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I'm a total beginner when it comes to turning, but am interested in doing more of it both to help augment my woodworking (e.g. everything from custom button plugs to chair legs etc) as well as to do some traditional turning projects (e.g. pepper mill and maybe some small bowls).

I am struggling to understand what the differences are between the variety of chisel sets that are out there. I understand more or less the different tools that I want, but I do not understand what characteristics of those tools I should care about and how/why price of the tools are driven.

Several folks out there seem to suggest that something like this http://www.amazon.com/dp/B000KI8CTS makes a great starter set. Almost universally people seem to suggest/imply that "better" tools are important and worth the price difference. Some people have gone so far as to say "whatever you do don't get the ones made in China." Why not? What's the difference (besides cost and it looks like slight size variations) between a set like that and, say, a set from Robert Sorby like this one: http://www.amazon.com/Robert-Sorby-H6542-Turning-Tool/dp/B00012X7LQ? What makes a "better tool" better?

They both seem to be made of high speed steel (which I'm told is important and what I want). They both appear to be similar length tools. Is one more durable? Is handle shape/material of any importance? What are the other factors that I should care about when evaluating a turning chisel?

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Almost universally people seem to suggest/imply that "better" tools are important and worth the price difference.

That certainly used to be a worthwhile general shopping guide, one that is repeated in many early woodworking books that I've read (the same principle is repeated outside of woodworking circles too of course).

But to be honest I'm not sure it has ever been universally true. And it's absolutely not the case today that high price guarantees quality, or that low price automatically means you're buying a mediocre or outright poor tool.

Many of the bigger name brands are not the same company that they were, and their name (and the consequent higher/high price commanded by their tools) are not in any way an assurance of high quality. Perhaps the best example of this in the broader woodworking scene is Stanley; the current company has for all intents and purposes zero relationship to the Stanley of old, except that they own the name. Even by the latter part of the 20th century Stanley's standards had slipped noticeably, and now much of their product line is considered from mediocre to outright junk, depending on whose opinion you're listening to.

A great illustration of the potential for high quality at a low price (note: low, not lower) are the bevel-edge chisels sold by Aldi. Their reputation has spread online due in no small part to Paul Sellers in the UK plugging them so consistently. And he's right to, as I think they still are the cheapest chisels on the UK market while still being full size, and featuring hardwood handles and not moulded plastic. Their qualities, as judged by many experienced woodworkers including Sellers, are right up there with some competitors that cost upwards of five times more.

Some people have gone so far as to say "whatever you do don't get the ones made in China." Why not?

That's a very good question and cuts right to the heart of tool prejudices (and dare I say it, may even be a form of racism).

The simple fact of the matter is that this is an opinion and you can be assured that anyone who says that everything made in China is junk, or should be avoided on principle, is ill-informed and outright wrong. The Aldi chisels mentioned just above? They are of course made in China.

What's particularly sad about this is many of the tools that these same people buy, from some name brands they trust, are now also made in China. Which highlights how foolish it is to make that kind of sweeping condemnation.

They both seem to be made of high speed steel (which I'm told is important and what I want).

It is important but it's not necessarily what you want. HSS could almost be considered obsolete for turning tools (almost) because carbide-tipped tools are now on the market, offering far longer service life — reducing the constant need to re-sharpen that has dogged turners since, well, forever.

The sharpening of turning tools shouldn't be downplayed: in turning you may sometimes have to sharpen multiple times before the shaping of a single project is completed. So a grinder should be factored in as not just a desirable additional purchase, but almost a necessity.

Is one more durable?

It's possible, but I wouldn't want to say in which direction TBH.

Note that the "HSS" label is just a starting point, it doesn't really guarantee anything specific. In addition to HSS being an inherently tough steel type with good hardening properties, the exact alloy used (there are a few), and the way the tool was formed in the factory are critical factors.

It's much the same as with basic high-carbon tool steel, as used pretty universally 100 years ago for all sorts of cutting tools; it didn't mean that all chisels or plane irons produced at the time were of equal quality.

Is handle shape/material of any importance?

Yes and yes, but personal preferences are very important here.

