Review By Dean Bielanowski  Northwood Tools Website - http://www.northwoodtools.com.au





Northwood Turning Tools
 Review

By Dean Bielanowski

 

It could be said that a lathe tool is only as good as the skill of the person wielding it, and in essence, this is true. Give a master woodturner even the cheapest of turning tools, and when properly sharpened and honed, they can make that tool work wonders!

And hence we come to the commonly asked question about turning tools... and that is "Do I need to spend a fortune on the best turning tools to get good results?"

The answer is no, but higher quality turning tools will generally require less sharpening and last longer. Perhaps a more important decision though is what types of turning tools you need. There are hundreds of profiles available, all designed for specific tasks, and if you are new to woodturning, you may not want to spend thousands on top turning tools to find out you don't actually use half of those you just dished out your life savings for.

Enter the lower priced, budget turning tools. Here you can buy a starter set or individual tools at a reduced cost, and when you have the basic skills down, you might like to look at those higher priced specialty turning tools down the track which might hold the edge longer and require less sharpening. But as the first paragraph mentions, you can get master level results from even the cheapest tools when placed in the well-trained hands.

The new Northwood range of turning tools claim to offer the best value and quality compromise in turning tools in the Australian market today. Let's see if that claim holds true!

Northwood Turning Tools
Now, I don't claim to be a master woodturner by any means, but I have used my fair share of woodturning tools in the past, and from all different price ranges. I have a set of the cheapest turning tools I could find ($30 for 8) right up to some of the most expensive tools on the market today (Robert Sorby, Crown, Hamlet etc) where one single tool can cost well over $100 alone. My most expensive turning tool is a specialty gouge retailing for $190!

Northwood turning tools probably fit somewhere in the middle of this range. Northwood offer 29 different tools in their turning tool line covering a range of popular profiles and turning tool types.

The tools from the range I picked up and have been testing include the following:

- NWT-13  2 inch Heavy Roughing Gouge
- NWT-20  1/2 inch Bowl Gouge
- NWT-15  1/2 inch Spindle Gouge
- NWT-23  8mm Beading Tool
- NWT-04  3/4 inch Oval Skew

Each turning tool features a comfortable wood handle turned from American walnut stock with what appears to be a satin varnish finish. The handle is quite traditional in shape and fits in the hands quite comfortably. Handle diameter varies along the shaft and varies also between turning tools. The "heavier" turning tools like the roughing gouge and bowl gouge have larger handles both in diameter and in length, with these tool handles measuring roughly 13 inches in length. The finer detail tools like the beading tool and oval skew have much shorter handles. These tools do not require as long a handle, and in fact, you don't really want a long handle when working with detail turning tools as they can often be more a hindrance than a help in these cases. But for the big tools, large and solid handles are certainly par for the course.

Each tool features a standard brass ferrule that helps "mate" or transition the wooden handle to the tool steel.

And speaking of tool steel, the Northwood Tools range of turning tools feature High Speed Steel (HSS) as standard with a much reduced carbon content (according to the marketing blurb). This steel is harder than traditional blend carbon steel which is what makes up most of the really cheap line of turning tools you can buy (like the $30 set I mentioned above). There are many levels of HSS quality as well. Some of the most expensive turning tools use M2 HSS, or ASP2060 HSS, all variants of high speed steel that are supposedly stronger and hold an edge much longer than regular HSS.

Each Northwood tool comes shipped with its particular profile already ground, as you would expect of course, however, it is mentioned that each tool will require some honing for best results and this is indeed true. I did try out each tool on the lathe briefly straight out of the packaging and while they do work (slowly and leave a fairly rough surface), they will need extra work to get them up to their full cutting potential. This is really not much different from any turning tool brand or range. Even most of the more expensive brands will come from the factory with non-honed edges, so expect to spend some time on each tool to hone them to full cutting order. This may involve a fair amount of time depending on the profile of each tool. Your straight edge tools can be honed quite quickly while your rounded gouges will take a little more time. It helps to have a wet sharpener with appropriate jigs for turning tools to speed this process up.

There is always great debate as to whether you should have a mirror finish on your turning tools for best results, or whether tools taken straight from the grinder are sufficient. There is no hard and fast rule. Make whichever rule for yourself based on what works best. I have spent a good deal of time mirroring an edge on a turning tool only to find it cuts only slightly better than one that has been properly sharpened and touched up regularly on a dry grinder. Indeed, some particular tools work best when the small burr is left on the tool after dry grinding. Many pro turners are quite happy to use the dry grinder only for their turning tools. So don't feel you need to spend hours on sharpening a turning tool to a mirror finish. Just find what works best for you. I am quite happy to take my roughing gouges and scrapers to the dry grinder and touch up the edges then take them straight back to the lathe. I prefer to use the wet grinder and honing wheel for skew chisels, parting tools and the smaller spindle or detail gouges however. You will quickly find what works best for each tool, and the situation at hand.

