The term "gouge" refers to the most often used type of woodcarving hand tool. Wood gouges are similar to chisels, but are characterized by curved, not flat sides, and feature sharp, straight cutting edges. Gouges are used for rough cutting, as they are typically useful for removing great chunks of wood all at once.
Wood gouges have been used for thousands of years in woodcarving, and although modern gouges bear little resemblance to archaeological artifacts, they remain one of the primary instruments in the slowly diminishing tradition of hand carving. Gouges are used to give shape and life to a wood carving. In addition to the general shape, wood gouges create texture in a piece. Shallow gouge marks are often left on a piece instead of sandpapered down in order to preserve the handmade look.
Wood gouges come in many different shapes and sizes, making them extremely versatile. Typically, a beginner will start with 3 standard straight gouges: a large, 1-inch rough stocking gouge, a medium 1/2-inch all-around gouge and a small smoothing gouge for cleaning up the work from the others. Other gouge types include bent gouges, spoon gouges and "v" gouges. Some carvers also use specialty types like the fishtail gouge, the fluter, the veiner and the back bent gouge.
Straight gouges are used to remove large sections of wood and for curving the wood surface. Bent gouges are curved along the entire length and used for hard-to-get spaces. Similarly, the spoon gouge and fishtail gouge are used for the same purpose, but the former features a straight blade with a curve at the end which resembles a spoon, and the latter a fishtail shape. The "v" gouge is a tool with a V-shaped edge that is used for more decorative purposes like detailing or outlining, and is usually not used until after the rough shapes are finished.
Wood gouges are used in tandem with mallets. To remove wood chips, the gouge is held at a 45-degree angle to the wood and struck with the mallet, driving the gouge into the wood. A second strike is made at a 35-degree angle, and a third at a 25-degree angle until the chip of wood is removed. For large areas of wood, several more strikes may be required to fully remove the desired pieces. In order to make V-shaped hollows in the wood, deeper gouges are used. A varying level of pressure is required for each type of gouge and the desired wood carving technique.
Gouges are extremely sharp and must be carefully handled at all times. For safety purposes, wood should be clamped to a working surface, leaving both hands available for gouge work. Wood gouges are manipulated away from the body, and fingers should be kept away from sharp edges. All cuts should be made with the grain, as a gouge moving against the grain can split the wood. Wood can also be accidentally split by using the full gouge width; a series of shallow cuts should be made instead.