First, my perspective is important to understand before you accept my recommendations. I, like every
other wood turner, started off without understanding the nuances of turning. Sure, we know a lathe
spins wood and tools cut the wood. However, in the beginning all the tools look very similar. In many
cases, a new wood turner is discovering brands they never knew existed. It becomes difficult to evaluate
tools on quality, life expectancy, comfort and suitability for the type of turning. Price becomes the
Click on any image to see a larger version.
My students often ask what type of tools they should buy. Specifically, should they buy inexpensive
tools or go straight for the expensive ones? I think this question deserves a bit of discussion and does
not have a single best answer that fits everyone, but this does not mean one should sink into analysis
My first set of tools were priced toward the lower end. These were far from the cheapest tools I could
find at the time but certainly fell into the economy category. I knew I loved working with wood and
turning captured my imagination. However, there was the initial hesitancy of venturing into a new craft
that I might not enjoy. I did not want to overspend on a new endeavor.
After my first lathe purchase, I set about learning how to turn. I had a basic set of tools and some
concept of how to sharpen. It was not long before I realized that tools dull quickly and need to be
sharpened more often than I had imagined. Also, I learned it was difficult to sharpen gouges free
hand, so I added the
Oneway Wolverine Grinding Jig
(I love it by the way, take a look at my
product review video
I quickly sank deep into turning. I even took a week long class from my favorite professional turner. I
and eagerly arrived at class with my shiny, still new set of tools,
. I was dazzled by the speed in which he turned and his mastery of sharpening tools free hand.
However, I could not for the life of me get a good edge on my bowl gouge. I thought it must be my fault.
I finally solicited my instructor’s help. He deftly erased my multiple facets but was unable to get a keen
edge on the tool. We both watched the edge crumble away as the grinder continued to remove metal.
He continued grinding with hopes of getting past a soft spot in the gouge. We ultimately gave up on the
gouge. I ended up borrowing a shop gouge for the reminder of the course.
What I learned from this lesson was:
There is a difference in steel
I can actually see lower quality metal fail
Some budget tools do not hold an edge as long as higher quality tools
There is some merit to the recommendation to buy cheap tools and learn how to sharpen. A beginner will
grind away a lot of tool steel on the way to learning to sharpen.
However, I have come to think that a new turner may not be best served by purchasing low quality
tools. A low-cost option could create a scenario where using tools that dull quickly and are difficult to
successfully sharpen may put off a budding talent.
I now offer my students two points of view.
1. Better quality tools will mostly likely:
Offer longer edge retention thus may be less expensive in the long run
Be easier to successfully sharpen
Be more enjoyable to use
2. Lower quality tools will mostly likely
Have a lower initial cash outlay
Be frustrating to use due to short edge retention
Be more difficult to successfully sharpen
Fit a budget
There is no single answer to the proverbial question of buying cheap or buying quality. I would rather
someone buy lower cost tools than never experience turning. However, I think the best initial
experience is achieved with a balance of quality vs. money. I do not recommend a beginner purchase
the best or most expensive tools, accessories or lathe. I think there is a happy middle ground for the
I do not believe that the lower cost option should never be entertained. For example, a low cost tool could
be the correct choice when a specialty tool is required that will rarely be used after the initial project. In
time, as skills and specialties develop, the turner is in a good position to know which path to take.
Of course, there are other factors to consider such as length, type of tool handle, traditional style tools
or replaceable disc cutters.
Ultimately, it is up to the turner to select the best option.
Please do not fall into the analysis paralysis trap. Do some research and make a decision.
Curtis was a former President of
Central Texas Woodturners
, is a member of the
American Association of Woodturners
, and is a member of
Fine Woodworkers of Austin
. Curtis teaches and demonstrates nationally for Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. He also teaches for TechShop. He owns a studio where he works and teaches. Curtis lives in Central Texas with his wife and four young children. Take a look at his website at
or visit his Instagram:
The Highland Woodturner