Where Can I Get Good Sign-Carving Chisels?

I tried to buy chisels at a hardware store yesterday here in Sydney, and no luck… just sub-standard ones for sale and no V-groove chisels…any suggestions?

Thanks & keep up the good work!

[a sign-maker]

Dear Sign-Maker,

If you’re serious about making hand-carved signs, chisels are the first investment to make. When we started in 2001, the very first item we ordered was a set of Swiss-made Pfeil chisels. Since then, our collection of chisels and gouges has only grown larger and more eclectic: we’ve acquired tools from other sign shops that closed, had tools given to us as gifts, and bought more here and there for specific projects and purposes. Like any collection, our family of chisels seems to have taken on a life of its own – tools appear that you’ve never seen before, others are gone for a while, only to show up again later…We made good use of that first chisel set, perfecting our techniques and making the shavings fly on some of our first sign projects. But we soon realised that we would need some larger sized chisels, too.

Carving a Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

Pfeil makes a good range of chisels, gouges, and V-Tools. Here in Australia, they can be purchased online at Carba-Tec. At our local farmers’ market here in Inverell, I’ve also seen some quality English-made chisels and gouges for sale at the vintage hand-tools table. At the Armidale markets, a similar stall exists. I imagine these tools are collected from auction sales at properties around the area. Some of them are of a quality that simply can’t be found anymore, and they’re going for very reasonable prices. I’m sure similar vendors could be found at some of the markets in Sydney, or probably anywhere around the country.

Chisels at Inverell Markets | Danthonia Designs Blog

A nice array of chisels and other hand tools at the Inverell Sunday Markets

Are you looking for chisels to practice you carving skills? Unlike surfing, where the bigger boards are easier to use, carving is easier if you start with a smaller chisel. 8mm & 12mm wide chisels are good for practicing the techniques. That way you won’t go through so much wood, or HDU, or whatever material you’re using. Later, you can try the bigger sizes, which move more material but tend to be less maneuverable.

Carving a Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

If you’re planning to carve wood, try to get vertical grain (although it’s not essential). You can practice carving into 2×4 planks, which are cheap and generally made of Radiata pine. It’s a nice soft wood, just avoid the knotholes. When you get more serious about it, New Guinea Rosewood is a beautiful carving wood, and Huon Pine is excellent but hard to get. Of course, HDU has the advantage of having no grain, so it’s great for sign-carving practice. It’s also more expensive than most timbers.

Wooden Sign Panel | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Panel of New Guinea Rosewood, Ready to be Made into a Sign in Our Shop.

Once you’ve bought a few chisels, you’ll need to sharpen them regularly. In our shop, we use a Makita electric horizontal wheel sharpener and follow up with a Japanese water-stone and a honing strop. You might already be familiar with the particulars of chisel-sharpening. If not, there’s a plenitude of videos and blog posts out there to help you. I might even write a post on this blog one day. Just make sure the chisel is sharp enough to shave with, or you will be endlessly frustrated in your carving practice.

Sharpening a Chisel | Danthonia Designs Blog

Speaking of practice, you’ll need a lot of it before you start making carved letters, grooves, and flourishes that actually look professional. Don’t get discouraged. Some of us churned out hundreds of shoddy-looking practice letters before starting our first real carved sign for a client. For carving techniques, check out the following blog posts:

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