Staedtler 1V Gouge

In these pages I present a discussion on sharpening and modification of gouges, also known as linoleum cutters or cutters for block printing.  The most commonly used tools of this sort are the Staedtler 1V (shown above) and the Speedball #1, although these guidelines also work with other V-shaped carving tools such as the Staedtler 2V and V-shaped woodcutting tools.  I'll go into excruciating detail to make the process as clear as possible, and apologize for how lengthy it is.

Below, I describe how to sharpen one of these gouges as well as a minor modification.  On separate pages I describe how to perform three popular major modifications, pinching, miniaturization and reversing.

WHAT YOU'LL NEED:  Being able to clearly see what you're doing to the tip of your gouge is imperative, so you're going to need all the magnification and lighting you can muster.  If you have good eyesight, drop into your neighborhood Dollar store and pick up a pair of +3.50 or stronger reading glasses for a dollar.  If you need glasses to see normally you won't be able to put cheap reading glasses on top of them, so you'll need to resort to a magnifier on a stand or something else.

Magnifying Lamp

Besides good magnification to see what you're doing, it's also helpful to have great magnification to inspect your finished work.  If you have a jeweler's loupe or similar 10X magnifier, that'd be good.

You will need a very fine knife hone; a common "knife sharpening stone" won't do, they are usually far too coarse for this job even if they have a side described as "fine".  There are several ways to obtain a suitable hone.  You can get what's called an "Arkansas stone", which is sold in fine knife stores; an Arkansas stone is typically used after a regular stone when sharpening knives because it is very fine-grained and applies a very smooth finish to the cutting edge.  An Arkansas stone may be difficult to find, though.  If you get one, be sure to get some honing oil to use with it.  They sometimes are sold together -- along with a coarse stone -- as a "knife sharpening kit".

Arkansas Stone and Honing Oil

Another route would be to purchase a diamond hone for sharpening knives, but you need to make sure to get a very fine one, 600 grit or thereabouts.  Harbor Freight Tools sells a couple of models, including some with three or four grits on the same block.  The problem with these things is that they typically have rows of holes all over the surface, which may help sharpening knives somehow but it just causes grief honing gouges.  Still, often such diamond hones will have a flat area uninterrupted by holes at each end that's large enough for our purposes.

Diamond Knife Hone

Contrary to the Arkansas stone, a diamond hone works best dry.  A diamond hone also seems to get finer with use, apparently as the high points of the grit get broken off the surface, but it keeps on working.  It actually works a little better for this task after it's been worn a little bit.

Yet another way to go would be to use a piece of 600-grit sandpaper taped down onto a flat surface such as a piece of glass.  This may sound like the quick and easy route, but it's more difficult to obtain a good edge with sandpaper.  If at all possible, the above two methods are preferred.  If you choose to use sandpaper, be sure to pull your gouge across the sandpaper rather than push it; pushing can cause the sandpaper to curl up a bit just ahead of the gouge and dull it rather than sharpen it.

There are other ideas that might work.  A ceramic or stone coaster might work -- that's right, the disc your drink is sitting on while you read this.  It must have a flat surface and a fine grain -- ceramic will usually be smooth enough, but many of the stone coasters are too coarse.  The surface obviously can't be coated with paint or glazing.  If it's painted or engraved on top, you might try flipping it over and peeling that cork layer off the bottom.  Using the bottom is also less likely to incur the wrath of your significant other for ruining one of your coasters.

Besides the hone, you will also need a ceramic knife.  It's possible you've never heard of such a thing; they are a fairly recent technology.  Basically it's a knife with a blade made of bright white ceramic rather than steel.  The reason:  ceramic is much harder than steel, so it will hold an edge better -- and for this task, it means it can be used to hone the inside edge of your hardened steel gouge without the knife itself getting polished instead.  The good news is that you can buy a ceramic knife at Harbor Freight Tools.  They carry three sizes, a 3" paring knife, a 5" utility knife, and a 6" chef's knife.  Any size will work here, but once you have this knife you'll want to put it to use in the kitchen, too -- trust me, these are great knives -- so choose the size that would best fit your kitchen needs.

