"

I was hoping someone would step in here with an answer. I'll try.

A-2 is good for critically machined machine parts, like gears, where it's best for the part to be hardened but to have minimal dimensional change during heat treating. The carbide inclusions in A-2 can add wear resistance to relatively flat and lubricated surfaces. Those same carbides, though, just tend to fall out when they end up on a fine detail like a cutting edge. They do that because they're not structurally part of the steel. Unfortunately the high heat treating temperatures required to form those carbides also causes the steel that houses those carbides to be coarse grained which is another problem for a good cutting edge.

The other good use for A-2 is to demonstrate the "dead feel" you mentioned in your post. I'm not the least bit surprised that Michel Auriou can separate high carbon steel irons from A-2 irons by feel or by hearing the different sounds made when just running a thumb across the edge.