Tools and Materials

Here’s Everything I have to say about all the materials I’ve used and what I recommend.  These are just my opinions and may be worthless to you – but I still feel it’s a valuable resource since there’s no place else on the web with individual tool reviews.  If you’d like to add to my reviews I’ll include them here.
First on the list I talk about different materials to carve from.  Wood blocks, lino blocks, golden cut, plywood, etc.

Next the carving tools themselves and where to buy them.

Later I’ll be adding a section about honing and maintaining your tools – hopefully with some help from other print makers.

  • Blocks.
    1. Russian birch ply.  NOT Chinese birch. Well, you know. Whatever you have access to and can afford.   Lowe’s and Home Depot and Sutherland’s don’t have any good birch.  Go to a lumber yard and ask for the stuff.  If they don’t have it, ask around.  You want Russian birch b/c there are less voids.  And if you can find it, marine ply wood be great too.  Read this.
      But really, if you can get some good quality Chinese birch you’ll still be very happy.  I did find some Russian Birch locally, but it was prohibitively expensive.  If I were doing this for a living I wouldn’t think twice about buying the best.
    2. Battleship linoleum.  Works fine but it’s expensive and you can’t find big sheets of the stuff, only long rolls.  Okay – I lied.  you can find big sheets of the stuff at Dick Blick art supply.  Sizes and prices are listed.  The bigger you get – the more you pay.
    3. Golden Cut.  Very similar to regular old gray linoleum.  Awesome stuff.  The only difference I see is the color though.  It feels the same as the gray.
    4. Wonder Cut.  I hate this stuff but it’s good for student work.  You’ll have students who hate it because it doesn’t take good detail and crumbles and flakes, but it is easier to cut than the gray and golden stuff.  I don’t recommend it for the serious artist.
    5. MDF ply.  Not the particle board that LOOKS like chunks of sawdust and wood chunks glued together, but the stuff that looks like powder glued together.  It’s used for cheaper cabinets and entertainment centers  and shelving today.  Not terribly cheap, but I hear it works okay.  It might dull your tools quicker than you can cut a line.
  • Tools.
    Depending on your budget, I’d recommend ONLY the Japanese ‘style’ or some actual Japanese block carving knives.  The best of the best.  But we can’t all afford that.  It took me a few years to decide to actually get the good ones, but I could have saved a couple of hundred dollars in the long run if I’d just gotten the good ones to begin with.And as far as selecting which sizes and shapes, you just have to try them out.  I know.  It’s an expensive way to figure out what you like, but you could always start with the more inexpensive Warren tools and decide which you like best.As for me, a 3mm V tool is the only V I need.  Much smaller is pointless b/c with the 3mm you can cut a line just as small and fine as with a 1mm V.  And with a little more pressure you can just cut deeper and wider.
    Now with the U tools, I like a small to large set.  So a 1mm, 1.5mm, 2mm, 4-5mm, then a 7-9mm.
  • Sharpening
    Before I go on about tools, a quick word on keeping them sharp.  It’s a pain in the butt – but with the proper tools it can be less so.  This helps.
    The slip strop, just a piece of wood with contour surfaces for different shaped blades will help hone and keep a good edge on your tools.  You can also get a piece of basswood or some other soft wood and carve a channel with the tool in hand, creating a v or u shaped channel in the wood, rub some honing compound in, and hone your tools in the v or u you just made.  Then using the raised surfaces on the Flexcut slip strop, you can get a really really nice edge.
  1. First, Ramelson.
    Sigh.  There’s nothing good I can say about these guys except that 30 or 40 years ago, they made a good product.  At least that’s what I’ve been told.  Now all you can get from them is cheap garbage.  I won’t even bother posting a link to their sales page b/c it’s not worth it.  The V tool was garbage right out of the box.  I had never and have not since seen a V tool so useless and cumbersome.  Okay – so if you want the tools b/c of the handle shapes, and I understand that, we all like different things, then get them sharpened before you mess about with them.
    The box of 5 ‘basic starter set’ was about 35 plus shipping.

    What a waste of money.  I only have these two left.  Trashed the rest.An older Ramelson I was given by my print instructor at Henderson State University at the end of the semester.  It was in one of the drawers we were cleaning out.  He retired that semester, so he was unloading a bunch of the junk in the print lab.  This is actually still one of my favorite tools.And here’s a close up of the tip, if you are interested.
  2. The next cheapest piece of junk I have is another tool from that drawer.  It’s a renaissance.  For whatever that is worth.  Also don’t use it ever.
  3. Then my two European tools.
    First is Two Cherries.  That’s German.  Link here.
    This was around $30 or more.  Yeah.  Really.  See how long that stupid shaft is?  I put duct tape on it so I can use it more comfortably.  It was dull when I got it, but not terribly so.  Not worth the money at all in my opinion.  Too long to comfortably use for any block carving.  Not sure that it was ever meant for block carving as I do it.  But you may love the size.  In the several years of owning this tool, I may have used it a total of 10 minutes.
  4. Next is this little Acorn.
    Link here.  If I remember, about $35 or more after shipping.
    I will say without hesitation that it is one of the most comfortable tools I’ve ever held.  And it took me a while, but I got a pretty good edge on it.  But still, probably not worth the money.
    Update: Edge ruined.  Dulled.  Trashed.  I’m not even going to say how (normal use).  I won’t be bothering with this brand anymore. I recently bought another one of these because I love the shape of the handle so much, and I missed it.  So I bought another one.  I’m a bit better at honing my tools these days so I’ve got quite a nice edge on it.  It makes a very nice mark in the block.
  5. Warren Cutlery (link)
    These guys have some GREAT tools for a LOW cost.  They say made in USA with Japanese laminated blades.  Dunno – but they’re awesome.
    Laminated Steel Tools (link).  I bought a load of these knives for my students at school.  I wouldn’t recommend Speedball to people I don’t like.
    Amazing selection for a price that can’t be beat.They’re comfortable and SHARP.  And at only $8-9 a piece, depending on style, the value for money is unbeatable.  The one on the very left in this next image is a 1.5mm U gouge.  Not my favorite but has it’s place.  The rest of them have had plenty of use.  Easy to sharpen Japanese laminated steel slices through lino and wood with ease.The only negative that I can say is that after lots of use, the blade on the V has come out.  That’s not that big of a deal as I just jammed it back in there with some epoxy weld to help hold on.  The wood had apparently just worn out in the hole a bit.  Kind of like the threads on a bolt being worn after lots of tightening and loosening.  It’s been fine ever since.     