As for the Northwood turning tools holding their edge, I would have to say that they do quite well in this regard. It is blindingly obvious to me that they hold an edge much longer than my cheap carbon steel tools, however, they do not match my only ASP2060 tool's edge holding power, but this is to be expected of course. As far as I can tell, and there are tons of variables involved here, the Northwood turning tools seem to hold their edge equally as well as my Robert Sorby HSS chisels which cost quite a bit more. I do tend to like the handles on my Hamlet tools slightly better though, but this is all part of the compromise you make with lower priced tools.

In terms of actual performance and end results, the Northwood tools work equally as well as my best turning tools when properly sharpened. Heck, even my carbon steel tools can do as good a job as my Hamlets or Crown turning tools when correctly profiled and edged, the difference being primarily in the tool's material and edge holding ability. I would happily rate the Northwood tools on par with my regular Sorby HSS tools though. The Northwood tools work quite well and are comfortable to use.

NWT-13  2 inch Heavy Roughing Gouge
This is the largest of the tools I tested, and in itself is a BIG turning tool. With a two inch wide cutting surface, the heavy roughing gouge makes easy work of turning down a square blank down to round, or turning a raw branch straight from the tree to true round. It features a constant radius edge and flat ground face, so it's best used for "roughing" blanks primarily. Because of the straight edge across the front of the tool it is not really suitable for forming curves as the flat front edge does not allow for much swinging of the tool. Rather, it is designed for a side-to-side rolling action. It could be used on really long-swept curves for rough shaping, but it is predominantly a rapid material removal tool and is often used first in the turning process to prepare stock for other turning tool use. Because of its size, the two inch gouge is ideal for roughing larger and heavier blanks. One rule of turning is to try to reduce tool chatter/vibration as much as possible. This makes turning not only safer, but it also produces a better result and faster material removal. You will know what chatter/bounce is when you try to rough a large blank using say a 3/4" roughing gouge. The gouge will be bouncing all over the place as the heavy blank knocks it around. The chattering may continue up until the blank becomes perfectly round. With a heavier gouge, the tool actually weighs more and its size helps to absorb vibrations a little better as well, allowing the user to control the tool more easily and hence remove material faster, and better control that material removal.

For this turning tool, the dry grinder got a workout to refine the edge before use. Once in a working order, the gouge made easy work of most of my heavier roughing tasks. I was quite happy overall with the tool. Perhaps another inch or two on the handle length would have made it ideal for me, but I do have long arms so I prefer slightly longer tool handles. Nonetheless, if you need a heavy roughing gouge, the Northwood NWT-13 is a steal at AUD$52.00. Top of the line two inch roughing gouges can go for up to three times this amount. There is plenty of steel there to grind away so the tool should last a fair while too before it becomes too short to be used effectively.

NWT-20  1/2 inch Bowl Gouge
No guessing what this tool is used for... That's right, to turn bowls of course. However, some turners have found other uses for bowl gouges, but I am yet to use it for any other purpose. The bowl gouge also comes in several sizes. Basically you pick the size that best suits the size of bowl you want to make, although even smaller bowl gouges can turn large bowls. The 1/2" size seems a good size for smaller to medium sized bowls. The tool can be used on its own to complete a bowl from scratch. There are also many flute shapes and designs for bowl gouges but these tools generally have higher sides (deeper flutes) and narrower mouths. The NWT-20 gouge has more of a rounded V-shaped flute as opposed to some gouges with a U-shaped flute. Again, horses for courses on what works best. It's very much an individual thing.

You an craft a bowl in many different ways, but personally, I use a bowl gouge almost exclusively. I usually shape the outside of the bowl first and then only switch to a parting tool to make a recess in the bowl base for the chuck jaws when I turn the bowl around. If I am making a bowl foot, I will generally shape this with the bowl gouge for the most part, then finish with a dovetail scraper for the foot edge (and usually only for mounting in chuck jaws for turning bowl around). The deep flutes on the bowl gouge allow more swing and rotation of the tool while still offering a cutting edge to the workpiece. This is important for bowls where the tool might be needed to engage a curved edge at often very acute angles. Once the outside of the bowl is formed I will flip it and chuck it up and then carve out the inside. Again, the bowl gouge can be used from start to end because of its shape and grind. The Northwood NWT-20 bowl gouge has a flat grind around the flute, as opposed to swept back fingernail grind around the upper flutes. Again, certain designs must be used in certain ways for maximum effectiveness, but out of the pack the default grind will work well (after you hone the edge of course) and being a flat grind, it is much simpler to sharpen and hone.

Again, there is quite a lot of length to the steel to allow for many sharpenings or perhaps even a re-grind of the profile to suit your turning style, and at AUD$24, I don't think you will find a better bowl gouge for that price.

NWT-15  1/2 inch Spindle Gouge
The spindle gouge is a multi-use tool but is primarily used (by me at least) for finer detail work and crafting curves. I also use it on occasion as my only pen shaping tool. This is one tool I did sharpen and hone on my wet grinder/honing wheel to a mirror finish, and then removed the inside burr with a diamond cone file. I like my spindle gouges ultra sharp. I seem to get a finer finish on the workpiece this way and an ultra sharp gouge is a real joy to use.

