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Is there really such a thing as an unneeded tool?

Published: May 1, 2011

Easy Wood Tools

Beautiful, well-designed tools that truly do make woodturning easy

Highland Woodworking carries the full line of Easy Wood Tools except for the David Marks Limited Edition models

Amazon.com carries the Ci1 Easy Rougher David Marks Limited Edition with the extra-long bubinga handle)

Woodturning has always fascinated me. There's just something about putting a tool to a spinning chunk of wood and carving out shapes so quickly and easily that draws me in. Of course, the problem is that it's not as easy as seasoned pros make it look. Whereas they make a simple shift and twist and the wood reshapes to their will, in my case it was far more likely that the tool would catch and make a spectacular gouge. Or I would end up with some hideously deformed version of what I had in mind.This was especially true of bowls. I was moderately OK with the outside, but onf the inside (or an inside curve of the exterior) almost without fail I would end up having the tool take off on its own, leaving a spiral wake of destruction behind. The gap between what I knew to do and what I did was large, frustrating, and expensive.

Naming confusion

EWT has (for me) a confusing naming system for their tools. There are five different lines of tools which mostly correspond to size. There are also six different cutters, which are shared across the five lines. So any given tool is named with a combination of the cutter type (Ci0, Ci1, etc) and size (Mini, Mid-size, etc). Except for the full-size line, which has no size in it's name, just "Easy Rougher", etc. Add to the fact that the "Rougher" isn't just exclusively a roughing tool and the "Finisher" isn't just a finishing tool and now I have a headache ...

I'll try to kinda explain this as I go, but for a clearer explanation, check out EWT's Tool Chart (pdf).

The basic issue is one of technique. There are literally dozens of different gouges, scrapers, skews, and other tools. Each with their own unique properties, techniques, and pitfalls. This means not only a ton of money to assemble all these tools, but a lot of practice learning to use them properly.

I had pretty much given up on ever being a woodturner when I visited my local WoodCraft store. They had some Easy Wood Tools (EWT) on display, I was impressed with the heft and quality feel of the tools. But a quick look at the price tag quickly gave me second thoughts.

However, one of the best things about our WoodCraft (besides the friendly and knowledgeable staff) is the fact that they have a workshop/classroom in the back with a substantial collection of tools. I was able to chuck up a piece of wood and take the tools for a spin. Well, the wood spins, not the tool. Anyhow, within a few minutes I was absolutely convinced and walked out with the large "Pro Series" Easy Rougher and Easy Finisher, plus a "Full-Size" Easy Detailer (at that time, EWT had not yet released the Pro version of the detailer).

Big is Beautiful

The first thing you'll probably notice about about these tools is the size. The bars are massive 1/2" thick stainless steel, inserted into handles that are large and long. When I first started turning, I found large tools intimidating. But, in reality, I think large tools are easier to use. Those thick bars greatly reduce chatter, especially when reaching a long way into a bowl. The large diameter of the handles give you a sure, steady grip and the extra length allows you to get good leverage against the cutting action. This is especially important when taking heavy cuts with the Easy Rougher. I like to tuck the long handle against my side and use my forearm and elbow to lock it to my body. On the occasions where I've gotten carried away with deep cuts and gotten a catch, the rougher would just kick back a little bit, not threaten to pull out of my hands like my smaller tools.

Wood Works on DIY
I used to absolutely love watching David Mark's television series Wood Works, which can still be seen on the DIY Network's website. The show isn't listed anymore, but a search for "Wood Works" (in quotes) brings up the videos, albeit not in order.

If at all possible, I would recommend getting the large David J. Marks editions, their "Pro" line. Craig Jackson, owner of Easy Wood Tools, has long been an admirer of Marks (along with me and many others) and his television series Wood Works. Back when the Easy Rougher was the only tool they had, Craig sent David one as a "thank you" for all his hard work. Craig later found that the Easy Rougher had become one of David's favorite tools. The Pro line was designed around David's preference for a 20" handle and, if you've watched Wood Works, his prediliction for bubinga (actually, I'm surprised it's not made of wenge).