    The family shot.                                                                     Handle.                                                                                      The “V”.

    With a little stropping these guys are worth their weight in gold.

    There are some similar tools with “Power Grip” on the handle, but they only seem to come in sets and cost more.

    Another site with similar tools for a lower price, but I had problems with items not in stock.

  6. Then if you have a little money, I’d go to iMcClain’s.
    Just scroll around.  Anything from there is top notch.  But expensive.  The handles on the tools I bought were about 9 inches long.  Very uncomfortable for me to use.  So using the chisels themselves, I carved the handles down to a reasonable length.  I just used my Warren tools to measure against so that I knew I would be happy with them. NOTE:  Use these tools for a while before carving them down.  I wish I had left mine about an inch or two longer each.  I’m still glad I carved them from 9 inches, that was too long, but now a couple of the handles are just a bit too short.  Pay attention to the instructions McClain’s provides so you get them to a comfortable length.–Apparently somebody from Australia mentioned this site to Alex at McClain’s.  A big compliment.  Thanks!  But, I also had some information wrong.  Here’s the note from Alex:Hi Shawn,

    Someone in Australia just sent me a link to your web site and I wanted to thank you so much for your kind words about our Japanese carving tools, and especially the Futatsu Wari tools. You are right, they are absolutely the best for carving wood or linoleum and I’m so glad you enjoy using them.

    Now, I did catch one small mistake in your description of the tools. The steel in the blades of the Namisei tools is machine forged but they are hand sharpened. In fact, once the steel is forged, the process of making and sharpening the Namisei and Josei tools is identical. The only difference between Namisei and Josei tools is how the metal is forged. So it would be more accurate to say the Namisei blades are “machine forged and hand sharpened;” and Josei and Futatsu Wari blades are “hand forged and hand sharpened.” The handles on all of the tools are hand made and the tools are all assembled by hand.

    Hand forging is considered superior because more carbon is introduced into the steel as it is hammered and the more carbon, the harder the steel and the longer it holds an edge. So generally the Josei tools will hold an edge longer than Namisei tools.

    As for length, we strongly recommend cutting down the handles on Namisei and Josei tools so they fit your hand and we have instructions on our web site at Also, the carvers in Japan place the end of the handle into the fleshy part under their thumb instead of their palm and carve with the fingers relaxed – which is hard to describe but you can see pictures here: It feels really awkward at first but once you get used to it, holding tools this way really cuts down on hand pain.

    FYI, Namisei and Josei tools are used by many carvers in Japan, including furniture makers and those who make bas-relief (Kamakura is famous for its bas-relief carvings) as well as printmakers. Futatsu Wari and Moku Hanga Nomi were designed specifically for carving wood blocks. In all cases, the bevels on these tools  are made to carve wood sitting that is sitting flat, so they are much more shallow than the bevels on most sculpting or wood crafting tools. Interesting, eh?

    Well, that’s probably ‘way more information than you ever wanted to know about Japanese tools! Again, thank you so much for your support and enthusiasm. I truly appreciate it.

    THANKS!  I’m glad you wrote me to correct my information.

    (Namisei Moku Hanga To Standard quality woodblock carving tools)
    (Josei Moku Hanga To Superior quality woodblock carving tools.)

    And last but not least, most certainly not least, are the tools of my dreams!
    (Futatsu Wari Moku Hanga To Professional two part woodblock carving tools)
    Entirely handmade and hand sharpened.  Remember, the Japanese are the ones who made the samurai swords.  But they start at just under $30 a piece.  Which is cheaper than those stupid European tools I bought a few years ago.  But they top out at around $50 a piece…  and then shipping is usually $8 or so a box.  So, for example, my 3 were $120 after shipping.  Geez, don’t I have something better to spend all my money on?  NO.  Well, watches and fountain pens.  🙂

    The handles on these are two part, and you take the brass ferule off the blade end and swing the handle open and move the blade forward a
    bit to make up for wear and tear over the years.  And you can buy replacement blades inexpensively.  I also have to say that Alex over at McClain’s shipped me a new V blade for free because my first one shouldn’t have made it past quality control.  I offered to ship it back so he could be refunded, but he told me to keep it and practice sharpening on it.  What a great guy!  I love McClain’s!


6 comments on “Tools and Materials

  1. Great post! Glad to discover your blog. I love McClain’s. Had not heard of Warren Cutlery, so just checked out and ordered the small set of 3 vee tools to try out. Thanks!

  2. Natalia Olivia says:

    Thank you so much for this post! Such thorough information is invaluable.

  3. Natalia Olivia says:

    You just spared me from buying a Ramelson set. I’m looking into Pfeil, as well as the Japanese tools you recommend. Again, many thanks!

  4. igreenb says:

    I have Pfeil and they are great (but can be expensive. Bought mine in Jackson Art Uk at ~12 Pound a piece. I am now Looking at the Japanese easy grip. Price is Ok. about 40 USD for a set of 7. any recommendations?

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