Bowl Gouge Basics – Beginner Guide (parts, use, sizes, grinds)

Bowl Gouge Basics Complete Guide

Bowl gouge basics are the foundation of wood bowl turning. The bowl gouge is probably the number one most recognized wood turning tool and for a good reason.

What is a bowl gouge? A bowl gouge is a hand tool used to cut and shape wood bowls on a lathe. The bowl gouge consists of a handle connected to a sturdy metal shaft. The metal shaft has a center groove along the top portion known as a flute. The leading edge, or tip, of the bowl gouge is ground with an angled bevel which makes a sharp cutting edge that cuts wood as it rotates on a lathe.

A bowl gouge can be used to make an entire bowl without the aid of any other turning tool if needed.

It is better to have multiple bowl gouges of different sizes and different grinds to make wood bowl turning as efficient as possible.

In this article we are covering the following topics:

  • Parts of a Bowl Gouge
  • Steel Used To Make Bowl Gouges
  • Bowl Gouge Shapes
  • Bowl Gouge Sizes
  • Bowl Gouge Basics – Grinds
  • Bowl Gouge Basics – Uses
  • Shaping A Bowl Gouge
  • Sharpening A Bowl Gouge
  • How To Use A Bowl Gouge
  • Four Bowl Gouge Cutting Techniques

Let’s jump in and start with identifying the various parts of a bowl gouge.

Bowl Gouge Basics – The Parts

Bowl Gouge Basics Parts Labeled Infographic

The Cutting Tip

The bowl gouge is a pretty simple tool, but let’s take a closer look and identify all the parts.

At the tip of the bowl gouge is the cutting edge. The cutting edge is the entire curved area around the top edge of the gouge bevel.

Gently rubbing your finger against the cutting edge reveals how sharp it can be.

Directly under the cutting edge, on the outside, is the flat, smooth bevel surface. The bevel is used as a skid or guide when we “ride the bevel.” Keeping the bevel close to parallel to the cutting surface is the key to this technique.

At the bottom of the bevel, opposite of the top cutting edge is the heel. Most of the time the heel is not a critical component. However, if you cut a tight curve, the heel can interfere and actually burnish the wood as it rubs the surface.

To eliminate this rubbing effect of the heel, the heel area can be ground back making the bevel narrower and capable of turning tighter curved areas.

Bowl Gouge Basics Heel Reduced Radius

The Shank

The shank or shaft of a bowl gouge is formed from steel rod that is then milled to shape and hardened.

In the center of the bowl gouge is the hollowed out concave area called the flute. This area is usually ground out of the solid steel as part of the gouge milling process.

The Handle

Handles for bowl gouges are traditionally made from hardwood, but can also be made from metal or other materials.

The length of a bowl gouge handle contributes to the balance and leverage available when turning.

More massive bowl gouges, designed for removing larger amounts of material at one time, typically have longer and heavier handles which increase leverage advantage for the turner.

Most wood-handled tools usually have a ferrule or collar around the wood end where the shaft or shank connect.

A ferrule, many times made of metal, prevents the wood handle end from splitting.

Steel Used To Make Bowl Gouges

The steel used to make the bowl gouge shaft or shank can be made from many different metals.

Older gouges were made of high-carbon steel and required sharpening often, which wore the tool down quickly.

Today, the most commonly used bowl gouge steel is known as High-Speed Steel or HSS. HSS is a steel alloy made from elements like molybdenum, tungsten, and chromium which can withstand high temperatures without losing its hardness as quickly as high-carbon steel.

There is another type of steel, referred to as M2 steel, which is a particular formulation of HSS designed to be even more resistant to wear, easy to grind, and long-lasting.

Recently, Cryogenic M2 steel has been introduced to bowl gouges as yet an even harder, longer lasting option.

It is believed that the cryogenic steel tempering process conditions the steel altering its properties better than all other processes.

Look along the shank of the bowl gouge or the handle for a mark or a stamp indicating what type of steel was used to make the gouge.