The NWT-15 has a shorter 9 1/2" handle, which is ok because with these detail tools, I find I can manipulate them easier and swing the handle to all angles without it hitting something on the lathe. It has your basic fingernail type edge grind but without any real sweep on the upper wings. I slightly modified the grind on the edges of this one just to suit my needs. Some turners, myself included, prefer a swept-back fingernail grind on their spindle gouges, which tends to give the gouge more of a pointed end as opposed to the shallow radius edge on this tool by default. However, for versatility, it's best to have one of both, as swept fingernail grinds are not ideal in all detailing situations. The NWT-15 is pretty much your stock standard spindle gouge. Once I had it honed to a mirror finish, it cut cleanly and smoothly. This tool is best used cutting down near the bottom of the flute as this is where the steel is the thickest, and hence vibration is less likely here than cutting up near the ends of the flutes where steel thickness is minimal.

But if you are buying turning tools for the first time, the spindle gouge is pretty much a necessity for many turning projects, and along with the roughing gouge, it is the most used turning tool in my collection. The NWT-15 spindle gouge retails for AUD$22.00.

NWT-23  8mm Beading Tool
The beading tool is somewhat of a specialty tool. As the name suggests, it is used to craft beads in turned projects. While this can be done with a small spindle gouge, the beading tools makes it much simpler and quicker. Being a flat bar tool with a special bead shape grind, it works somewhat like a scraper. Basically you just plunge/work the tool into the round blank at 90 degrees and slowly allow the material to be taken off and shaped until it creates the rounded bead shape. It is one of the easiest tools to use, but can be odd to sharpen because of its shape. Regardless it can be done fairly easily with a round file or sandpaper and a dowel to match the radius curve in the tool's grind pattern.

Beads are most commonly found on spindle work, whether it be a spindle for a ballustrade, or a table leg, or even a lamp post. They can be tricky to craft for the new turner and if you need to make multiple beads all the same size, the beading tool is an almost foolproof method of achieving that result. The tools are size-fixed for the diameter of the bead so you have to make sure you get the correct size for your needs.

This tool had the shortest handle of the bunch at 8" long, but it doesn't need a long handle to use it effectively. This tool exhibited all the same properties and edge holding as all the other turning tools I tested. You can craft perfect beads in seconds, but you need to make sure those edges are sharp to get a good finish as you will be cutting across the grain on spindle work. Quite a handy tool if you turn a lot of beads. A good timesaver at just AUD$17.25. Beading tools are available in 3mm, 6mm, 8mm and 10mm diameter sizes in the Northwood range.

NWT-04  3/4 inch Oval Skew
Last but not least we have the skew chisel, the bane of many new woodturners it seems. I too had a lot of trouble using this tool when I first started out. It is extremely easy to gouge a workpiece using the skew until you get the hang of it. But once you do, it can be the finest finishing tool available for the lathe. Because of its double bevel flat grind that meets at a point, the skew is a tool designed to slice. As it is used, it slices the fibers of the wood cleanly, giving a surface finish often requiring little or no sanding at all.

Original skew chisels were ground from flat bar stock that had square edges (rectangular prism), but a twist on the traditional design has been to round over the faces to an oval shape giving the edges more of a point on each side rather than edge faces. The idea, I believe, is to allow the tool to move more smoothly over the tool rest on the lathe. And smoothness of travel is very important when it comes to using the skew chisel. One slip or interruption to its smooth glide path and you could have a ruined turning, or worse. I wont go into skew chisel cutting technique. It is something best shown in action rather than words.

The Northwood NWT-04 oval skew is well ground and well constructed. This is one tool again where I would have liked a slightly longer handle, but not for comfort this time, more so for control with this particular tool. It seems about two inches too short in my opinion. Nonetheless the skew does get the job done and with both bevels honed up to a mirror finish, this tool will produce surfaces as smooth as silk (well almost).

It is also a handy tool for creating space in your turning for clearance so larger tools can be used, and I have even seen it used to refine sharp curved angles, although that use is probably beyond my skill level. The 3/4" oval skew is offered for AUD$19.90.

Overall
These tools will need edge work straight out of the packaging to reach their full potential, but the edge holding power on all of them seems quite reasonable, and definitely up to par with what high speed steel should deliver. They would be ideal for the new turner, and a cost-effective solution for even the pro-turner looking to add a few extra specialty tools to their collection. As mentioned above, I believe, perhaps apart from the handle shape, that these tools are just about as good as my Robert Sorby set in overall use.

I'll stop well short of saying they are as good as my Hamlet or Crown turning tools, because the fact is that they simply are not, but at a third of the price, they work just fine for me, and my wallet certainly isn't complaining! I'll be happy to add more from this line of tools in the future as my needs arise.

Available to Order Online through these companies...
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In Australia


http://www.northwoodtools.com.au/categories.asp?cID=500

Northwood Turning Tools Photos
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The Northwood Oval Skew Chisel


Standard brass ferrule transitions


Handles are quite well finished

 


The big 2" roughing gouge makes easy work on getting square stock turned down to round.


Once properly honed, the spindle gouge was a pleasure to use.


The skew chisel provides a great surface finish once you can master it!


Simply the easiest and fastest way to make beads is with the Northwood beading tool.


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