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Making a pile of curly shavings is easy with a quality gouge like this Sorby.
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Sorby ½" Fingernail Bowl Gouge

Classic quality, uncommon versatility

Text & Photos by Tom Hintz

   I bought the Sorby fingernail bowl gouge largely because of the famous name and reputation. Lacking any bowl turning experience, I was forced to rely on the opinions of others. That information proved to be spot-on as the Sorby #842FLH fingernail bowl gouge more than lived up to those lofty expectations and has become one of my favorite tools when turning bowls and many other projects.

Initial Impressions

   The overall quality of the Sorby bowl gouge is both apparent and impressive. From the smoothly ground fingernail contour to the classic Sorby handle shape, the use of top-quality materials and fine craftsmanship promise a long, useful life. Extensive time at the lathe would also demonstrate the durability of this tool.

Size & Shape

The classic handle shape fits the hand well and offers good control.
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   At 23"-long overall, the Sorby gouge can be a little intimidating to new bowl turners but that size is part of why this tool works so well.

   The gouge, made from high-quality HSS (high speed steel) is 9"-long (outside the handle) and ½"-diameter. The handle is 14"-long and varies from 1 7/8"-diameter near the ferrule down to 1 1/8"-diameter in the center of the grip area.

   The cutting edge was factory-ground to a 60-degree angle with wings approximately ¾"-long. This configuration proved to be very effective and relatively easy to use.


I kept the Sorby tip configuration but polish it to produce even smoother surfaces when making final cuts.
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   The HSS used by Sorby to make this gouge takes and holds an edge very well but does need sharpening occasionally to maintain its performance. I use a Tormek SuperGrind (see the review) with their SVD-185-185 jig. My "recipe" has 2 ½" of the gouge exposed from the jig and the knuckle set at #4. Though I have tried altering the initial 60-degree bevel angle, I could never improve the performance. Sorby knew what they were doing and I now stay at 60-degrees.

   I have found that taking the time to polish the bevel not only produces an extremely sharp edge, it improves the finish the tool leaves on the wood noticeably.

In the Shop

Turned on its side, the lower wing of the Sorby gouge works very well as a scraper.
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   My inexperience with bowl gouges produced a few spectacular catches during the first few uses that inadvertently proved that the Sorby fingernail gouge can dig a remarkably deep groove several inches long in a piece of spalted maple when used incorrectly. With a little practice, those types of surprises diminished quickly.

   The Sorby fingernail gouge has proven to be a surprisingly versatile tool at the lathe. Virtually any type of bowl design can be turned using this one tool. Rounding, hollowing and finish cuts are all easy and leave a surprisingly smooth surface that requires little sanding.

   With the gouge turned on its side, the lower wing can be used as a scraper to true mildly uneven surfaces quickly with full control. With the surface nearly flat, return the gouge to the normal bevel rubbing position for shaping with a much smoother surface.

Whether rounding and shaping the outside (Top) or hollowing the inside (Bottom) The Sorby fingernail gouge works great and with a little practice, produces a very smooth surface.
Click images to enlarge

   The bevel on the Sorby fingernail grind is rather large making it easy to get it rubbing before rolling the cutting edge into the stock with very good control. Even near the tip of the gouge, the bevel is large enough to help begin cuts predictably.

   The shape of the Sorby fingernail grind makes it easy to "steer" the tool to follow or change the shape being cut. A gentle taper from the tip to the wings makes cutting even concave forms easier than I anticipated.

   When turning very hard woods, the Sorby fingernail gouge holds its edge very well and does not require frequent sharpening. This is very different from some of the other gouges I have that seem to go dull much quicker. When the Sorby fingernail gouge begins to feel dull, a light sharpening is all that is needed to freshen the edge.


   The Sorby ½" fingernail bowl gouge is a very well made tool that is relatively easy to use and holds a sharp edge a long time. The size and weight of the Sorby fingernail gouge makes it easy to handle with precise control and does a good job of dampening vibrations.

Pricing Link
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   The rather narrow contour at the tip makes using the Sorby fingernail gouge in remarkably small places or on the biggest of bowls easy. I have even hollowed 2"-diameter mini-goblets with the Sorby ½" fingernail gouge, producing a surface that needed a light scraping and sanding before finishing.

   With a street price of only $73.95 (2-15-2005) the Sorby ½" fingernail gouge (#842FLH) is a great turning tool that with minimal care will perform exceptionally well for many years to come. If you own a lathe, you are going to turn bowls. The Sorby ½" fingernail bowl gouge will be a welcome, often used addition to your tool collection.

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