by James McConnell
If you feel like wasting an entire afternoon, just type “carbide vs. high speed steel turning tools” into your favorite internet search engine. If you would rather spend that time making something beautiful and functional on a lathe, then picking up a set of “The Axe” woodturning tools from Carter Products would be a good place to start.
These full-sized carbide tools are beautiful and overbuilt in almost every way. The fit, finish and balance of the tools are superior to most turning tools I’ve handled, and the tips come in familiar configurations (if you’ve used other carbide turning tools): square, round and diamond. The square tool ships with a radiused cutter installed, but included in the package is also a true square cutter – nice bonus.
Every tool has its limitations so let’s start there. My only difficulty wasn’t a fault of the tools themselves but a matter of geometry.
The tools are large and while the size of the cutters allows them to do a lot of work and remove material quickly, I found that it sometimes limited the level of detail possible on more intricate patterns. Bowls and simple spindles were no problem, but more delicate Windsor-style balusters posed a challenge. Carter Products has confirmed plans to release an expanded line of tools in different sizes that will complement the full-sized line and go a long way to making these more detailed forms accessible.
The other limitation often leveled against carbide-tipped turning tools is their inability to equal the crisp, burnished surfaces left behind by a sharp skew chisel or gouge. In response to this challenge, both the square- and round-tipped tools in this line feature a round tool bar with a machined 1⁄2″ flat on the bottom. Smooth, beveled transitions between the two surfaces allow the tools to be rolled into a supported shearing cut and light passes in this skewed position, which significantly decreased the amount of sanding necessary for a finish-ready surface. I found this technique to be very effective with the square cutter, but I still needed some #220-grit sandpaper nearby on hand for final sanding.
The shape and size of the handles looks a bit unorthodox, but they’re comfortable and they make perfect sense in practice. The flats provide tactile feedback about the angle of the tool to give me precise control at the cutting edge, and the color-coded ferrules keep me straight about which tool I am grabbing.
All told, this is more than just “another” set of carbide turning tools. The superior quality and innovative features set them apart and the price also makes them attractive. At just under $100 each (at Woodcraft), a full set of these carbide-tipped turning tools is still a significant investment, but they present a meaningful value over other tools in this class. (Replacement cutters start at $14.99). And, they’re made in the United States. Recommended.