Carbide Vs. Traditional HSS Wood Turning Tools

Carbide Vs HSS Traditional Bowl Gouge Turning Tools

When turning a wood bowl, which tools are better, carbide or high-speed steel (HSS) traditional turning tools?

The answer can be highly controversial, depending with whom you speak. To be honest, carbide and traditional turning tools each have advantages and disadvantages.

In this article, we will unpack all the pros and cons of carbide and HSS turning tools so you can better understand which tools might be best for you.

Carbide Inferiority Complex

For some reason, probably ego, some traditional wood bowls turners seem to look down on turners using carbide scrapers.

Perhaps it is because the relative newcomers, carbide turning tools, are quicker to learn and have rapidly introduced more people to the world of woodturning.

With traditional turning tools, there is a learning curve and time commitment needed to gain proficiency. Along with this skill comes a perception of earned respect from fellow turners.

Origin Story

Before I started turning wood bowls, I was fascinated with the idea of turning a wood bowl. I watched tons of YouTube videos and read articles online until one day a turning seminar popped up at a local woodworking store. I jumped at the opportunity.

In all my research, I’d seen traditional, and carbide tools in use, and the long curly shavings created with a conventional HSS bowl gouge seemed so dreamy.

Curly HSS Bowl Gouge Shavings

When I arrived at the turning seminar, we were handed 8-inch bowl blanks and assigned a workstation, which consisted of a small Jet lathe, a screw chuck, four jaw chuck, and three carbide turning tools. I was a bit disappointed not to see a traditional bowl gouge, but what did I know at that time.

In about three hours, I went from never turning anything on a lathe to turning my first bowl. It turned out pretty nice despite less than a smooth surface.

I was hooked and now needed to turn more!

Fast Forward

After turning my first bowl, I still felt I needed to learn much more before I committed to purchasing a lathe and other gear.

I’m so glad I waited and learned first before buying stuff. God knows I would have purchased many unnecessary items that would have only collected dust.

I found a turning group that meets once a week. The same group I still turn with every week. My first visit was fantastic, and I even left with my second wood turned bowl. This time made with a traditional bowl gouge. Wow, was that tool different at first!

It was when I first chatted with the guys there that I immediately learned the bias of traditional tools compared to carbide.

Out of nowhere, a guy (I won’t mention names) made a snarky remark about whether I planned to use expensive carbide tools or not. I just shrugged it off and didn’t bother telling him about my first carbide turned bowl.

The second sensitivity landmine I walked into was mentioning YouTube. “Oh, there are people in those videos that will get you killed if you learn on YouTube.” Okay, I guess I won’t bring that up again. I especially won’t be sharing my YouTube channel with them. LOL

Why So Defensive

I can understand to a certain degree, perhaps why some people are sensitive to carbide tools and YouTube videos. Many people treat woodturning as a casual hobby or pastime.

To be quite honest, if you decide to only “casually” learn traditional woodturning using traditional bowl gouges, spindle gouges, and round nose scrapers, it can take many years before you get the hang of turning confidently.

It’s easy to understand how people who have spent much time developing skills and are more serious about woodturning, might be defensive, especially when someone casually shows up and creates acceptable results using carbide tools right off the bat.

Whatever their reason for being offended by carbide tools or watching other turners on YouTube, it’s their problem.

They’re not going to change, and you can only do what’s best for you. Just know these people are out there if you haven’t met them yourself yet.

Carbide Turning Tools Advantages

Carbide tools are ready to use out of the box. The razor-sharp edge of a carbide tool stays sharp for a very long time and requires no sharpening station, unlike a traditional bowl gouge.

Bowl blank material can be removed quickly with a carbide turning tool, and catches are less frequent than HSS tools. Shaping a bowl blank goes pretty quick with a carbide turning tool.

If one side of a carbide cutting tip wears out, depending on the cutter shape, the tip can be rotated to a new fresh sharp area.

Carbide Turning Tools Disadvantages

The most significant disadvantage of carbide tools is the fact they are scrapers. Carbide tools are introduced to the wood at a 90° angle. This steep impactful angle scrapes and tears out wood fibers violently, even with a sharp edge. When turning wood bowls, this is primarily a problem in the trouble zone areas.

