how to carve wooden bowls

Carving wooden bowls is a wonderful thing to do. It is a bit harder physically than spooncarving and requires a few more dedicated tools but the results are wonderful. Here are a couple of bowls carved by students on our first bowlcarving course.

I have been carving bowls for some time and before starting to teach I tried out all the different systems I have seen other folk using and was not really happy, particularly with the holding devices and tools used for finishing cuts on the inside. In Sweden they tend to use a low bench for the adzing standing astride it then kneeling beside it for gouge work,
Here is my friend Steve Tomlin at work on one.

Wille Sunqvist also uses a sort of sloping chopping block. My friend Michail Schutte uses a nice version of this and I thought I may go this route. Here is me trying it in Germany.

And these were the bowls I made.
The problem with this is when adzing you need to keep coming at it from both sides which means continually reversing the bowl so it is hardly worth jamming it in place. For teaching new learners I wanted a system where they could work from both directions whilst standing upright and ideally I wanted something that you could  carve wooden bowls on one simple clamping system, both the inside and outside.
I love David Fishers bowl horse for carving the outside but this is quite a serious bit of dedicated kit for a serious carver. David’s bowls are beautiful and for the work involved very good value too.
and then there is the system used by Guy Mallinson and Maurice Pyle, neither seemed to fit what I was after.
A whole lot more experimentation led to a new design of holding device which I found worked really well. You work standing to the side and can quickly turn to adze from either direction, the blank is held by a simple wedge but holds really solidly.
Having trialed the system with friends, and our kids I was happy enough with it to make 8 of them for my first bowlcarving course. We had a great time and the techniques worked better than I could have hoped (or maybe we just had a particularly great set of students). This blog post last November showed the whole process

We decided the device needed a name and ran a competition on the green woodworkers forum where folk came up with many good and entertaining ideas but we finally christened it the BowlMate.
Nicola has produced plans for the BowlMate and put them on the website where you can also download a printable PDF.

And for those that would like to learn carving why not come on a course. The cost is just £225 including delicious lunches and Edale is a beautiful place to visit. Our bowl courses are being featured in an article in Living Woods magazine out any day now so if you would like one of these places best be quick.

Course details here

18 Responses to how to carve wooden bowls

  1. Le Loup May 3, 2010 at 9:26 am #

    Good one, excellent post.

  2. The Village Carpenter May 3, 2010 at 11:21 am #

    Thank you for posting the plans and process for making your bowlmate, Robin. I'm taking a class with Jogge Sundqvist this summer at Country Workshops on making bowls and spoons, so I'll make your bowlmate to take with me. I had been looking all over the internet for the "perfect" bench, not knowing which one would be best. Now you have solved the problem for me!

  3. Robin Wood May 3, 2010 at 11:55 am #

    Well I am not sure there is such a thing as the "perfect" bench Kari but this one suits me. I think Drew and Jogge tend to use a low bench. These work well with a long handled adze for large bowls but I find smaller bowls and short handled adzes more suited to most folk starting out. One of the limiting factors of my bowlmate is the length of the cut out. If you think you may want to make larger bowls start with a longer log and make a longer cut out. Save the piece you cut out and cut it into sections that can be used along with the wedge to secure smaller bowls in place.

  4. The Village Carpenter May 3, 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    Thanks for the advice, Robin. It's much appreciated. :o)

  5. Simon. May 3, 2010 at 7:30 pm #

    Great post Robin, I keep meaning to get round to making one of these, I like the idea of the wood being held secure.

  6. Robin Wood May 3, 2010 at 7:52 pm #

    It's a funny thing I like the idea of working with the bare minimum of tools and holding devices. When researching bowlcarving techniques one of the styles that attracted me most is native North West Coast American carving. There is a sense of freedom that comes from carving without any bench or holding devices at all. This simple bench is a compromise, it is very quick and easy to build and having the bowl held really solid gives confidence and allows two hands on the tools which can speed carving.

