Introduction to
Power Carving Tools

Power Carving Tools Overview: One of the reasons I love woodturning so much, is that there are so many different paths to explore. You can make woodturning anything you want it to be from the most basic, to the most elaborate and anything in between. Your designs can be traditional or cutting edge, with surfaces that are smooth as silk, or rough as a chain-sawn surface. Form, color and texture are all easily explored, allowing you to nurture your inner muse.

Two areas that I have always been drawn to are carving and texturing. I was not always interested in exploring different tactile surfaces on my woodturnings however. When I first began turning, I loved nothing more than a pure, silky smooth surface. As I began to explore more creative surfaces, I found out that I was keenly interested in carved and textured surfaces as well. Far removed from the pure and silky smooth surfaces I was so fond of in my earlier years, heavily carved and textured surfaces captivated my interest and fired my creative imagination.

Today, I employ many different power carving tools to carve and texture the surfaces of my woodturnings. If you're interested in moving beyond smooth sanded surfaces on your turnings, you're in good company. This area in woodturning has seen explosive growth in recent years, as the line between woodturnings and carvings blurs.

Power Carving Tools to Get You Started

Like so many things in woodturning, you can spend a small fortune to get fully outfitted with all of the latest carving and texturing tools. However, you can also get started with just a few simple, inexpensive power carving tools that will let you produce many different types of carved surfaces and textures. Then, if you really get the carving and texturing bug, you can whip out your credit card faster than you can say - "Bob's your uncle, Fanny's your aunt!" and load up your shopping cart!

Large Power Carving Tools

Chainsaws and Arbortech Carvers: With special bars and chains, chainsaws can be used on larger work pieces, but most woodturners I know, prefer to use carvers like the Arbortech Industrial Carver, which are much easier to control than chainsaw carvers. Arbortech's 4" Tungsten Carbide tipped carving blade fits onto standard 4" and 4.5" angle grinders and is an excellent tool for carving, or wasting away wood on large areas. The small size and easy to control cutting action of this tool makes it a great tool to use for carving on the lathe. It can also be used for free-form carving of projects off the lathe.

Arbortech's 4" industrial carver

Arbortech tools can also be used to create many different types of textures on the surface of woodturnings. Many years ago, I developed my "Fluid Texturing" protocol to use with this tool and its smaller cousin, the Arbortech Mini-Grinder, to texture surfaces on the lathe. Hundreds of different textures can be easily created using these tools. To learn more about my protocol, click here.

Small Power Carving Tools

Arbortech Mini-Grinder: This tool sports a 2" diameter Tungsten Carbide tipped blade (optional) that mounts onto an extension that is fitted to a standard 4" or 4.5" angle grinder. The small blade size allows this tool to get into very tight quarters easily, without damaging adjacent design areas. Its cutting action is very easy to control and several optional accessories are available for this model including diamond blades (for cutting stone), High Speed Steel blades (standard) and sanding pads.

Arbortech's 2" Mini Grinder

Foredom Carver: This is a great all-around carving tool to have in your studio. There are many different hand pieces available for this tool and a near limitless selection of carving and cutting tips. It features a flexible shaft and an optional foot control for ease of use on larger projects. There are several different motors available in the Foredom line that can handle almost any situation that a woodturner may encounter. The maximum RPM of the unit shown is 18,000 RPM.

Foredom's flexible
shaft power carver

Large Reciprocating Power Carving Tools

Arbortech Power Chisel: This is the best heavy-duty reciprocating carver on the market, bar none. The reciprocating head fits onto a standard 4" angle grinder, offering an amazing amount of power in a small, lightweight power unit. Numerous chisels are available to fit most carving needs. This is one of my favorite power carving tools!

Arbortech's Power Chisel

Small Reciprocating Power Carving Tools

Automach: This is the Cadillac of small hand held reciprocating carvers, with a price to match. It is however, an excellent tool that is a pure joy to use, even for long periods of time. It's about the size of a hot dog (with bun) in your hand, so even turners with small hands will find this unit comfortable. The Automach carver will accept Flexcut cutters (sweet!) that really increase the versatility of this unit. If you want the best small reciprocating carver on the market, this is your tool!

Automach Carver

Proxxon: This is a great tool for turners just getting into embellishing their work with carved surfaces. It's very affordable, which is a big plus if you're on a tight budget. Its small size makes it easy to use and manipulate in tight quarters. This unit is not as powerful as the Automach, but it is sufficient for many carving needs. Speed, 12,000 BPM.

Proxxon's Reciprocating Carver

Weecher: This is a small reciprocating hand piece that is mounted to a flexible shaft. The end of the shaft mounts in a drill press, or a stationary hand held drill and operates the tool. This is a great inexpensive carver for light duty carving if you're on a tight budget, or you want to try carving a little before buying lots of power carving tools.

