Introduction: DIY Carbide Lathe Tools for Cheap

Picture of DIY Carbide Lathe Tools for Cheap

I recently got into wood turning, and I wanted to have a nice set of tools. Most lathe gouges and chisels are high speed steel (HSS), but they require constant sharpening and leave something to be desired. The premium wood turning tools use replaceable carbide inserts that stay sharp considerably longer, but you also pay a premium for them.

Instead of paying around $100 per tool, I set out to make my own. After it's all said and done, I've got $53 dollars invested in two carbide cutting tools, and I've got 6 regular steel chisels and gouges left from the materials that I bought for the project.

Not too shabby - here's how it's done!

Step 1: Gather the Materials

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I've seen some Instructables where people turned their own hardwood handles, used copper plumbing to make custom ferrules, cut or machined their own tool shafts, and even hollowed out the handles and loaded them with shot to reduce vibration. While I will probably do this eventually, I wanted more instant gratification. I wanted a set of carbide cutters to use between now and then. So... I decided to just use a cheap set of donor chisels as the handles for my own carbide lathe tools.

I bought a set of 8 lathe tools from Harbor Freight for $20. I also purchased a pair of carbide inserts from Easy Wood Tools on Amazon. I decided on the Ci0 round cutter and the Ci1-R2 radiused square cutter. Both carbide inserts came with their own 8-32 hold down screws.

If you're following this guide verbatim, here are the links to exactly what I bought:

You'll also need:

A tap and die set, specifically an 8-32 tap.

A scratch awl.

A center punch.

A drill and bits. Something to pilot drill with, and a 1/8" bit. (#29 if you have it)

A combination square.

Something to protect bare metal. I have Johnson's Paste Wax, so I used that.

Step 2: Layout Your Work

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I set out all of my tools and the inserts to test fit which tool would hold each insert the best. I decided to use the 1/2" round tool to support the square cutter, and the spear point tool to mount the round cutter.

Hold the parts together, and inspect how they line up, front and back. You want the carbide insert to be centered on the width of the chisel shaft, and you want the insert to extend beyond the cutting edge of the original tool but still have enough material left over to tap threads through the full thickness of the chisel.

Once you've got it lined up the way that you want it, use the inside of the carbide insert as a guide and scratch a circle into the steel tool shaft.

***Be aware that the carbide inserts are razor sharp! You must use care when handling them so that you don't cut yourself. Wearing heavy gloves is a good idea.

Step 3: Find the Center

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Now that you've got a rough idea of where you'd like to locate the carbide inserts on each tool, it's time to mark the exact locations for drilling.

Using a combination square, scratch a center line down each tool. Set the square to be a little shy of center, and scratch a line down each side. Adjust your square if you need to, and draw another set of lines, until you find the exact center line along each piece of steel.

Using the same square, scratch a line through the center of your circle that's perpendicular to your center line. Now you've got crossing lines that should be centered in the first circle that you scribed.

Step 4: Center Punch and Drill

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Make sure to take a close look at the marks you've made. If something doesn't line up right, now is the time to fix it! If you're satisfied with the marks on your chisels, use a center punch to mark that spot for drilling. This helps you line things up, and it will guide the drill bit to the right spot without 'walking' around before it starts cutting.

Using a pilot bit, line up the mark from your center punch, and drill all the way through the chisel blade.

Follow that drill with the 1/8" (or #29) to prepare for tapping the threads.

Note, you can use the 1/8" bit first, but I like to drill pilot holes with drill bits that I don't mind breaking.

Step 5: Tap the Threads

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Using an 8-32 tap, it's time to put threads in the holes you've drilled.

The secrets to tapping threads, especially in steel, are to use lots of lubrication, take it slow and steady, and clear the cuttings out of the tap.

Start the oiled tap, as straight as you can get it, into the chisel blade. Keep in mind that you are cutting away metal. You'll need to turn the tap forwards until you feel resistance, and then turn it back a little bit to clear the cuttings. It's a 'two steps forwards one step backward' sort of process. You may even need to completely unscrew the tap to clean the metal cuttings out of it. Clean out the chips frequently so that you don't fill up the flutes in the tap and start jamming the tool. It's better to use up oil and paper towels than it is to break a tap.

