As I read through a variety of articles about using the skew chisel, I was struck by the significance, not only of what the authors were saying, but of who they were. Primarily they were old-guy production turners, noteworthy because there aren't that many of them left today. They were good turners - great in most cases! They were great turners because that's what they did for a living, day in and day out. Most likely you don't do that, which is why you're probably skew chisel-challenged.
So let's begin with a simple premise: Anything you learn to do well, you do so by practicing. With just a few hours' practice, you will begin to feel in control of the various cuts that can be made with a skew. When you learn two of them, plus one method of scraping, you'll be well on your way!
One of the Old Guys
|"You will get dig-ins as you learn to use the skew chisel. We all do and it's a jolt!
Rarely is it serious, though, especially if you take a light cut and use sharp tools. Good luck!"
- Betty Scarpino
Years ago, I met one of the old-guy turners, Rude Osolnik. I was so stunned at his ability with turning that I probably didn't learn much from his demonstration, except to clearly understand that his tools were an extension of his hands and that he used short-handle tools. The most amazing thing he did (and there were many amazing things!) happened when he finished turning a spindle: He didn't shut off his lathe before he parted off the candleholder and inserted another piece of wood between centers! He must have retracted the quill of the tailstock, then retightened it — I don't recall — but he must have, otherwise how else did the second, same-size piece of wood fit?
Learning Some Technical Terms
Before we get started, I'll need to describe the skew chisel and its various parts.
- The toe is the sharp point where the skew-chisel edge is the longest.
- The heel is the other point.
- There are four "bevels." Really! There are four! The first two are obvious - they're the ones you sharpen on your grinding wheel. The other two bevels: one is under the toe and the other is under the heel. Remember them ... they're important! I call them the toe bevel and the heel bevel. They aren't really bevels in the traditional sense, but they act as a bevel and are important when using the toe or heel to make a cut.
- There are four cutting edges. These four opportunities for your skew chisel to make cuts in your wood, intended or otherwise, are: toe, heel, side one and side two. Of course the two sides share the same edge, but for purposes of discussion, I name them differently.
- The shape of the profile on the end of your skew is somewhat of a preference, but you need to know why you decide one shape over the other. If you want to have the cutting edge rounded, heel-to-toe, that's fine. Some people swear by it, but for me, it doesn't work. The argument is that the rounded profile helps keep the toe or heel from digging in when you don't want it to. I prefer a flat profile, which helps me see the the toe and heel more clearly. You decide - or try both shapes.
- Oval skews are ones where the bar of tool steel is oval rather than flat. I gave my oval skew away years ago (it just wasn't for me). I borrowed the one in the photo from my friend Jennifer. I don't like oval skews because the tool doesn't rest flat on the toolrest when I'm scraping.
Start with a Sharp Skew
Sharp is better than dull - you'll cut easier and with less pressure. Remember that for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction. If your tool is dull, you have to push harder. When you get a dig-in, it'll be super deep!
For the bevels on the sides - the ones you sharpen on the grinder - you can make them either long or short or somewhere in between. Long bevels make the cutting action a bit more aggressive and difficult (at first) to control. If the bevels are short, the cut is less aggressive; however, you won't be able to make cuts in narrow gaps between tight elements. Make sure the side bevels are concave or flat. If they end up being convex, that causes problems with cutting.
Bridging the Gap
Let's bridge the gap between someone like Rude Osolnik and us lesser mortals. The skew chisel has an undeserved reputation for being difficult to use, so begin with a different thought: "It's exciting to learn how to use the skew chisel, and I'm up to the challenge!"
Now that your skew is sharp and your mind is ready, go to your lathe and put a piece of wood between centers, the best kind being green wood. Choose something you don't treasure. Try for a chunk no larger in diameter than about 5" and about 12" long. Make sure it is solid wood with no large defects or cracks.
Using a roughing gouge, make the wood round, then turn off your lathe. Holding your skew chisel in one hand, apply it to the wood, rotating the wood by hand, as shown in photo 3 at left. Note how each cutting edge of the skew reacts when it meets the wood. If you're having trouble rotating the wood, call a friend to help. He or she may think you're a bit crazy, but go for it anyway.
Adjust the lathe to a fairly low speed (800 to 1,000 RPM) and make light cuts. The skew chisel is not meant for heavy cuts, at least not from a beginner.
Here's a brief explanation of how to use a skew chisel to avoid catches: When you are using one of the cutting edges, stay off the rest of them! Remember that there are four parts of the skew that will make a cut. The same goes for the bevel. Use the bevel that corresponds to the cutting edge, and let the bevel support the cut.
|In this sequence the author roughs out a blank (top left & right) and then moves on to her planing cut (bottom left & right). For the planing cut, Betty likes to turn the work by hand, adjusting the toolrest until she finds the proper angle between her chisel and rest.
Making the Essential Cuts
To start with, practice two cuts: the V-groove (toe or heel) and the planing cut. They are the ones you will use most often. Once you master them, you will be able to figure out the others.
The V-groove cut is made with either the toe or the heel of the skew. I prefer using the toe, but try both and decide which is best for you. There are advantages to both. Use an arching motion when you first put the toe into the wood - don't just stick the point into the wood. Slightly angle your skew chisel to one side, but leave a bit of clearance on that side, too. If you don't leave that clearance, then you will unintentionally connect that side's cutting edge and a catch will happen. Cut one side of the V-groove, then the other side, taking light cuts. To get the feel for it, pretend there's a bevel under the toe or heel.
The planing cut is made with either of the long edges. It's similar to taking a hand plane and shaving the wood. Lightly rest the skew chisel's side bevel on the wood, then slowly lift the handle and advance the cutting edge into the wood, moving the skew forward. Take a light cut. Don't let the toe or the heel touch the wood. And did I mention, take a light cut? The part of the edge that is the safest to use is about two-thirds down from the toe.
You will discover it is easier for you to let the tool travel left-to-right or right-to-left, depending on which hand is dominant. Practice both postures.
|Four skew-chisel cuts
|Growing your woodturning skills is similar to increasing your vocabulary. If you know more words, you can express yourself more easily. If you master all four of these cutting techniques, you will be able to express yourself more fully in wood.
|| Heel cut
Scraping with a Skew Chisel
This is where I bring the old-guy turners back into the conversation. They probably would never scrape with the skew chisel. Remember, though, we're not one of them. My assumption is that most of us want to be able to use the skew chisel occasionally and have some success with it.
So, hold the skew chisel horizontally on the toolrest. Use the long cutting edge and keep the toe from digging into any protruding element that's not being scraped. The only time you will get a catch is if you let the point of the tool accidentally dig into an element close to where you're scraping. This scraping cut is handy for smoothing out those small bumps left by a gouge or by a previous cut with the skew; however, don't expect it to make a clean cut on already-torn wood grain. This cut is also the best choice for areas of your turning that contain end grain.