Weecher's Reciprocating Carver

High Speed Rotary Power Carving Tools

Proxxon: Proxxon has numerous high-speed rotary tools that work very well for rotary carving tasks with HSS, diamond and other cutters and bits. One thing I really like about these small Proxxon tools is their small size. When you're working on smaller projects, or on projects with multiple voids, having a really small rotary tool is a tremendous benefit. Variable speeds on most models from 5,000 – 20,000 RPM.

Proxxon's small handheld rotary carvers

Dremel: This is one of the most ubiquitous tools in a woodturner's studio. They are inexpensive and they work well for light to medium duty grinding tasks. There are numerous cutters, sanders and bits available at any home centre or hardware store for this tool. Speeds are typically 5,000 – 30,000 RPM.

Dremel high speed rotary tool

Pneumatic Ultra-High Speed Rotary Power Carving Tools

There are many different types of high-speed air tools available for use on woodturnings. I use a Powercrafter unit, which works well for many piercing applications. It is oil lubricated however, so if this is a factor for you, there are also oil free models available from some manufacturers. These types of tools work with ultra-high speed to cut efficiently. They are not made for applications that require lots of torque, as the cutter will simply stop. Using these tools is a lot like using a pencil eraser on thin walled turnings. Speeds up to 500,000 RPM.

Powercrafter's ultra-high speed rotary tool
can make quick work of piercing operations

Pneumatic Body Saws

If you will be cutting out large areas on your projects, or creating deep sculpting cuts on rims, a pneumatic body saw will be a valuable tool for you to own. These saws run on compressed air, so if you don't have an air compressor, you cannot use one. In a pinch, an electric reciprocating saw like a Sawzall might work, if the area you need to work on is large enough and there is ample access. These pneumatic body saws are extremely easy to use and are small and light enough to be comfortable to work with for extended periods of time. Speed, 9,000 strokes per minute.

Air saws are great tools for
removing large amounts of wood
(Harbor Freight Model shown)

Miscellaneous Tools

Overview: Ok, you've got yourself a few power carving tools and you've roughed out a nicely carved surface and now you're ready to sand it… If you've never tried to hand sand in tiny holes and crevices before, you're in for a real treat! Well, only if you like sore fingers and an aching back. The second part to being successful at deep carving and piercing is to be able to sand the items efficiently. Trust me, you could hand sand everything if you wanted to, but life's too short. A few sanding tools will help you to tame the sanding beast and still feel like shooting a round of golf.

Band Sanders: Proxxon has a great little band sander that is small enough to fit into really tight areas. It uses a teensy, tiny, 13/32" wide belt mounted on a 4.75" long protruding arm. This little gem will be one of your favorite tools if you do large piercing, or carve out lots of areas on your projects. The end of the tool measures about 3/8" square, so it can get into holes just over 3/8" wide. If you need a band sander, this is a great tool. Speed is variable speed, 16 – 38 ft./s.

Proxxon's belt sander is an indispensable
tool for heavily carved or pierced surfaces

Tiny Pen Sanders: If you need the ability to sand in really tiny areas, or you cannot use the band sander, Proxxon makes a micro sanding "pen" that is about the size of a large hotdog. It can be fitted with several different shaped tips (round, square, oblong, triangle etc.) that are made to accept sticky backed abrasives. You can buy these special shapes from Proxxon, or cut them out of regular sticky back abrasive sheets yourself. This puppy can really get into tiny areas and do the last bit of finish sanding on your projects. Save yourself from a handful of sore fingers and get one of these if you're doing a lot of carving on your work. This tool is a lineal sander, not rotary or orbital. Speed, 8,000 strokes per minute.

Proxxon's Pen Sander is very
useful in tight quarters sanding

Delta Shaped Oscillating Sanders: For larger close quarter work, Delta shaped oscillating sanders work very well. Fein makes a great tool called the Multi-Master that is a favorite of mine. Proxxon makes a Delta sander as well. The Proxxon sander speed ranges from 3,000 – 10,000 OPM. Fein's Multi-Master produces 21,000 OPM.

For sanding larger areas, Fein's
Multi-Master is an excellent tool

A Few Last Words About Power Carving Tools…

If you're thinking about getting into carving and texturing, one or more of the power carving tools shown above can get you started. Like most power tools, heavy jobs require heavy tools… So if you want to work on large projects and remove lots of material quickly, look at specially modified chainsaws, or the Arbortech carvers.

For medium to heavy-duty work, power carvers like the Arbortech Power Chisel and the Automach are good choices. For light duty work, high-speed rotary tools like the Proxxon tools, or the ultra-high speed pneumatics are good choices. Happy carving and texturing!

Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.

Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.