In Praise of In-cannel Gouges

If you’ve followed my writing, watched my YouTube videos, or listened to my podcast for any length of time, then you have likely heard me extoll the virtues of in-cannel gouges numerous times. I can’t help it. I find these tools extremely useful in the work that I do and I think it’s really unfortunate that more people don’t use them.

I think part of the problem may have to do with the modern reference to in-cannel gouges as pattern maker’s tools. I don’t know when in recent history this nomenclature began, but I think it’s time to make something very clear. In-cannel gouges are not pattern maker’s gouges. Pattern makers may have used in-cannel gouges, but the tools were not solely used by that trade.

Moxon Plate 4

This snapshot of Plate 4 from Joseph Moxon’s 1703 book Mechanick Exercises shows an engraving of an early gouge used by joiners (C.6). Is the bevel ground on the inside?

In Joseph Moxon’s 1703 book Mechanick Exercises, the first english language book written on trade practices, the gouge is briefly described:

§ 14.  Of the Gouge.

The Gouge marked C 6. Is a chiʃʃel having a round edge, for the cutting ſuch Wood as is to be Rounded, or Hollowed.
ſe ſeveral ſorts of Chiʃʃels Joiners have of ſeveral Sizes, that they may be accommodated to do ſeveral Sizes of Work.

From Moxon’s description, we know that gouges were in fact used by joiners, and that they typically had several sizes, but Moxon does not provide any description of the tool’s bevel, whether it is ground on the inside of the tool (in-cannel) or on the outside of the tool (out-cannel). Moxon does picture a gouge in the Plate 4 engraving, but can we tell from that engraving whether the bevel is ground in-cannel or not?

It is not until the work of Moxon’s contemporary, Peter Nicholson, in his 1812 book The Mechanic’s Companion, that we get some clarity on the bevel conundrum:

§ 43.  The Gouge

Is used in cutting an excavation of a concave form, and is similar to the chisel, except that the bottom part is cylindrical both within and without; the basil is made on the inside; the best are those which are made of cast steel.

Nicholson does not include an engraving of a gouge in any of the plates in his book. And while his description of the gouge is very brief, he does in fact include one very important detail about the tool – “the basil is made on the inside.

In-cannel Gouge

A restored 19th century in-cannel gouge is a thing of beauty. Properly sharpened, it is capable of leaving a finish ready concave surface with just a few paring cuts.

While gouges have historically been made both out-cannel (bevel on the convex part of the curve) and in-cannel (bevel on the concave side of the curve), the two tools are really not interchangeable – at least not easily. The two different styles of gouges really excel at different kinds of work. It all comes down to the angle that the tool is presented to the work.

Gouges with the bevel on the outside of the curve (out-cannel) are much better for carving and turning. If you need to relief carve a decorative element in the surface of a drawer an out-cannel gouge is just what you want. If you try to use an in-cannel gouge for this work, it will dig in and you’ll just tear up the piece.  Similarly, if you’re doing some spindle turning to make the legs of a table, an out-cannel gouge is what you want (don’t ever try to use an in-cannel gouge on a lathe unless you want it thrown into the top of your foot).

In-cannel paring gouge

The in-cannel gouge excels at the paring tasks most associated with joinery and cabinetmaking work, but it’s not the best option for carving.

On the other hand, having the bevel on the inside of the gouge makes the tool much more useful for joinery work. If you want to pare a concave surface square across the edge of a board (the scrolled edge of a table apron for example), an in-cannel gouge lets you pare straight across just like a flat chisel would pare straight across a flat or convex edge. In order to use an out-cannel gouge for this work, you would have to pare at a really strange angle (parallel to the bevel), and you’d have very little control because the length of the bevel is very short. The length of the flat reference area on the back of an in-cannel gouge, however, is nice and long, just like the back of a chisel, so the in-cannel gouge offers you lots of control when paring. In fact, they’re often referred to as paring gouges.

Out-cannel carving gouge

Carving gouges are designed for shallow relief carving and sculptural work, and they excel at those tasks. But they make lousy paring gouges for joinery and cabinetmaking tasks because they need to be used at an angle in order to pare a surface flat, and the short reference surface (the bevel) makes them difficult to control for paring cuts.

Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to go through my process for buying and tuning up an old in-cannel gouge. I’ll talk about what to look for, how to clean it up and re-handle it (if necessary), how to re-shape the concave bevel, and how to hone the tool to perfection so that it cuts a glass smooth surface. My hope is to demystify the sharpening of this tool so that more people will realize what a wonderful piece of kit the in-cannel gouge really is.

Go here for Part 1 and Part 2 of the restoration.

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