Bowl Gouge Basics – Sizes

Bowl gouges are usually sized by the width of the flute. Some manufacturers, however, use the shaft diameter when labeling their gouge sizes.

Typically, the width of the flute is the stated size of a bowl gouge. So a bowl gouge labeled as a 3/8” gouge usually has a 3/8” wide flute and a wider 1/2” wide shaft.

When ordering bowl gouges, make sure the width of the flute and shaft are clearly defined. If this information is not clear, make sure to clarify the flute width before ordering.

For example, some manufacturers will call a gouge with a 1/2″ wide shank a “1/2″ bowl gouge,” when most others call a 1/2″ wide flute a “1/2″ bowl gouge.”

The length of the bowl gouge shank is not as much of a factor as the width of the cutting tip and flute. Narrower sized shaft gouges are typically a bit shorter than wider gouges, but not by much.

Bowl Gouge Basics Flute Shank Sizes

Bowl Gouge Basics – Shapes

There are several different bowl gouge flute shapes. The shape of the flute is created by the shape of the milling tool used to mill out the flute area.

Some bowl gouges, especially older models are made with deep “V” shape, or a deep “U” shaped flute designs. Both of these gouge shapes are generally regarded as less desirable because they can catch or grab easily and don’t provide a smooth even cut.

The most popular bowl gouge flute shape is the parabolic or modified shorter “U” shape that leaves an even thick path of supportive metal at the base of the gouge. Another name for this gouge profile is a “super-flute.”

Most current bowl gouge designs incorporate some version of this Super-Flute design.

Bowl Gouge Basics – Grinds

The bowl gouge manufacturing and design is rather simple, a handle fitted with a steel shaft which has a flute-shaped groove milled along the top edge.

It is up to us, as wood turners to shape the tip of the bowl gouge to fit our specific needs. We need to decide what “grind” to create at the tool’s business end.

What is a bowl gouge grind?

The term “grind” generally means the specific profile, bevel angle and side wings present on a bowl gouge.

There are many different options available for bowl gouge grinds, here are a few of the bowl gouge basics grinds:

  • Traditional Grind
  • 40/40 Grind
  • Fingernail Grind
  • Modified Fingernail Grind
  • Irish Grind
  • Ellsworth Grind
  • Micro-Bevel Grind

Bowl Gouge Basic Uses

Remember at the beginning of this article I said you could turn an entire bowl with one bowl gouge? Well, that is very possible, but specific bowl gouge grinds offer different advantages at times.

Each bowl gouge can have a different grind and serve a different purpose. Because of this, we can order, for instance, three identical 1/2” bowl gouges and shape the tips of each different making them each good at a certain specific task or multiple tasks.

Most of the grind profiles shown above can be used for the majority of the time turning a wood bowl.

Each grind has a slightly different bevel angle, and the bevel angle ergonomically affects how you turn the bowl.

To learn more about the bowl gouge bevel angles and how they work, read this article when you finish here.

Short-winged bowl gouge grinds, like the traditional, fingernail and the 40/40 grind, are good general use gouges. These gouges also perform well with punky, loose-grained woods, like spalted pecan.

Longer-winged bowl gouges, like the Irish and Ellsworth grinds, have the added advantage of being able to make scraping and shear-scraping cuts using the cutting wings against the bowl surface.

If you haven’t started shear-scraping with a bowl gouge, please read this article next. You’re going to love the final results.

The micro-bevel steep grind gives this gouge the unique ability to make clean cutting passes deep down inside a tall or narrow vessel.

With the steep cutting angle of the micro-bevel gouge, the tool handle is oriented almost perpendicular to the bowl bottom when the cutting edge engages the wood surface.

DIY Bowl Gouge Depth Gauge Design Plans Block

Shaping A Bowl Gouge

Not to be mistaken for sharpening, bowl gouge shaping is usually only done once when a bowl gouge is first acquired.

Most manufacturers apply a simple generic edge to the tip of a new bowl gouge. The manufacturer’s tip usually isn’t what you want to start turning with unless you have purchased a specialty gouge which has already been pre-shaped.

