Restoring an In-cannel Gouge – Part 1

Per my last post, I’m going to be restoring a 19th century in-cannel gouge to working order. So the first step is obviously to obtain a gouge. Here is our specimen.

In-cannel Gouge

A 19th century cast steel in-cannel gouge by Ward. The handle is in really rough shape, but the steel is good.

When looking for an old in-cannel gouge, expect to have to search a little bit to find something that you can work with. Very few antique stores and flea markets are going to have them (I’ve never found one in the wild). If you are searching auction sites, try terms like “carving chisel”, “carving tool”, or just “gouge”. If your search is too specific, you may miss a good deal. This one was about $20 including shipping. Expect to pay around $20-25 based on today’s going rate.

Cleaning in-cannel gouge

Soft wire wheels that can be used in a drill press or hand drill are better for cleaning up the inside of the gouge flute.

The criteria for old gouges is similar to that for old chisels. If you don’t want to re-handle it, make sure the handle is sound and comfortable. Make sure there is enough length left for the tool to be usable. Probably most importantly, make sure there is no pitting on the back side. This is critical. If you have ever tried to lap pitting out of the flat back of an old chisel, you know what a chore it can be. You don’t want to have to do that for a gouge. It’s exponentially more difficult and you have to be very careful not to lap a flat spot into the curved back. So it’s best just to avoid the task all together by purchasing a gouge that has zero pitting that has to be removed.

This particular gouge was a good candidate because the rust was minor and limited to the surface. There was no pitting on the back at all. Since I was going to re-handle it anyway, I removed the handle for the cleaning. For light surface rust like this I use a soft wire wheel. I like the kind that mounts in a drill for tools like this. It’s easier to get into the concave area of the gouge. Bench grinder mounted wheels have trouble getting into these areas. If you think you’ll need chemicals to remove the rust, then there’s probably pitting and you should probably pass on the tool.

Re-handle a gouge

I use the tapered tang of the tool as a reamer to ensure a perfect fit of the tang.

I’ve talked about re-handling tanged chisels before, so I’m not going to discuss it in detail here. For this gouge I chose a 1″ square piece of hickory that was longer than I needed. I drilled a stepped hole in the center of one end, and then used the tang of the gouge to ream the hole to a taper. By using the the tang of the tool itself, you are assured that the taper of the hole matches the taper of the tang perfectly.

Re-handle a gouge

Once the handle seats to within 1/4″ of the bolster, drive it on the rest of the way.

The handle blank is reamed until it will seat onto the tang and come within 1/4″ or less from the bolster. Then I take a scrap of softwood, hold my breath, turn my head just right, and drive the handle onto the tool. If the woodworking gods are with me, the handle drives on without splitting with just a few blows of the mallet.

Re-handle a gouge

The handscrew clamp securely holds the square tapered handle blank for planing.

The taper of the handle is defined by the bolster itself. After cutting the handle blank to final length, I draw lines along the sides of the blank from the edges of the bolster to the outside of the blank. Using a chisel and block plane, I remove the excess wood to form the square taper. The first two sides can be done with the stock held in the bench vise. But once the first two sides are tapered, I switch to a handscrew clamp to provide a more secure hold on the tapered stock.

Re-handle a gouge

The joiner’s saddle is nothing more than two pieces of wood ripped at 45 degrees attached to a flat base. It makes shaping octagonal stock a breeze.

To turn the tapered square into a tapered octagon, I use an appliance commonly referred to as a joiner’s saddle. It’s harder to describe than it is to make, so just take a look at the photo above to get the idea. After marking the octagon on the end of the handle, the appliance holds square stock securely with the corner up so that you can work that corner off down to your layout lines with a chisel and plane. The result is a nice tapered octagon.

Re-handle a gouge

The handle finish is pure beeswax, burnished in with a Don Williams polissoir.

After chiseling, planing and scraping the handle to a tapered octagon, I used a rasp, file, and some 180 grit sandpaper to round the end and make it comfortable to pare with. I don’t typically hit my in-cannel gouges with a mallet. Most of the work that is done with these tools doesn’t require striking with a mallet (though you may if you use them for making shrink pots, for which they are very useful).

For a finish, I chose to go with just a pure beeswax polish as it requires no drying and re-coating, is easily renewed, and imparts a wonderful feel to tool handles. After rubbing the block of wax on the handle, I used a Don Williams polissoir to vigorously burnish the wax into the hickory. Then I buffed the excess wax off with an old t-shirt.

This gouge is now ready for a new edge. Click here to go to the last post.

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