Ceramic Knife

You can also buy a ceramic knife at Walmart.  Side note:  A ceramic knife will cut most anything, and that includes your fine china!  Don't use one as a steak knife -- you'll notice that Harbor Freight Tools doesn't offer a steak knife version -- because diners would be cutting your plates as well as the steak.  Use a ceramic knife only on a cutting board or similar surface.

If you can't find a ceramic knife the only possible substitute known is a Flexcut Slipstrop, which is a honing kit designed specifically for sharpening carving tools.

Slipstrop Hone

I haven't used one, but I understand they are made of wood and use a fine rouge or polishing compound to provide a cutting action.  What's important here is that it have a razor-sharp edge; a sharp edge is essential to make your gouge better rather than worse when sharpening.  If the wood in the Slipstrop has a sharp edge that'll be good, but if that edge gets dull with use you're either going to have to figure out how to sharpen it or keep buying new Slipstrops every now and then.  It's probably cheaper and easier to buy the ceramic knife, since it'll last essentially forever -- and if it does get dull, you can sharpen it with a diamond hone (but not an Arkansas stone; rub your ceramic knife against an Arkansas stone and the stone loses!).

There is one other thing you might want to make use of, and that's a grinder of some sort or another.  Something powered by electricity.  Basically, anything with a flat grinding surface will do, and that includes a drill or Dremel with a flat disk chucked up in it.  Honestly, if you're only working on one or two gouges, a power tool is scarcely worth the trouble; it's more important when Webfoot ships you a box of 120 gouges she wants modified!  For just a couple of gouges, you can accomplish the same tasks by hand using the various honing tools described above.  Using one of the coarser grits on a diamond knife hone works especially well.  So, in the instructions that follow, when it says to use your grinder, remember that you can just do the job by hand if you prefer.  If you are using a powered grinder, please note that the tip of a gouge is pretty tiny and will overheat quickly if you're not careful.  Always have a cup of water handy and dunk it regularly during grinding to keep it cool.

INSPECTING YOUR GOUGE:  If we could presume that your gouge was properly shaped at the factory, we could proceed directly to sharpening.  Experience has shown, though, that a large percentage of both Speedball and Staedtler gouges were not properly shaped at the factory.  So, using strong magnification -- a loupe or other 10X magnifier if you have it -- and good light, look at the tip of your gouge.  There are two common faults to look for:  First, are the two sides of the cutting edge the same length?  If one protrudes forward farther than the other, we'll have to fix that before we proceed.

Gouge Tip -- Unequal Length Sides

The other common problem is the profile of the cutting face when viewed from the side; the actual cutting edge should form a straight line.  If it seems to round the corner at the bottom of the V, we'll need to fix that, too.

Gouge Tip Defect -- Face Curvature

Note that the bottom of the tip, below the actual cutting edge, is typically rounded.  This is not a problem.  It's when the cutting edge itself curls back toward the handle that's the problem.  In other words, the grinding done to round the area below the cutting edge went too far.

What follows is a procedure for cleaning up that tip so it's straight before sharpening.  If you happen to be one of the lucky souls with a gouge that was shaped right to begin with, you can skip down to "SHARPENING" below.

CREATING A PROPER TIP:  The following process will fix whatever's wrong with your gouge short of having been run through a garbage disposal.  Step 1:  Holding the handle (not the tip!) perpendicular to the grinding surface, grind the front of the nib a little bit.

Grinding the tip flat

Looks like you're ruining your gouge, doesn't it?  Aaaaack!