It is usually best to decide what grind you’d like to apply to a given bowl gouge and keep that grind for the life of the gouge.

Changing profiles or grinds on a gouge can be time consuming and wasteful, as large amounts of metal is wasted each time the grind profile changes.

Use a protractor and establish the desired bevel angle on the front of the gouge. Next, take advantage of a sharpening jig, which we will discuss more in a moment, to carefully grind the shape of the tooltip and the side wings.

Grinding removes more material than sharpening and goes quicker with a more coarse grit grinding wheel. I have a 180 grit and an 80 grit CBN wheel on my grinder. The 80 grit CBN wheel is used to shape metal.

Continue grinding the bowl gouge tip until the desired grind profile appears.

Bowl Gouge Basics Complete Illustrated Guide

Sharpening A Bowl Gouge

A good quality sharpening station is needed to sharpen a bowl gouge and a major component of bowl gouge basics.

Yes, bowl gouges can be sharpened by hand, but that is a very tricky and challenging endeavor.

Instead of wasting time and gouge steel sharpening by hand, I recommend using a gouge sharpening jig system.

The sharpening jig is quick, convenient, but most importantly it is consistent.

Follow the sharpening jig steps and gently apply the bevel edge of the gouge to the finer grit sharpening grinder wheel. Make light passes without adding much pressure. Let the wheel do the sharpening.

After a smooth, shiny bevel surface appears around the gouge tip, the tool is sharp and ready for work.

Check out this article to learn more about the details of sharpening a bowl gouge.

How To Use A Bowl Gouge

A bowl gouge slowly removes layers away from a turning wood bowl blank. Each pass removes another layer, one after another.

The lathe tool rest needs to be positioned relatively close to the wood bowl blank to give yourself a leverage advantage with the bowl gouge handle.

Rotate the bowl gouge to the side slightly, so the side of the cutting edge engages the wood. A rotated gouge tip makes a less aggressive and more smooth slicing cut against the wood.

When starting, do not have the flute open, or visible and pointed upward. In this position, the gouge can engage too much wood too quickly and cause a “catch.”

Bowl Gouge Flute -Direction

Later, after you are more comfortable with making bevel riding cutting passes, then you can start rotating the tool to an open position. However, the open flute position is ideal for more delicate finishing cuts that only remove thin layers at a time.

An ideal cutting pass involves having the flat bevel surface nearly parallel to the wood surface. When the bevel is flush with the wood, this is known as “riding the bevel.” Here’s an article that covers riding the bevel thoroughly.

When the bowl gouge is not fluidly riding the bevel, tool marks in the form of grooves, scrapes, and ruts will most likely be visible on the bowl surface. Here are some hints for fixing tool marks.

Because of the bevel angle, lowering the gouge handle a bit presents the gouge bevel accurately and make even smooth cuts. Also, with the handle lowered, you have more leverage control over the gouge.

Attempting to make cutting passes that remove too much material at one time can result in a catch. A catch is any sudden incident when the wood blank resists being cut by the gouge.

While catches can occur and are somewhat startling, with experience and practice, you will know when the bowl gouge is reaching its limit and be able to prevent a catch from happening. Read this article to learn all the ins and outs of wood bowl catches.

Four Bowl Gouge Cutting Techniques

There are four main cutting techniques with a bowl gouge, which include; the pull cut, the push cut, the scrape cut, and the shear-scraping cut.

The pull cut is a bevel riding cut, meaning the bevel is flush or parallel with the wood surface. When the tip begins to cut the tool is pulled towards the turner along the bowl surface.

A push cut is also a bevel riding cut and involves pushing the bowl gouge tip forward along the bowl surface to make the cut, just as the name implies.

The next two cuts require longer side bevel wings. The Irish and Ellsworth grinds are ideally suited for our next two cuts.

Unlike the pull and push cuts, the scraping cut does not involve the bevel at all. Instead, the gouge is flipped over with the flute facing the wood surface.

Only the top gouge wing lifts slightly away from the surface. The lower wing is in contact with the wood and does all the scraping action.

