Sunday, March 23, 2008

Power Carving - Wood Carving Article

I can’t remember the whole song or the name of the band but I do remember the catchy vocal hook “I’ve got the power!” We have discussed the manual side of carving. Today I would like to discuss some basics about power carving.

I started our carving caricatures, woodspirits, walking sticks and Santa’s. I still carve these but I really enjoy carving fish. I’ve fished my entire life and know a good bit about the subject matter so it was a natural fit. I quickly learned that most people who do carve fish do not do it with hand tools so I had to familiarize myself with power carving.
I love to use power to carve. I don’t have a lot of time to carve and it helps me remove wood more quickly. I also like the fact that I don’t have to work as hard with my hands. I do like the feel of a good hand tool but sometimes fatigue catches up with me. I rarely have this issue when I’m power carving. In this article we will discuss some of the basics.

Carving Machines

There are basically three kinds of power carving machines: flexible shaft, micro motor, and air powered. I’ve never thought about one being better than the other as much as they each have a niche they fill really well.

Flexible shaft machines are the workhorses of power carving. They provide a lot of torque which really helps with roughing out. Different size handpieces allow the carver to use different sized bits from really big to really small. I use this type system for all of my carving. Make sure your system of choice has enough torque to do the roughing out you will be doing.

Micro motor systems are good at roughing out and provide some advantages when carving fine detail. These systems have the motor contained in the handpiece and are connected back to their power source with a flexible power cord. This can make them easier to use in some situations. One advantage to micro motors is that some of them offer precise speed control. Again, check the torque.

Air powered systems are the detail masters. I have seen some systems that run up to 450,000 RPMs! These systems are ideal for the smallest details. You will need an air source such as a compressor and I have seen some that will run on CO2.

For each of these, a system that will run forward and reverse can be nice. Also, a foot control is a very good addition to any system. I consider it a necessity!


I’m going to be honest with you up front. There are more power carving bits than you can shake a stick at. If you are a woodcarver then you should have a stick laying around that you can shake at them!

Bits do the cutting. They cut with metal, stone, ruby, diamond, and probably other materials as well. The also come in a wide variety of shapes. Most of them have pretty specific jobs that fall into roughing, shaping, and detail work.

Your choice of bits will depend heavily on what you intend to carve. I suggest you study your intended subject well and ask an experienced carver in that area to give you advice on the bits you need.

Dust Collection

Here’s the not fun part. Dust is bad for you. The finer the dust the more bad it is. The longer you are exposed to the dust the more bad it is. Dust is bad. DUST = BAD! Comprende?

What I’m trying to say is that dust is bad for you. Power carving creates dust. Some of this is large enough that it falls away but much of it is fine enough that it floats around. This is not good. There are two solutions: wear a really good mask or get a good dust collection system.

You need something to suck away all the dust. It also has to be something that can catch the dust as soon as it comes off the bit. That’s what dust collection systems are for. Do not power carve without one. You need a system that can pull a lot of air and filter out the dust in either a bag or throw it out the window.

I built my own dust collection system from a squirrel-cage fan. It pulls a lot of air and shoots it out my window. It works pretty well but I’m still paranoid about the dust particles I see floating around.

I don’t want to wear a mask while I carve. If I did wear a mask I would make sure it wasn’t one of those paper ones. Get a really, really, really good mask if it’s your only protection.


All wood does not take well to power carving. I have carved basswood. It does ok but tends to fuzz up a lot. I prefer tupelo. It takes to power carving very well and doesn’t fuzz up. This means it doesn’t need as much finishing work towards the end.

Be careful about power carving some woods. Some woods are toxic. When you carve them and breathe in their dust you can have major issues. Also, some woods have molds and other growths in them. I believe this is called spalted wood. It’s very pretty and desirable to work with but breathing mold particles is not the best thing you will do this week so I would recommend you avoid it.


Do a lot of research based on your carving projects for they system and bits you will need. Also, prices can vary so look around. Dust collection…DO IT! Also, pick your wood wisely.

P.S. Dust is bad.

The 'Power Carving Series' encompasses the following articles:

This article originally appeared in Carving Magazine.


  1. [...] Carving Post Now Online My latest post is about power carving. You can find it here. Enjoy! __________________ ----------------------- John Call Free articles about Woodcarving and [...]

  2. Thank you, John for the post of power carving very informative. I've been power carving for about a year now. Agree, it's very important to have the safety measures in place if you are going to power carve. I have a Foredom and a PennState dust controller, mask with filters on both sides and safety eye glasses. Generally, I don't totally powercarve a complete carving, but also use hand/mallet tools also.
    I agree about the fuzzing with basswood, haven't tried tupelo, tried butternut the jury is still out on that one. Cottonwood lends itself well to power carving. Here in northern Arizona where I live we have Fremont Cottonwood. Hand tools work well also.
    I'll add your site to my favorites and also a link on my web site for you.
    Thanks Again,

  3. Thanks for the feedback. Also, the information about other good woods will be good for everyone visiting. I've carved cottonwood bark (by hand) but never cottonwood itself. I'll have to give it a try.

  4. [...] have started exploring power carving. Last time we discussed the basic things you would need to get started. Today we discuss what I think is the most important part of power carving, dust [...]

  5. I'm looking for a source of Tupelo wod in large sizes, about 10x10x24inches. Do you know of any suppliers?

  6. Power Carving Manuals 1, 2, and 3 are no longer available from Fox Chapel Publishing. If you have a copy you want to part with, please email me with the cost, or perhaps you know another source. Thanks.