After you've ground just a bit, take a look at it end-on with a light positioned to reflect off the tip.  The grinding you have done will have created a shiny area -- or perhaps two shiny areas.  If you had the rounded bottom problem, you'll probably get shiny spots at the top of the V, but they don't connect at the bottom.  If you had one side longer than the other, you probably got a shiny spot on that side only.  You need to continue this grinding until the shiny area forms a complete V.  Don't go overboard and try to make it a pretty or uniform V, only go far enough that there are no gaps in the V.  It will probably look something like this:

Shiny spot on tip after 1st grind

Now, for Step 2 you will grind the outside along one side of that V parallel to the inside surface of the tip:

Grinding one side of V

You need to know more than this illustration shows, though; you need to know how steep to make that cut.  The best way I can describe it is:  With the side of the tip against the grinding surface, the butt end of the handle should be about 2" to 2-1/2" above the grinding surface.  This is presuming a Staedtler handle, which is about 6" long overall.

Don't try to grind the side of the gouge all the way to a sharp edge just yet.  For one thing, if you're using a powered grinder, you'll most certainly burn the metal; the thinner the edge gets, the easier it is to overheat it.  For now, just put a nice bevel on the outside surface of the gouge while leaving a narrow band of the original shiny surface remaining.

Now, obviously, flip it over and do the other side the same way:

Grind the second side of the V

When you're done with these flats, the gouge viewed from the side should have a flat that looks like this:

Side view of gouge tip after grinding

Note that if the ground surface isn't shaped pretty much like that, you probably did something wrong.

Next, hold the gouge right side up with the bottom of the nib against the grinding surface, with the end of the gouge almost flat against the surface -- just slightly nose-down, so the tip contacts first.

Grinding the bottom of the tip

While holding this position, grind just enough to create a flat on the bottom that is shaped like an elongated diamond.  Do not, repeat DO NOT grind enough that you break through to the inside of the V at the tip!  You do want to grind until the elongated diamond you are creating extends right up to the front of the nib, though, where the two sides you ground meet at the bottom of the V.

Note:  Both Staedtler and Speedball nibs come with the bottom ground to a rounded shape.  In cutting this flat, I am recommending a departure from the original configuration.  I have tried both ways, with a flat bottom and with a rounded bottom, and in my opinion the flat bottom works as well or even slightly better; the gouge has less tendency to fall into the groove you just cut.  It's also much easier to grind a flat than a curved surface.  You may, however, opt to roll the gouge side-to-side during this step to round the bottom the way the manufacturer did it.

After you've finished this step, you're done with the grinder for now. 

SHARPENING:  Hold the gouge with the tip against the surface of the hone and rolled onto one side, so that one side of the V is flat against the hone.  The tip of the handle should be perhaps 2-1/2" to 3" above the honing surface, which you'll note is a bit higher than it was held in the grinding steps described above.  This will have you honing just at the cutting edge rather that trying to move the entire bevelled surface.

The trick here is to have good light and good magnification to see what you're doing, and hold the gouge in one hand and the hone in the other.  Firmly establish the position that you will be holding both.  Bring them together and begin a honing motion (back and forth, circles, doesn't matter much) without changing those positions.  Periodically stop and look at the polished area you have created, making sure that it is uniform along the edge and not concentrating too much at one corner or the other.  If you find you've been leaning a bit crooked one way or the other, adjust and continue.

If you have ground a new tip on the gouge as described above and left a narrow strip of the flat front face during grinding, now is the time to bring that bevelled surface all the way to meet the inside surface of the V.  Note that as you get close to the inside surface of the V you need to be applying only very light pressure on the hone.  Too much pressure will push the thin edge right over.  Even if it doesn't permanently deform it, it can bend it enough that the hone isn't creating the edge you're looking for; it's not polishing the edge itself because the edge has moved out of the way.  Very light pressure is the secret to success here; let the hone and the motion do the work, don't try to rush it or force it.