The bowl gouge is held nearly horizontal when performing the scraping cut. This cut can quickly remove material and is best used to make adjustments to the shape of a bowl.

Similar to the scrape cut, the shear-scraping cut utilizes the wings of the gouge against the bowl surface.

The tool is oriented in a steep upward angle, almost 45°, and the same lower wing is used to make the shear-scrape. Because of this angle, the engaged scraping gouge wing acts like a razor and gently shaves off wispy thin layers and any high spots.

Shear-scraping requires a bit of practice but is a fantastic way to finish the exterior of a bowl to the point that little to no sanding is necessary.

Shear-scraping is best used on just the bowl exterior. Bowl interiors are a bit tricky with this cutting technique and can result in catches.

Bowl Gouge Basics – Where To Start

When you’re starting, use one or two different gouges of medium diameter, a 1/2” bowl gouge is a good size to start with, and practice until you feel comfortable.

After acquiring some experience, slowly introduce a smaller gouge, like a 3/8” gouge, to create fine, delicate finishing cuts. Also, try a larger 5/8” to 3/4” gouge to act as a wood plow to quickly remove waste material or work larger bowls.

As you progress along your wood bowl turning journey, you will most likely acquire bowl gouges of different shapes, sizes and grind profiles.

Bowl Gouge Conclusion

The bowl gouge is the quintessential tool for any wood bowl turner.

After you’ve spent time turning with a variety of different bowl gouges and developed your bowl gouge basics, you will truly appreciate the wide range of possibilities available from this humble wood bowl turning workhorse.

Check out this other important articles
See my Recommended Bowl Gouges
Shear Scraping Cut Perfection with a Bowl Gouge
Bowl Gouge Technique – 4 Turning Cuts To Master

As Always Happy Turning,

37 Responses

  1. Dear Kent,

    I get much out of your articles. “Riding the bevel” summarizes a lot, and I am glad I found your article that spells it all out. I am working on a bowl in spalted wood and I finished the outside yesterday. I left the inside for today, but I have now found cracks that were not there yesterday. I know that other people don’t wait a day–they do the outer bowl and the inner bowl in succession–and I am wondering if there is a reason for that. Can wood–some woods–crack overnight?

    And what to do about it. Is there a way to seal small cracks and continue? Must I turn off a quarter of an inch or so and start again? Or can I use cement or sanding sealer to halt the cracking and then resume turning the inside after it dries?

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Not quite like taking a course, but as close as you can get without joining you physically.

    Roy Wise

    1. Roy,
      Thank you for writing and sharing! Great question.
      Yes, wood will move, contract and crack overnight and in some cases within hours or minutes. Don’t leave a piece, especially one with much moisture on the lathe without completing the turning. Dense areas contain more moisture and exposed surfaces are drying rapidly. You want to get down to an even wall thickness throughout the piece as soon as possible. We cover this in more detail in the Tree to Bowl – Understanding Green Wood course. Check it out
      All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  2. Thank you very much
    Lots of info thats free of excessive chat and full of good info

  3. Kent,

    Thanks for the great article. I believe there should be one correction. You mentioned the longer lasting M2 HSS. I believe M2 is just the standard HSS and M42 is the longer lasting HSS.

    Thanks again for all your hard work!

  4. Dear Kent,

    I have been using your excellent videos on youtube extensively while trying to improve my skills as a woodturner but have looked in vain on your videos for information on shaping and shapening the tool you use to finish the junction between the tenon and the bottom of the bowl. I believe you call it a “detail spindle gouge” (?). Could you please tell me where this information can be found?.

    Kind regards


    1. Soeren,

      Thank you for writing and sharing!

      I don’t have any specific video about the detail gouge. I do cover how to shape and sharpen it in my Tool Sharpening course.

      Happy Turning!

  5. Hi Kent,

    I’m just getting started in bowl turning and am trying to get set up with all of the right tools. In reading your articles and watching your videos I have been making my list of tools to purchase. I am, however, encountering a a bit of confusion related to bowl gouge sizes since each gouge has two dimensions, the shank and the flute.