I suppose there's a reason for them, but I just don't see why anyone would get the mid-size tools instead of the full-size. They're basically the same tool at almost the same price, but with a slightly shorter 3/8" bar instead of 1/2". If you want a small tool for detailed work, I'd think dropping all the way back to EWT's "mini" series would be better. They're quite a bit shorter, the 3/8" bar is less than half as long as the full size and the handles are 25% shorter. Substantially less expensive, too. In fact, I'm thinking of getting a Mini Detailer (if not an entire Mini set) for working the inside of small bowls.

Besides the obvious size and wood differences, the Pro series also features a different finish. Whereas the other tools feature a slick, glossy finish, the Pro tools has a soft satin finish. According to Jackson, the glossy finish on the maple handles allows a full surface contact with your hand that, when combined with just a hint of moisture like sweat, makes the handle almost stick to your hand. However, the open grain structure of the bubinga prevents the same slick surface, instead the gloss finish just makes the handle slippery, so a satin finish is used instead. While I'm sure Craig is right about the gloss, personally I prefer the look and feel of the satin finish.

A ferrule like no other

One thing you may notice is the ferrule. Instead of the usual steel or brass, EWT tools feature a copper ferrule. There's no mystical benefit to the copper, it just looks good. The Easy Wood Tools show a sense of style and design sensibility throughout and the copper ferrule is another nice touch on a fine tool.

Stay sharp!

The Easy Wood Tools are very different from traditional lathe tools on the business end, i.e. the cutting edges. Traditional tools are a solid bar of high-speed steel (HSS) that's ground and honed to a sharp edge. That edge shaves wood off when pressed (or presented in turning-talk) to the wood at the correct angle. And since that edge is cutting through the wood at high speeds, it's not too long before it's dull and needs to be resharpened.

In contrast, EWT uses the bar strictly as a carrier. The actual cutting is done by a very sharp piece of carbide steel that's mounted to the end of the bar. These carbide cutters are similar to the carbide cutters used in woodworking machinery like jointers and planers, but customized to work in this application (also note that similar cutters used in metalworking will not work correctly with wood, carbide cutters for metalworking have a different edge geometry). EWT says the actual "formula" for the carbide is also customized for woodturning.

Using the carbide cutters has several advantages over normal HSS tools. First of all, carbide is much harder and will stay sharp far longer than HSS. Some claim that HSS can be brought to a sharper edge than is possible with carbide, but that extra sharpness will be lost very quickly. Unless you constantly sharpen your HSS steel tools every few seconds, the carbide tools will be sharper. When the carbide on the EWT becomes dulled, you can simply rotate to another edge and keep going until all the edges are dull, then pop in a nice new cutter. The price for replacement cutters ranges from $15 to $20 depending on the size and shape.

The EWT carbide cutters come in five different shapes. The square cutters, used by the Roughers, are very similar. The Square cutter is just that, a perfect square. The edges are straight and meet at 90° angles and lets you get a perfectly square inside corner. However, keeping the cutter absolutely square to the stock can be hard and the corners can dig into the stock. To help with this, EWT offer two cutters that are "almost square", the edges are slightly curved. The R4 cutter edges have a radius of 4" while the R2 cutters are (you guessed it) a 2" radius. I haven't tried the R2 cutter yet, but I imagine it would be handy for the interior of wide bowls, where you want to cut gentle concave curves. The Ci1-R4 cutter is what comes standard on the Full-size and Pro Easy Rougher, while the Ci2 Mid-size rougher and Ci2m Mini Rougher get the smaller Ci2-Square cutter as stock (there is no R4 cutter for the mid/mini size).

The two other cutter shapes are the round cutters used on the Easy Finisher (and the new Hollower) and the Diamond cutter used in the Easy Detailer. The Round cutter excels at cutting concave curves and comes in two sizes, the Ci0 for the full and Pro lines and the smaller Ci3 used on the Mid- and Mini- lines as well as the new h5 Easy Hollower. The Ci4 Diamond cutter only comes in one size (whew!) for all four sizes of Detailer.

Angles and bevels and rubbing, no more! Angles and bevels and rubbing, no more!

One of the toughest aspects of woodturning for beginners is tool presentation, which basically means putting the tool in the right position so the edge is cutting into the wood. Sounds simple, but in practice it's a skill that takes a lot of ... practice. The angle is not only important, but it changes from tool to tool and even as you move along the wood. Get it wrong and you get torn grain, catches, and runaway tools. There's nothing more frustrating than carefully crafting the wood to just the right shape and then making a slight error in the tool angle. The tool edge digs into the wood and, because the edge is at an angle to the wood rotation, zips off to the side leaving a spiral gouge in the wood.