When you're finished tapping the threads, take a moment to clean everything up. Oily metal shards don't mix with tools, wood, or paint very well. They're also hot, and they make unpleasant splinters.

Step 6: Countersink the Holes

Picture of Countersink the Holes

The screw for the carbide inserts that I used extends just a tad beneath the flat surface on the bottom of the carbide. Because of this, you'll need to countersink the holes just a touch to fully tighten the screws and hold down the carbide inserts.

I used a 1/4" drill bit, and drilled down just enough to reach the full width of the head of the bit. You can test fit your inserts between drilling to custom tailor this clearance, but that's the depth that worked for me. Just don't go too deep and reduce the length of the threads more than you have to.

Step 7: Protect the Metal

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One of my chisels was a tad rusty, so I sanded off the rust. I wouldn't use sandpaper on a nice chisel, but it was 1/8th of a $20 purchase, and I'm only using it as a tool holder, so I decided not to feel too bad about it.

Unprotected metal will rust from the humidity in the air, so it's important to coat your tools with something to keep out the moisture. I had Johnson's Paste Wax on hand because I use it on my tablesaw, so I applied it to the unprotected blades of my chisels. Many other products exist, but check to make sure that whatever you use doesn't contain oils or silicone that can cause problems with paint and finishes.

Step 8: Final Assembly

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Now you can screw your carbide inserts to the lathe tools that you've prepared!

Check that they fit nicely. Be sure that they're centered on the chisel blades, and that the cutting surfaces of the original chisels don't extend beyond the base of the carbide inserts.

You want the carbide to be screwed down tight, but be cautious because carbide is brittle and can shatter under pressure. There is a such thing as too tight.

Also, remember that the carbide blades are sharp!

Step 9: Grind the Extra Threads

Picture of Grind the Extra Threads

If your hold down screws extend beyond the bottom of your chisels, you'll probably want to grind down the excess and make them flush so that they don't catch on your tool rest. I did this with a bench grinder, but you could do this with many different tools. Hacksaw, Dremel, sanding disc, etc. If you expose bare metal, make sure to protect it with some wax, as well.

Step 10: Closing Thoughts

I will still probably tweak these tools a bit, but they turned into a very nice (and affordable) set of carbide cutters! I'm happy throwing chips on the garage floor again.

I need to figure out a nicer way to align the square cutter while I tighten it. The premium tools that use these inserts have a shelf milled into them to locate the cutter and to keep it from rotating when you tighten the screw. For now, I'm happy enough with indexing it by hand until I get it just right. Again, be careful of how sharp the blades are when you're handling them!

I'm also curious about the feel of round bottom tools. Most chisels are flat, but you get a nice feeling from rocking and rolling a round gouge on your tool rest, so I will eventually try to come up with a way to mount these cutters on a round bar and achieve that feel.

What do you think? Have you done a project like this? What did you do better? What should I do next time?

Thanks for reading !


jmeservy made it! (author)2017-11-09

Thank you! Great instructable!

jimustanguitar (author)jmeservy2017-11-10

Looks great! Happy turning.

Oilman81 (author)2017-11-26

for cheap good round stock to use, try using tire lug wrenchs. They are strong and a few $ at Habitat for Humanity. My brother in law makes carving chisels out of them.

EdRobinson (author)2017-09-20

Nice article.

I have made 3 of these tools using round 1/2" steel rod. Using a Dremel with a cutoff wheel, I grind a flat notch in the end of the rod and file as flat as I can. Then, if necessary, I grind off any excess metal from the end so that the cutter will butt up against the back of the notch. Having established the proper length, I locate the center and drill and tap for the hold down screw.

I like to grind away the maximum amount of metal possible such that the entire cutting edge hangs over the end. I also shape the side of the rod such that the sides of the cutters are well exposed as well.

The round rods work really well especially since the amount of pressure needed to cut with the carbide tips is very minimal.

I want to try one with a piece of 1/2" square stock next just to see how it works.

Thanks again for a well done how to.

Bobbar (author)2017-03-19

Hi, I have the Harbor Freight $20 chisel set and am unable to find a punch nor a drill bit that will punch nor drill the chisels. Please someone tell me what is harder than a cobalt bit or a Ace hardware center punch.

jimustanguitar (author)Bobbar2017-03-22

I sure didn't need any special tooling for my build. The drill bits and taps that I used probably came from Harbor Freight as well. I was using an "automatic" center punch that's just a spring loaded point that pops itself when you apply enough pressure to it, so that's a pretty light duty tool as well.