The round shaped carbide tool works well for the bowl interior, but not well on the exterior. A square shaped carbide scraper is good on the bowl exterior, but not the interior. Because of this, you need more than one carbide tool to turn a bowl.

Depending on what type of wood you are turning, the torn out surface quality can range from okay to completely unacceptable. Often you may need to spend more time sanding a piece turned with carbide tools than you took turning it in the first place.

Also, carbide tips do wear out and are expensive to replace. They can be sharpened on a diamond stone to lengthen their use, but eventually will need to be replaced.

Traditional HSS Turning Tools Advantages

A single HSS traditional bowl gouge can turn an entire bowl, inside and out.

Traditional HSS turning tools, like the bowl gouge, incorporate angles to more efficiently and cleanly cut wood fibers.

The entire bowl gouge is presented at an angle to the bowl blank. And the physics of the bowl gouge tip present the bowl gouge bevel at yet another angle.

These angles all work together to ease the cutting edge of the bowl gouge gently against the wood bowl surface. David Ellsworth refers to the cut of the bowl gouge being much like whittling. A bowl gouge gracefully shaves off thin layers and shapes the wood underneath.

An assortment of different shaped traditional HSS turning tools can allow a turner to turn anything imaginable.

Traditional HSS Tools Disadvantages

Presenting a traditional HSS bowl gouge at the correct angle with the right motions can take a good deal of time to master. Think of it like learning to ride a bike or play a musical instrument.

It will take some time.

To become proficient using a traditional bowl gouge, you will need to learn about supported grain direction cuts, riding the bevel, the different bowl gouge cutting techniques, and much more.

That might seem overwhelming, but remember what it was like to pedal that bike all by yourself or play that first song.

Yeah, that’s what it feels like…times a hundred.

It’s worth ALL the effort!!!

Traditional HSS tools require sharpening often. Depending on the wood being turned, traditional tools may need to be sharpened every few minutes. And this sharpening requires a dedicated sharpening station.

As I learned with the weekly turning group, it became apparent that the sharpening station was almost as essential or equal to the lathe.

Without the sharpening station, you don’t have tools to turn at the lathe properly. Because of this, my first serious woodturning purchase was a sharpening station.

Two Schools of Thought

There are two schools of thought about the different turning tools – carbide and high-speed steel.

The carbide turning tool school of thought is that carbide is the best thing since sliced bread. Carbide tools require no sharpening or steep learning curve. The carbide tips stay sharp longer than HSS. And carbide turners don’t mind sanding the wood surface a bit more when finished turning.

Traditional HSS turners think that the bowl gouge provides a superior cut that can’t be matched. Sure, the skill needed to master a bowl gouge does not happen overnight, but that too is a source of pride for a craftsman. Sharpening tools frequently is an accepted part of the turning process for a HSS turner.

Carbide Vs HSS Bowl Gouge

Which Is Right For You?

New To Turning

If you are new to turning and aren’t sure if you’ll like turning, or more importantly, whether you’ll keep doing it, try the carbide tools.

Carbide tools offer instant results, and you will quickly discover if you want to continue turning more pieces.

Think of carbide tools as the “gateway” to more serious turning. If you get hooked on turning with carbide, perhaps slowly work up to HSS tools and learn them and their advantages one at a time.

Over time you will probably be turning with a mix of traditional and carbide tools. A combination of tools is entirely acceptable!

Hobby Turner

If you want to do a couple of woodturning projects but don’t think you’ll get into turning that much, use carbide tools.

Say you’ve made a cabinet, and you want to turn a few doorknobs but have never turned before. Carbide tools would be perfect for that situation.

Many pen turners use carbide tools to shape pens. Guess what? Those same carbide tools can be used to made bowls, perhaps small bowls, but it’s a great way to experiment before committing to the expense and time of learning traditional HSS tools.

Serious About Bowls

On the other hand, if you have made a few bowls and you’re excited about the idea of making bigger, better bowls, you might decide to learn traditional HSS bowl gouge techniques and other tool usages.

Yes, it will take more time to develop the fine motor-muscle skills needed to make precision cuts, but the results will be worth the effort.

Creating bowls as pieces of art can be done with a mix of tools. However, it will be difficult, for example, making elegant 1/8-inch thick walled bowls using only carbide tools. Fine precision work is best performed with a traditional bowl gouge making micro-fine smooth shaving cuts.

