I Love Fishtails:
Peter Benson explains how to use a fishtail.
I have shown you a number three and a number six gouge and the number four and five gouges vary little in their function. Obviously they will cut a different shape of curve due to the differing sweep but are just as versatile in their own way. However, where each of these tools takes on a totally new persona is when they are made as fishtails. Any gouge or chisel with a blade that gets progressively narrower the nearer it is to the handle could be loosely regarded as a fishtail due to its resemblance to the shape of a fish’s tail (obviously). The real difference is more about the basic structure and use of such a tool. In general, the flattened part of the blade takes on the shape of an elongated triangle with the widest part, the cutting edge, tapering down to a long thin shank which is quite stout. This gives a very rigid tool, even when quite small, that can safely be used with a mallet on even the hardest of timbers. It also means that the blade can be much thinner at the cutting end as there is less risk of the blade bending in use, particularly with those of around 6mm width or less.
I use 3, 4 and 5mm fishtails with a small metal mallet, using the lightest of taps on boxwood and fruitwoods with no flexing or damage at any time. The amount of control achieved is actually quite remarkable on even the finest of detail. There is no danger of slipping or breaking out with the cut and certainly the whole process is far more stress-free than working by hand without using a mallet. I would never consider doing this nowadays with a standard small gouge as the feedback through the hand with the vibration, and the danger of the tool bending, are always a worry.
One of the other advantages of these tools is that the corners or ends of the cutting edge are an acute angle as opposed to a right angle on a standard gouge. Some have sharper angles than others, giving greater versatility. This means you can get into otherwise unreachable nooks, crannies and undercuts, giving a much neater finish to your work, as long as you keep these corners sharp and not rounded.
There are carvers who deliberately angle the cutting edge to make it, in effect, a skew gouge. This means you can carve with a slicing action as well as having two different angles at the ends of the cutting edge.
I also find a fishtail more comfortable to use – it seems to be a better balanced tool in my hand. This is obviously a personal opinion and many of you may not agree. They may not suit everyone and, from a beginner’s point of view, they may not be an economic proposition. The blade is much shorter than a standard blade and, because of the taper, it will get progressively shorter and narrower the more it is sharpened. Once the shank is reached the tool has reached the end of its working life, whereas a standard gouge will go on for years longer as it will still function as the same tool until it is ground down to the handle. Once you are experienced enough with sharpening so that your tools don’t need grinding, only regular honing, thus increasing the life of the tool, you might like to add fishtails to your toolbox.
One additional point here. You can get fishtails for all sweeps but I question the wisdom of having them for any sweep greater than a six. Standard gouges from 7 to 11 have very robust shanks, making them unlikely to flex and the need for very angled corners to the cutting edge seems very remote to me. However, if they are made, there must be a demand for them so I may well be missing something. I admit that I do have a few such tools but they are certainly not the first that I pick up. As much of my carving is in miniature I have a range of fishtails that are much smaller than standard gouges and can be used with a pen grip, making control very easy.
In this range are two skew gouges, left and right skew, that are wonderful for getting into those really tight corners that nothing else will reach.
To sum up, in the end what tools you use most will be the ones with which you feel the most comfortable. Good manufacturers will produce long tools, short tools, fishtails and palm tools of various designs to suit the majority of people and their needs. If you are carving in miniature you will need totally different tools from those used for larger carvings. Obviously, not every tool will please every carver, so, before parting with your hard-earned cash, try as many as you can and buy those you like the best.