I think that the factory heat treating between chisels is wildly inconsistent on the HF tools. Somebody else asked, and you might have read in another comment on the thread, that one of my chisels cut like butter and the other one was 'tight' and squeaked the tools when I tapped it... I'm not sure which way is "right" or how they're supposed to come when they're new, but they were definitely different than each other from the get go.

Anyway, the other poster recommended annealing the chisels before tapping them if people ran into this issue. I'm not a metallurgy buff, so I don't actually know the right way to do that safely without doing some google searching first.

XTL (author)jimustanguitar2017-03-23

Heat the end up with a blowtorch to red hot. let cool naturally - will now be soft. To harden again - heat up to red hot and then cool by dipping in can of oil.
To get a controlled temper you need to do more work (look it up) but these tools are not used for cutting so you just want it a bit stronger than unannealed steel and this will do.

AlaricM (author)2017-03-15

I have been turning for some time now and these tools would be good for spindle turning but not for bowl turning. The reason is the HF tools you started with. The tangs on these tools is too small and short. It could snap if you were to try turning end grain as you would turning a bowl. And that could really mess up your day. Don't get me wrong, they are good for face grain turning as with spindles, pens, ect...

jimustanguitar (author)AlaricM2017-03-16

So far, I'm only using them for pens, so no issues. If I get into bowl turning, I'll definitely have to learn some more about what's going on. Thanks for the warning.

tzny (author)2017-03-13

This is a great idea - thanks for sharing!

Beginner's questions: When would you use the round vs the square cutter? Also, could you grind/round the "bottom" corners of the chisel to get a more oval shape to achieve that rock'n'roll motion?

jimustanguitar (author)tzny2017-03-14

I'm just learning the tools myself, but the round tool is best for curvy and free form shapes. The disadvantage is that it will translate however your hand moves into the wood, and along the length of a turned piece of wood, that can cause waves and ripples. The square cutter (which is actually slightly curved) is much closer to flat, and does a better job of smoothing out a piece of work and making more gradual curves and tapers. So far, I find the radiused square cutter to be more useful, but I'm turning pens that tend to be long and have gradual curves, and not doing bead work on spindles and things like that.

Ralphxyz (author)2017-03-12

Nice article, thank you!!


Step 6: Countersink the Holes

Why would you bother countersinking the holes?

The hole is covered by the insert, the screw head sinks/sets in the insert

not the tool.

Ace918 (author)Ralphxyz2017-03-12

Look very carefully at the picture in step 6, you will see that a portion of the un-threaded part of the screw protrudes below the cutter, the countersink allows clearance for this part of the mounting screw

Ralphxyz (author)Ace9182017-03-14

Wow, thanks that explains it!!

jimustanguitar (author)Ralphxyz2017-03-13

The taper on the bottom of the screw protrudes below the bottom of these inserts. It wasn't part of the original plan, but I couldn't fully tighten them without this step.

LesRobbo (author)2017-03-12

Captain Eddie Castelain always suggested using a spot of ca glue to hold the cutter in place while tightening the screw.

jimustanguitar (author)LesRobbo2017-03-13

Interesting idea, I'll have to give it a try when I rotate the inserts next.

charlessenf-gm (author)2017-03-12

HFT ! gotta love it! Cheap base for your cutters and a free flashlight to boot!

itsmescotty (author)2017-03-12

They sell carbide in all sorts of sizes and shapes that you can solder/braze onto HSS (kind of unnecessary) or just cold rolled steel. You can shape/sharpen to your liking with a CBN or diamond wheel. When I was a kid I used defunct files and ground the ends to shape.

duncanh (author)2017-03-12

A good, clear instructable.

As you say, Carbide tools will keep their edge for longer but traditional hss turning tools will be initially sharper (assuming the person sharpening knows what they're doing). On most timbers that sharper edge will almost always give you a better finish straight off the tool, which requires less sanding (and les's face it, who likes sanding!).
Another reason that traditional gouges and chisels will usually give a better finish is that almost all carbide tools are used as scrapers, which will usually give a worse finish than a tool which has a bevel to rub.