    I made a list and copied your links from your articles in order to help me clarify what I should be looking for. I might be missing something, but I am seeing both the 1/2″ bowl gouge and the 3/8″ bowl gouge linked to the same tool. I can understand that either could be correct since the 1/2″ gouge has a 3/8″ flute. This leaves me wondering, when you mention a tool by size in your videos or in writing, are you referencing the shank size or the flute size?

    Thanks for your excellence and thoroughness in teaching. You have me hooked and I have yet to start.


    1. Kevin, Yes, this is a U.S. (perhaps other locations too) vs. rest of the world thing. In the U.S. we measure the width of the shaft. Elsewhere measure thee flute. I suggest starting with just a 1/2″ (3/8″ flute) and a 5/8″ (1/2″ flute) gouge. You can do 99% of everything you see me do with these two gouges. All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  6. Hiya Kent

    I’ve only just come across your online turn a bowl ecourse..I’ve been looking for a course for a while now (only recently been introduced to a Lathe – Fell in Love instantly and my creative juices have been ignited)..but to no avail, until now.
    The only problem is that I can’t get access to it. Is it still ongoing?

    I’d really like to have a look at it and hopefully enroll, because I loved your article on the difference between carbide and traditional hss tools, which then led me to your course…
    I’m from South Africa, does that make a difference – time zone etc?

    Thanks for your great articles and I’m glad I came across you – you have no idea, how much I desire to learn the Art of Turning Wood and your course (going by the reviews) is perfect for beginners like me…

    Cheers for now, Woody

    1. Woody,
      Thank you for writing and sharing!
      The courses are always available to you, whenever it is convenient to you. That’s the best part.
      Check them out here
      Remember; persistent, patient practice will yield the bowls you imagine creating!
      All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  7. Hi Kent,
    I appreciate all the great information you share. I got your sharpening course and have a question about gouges. (Some background: I bought a Shopsmith about 35 years ago when I was in the Marines. I’ve only used it a bit but now want to start turning bowls. I have about 10 different gouges I’m trying to identify.) In the course you said never use a spindle gouge to turn a bowl. How do I tell which of the gouges I have can be used to turn bowls? What would you suggest? Thanks, Jeff

  8. Kent, I’ve been having trouble recently with my bowl gouge technique. I’ve only been turning seriously for 6 months or so, and I like to turn odd-shaped things like tree crotches. In its base configuration, my Shopsmith has a low speed of 750 rpm, so my turnings were limited in size to about 10″ in diameter due to the fairly light weight of the machine. At that size and speed, a well balanced piece cuts quickly, even if there is air between parts of the project, and I’ve made some really nice smaller non-round bowls. However, I recently added a speed reducer to my machine that drops the low speed to 100 rpm, allowing the full 16″ diameter of the lathe bed to be used. But at speeds from 100 to around 300rpm, that leads to a “chunk-chunk-chunk” if the piece isn’t fully round. I am having a lot of trouble using a bowl gouge in such cases, so I’ve taken to using carbide cutters to rough out larger bowls, which is less than ideal. Any thoughts on using a bowl gouge with pieces turning at super low speeds?


    1. Tony,
      Thank you for writing and sharing!
      Yes, the main issue is to apply downforce on the tool rest and move the bowl gouge in a path independent of the bowl. In other words, don’t press the tool into the bowl. Doing so, causes the cutting edge to move inward when there is air and then get smacked by the next section. Focus on making a smooth pass across the tool rest and the bowl will take care of itself. That being said, you will still get the chunk-chunk-chunk sound a bit because of the gaps.

      All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  9. Hagen, Germany, Nov. 17th 2021
    I think that at last I am starting to understand woodturning. I am a retired doctor, but this is the new world I was looking for after pensioning off 6 years ago. I am doing woodturning since about 1 year on a homemade lathe, I bought a new lathe 2 months ago and found my teacher recently on YouTube. Thank you Kent, Thank you for your special style of teaching, which I find very effective and inspiring.

