Sunday, December 7, 2008

Power Carving Bits - Wood Carving Article

Shave and a haircut, two bits! The melody to that line is used extensively in bluegrass banjo to end songs. If you watched “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” you’ll remember it as well. In case you don’t know a bit is one half of a quarter so it’s equal to 12.5 cents. I’ve always thought that was peculiar. If you bought something that cost 13 cents and paid with a bit they’d owe you .5 cents in change and there isn’t a .5 cent piece. I don’t understand how that works. I guess that’s why they don’t let me work on international economic policy.

Anyway, I want to discuss power carving bits not bits of currency. We’ve already talked about the basics of power carving and then covered dust collection in more detail. Bits are very a very important and vast subject and they deserve to have their own introduction.

A bit about bits
Power Carving Bits - A roughing bit, detail bit, and a sandpaper mandrel.As we’ve discussed before there are three main phases of carving: roughing, shaping, and detailing. The roughing phase requires a lot of wood to be removed quickly. Shaping is the phase where the project begins to take the form of the finished piece but there is still wood to be removed. Detailing is the phase where the final touches are put in place.There are bits for all three of these phases. Many times they’ll be labeled something like “Coarse”, “Medium”, or “Fine”. These names sort of correlate to the roughing, shaping, and detailing phases. The important thing to remember is that each bit was designed for a specific purpose and it’s best to use it in that manner.

Bits are basically an end that cuts that is connected to a shaft that goes into a hand piece. Larger bits generally have larger shafts and certain hand pieces will only take certain sizes of shafts. You generally can’t put a roughing bit into a hand piece made for detailing and you shouldn’t want to anyway. It’s dangerous and your mommy probably told you better.

And all the dogs said rough, rough, rough

Almost all projects start with the roughing phase. You want the same thing in your roughing bits that you would want in a roughing knife or gouge. It needs to take off a lot of wood quickly while still giving you as much control as you need. Most of the bits in this category look like some kind of alien torture device from Star Trek.

Roughing bits have very coarse “teeth” sticking out or they have what looks like a razor blade edge that wraps around. The coarse, toothy bits will leave behind a lot of tears in the wood when they cut. This is usually ok as there is much work to be done after the roughing phase and these will be slowly cut away. The others can leave behind a pretty smooth surface.


The shaping bits don’t look a lot different than the roughing bits. Most of them still have teeth but they are generally more of them and they aren’t as big. It’s kind of like comparing a shark to a pit bull. Very different but you can still tell which end is the business end.

These bits will usually be labeled “Medium” or something to that effect. You will start seeing more variety than in the roughing bits. There are more shapes here and some of the bits start having more specific purposes. These bits still take off a lot of wood but they don’t do it as quickly and at this phase you are more interested in bringing the shape of the project out.

It’s all in the details

There are so many detail bits I don’t know where to start. I could fill the whole magazine with details if they would let me. They won’t, I asked.

The first thing you will notice is all of the shapes: round, cylinder, flame, wheel, and cone. That’s just a few! What could they all be used for? The next thing you’ll notice is all the different cutting materials: diamond, ruby, stone, and others. On top of that many of the stones come in so many different colors signify hardness and texture that you can’t keep up. What’s a carver to do?

Detail bits are used for cutting in feathers, hair, wrinkles, toenails and other fine features. Many subjects have different detail needs and require bits that will fit to their situation. Don’t get overwhelmed. Talk to other carvers. Find out what’s working for them. Read up on the subject or take a class from a more experienced carver.

En la conclusión

This is a vast subject and it’s impossible to cover it in one article. Besides, I’m not that smart and I don’t know everything anyway so even if I wanted to cover it all I couldn’t.

Most of the shapes and materials were designed for specific purposes. Over time carvers have developed bits that better fit the subject. My advice for you is to find a project that’s interesting and then buy the bits for that project. We’ll talk about hand pieces soon but remember that the bits have shafts and those shafts have to fit into your hand piece. Don’t buy bits that wont’ work with your stuff.

There’s a lot to know but this is supposed to be fun so go have fun. Don’t stress over the details (or the detail bits).

Also, be sure to have a good dust collection system any time you are woodcarving with power.

The 'Power Carving Series' encompasses the following articles:

This article originally appeared in Carving Magazine.


  1. [...] It's about power carving bits. There are links at the bottom to the other power carving articles. Woodcarving, Beekeeping, and Country Life Power Carving Bits - Wood Carving Article I've also linked together my 'Getting Started' articles. You can start with this one and the links [...]

  2. One of these days,I'll have to show you the rotating Carbide cutters.I have one in a die grinder, and am getting ready to do a five foot angel .. nad