Sunday, August 23, 2009

Dockyard Micro Tools

Some months ago (Months! I am mortified to be so slow.) I received a lovely note from Don Butler, the Carving Glove Guy.

First things first. If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what the heck a carving glove might be, and you’ll be distracted and not pay attention until I ‘splain.

Turns out clever woodcarvers have solved two problems with one invention: a glove which both gives you a good grip on the piece you are carving AND provides protection from cuts. Leather and Kevlar! At present I seem to have a handle (so to speak) on keeping my non-lino-carving hand away from my gouges, but if I struggled with this more, I would consider using a carving glove.

ANYWAY. Don kindly and generously asked if I would be willing to “test drive” his line of Dockyard Micro carving tools for linocut work. The tools are designed for woodcarvers, but Don thought they would have application for lino as well. These tools are TINY, and you know me! I’m always going after these ridiculously intricate images. Of course I said ‘yes.’

A few days later a box arrived with 25 little tools in two fabric cases. Take a look:

So, first, the basics. (Most of these photos, BTW, generously supplied by Don as well. I had trouble getting anything good from my little camera.)

The tools are lightweight, about 5.5” inches long, with straight cherry wood handles. They arrive with that little tubing over the top… for protection and storage.

The variety of tools was a bit overwhelming, really. Straight blades and dog legs and gouges and V-tools and knives! I could immediately see why these would be popular with woodcarvers. A few tools, such as a scythe-shaped knife, probably do not have much application for linocut, so I focused my attention on the gouges.

The U-gouge, my weapon, er, tool of choice has the greatest size range in the set, from 5mm to 1.5mm wide.

I, of course, dove straight for the tiniest one to put through its paces.

But, ooph! I realized immediately what a creature of habit I am. One becomes accustomed to certain tools used certain ways, and making a switch can be eye-opening and challenging. So. Some first impressions:

1) Straight handles. Hm. I realize that Japanese woodcut tools are straight handled, and that traditional tools are used with a drawing motion rather than a push, but I'm pretty attached to my mushroom-handled tools. I also, I confess, still use a couple of the old bulb-handled tools (think Speedball linocutters from grade school, only mine are wood). I like that the Micro handles are octagonal for better grip and less rolling about on the table, but in the palm of my hand for long periods of time I like a wide, rounded base. Still, I know plenty of people who feel otherwise. After the polished wood handles of the Ramelson tools, I thought these seemed a little flimsy, but a visit to woodcarving forums where the Dockyard Micros were discussed didn't turn up any complaints on the part of those users.

2) Sharp! As I mentioned before, the set I received was plenty sharp right out of the box, which is great. Especially since we all know what happened LAST time I tried to sharpen my favorite small tool. Again, I checked around on a couple of tool forums, and the woodcarvers there describe these tools as holding their edge for a long time and easily refreshed with just a light strop.

3) Dark patina. This was something I had never considered before. All of my usual tools have bright, light-colored steel blades which show up nicely against gray or dark-tinted linoleum. The Dockyard tools arrived with a dark patina to them, which my middle-aged eyes found difficult to deal with against a dark background, especially as the tools are so small. I puzzled this for a while until I realized that woodcarvers are probably often using light-colored material like balsa wood (or whatever it's called these days). A dark blade against a light material is probably useful in that instance. Or maybe it's just a coating that comes on them from the manufacturer and will wear off with use. I asked Don about it, and he said that the dark patina could be polished off the Micro tools. So there you go.

4) Price. Retail prices are more or less in line with what you would expect to pay for good carving tools. My mushroom-handled gouges are from UJ Ramelson, with individual tools priced at $9, $40 for a set of 6. The Dockyard Micro tools are $12 each, with a discount once you buy 5 or more.

Coming up next, a little about the tools in action. In the meantime, have a gander at Don's website and expand your tool envy horizons.


  1. I could get very excited about such a package arriving, Sherrie! I use the Swiss Made mushroom handle tools and have paid up to 25 euro ($US35) each for them here in Italy. Not sure why, since Switzerland is just a hop, step and a jump away.

    I also lack sharpening skills!

    Looking forward to your report on the tools in action.

  2. I do soft-block printing and have a handful of dockyard tools. Love them!!!

    I expect that the straight handle would be less of an issue working with an eraser-soft material rather than lino. I know that these arthritic hands could never handle linocut for even one day. Ouch!

    I did this piece with my dockyards, much of it with tiny v-cutters:

    These days I primarily create with wool yarns, rather than printmaking, but I'm starting to get an itch to go back. Maybe I'll start with a tiny eraser just for kicks, and use it as a rubber stamp on my return envelopes!

    LynnH in Lansing, MI

  3. Hi Lynn! Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the feedback on the tools. I got bogged down in other things (again) this week, but plan to get my lino experiments posted in the next few days.

    Of course, you can guess that I will ALWAYS encourage you to get back to some carving. I understand the urge toward yarn, as well... for me it's often about the tactile nature of whatever I'm doing!