QuestionI have no turning experience, but my next tool purchase will be a lathe. I plan to turn everything from bowls to chess pieces. Should I buy a full set of lathe tools? Or would I be better off starting with two or three must-haves and adding tools as I begin to specialize?
-Joe Ullrich, Grayslake, Illinois

Answer: I firmly believe that a tool-turning set represents a very poor value. These sets are compiled by merchandising “experts” who are clueless about turning. The result is a collection of tools of which only one or two are actually worth having.

You should buy only high-speed-steel (HSS) tools and avoid the cheaper carbon-steel ones. HSS holds an edge longer and you do not need to worry about burning it on the grinder. Powdered metal tools are now offered; but I find that they do not hold an edge any longer than HSS yet are often twice the price.

When I was young, it was cheaper to buy tools without handles. I still do that, and size my handles so I can tell a 3/8-in. gouge from a 1/2-in. one. I also use different designs for spindle tools, faceplate tools, and scrapers to make it easier to grab the tool I want. Even if you don’t turn your handles, buying brands with different handles helps you pick out a tool quickly.

Buy one at a time. A set of turning tools often contains tools you’ll rarely need. This group will get you started on spindle and faceplate turning, plus the different handles will let you distinguish one tool from another more easily.

I recommend the following starter tools:

Starter Tool Kit

0.5-in Spindle Gouge

½ -in. bowl gouge
The next size to get is ¼ in.

.75 to 1.25 in. Spindle Roughing Gouge

¾ -in. to 1¼ -in. spindle roughing gouge
The bigger the better.

Skew Chisel

1-in. to 1¼ -in. skew chisel
Rectangular is the traditional shape, but oval is easier for a beginner.

Beading and Parting Tool

3/8-in. beading and parting tool
Great for sizing work with calipers, sizing tenons, and cutting beads 

Diamond Parting Tool

1/16-in. or 1/8-in. diamond parting tool
Diamond is superior to a rectangular cross section.

V-Point Scraper

½ -in. V-point scraper
Great for making chucks.

Bowl Gouge

½ -in. spindle gouge
A shallow flute is better than a deep one.

Dome Scraper

1-¼ -in. dome scraper
The wider and heavier the better.

Reground Files, Screwdrivers, and Chisels

¼ -in. to 1-in.-wide old files, screwdrivers, chisels, etc.
These make great scrapers. Grind them into whatever shape you need.

-Updated 7/17/08 to fix an error. The labels for the 1/2-in. bowl gouge and the 1/2-in. spindle gouge were swapped mistakenly.

Photos: Ernie Conover