    1. Mahen,

      Thank you for writing and sharing! Wow, I’m honored to be your online instructor!

      Remember; persistent, patient practice will yield the bowls you imagine creating!

      All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  10. I have been watching you for a while on you tube, I have discovered that you have a very easy way of teaching the basics of bowl turning that eases someone into the way a master uses their tool. I would like to be as good as you are
    but some times my presentation to wood turning seams hap hasard like a bomb going off! The fact that you use the 55 degree grind on your gouges intices me. To me when I look at your gouge the wings appear to be ground with a very slit concave shape, I know that isn’t true. And it also appeared to be 1″ long, Is that all true? I’ve had a problem with the getting that grind on my bowl gouge for as long as I can remember. I’ve been turning for 20years, HA HA.
    I bet you hear this all the time? HEADS-UP, what is your advise?

    1. Jerry,

      Thank you for writing and sharing!

      Well, I address both of these issues in my online courses. The 55° bevel spet-back bowl gouge does have wings around an inch in length. The wings are not concave, but can become concave if too much time is spent in those areas on the sharpening wheel.

      Check out my courses for all the details.

      All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  11. Hi Kent

    I live in the UK. As your course is online I am thinking that I can do it but you mention using the same blanks. I have lost all confidence as I keep going wrong and taking chunks out of my bowls. Is taking your course possible please.

    1. Simon,
      Yes, this course is for You!

      I’m not just saying that to make a sale.

      Instead, I’ve designed this course to make it simple and easy to learn how to turn bowls, but more importantly how to use the bowl gouge properly.

      When I say we will be using the same blanks, I mean it. We will be using readily available standard “building grade” lumber and shaping small bowl blanks. These are “learning” blanks. No need to stress about ruining good wood or making everything “perfect.” And we will make several to further reduce the worries of messing up. Everyone messes up when we start. We just need to mess up, learn, improve, and repeat several times and then things start to come together. I think you really benefit from this course.

      I hope to see you over there!

      All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  12. I’m so glad I came across your videos & site! I started turning 7(ish?) years ago but gave up because I couldn’t find good information on *how* to turn. Unburied the lathe recently and am really looking forward to giving it another go. I think it will be a lot more successful with the information I’ve learned from your site & videos. Thank you so much for posting these!

  13. This is what I have been looking for to become a good wood lathe turning guy.

    1. Bill,

      Set aside time and make turning a priority. If you do that and stay persistent, you will be making beautiful bowls in no time!

      Happy Turning,

  14. I meant the bevel angle should be measured from the flute, not the Vertical. I mistakenly said horizontal.

  15. Thank you for your article. I’m still confused about some things, particularly the chart on bowl gouge grinds. From everything else I’ve seen, the bevel angle is measured from the flute, not from the horizontal. The 40/40 grind should be more pointed than the 45 deg. grind. The 50 deg. should be even more blunt, etc.

    1. Robert,

      Thanks for writing. I checked that graphic again and you were correct. The top wing angles of the old graphic were not 40°. The image has been updated.

      The measurements are coming from the flat area flute.

      Thank again.

      Happy Turning,

  16. As I make my transition from carbon to traditional tools this was , by far, the most informative article I have read. Thanks, new turner, Joe Park.

    1. Joe,

      Thank you so much!

      I know exactly where you are in the bowl turning spectrum and it is an exciting place.

      Stay curious, be patient, and keep turning!

      Happy Turning,

    1. Thank you, Don!

      It’s my goal to put together a site with all the knowledge needed to make great bowls.

      And the bowl gouge sure is a critical player in the process.

      I’m glad you like this article.

      Thanks again,

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Kent Weakley-Turn A Wood Bowl-About
Hi, I’m Kent

Hi! I’m Kent, a husband, dad, papa, graphic designer, photographer, artist, traveler, birder, dark chocolate lover and I’m addicted to turning wood bowls! Learn more about me, see the online courses I made for you, and join our group on Facebook. Ready for your wood bowl adventure? Click here to Get Started

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