Many turners make it a point to turn their own tool handles to suit their individual tastes on the ideal handle shape (often going for a much long handle for example), and will go so far as to immediately replace the handles on expensive chisels they just bought.

Re. material, once you pass a certain strength the type of hardwood doesn't appear to matter that much. It would seem from practical experience that material properties like vibration dampening (a traditional reason that ash was favoured) aren't as critical as was/is supposed, given than many people are very happy with handles made from maple, rosewood, even ebony, none of which share this characteristic. These days plastics and even the occasional metal handle are seen, which again argues strongly that material qualities are not a critical factor except in terms of what the user likes or doesn't like.

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    It's worth noting that, if you're comfortable doing some basic metalworking, some folks have been making their own shafts and handles to support the replacable cutting tips of the carbide tools, cutting the price of that option significantly in exchange for the additional work. Info/vids can be found on the web.That may be more attractive as upgrade rather than as a first purchase, though, since I think many of us want to start making sawdust the moment we ger a new tool home. – keshlam Oct 23 '15 at 12:22
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Adding to Graphus's excellent and comprehensive answer.

I have both the cheap PSI tools you linked to and the Crown Pro-PM Powdered Metallurgy. (as well as other misc pieces). I like both of them. Part of what makes a difference is what you are turning. Because the Pro-PM tools only need to be sharpened 1/3-1/4 as often as the PSI tools. Small projects won't make much difference, and many woods won't make much difference either. Pine, walnut cherry, all cut pretty nice.

However, some are terrible. White oak in my experience dulls the chisels much much faster than many other woods, even over red oak. I think it has mineral deposits that dull the tips. So when I am turning a a decent sized white oak bowl I can spend a third of my time sharpening my chisels when using the HSS from PSI. But the Pro-PM saves me a lot of time at the grinder.

As an added note, I actually broke one of the Pro-PM chisels at the tong, (friend welded it back together thank goodness!) and the same kind of heavy use my PSI are still whole. (I was using it incorrectly, but I was doing the same thing with both sets!)

I always recommend starting with a cheap set of turning chisels because

  1. you might not like it and it's a much lower cost to try it out.
  2. They work just fine (generally) with some extra sharpening.
  3. If you break one you are not out much.
  4. Many don't use all the different chisels evenly, so you can decide what you actually want in a chisel, size, shape etc. and buy singles of the spendy ones one at a time, keeping the cheap set around to use when you need a different style.

There are several chisels across both sets that I very rarely use, I feel much better about the cheap ones sitting there neglected than the Pro-PM one.

  1. You learn to grind an edge on the cheap chisels so you don't burn your more expensive one!
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Welcome to turning! There are excellent and thoughtful answers here already, but I wanted to add my two cents.

I began turning last year and had a miserable time with my first chisel set, a well reviewed set from harbor freight.

Wood turning became delightful the minute I splurged one just one carbide-tipped tool - it allows me to focus on working the wood, not sharpening tools.

Just one Easy Wood Tools carbide rougher (round bit) was enough for me to make dozens of bowls and rapidly get better at the basics of turning. If I ever worried the cutting edge was dull, I could just rotate it a quarter-turn or so to see if dullness was at issue.

I am sure I will learn to appreciate fine chisels and the art of sharpening at some point, but if you are just trying to get turning it is worth considering if chisels are what you need right now.

  • Interesting. Why do you think these aren't more popular? Or why do they appear to be considered "second rate" to traditional tools? (based on what I'm seeing online). They seem like an interesting way to go. – Doov Oct 25 '15 at 1:14
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    I think there's a mindset that carbide-tipped tools are "cheating" or otherwise new-fangled. And to be honest, the more I learn about and appreciate hand-made woodwork, the more I see the beauty and validity of a hands-on approach. Carbide-tipped tools definitely call for a different technique and, as such, you may not learn traditional turning skills as quickly as you would by jumping right in. I added my answer simply because I hadn't heard many folks advocate the carbide-first approach, and for me, switching to carbide tools helped me quickly get absorbed into this awesome hobby! – AKA Oct 25 '15 at 1:22

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