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Carving by Richard Baker Sr.
Carving by
Richard Baker Sr.

The Carving Tool - History - Composition

Carving Tool History

Through some research I have found out some interesting facts about the start of the carving tools. The tools started out very primitive. They were made of jade, obsidian, bone, seashells and beavers hind leg. Certain fish shins were used for sanding. Stories have been told of people coming to the Americas northwest coast from different parts of the world, before the 1700's. There were reports of people boating over from Hawaii, Japan and Russia. These are the people that introduced steel to the Native Americans. Steel had also been retrieved from floating debris from wrecked ships. This steel would have been in a very primitive state but a big improvement over the bone and tools. The proof of this is that the carvings started to get bigger and more detailed.

The oldest bent knife I have seen was one that belonged to Wayne Carlick who said it belonged to his grandfather. The blade was made of bone and shaped like a slow curved knife. It was lashed with sinew to an arbutus brand that was the handle. Wayne is a carver at the Capilano Suspension bridge in North Vancouver, BC.


A good quality tool will be one of the most important investments you can make as a carver. A good tool can be just as important as the experience you gain. It is very discouraging to have a tool that won't stay sharp or a tool that is too hard to sharpen and will quite often chip or break. A good way to find good tools is to ask a master carver. They have usually established a working relationship with a retailer or a knife maker.

When looking for a carving tool ask the retailer or knife maker a few questions like what is the blade hardness and what kind of steel are they made from. If the retailer can't tell you what kind of steel it is made of stay away from it. The hardness should be RC 57+ and the steel should be tools steel. L6 is about the best I have found for wood carving tools. The cutting edge stays sharp for a long time and there is a bit of flex in the blade. With the right heat treatment this blade has what is called a tough edge. There will be an explanation further on.

When purchasing a tool get one that has been pre-sharpened. You don't want to sit for hours sharpening to save maybe a few dollars. If the knife comes with a guarantee, you can be assured it has some quality. This will be a commitment to the carver that this is a quality tool.

Carving Tool Steel

The composition of the steel is one of the things that makes or breaks a quality carving tool. The main function of a carving tool is to cut with the least resistance. To do this two things have to be considered, the thickness of the blade and the ability of the blade to stay sharp. The best steel for carving tools is tools steel. There are different grades of tools steel. The best is the one with the high nickel and high carbon content, preferably L6. Stay away from the tool steel that has a high content of carbide, Carbide can make a tool very hard but with a thin edge the is no material to support it and it will chip under a bit of stress. When it chips you have to have it repaired. A good tool steel will be made up of the following composition: .75% carbon, 2.60% nickel the high carbon and high nickel content gives the blade a tough edge.

Analysis of the L6 Tool Steel
  • carbon 0.75 %
  • silicon 0.25 %
  • manganese 0.42 %
  • potassium 0.025 %
  • sulfur 0.011 %
  • chrome 0.03 %
  • nickel 2.60 %