Carbide Vs. HSS Turning Tool
Comparison Table

CarbideHigh Speed Steel
Learning CurveVery LittleTime Required
Sharpening TechniqueRotate CutterSharpening Station
CostSlightly HigherSlightly Less
Quality of CutsPoor to OkayGood to Excellent
Bevel SupportNoYes

Carbide Vs Traditional HSS Tools Conclusion

The bottom line is that carbide and HSS traditional turning tools both have their places in the woodturning world.

Neither is wrong or right.

In fact, your tool cabinet can include both.

At the end of the day, it’s about what you create and not necessarily the tools that get you there.

Use what works and best suits your needs.

You may consider checking these articles out next:

As Always Happy Turning,

29 Responses

  1. After watching many of your YouTube videos I decided to venture into bowl turning after years of spindle. My thoughts on carbide vs traditional. I picked up a 5/8 bowl gouge shaped it to a 55 degree bevel and have never looked back. Maybe I was lucky but the gouge felt natural in my hand and I was off and running. Out of curiosity I picked up a mid level set of carbide tools to see if they were worth all the hype. The first time I touched the inside of a bowl it felt like I was holding a sharp stick making all kinds of terrible cuts and catches. It went back in the fancy case and its now collecting dust on a shelf I will probably never touch one again. To me I feel there is a perfect way to describe the difference between the two, The bowl gouge is a graceful artist tool and the carbide as a kids toy get it done quick looks be dammed. Yeah I’m deep in the anti-carbide camp they truly make me cringe when I see someone using one and I’m sure will get all kinds of flack. They probably do have there place just not in my hands!

    1. Brian,
      Good for you for trying both. You’ve found what works best for you.
      Well done. Keep up the good work!
      All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  2. Kent,
    Just saw one of your youtube videos on bowl making and am still amazed how easy it looks when using the HSS tools. I’ve been turning for a couple years and being a self starter jumped right in with carbide tools and have made some beautiful bowls albeit with extensive sanding due to the end grain ripping out. I have purchased a couple Sorby tools to try and finish the surfaces prior to sanding but having a hard time on finding the right approach angle so if you could point to a good video on developing this skill it would be much appreciated. Wanted to get your opinion; what if you took a straight carbide scraper and mounted it at a 45 deg angle (longitudinally) do you think that would help “slice” the end grain?

    1. Allen,
      Thank you for writing and sharing! To answer your question, it might help a bit, but the carbide will still be scraping compared to the bowl gouge. Give it a try at 45°, you might find it works for you. If not, give the bowl gouge a chance.
      All the best to you and Happy Turning!

  3. I normally use conventional HSS tools for bowl turning and limit carbide use to hollowing jobs. Once again though you have suggested carbide is more expensive when it simply isn’t. The set you linked to contains a “detail” tool which isn’t needed for turning a bowl. You can in fact turn a bowl, inside and out with a single tool that costs less than a conventional bowl gouge.

    1. I agree with what you are saying. Yes, there are less expensive carbide tools available, and a full set of carbide tools is not necessary. However, if you are to turn bowls of a larger size and many bowls, you will need a larger carbide tool to handle the efforts. A small inexpensive carbide tool can be fine for smaller projects, but for a 16″ bowl it will give the user a hard time, not to mention muscle soreness. When doing larger bowls and/or many bowls pound for pound and dollar for dollar the HSS bowl gouge wins.

  4. Hi Kent,

    Really like your website and You-Tube channel. Great instruction and great teaching methods.

    I am interested in taking your sharpening E-course, but I want to make sure I’m starting from a good place. What I mean is that I have a varied set of bowl gouges, with different flute shapes from different manufacturers. I’ve seen some online articles that speak about flute shape and “best uses”, but I’ve not seen anything yet that speaks about how the flute shape is related to the grind (and whether or not it makes a difference).

    I mostly turn hardwood bowls (small/medium size), and mostly dried logs/blanks. For this type of work, what flute shape do you recommend for bowl gouges and/or works best with your sharpening technique, if it matters ?

    Apologies if you cover this topic elsewhere on your site.

    Best Regards,

    1. Erick,
      Good Question.
      The bowl gouges over the years have been “U” and “V” shaped. When the current parabolic flute shape was introduced it pretty much moved the U and V out of the market. The parabolic bowl gouge shape is the current standard and the one to use.
      All the best to you and Happy Turning!