Note:  If you have experience sharpening knives, you're probably alarmed at how steep these angles are.  If you honed a knife at similar angles, it would end up with a pretty blunt edge indeed and wouldn't cut well at all.  If you try to use the shallow angles commonly used in knife sharpening on a gouge, you'd end up with a very sharp gouge -- and you'd bend the edge over as soon as you tried to carve with it.  The cutting edge on a gouge nib needs to have comparatively blunt angles to be strong enough to push into rubber and pry pieces out without getting damaged.  The fact that the tip doesn't have that razor sharpness you get from honing at shallow angles isn't a problem because it's not difficult to push a gouge through rubber anyway.

Obviously, once done with one side of the V, roll the gouge the other way and do the other side.

Once you have both sides honed to form an actual cutting edge at the face of the V, you will know perfectly well how to hold the gouge with one side or the other against the hone while rubbing.  Now do one more trick:  While holding one side of the gouge against the hone and rubbing, slowly roll the gouge over to the other side, continuing the honing motion all the way.  Keep the handle at about the same height through this process.  When honing a Staedtler, the entire roll should take no more than a few seconds; it takes a bit longer on a Speedball because the bottom of the V isn't as crisply formed.  When done, you can look at the bottom of the V and see what you've done.  This step will round the corners where the flats on the sides and the elongated diamond flat on the bottom meet.  This is a minor and quick step, but it makes all the difference in how well your gouge will carve because it's this area that slides across the rubber when carving.

The next step is to take your ceramic knife and position the edge of the knife down in the bottom of the V.  The tip of the knife should be pointing toward the handle of the gouge.  With the ceramic knife held in this position, roll it until one side of the knife is sitting flat against one side of the V of the gouge.  Slide the knife in and out of the tip of the gouge a couple of times; the blade will probably come close to contacting the handle of the gouge.  You may notice a gray smudge appearing on the white ceramic knife; that's metal particles being rubbed away.  Roll the knife over the other way and polish the other side of the V the same way.  And, just for good measure, stand the ceramic knife up straight, centered between the two sides of the V, and make a few more in-and-out sliding motions with the sharp edge of the knife working on the bottom of the V only.

This treatment with the ceramic knife only takes ten seconds or so.  Two or three slides each way is plenty.  It absolutely must be the last thing done to the cutting edge of the gouge, though.  If you decide the work on the outside isn't quite right and you want to go back and hit it some more, be sure to repeat the inside honing with the ceramic knife when you're done.

A MINOR GOUGE MODIFICATION:  Your gouge is done, but I recommend one more step.  Hold your gouge with one side of the tip against a grinder or hone (either works here) as shown:

Grinding the sides of the tip

You'll need to use the corner of a grinder or hone for this task, because you need to get down low enough that both the broad part of the nib and the handle would be contacting the grinding surface.  Grind away the side of the tip as shown.  When viewed from the side, the resulting flat will be a triangle with a long straight side along the top edge of the gouge tip and the peak pointing downward.  The forward end of this triangle should not meet the cutting edge!  Get it up close to the cutting edge and quit.  Obviously, repeat for the other side.

These cuts do not affect the cutting edge at all; the cutting edge is not involved -- that's why it doesn't matter if you use the hone or grinder.  What this modification does is make the tip visibly narrower, which means it's easier to see what you're carving because there's less gouge in your line of sight.  You'll be surprised at how much it helps.  And it's quick and easy to do.

The completed gouge should have 5 "facets" around the outside.  Two triangles, two trapezoids, and one elongated diamond.

You're done.  Using a scrap piece of carving rubber, take a couple of trial cuts and see how it works.  I usually start by jamming the tip deep into the rubber to clean it; pull it out of the rubber and it leaves smudges of metal particles all around the cut.  If you have a jeweler's loupe or similar 10X magnifier, you can inspect your work.  The important thing is that you haven't left any of the original shiny flat face, which would be dull.  It's pretty easy to tell if you have, though, by holding the gouge in such a way that your light would shine on it.  When there's no more shine, you know you're looking at a sharp edge.