Carbide tools are usefull in a few ways - on particularly hard timbers or plastics they can be more effective than hss. They also provide an easy way for beginners to start out turning.
When it comes down to it though - most experienced turners will continue with regular hss gouges as they are faster and more versatile.

Iam in a club in denmark western australia

I made tools up with a carbide tip using a piece of 12 mm sqare steel then cutting one at 45 deg then attach a 10 mm round carbide to the end this gives a shering cut for cutting a bowl out

my idea came from watching simon pope demo on utube

if you are a metal worker not hard to do

Graeme Mackintosh

Chuck666 (author)duncanh2017-03-12

Head at the correct angle and height to the work these carbide tools do "cut" not just scrape. While I agree hard traditional tools are a joy to use and cut beautifully they require more tool skills. These carbide tools are a great way to start turning, less initial tool skill while acquiring a joy turning.

baecker03 (author)2017-03-12

Chinese "hss" < quality hss

retiredphnman (author)2017-03-12

I have the same cheap set from Harbor Freight. To answer other questions about the toughness of the steel. Not hard at all. I have Wood River and Sorby tools that I actually use, but just can't bring myself to dropping the money down for a carbide cutter. Awesome instructable. I will be giving this a try thanks.

tassie2 (author)2017-03-09

Q) a good HSS lathe tool is same hardness (near enough) to HSS drills/ countersink / and tap.

Do you soften chisel with flame etc to allow a drill though? Or use carbide drills to get through the material?

groundcontrol (author)tassie22017-03-12

If these were nice HSS tools to begin with instead of HFT, you would almost definitely have to anneal them before trying to drill & tap with HSS of the same hardness. Althought some drills and taps have a coating on them which is harder than the raw HSS.

jimustanguitar (author)tassie22017-03-09

I didn't have to for this project, but I could tell that the two chisels I made were at least heat treated differently. One was very tough and made the tap creak and squeak, and the other one cut like butter.

mlawing (author)2017-03-09

That's a much cheaper and more substantial route than I'd imagined. Great work!

jimustanguitar (author)mlawing2017-03-09

Why, thank you!

diverdad (author)jimustanguitar2017-03-12

When indexing your carbide cutter use a drop of super glue. It will hold the insert still. Great instructable!

rustybender (author)2017-03-10

Thanks for posting this, I will be making a set. I've been lusting after carbide turning tools for a while but the price has been holding me back.

Outstanding job!

studleylee (author)2017-03-10


CraftAndu (author)2017-03-09


DBMatic (author)2017-03-09

Great write-up. You have my vote!

jimustanguitar (author)DBMatic2017-03-09

Awesome, thank you!

Normand Ragot (author)2017-03-09

If you want round steel to mount your carbides to, find a local photocopier shop in your area. They are probably tossing old machines regularly. If you ask, you can probably get rods, shafts and rollers of all kinds. I know I do. I work in a photocopier shop and get all kinds and sizes . If nothing else, ask for a worn out "Transfer belt". They usually have 8mm to 10 mm rollers in them(3/8" to 1/2")

Awesome tip. Thanks!

brianfss (author)2017-03-09

Very nicely written and great pictures.

BeachsideHank (author)2017-03-09

Brilliant, using inexpensive HSS tools as the base gets 80% of the job done! ☺

seamster (author)2017-03-09

This is a great option, and a great write-up on the process you used. Thank you!

gm280 (author)2017-03-09

Nice project. I do wood turning as well and have a lot of tools. But carbide has to be superior to any of my HHS tools. I have to give this a try.

jimustanguitar (author)gm2802017-03-09

I hadn't tried carbide until recently, and it's almost scary how smoothly it cuts. I had to lighten up my technique to avoid taking off too much material!

davidgar (author)2017-03-09

Nice article. Will have to try soon. You can get carbide cutters fairly cheap at They average out about 6 to $10 apiece.

jimustanguitar (author)davidgar2017-03-09

I debated on which carbide inserts to buy. NZ Carbide also has more affordable cutters, but the EWT sales copy got me :) and I decided to "splurge" on their more premium inserts.

About This Instructable




Bio: I'm a born tinkerer who's always enjoyed hands on activities. I'm into 3D printing, CNC carving and milling, woodworking, and many other ... More »
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