      1. Hi Kent – I just signed up for your sharpening class, but in a moment of “senioritis”, I accidentally purchased the sharpening class twice. I’ve requested a refund via PayPal, but I wanted to make you aware. Please assist with the refune.

        Many thanks, and I can’t wait to start the course this evening !!


        1. Erick,
          Thank you for signing up.
          Not to worry. I notice the double payment and have already refund one of them.
          Welcome and enjoy the course!
          Happy Turning!

  5. I fully understand you are primarily just making a point comparing the cost of buying 3 carbide tools to buying only the bowl gouge, but just to be flippant for a moment, who in the heck is not gonna end up buying a bunch of turning tools no matter what is at the tip!

    Kind of reminds me of trying desperately when I was first getting into fly fishing which was the best weight rod to have. Much like wood turning, there are many many opinions out there about that. But the best piece of advice I received was from another fisherman instead of a rod salesman: “Whatever you buy, won’t be your last rod.” 9 flyrods later, I have proved him right. But the other guys had some appropriate answers also…”It depends.”

    With turning, I think the proper tool depends on the particular type of cut, on the particular part of a bowl, made out of a particular type of wood. With that in mind, I use a mix of carbide and HSS. Most of the points you make in your article I have pretty much figured out on my on (but without actually putting them into well articulated words as you have) after 2 or 3 years of pretty much self-learned turning.

    If I were going to stress any particular point a bit more than your article has, it would be that “properly” sharpened is as critical to the process as just being sharp. Sharpening the tool at the same exact angle(s) every time does not come easy (especially the bowl gouge), and I believe its that criticality of the sharpening process that scares more intermediates than just using the tool properly (I say “intermediates” because beginners don’t yet understand the importance of proper sharpening).

    If precision sharpening was a lot easier and more foolproof, then there wouldn’t be so many different types of systems to do it. (But I’m not gonna ask which is the best…I learned my lesson back with fly rods!). For those who have mastered it, they might tend to downgrade the issue, but for those of us who still wrestle with the issue, it can be a stumbling block.

    I enjoy owning and driving a nice car, but I do not enjoy working on it, and I value my time too much to do it. I enjoy turning wood and creating a nice piece of art, but I do not enjoy stopping what I am doing and spending time at the sharpening station. Obviously there arguments against having this attitude, but there must be at least a few people buying those carbide tools or they wouldn’t be out there.

    As for traditionalists being down on carbide tools, that reminds me of the beginnings of digital photography. No self respecting advanced or professional photographer would touch one. Now, 10-15 years later….well you know the rest.

    1. Fred,
      Thank you for writing and sharing!
      Interesting perspectives. You are right in many ways.
      I’m also a professional photographer. 😉 And I’ve thought of that same analogy. However, carbide scrapers, and even the “negative rake” versions, might compare to some of the first 2 or 4MP digital cameras. Yes, perhaps if some major advancements come in carbide scrapers, they will rival traditional tools. But for now, 35mm film is superior!!! LOL 😉
      Happy Turning!

  6. Hi- Im really enjoying all your articles and info! Incredibly Helpful! My question is how are carbide tools the working with green wood?

    1. Candice,
      Carbide tools work well with green wood. Give it a go and see what you think.
      All the best to you.
      Happy Turning!

  7. I’ve been turning for many years, on a variety of lathes, with a huge variety of scrapers. Starting ‘poor’ and BLESSED with a barn full of tool steel I found myself making many of my own scrapers, many of which I still use today. I love Robert Sorby tools, now that I have the funds to buy them. As far as the carbide vs traditional debate goes…. use whatever cuts well and safely. I now use a PowerMatic 2020 short bed, and that thing will rip your arms off in the blink of an eye, so your tools must fit the job. There is a reason a barber uses a leather strop to put the polish to his blade and you should do the same to your tools before you start. Sharpness is the key to fine work, and a fine craftsman. You never know what surprises a log has in store for you; sharp tools and a soft touch will keep you out of trouble, and allow the wood to shine.