The Easy Wood Tools take all this out of the equation. They only have one presentation angle: flat. The large square bar rests flat on the toolrest and stays that way. And rather than having to angle the tool up, you just keep it more-or-less level. Simple, straightforward, nearly foolproof.

When is a Rougher not a rougher?

When it's ajar.

Sorry, wrong riddle. The answer is: When it's an Easy Rougher.

One thing that you need to get past is the names of the Easy Rougher and Easy Finisher. I believe that when Craig Jackson created the first of these tools, he had in mind a tool for easily roughing out turnings. But the Easy Rougher is absolutely not limited to just roughing. It's perfectly capable of taking very light finishing cuts, in fact for final shaping of convex curves it's my tool of choice. Especially by using the side of the cutter, it's easy to sweep the tool smoothly along the curve and refine the shape. Shallow, delicate cuts are very easy (as long as you have a sharp cutter).

The one thing the Easy Rougher can't do (even with the R2 cutter) is the inside of tight concave curves. That's where the Easy Finisher comes in handy, with it's small round cutter. But, if need be, the Easy Finisher is perfectly capable of hogging off large amounts of material, so it's as much of a rougher as a finisher, just like the Easy Rougher.

Small cutter vs large curves

If there's one shortcoming of using the Easy Finisher, it's large curves, specifically large interior curves like bowls. The relatively small radius of the Easy Finisher's cutter makes it hard to get perfectly smooth curves, I always end up with slight ridges and depressions. Of course, that's more likely my lack of experience/skill than the tool, but I find that I still need my large bowl scraper for the last final cuts on the interior. Power sanding can also remove the waviness.

Deflector up, Mr Sulu!

The Easy Rougher can generate an amazing volume of shavings. When plunge-cutting, the geometry of the tool is such that that stuff flies straight back at you. To help out with keeping it from going into your shirt, pockets, etc, an add-od deflector shield is available. Made of Lexan with an aluminum clamp to hook it onto the bar of the tool, it knocks down the stream of wood bits. Since I keep my dust collector hose mounted right below my tool rest, a goodly portion of the debris gets sucked right in. This is something I've just picked up in the last few days and I really like it. Please note that the deflector is just a convenience, it's in no way a substitute for safety glasses or a face shield.

Slow down to avoid tearout (or use another tool)

One real issue the EWTs have is endgrain tearout, which basically comes from the fact that they're true scrapers. A properly tuned "scraper" should actually have a small hook formed at the edge, so that it's really a cutting tool with a very small edge. But the EWTs lack this cutting edge, which tends to make them grab and pull fibers out instead of shearing them off. In tearout-prone woods like the cedar in this photos, you can get a nice clean surface by taking very light cuts very slowly. Normal, not particularly aggressive cutting caused the massive tearout you see on the sides of the cedar, but a working slowly and lightly gave the nice clear surface you see in the middle. I'm talking about really light cuts, so that your getting fine sawdust instead of shavings. It works, but it's tedious. If you're having issues with tearout, a well-tuned scraper, skew chisel, or fingernail gouge would be a better choice for your final cuts.

Seeing is believing

To show the versatilty of the Easy Wood Tools, I've recorded three videos that show taking a chunk of wood from a square block to a nearly finished bowl just using the Rougher and Finisher. The first video show me using the Rougher to round out the blank from a square block. The second shows me taking the bowl's exterior to its final shape, again just using the Rougher. Finally, the third video shows me using the Easy Finisher to hollow out the bowl. Just click on the images to play.

Pricey but oh-so-worth-it

At first blush, the Easy Wood Tools seem quite pricey. After all, a set of all three tools costs $3-400. But keep in mind that, for the most part, that's all the woodturning tools you'll ever need. You also don't need any kind of complex (and expensive) sharpening system.

But it's not just dollars laid out. Easy Wood Tools are just that, easy. I had spent many hours learning to use traditional tools with mediocre results. But with the EWTs, within minutes I had a good grasp on using them and I was truly doing woodturning for the first time. Add in the fact that you don't need to sharpen them (there's a whole 'nother skill set to learn) and I think the EWTs are a real bargain.

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