  7. Will Simpson May 3, 2010 at 8:44 pm #

    Great and timely post. I just came into a 10"dia red oak. Between the knots may yield a bowl or four. Michail's sloping chopping block looks intriguing. It would be nice to use gravity to hold the piece. If the bowl blank was nestled in the block well enough, would we even need to wedge it? Being able to rotate it 180 or even 90 degrees quickly would speed up the hollowing process. Sounds like your only complaint was having to re-wedge so much.You might be interested to know that David Fisher wrote an article for Woodwork Magazine back in Dec 08 on a different version of his bowl carving horse with plans.

  8. matthew May 4, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

    I really like this Robin; I think I will make myself one. I wonder how it works for finishing. Are you using gouges or mostly knives? Also what kind of push knife do you use?

  9. forestoffood May 6, 2010 at 6:53 am #

    Hi Robin,That looks very useful, I think it is going to be my next project. I've been trying carving bowls but lack of skill an a good clamping device prevented acceptable results. Skill will come in time, meanwhile I'll just have very elaborate firewood.

  10. Robin Wood May 31, 2010 at 11:53 am #

    Mathew,sometimes I use a gouge between adze and knife but if students get to grips with skilled adze work then it is possible to get a pretty good finish with the adze and move straight on to the finishing knife. I use Frosts Mora push knife.

  11. anthony March 13, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    I made a bench as per Robin's design, but it seems to me that you are commited to placing the workpiece flat side down. I find it easier to put the piece in the vice flat side up, then you can carve using the natural curvature of the wood.My vice is an old 'Parkinsons' Perfect Vise' (sic) which opens to 25cm. I suppose with that spelling it is of American origin.

  12. Robin Wood March 13, 2011 at 6:57 pm #

    @Anthony,Thanks for the input. I clamp bowls either way up perfectly happily and students have no problem either way too. I wonder why you struggle clamping them flat side up? Do you hew a small flat for the finished base first or are you carving completely round bottomed bowls?

  13. Kristina Iolob February 27, 2013 at 7:11 pm #

    This is truly amazing Robin! I wish i could once attend the coure and visit Edale! Inspired by your blog the entire day today!Greetings from Belarus.KrtistinaOh, coool!

  14. Keith Green January 27, 2015 at 8:01 am #

    Hi Robin,
    Just gearing up to carve my first serious bowl and stumbled upon your site. Having read through pretty much all of it the last few hours,
    I would like to thank you for a very enjoyable evening 🙂
    Interestingly, having downloaded your bowl horse drawing, I stumbled upon this YouTube vid which I thought you may find interesting;

    It seems you have re-invented the wheel 🙂
    Having half-completed David Fisher’s bowl carving horse, I am half-inclined to build both. Living in the city (in Canada), I see making this from a single 2x8x12 foot plank, sawn in three and laminated. Appropriate cutouts and angles could be made before laminating and the whole beam more or less permanently mounted to a sturdy saw-horse, according to need and circumstance.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with the rest of us.

    • Robin Wood January 27, 2015 at 9:26 am #

      That old clogmaker vid was the inspiration for my bowl horse. It seemed so much better than the low benches and other holding systems everyone was using when I wrote this piece. I adapted it for bowls and it works very well, the extra cutaway at the end works very well for shaping the outside.

  15. Andreas March 10, 2015 at 7:36 pm #

    Hi Robin,

    Great blog here. I keep coming back to your site not only to buy tools but to get advice from you blog and videos.

    I have a question though I’m hoping you can help with? I want to carve bowls with an adze and gouge. What size of adze and gouge would you recommend?


  16. Danieljmarsh November 24, 2015 at 3:09 pm #

    Hi Robin,

    thank you for taking the time to take photos and keep your blog diverse and interesting, it inspired me to move from spoons to bowls this year and I really enjoyed the experience (of course I had to make a shave horse as part of the journey)… I don’t have an indoor workshop so am looking forward to more sunny days working with the axe, adze, gouges and sloyd again next year!

  17. David Fairman July 25, 2016 at 7:54 pm #

    Hi Robin great endeavour on your behalf on this clamping method. I’m a Carpenter/Joiner/Cabinetmaker for my troubles. I have now taken up bowl carving for relaxation. I made the David Fisher Bowl horse & it works really well for internal & external work but for fine work I made a lecturn clamping devise which clamps to my bench & I slide the piece I’m working on into it & it has a wooden bar over which holds the piece secure while I work on the finishing cuts before sanding & oiling.