    1. Charles, thanks for writing and sharing. You make all good points. All the best to you! Happy Turning!

  8. I have a mix of both and use them both. I tend to like the rougher gouge in HSS for getting started but if you turn hard wood (which I most often do…. Pecan, Maple, Oak, and sometimes exotics) I like the durability of carbide and less sharpening. Your points are well taken but the purpose of this is for fun and when it starts feeling like lots of work, I get less interested. I am retired now and I do wood turning as a relaxing activity and not a competitive sport. I run into purists from time to time who would never touch carbide but I find that as silly as somebody who refuses to use carbide blades on a table saw or a router. My next purchase is probably going to be a bowl scraper and I am looking for a good carbide alternative but am not opposed to hss. I have a Carter skew chisel that I love so I am not locked into either set of tools, just want to continue to enjoy the lathe work.

    1. Bernard,
      Thanks for writing and sharing.
      Again, I highly recommend that you do what works best for you.
      It sounds like you have a setup that works well for you and that’s the ultimate goal.
      All the best to you and enjoy!
      Happy Turning,

    1. Thank you, Carli. End to end turning, or spindle turning will have the best results by using a spindle gouge. You can also use carbide scrapers, but remember they will be scraping vs. cutting that occurs with a spindle gouge. Have fun!

  9. Maybe off on a tangent but I started routing with hss bits. I replaced them often. I tried carbide bits and never went back to hss bits. Seems since my routing and sawing projects have been easier with carbide tools, then if i buy a wood lathe, I’d buy carbide turning tools.

    1. Hi Drake,

      Thanks for writing.

      That all seems fine and good and would be if the shape and performance of the tools were equal. However, they are not. The perpendicular scraping action of the carbide tools does not leave a final surface as smooth as a HSS bowl gouge does. Perhaps, we’ll see carbide bowl gouges in the future. Then it will be the best of both worlds.

      Happy Turning,

  10. Thanks for all the sound advice Kent. I’m aware that Robert Sorby now have multiple choice of cutters for the Turnmaster. Carbide, Hss and Hss
    with titanium coating .
    Would be great if you could do a YouTube review in the near future.

  11. Thank you! I have both. I am learning. Using the bowl gouge is my weak point; just can’t seem to get the hang of it. After watching oodles of how-to-videos, I’m still struggling. Somewhat better with the newer carbide tools.

    I need one-on-one instruction!


    1. Hello Dennis,

      I hear you! Yes, getting the hang of the bowl gouge takes a bit of time. Stay with it.

      I’m developing more videos that may help you. Check out my YouTube channel.

      While one-on-one instruction is no easy, very expensive, and time-consuming, I’m working on the next best thing. I am developing online training courses that will take you step-by-step through the entire bowl turning process, including understanding, supported wood grain cuts, and bowl gouge use. Each lesson will have comments and responses to add to the learning. And if I see people aren’t understanding a particular concept I will go in and produce additional videos and materials until everyone gets it! It’s going to be like nothing out there!

      Stay tuned. The first-course “Tool Sharpening for Wood Bowl Turning” will be coming out first. Then it will be followed by the Wood Bowl Turning Course.

    2. There are a couple of errors in the article. The first one is cost of Carbide compared to Conventional tools. Whilst you can no doubt pay more for carbide tools many of them are much cheaper than HSS. Indeed, lots of folks have made their own which reduces the cost to a fraction of HSS tools. The second is cut versus scrape. Yes flat carbide does scrape in the same way as a traditional HSS scraper does. There are other carbide inserts thought that are not flat and don’t scrape. Whilst they may not produce the long strings of wood that say a bowl gouge does they still cut the wood. We could also differ on quality of finish. If used in shear mode you can get a good finish with carbide. I’ve also seen a poor finish made with HSS.

      1. Bill,

        Thanks for writing. I understand your point of view.

        However, the physics of scraping vs. cutting are different and do create different results.

        Also, if you were to purchase a set of three carbide scrapers, which are all necessary to make a wood bowl, they cost almost $400. A single 1/2″ bowl gouge, which can be used to turn a complete bowl costs under $100. A full set of three different sized, quality bowl gouges is still less than the carbide set.

        And you are right, a quality expensive tool, if used poorly, can make terrible cuts, and a cheap homemade tool, if used well can produce a great final surface.

        Again, I repeat, use what works best for you. If you are using carbide scrapers and getting the results you desire, then stick with it. If, however, you are learning and want to improve your turning skills and have the most options available, then traditional tools are the ideal goal.

        We may need to agree to disagree. 😉

        All the best to you and Happy Turning,

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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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