Flexible shaft carving systems are not a necessity for woodcarving, but they sure are nice to have for several reasons. Carving with gouges or knives is generally a slow, thoughtful process. To save time I often will use my high speed flexible shaft tool to rough out a carving. With a coarse carbide burr you can chew through wood faster than a school of piranha in a feeding frenzy. A second advantage is that a flex shaft carver allows me to carve in places that are impossible to reach with either a gouge or knife. Finally, if you want to add textures, such as feathers or hair, no tool is better, in my opinion, for creating these realistic details.
What is a flexible shaft cutter?
A flexible shaft tool derives its name from the flexible cable that connects its motor to a handpiece. These rotary power carving systems consist of just a four primary parts: the electric motor, the speed control, the handpiece and the flexible shaft. As the motor spins, the shaft rotates inside a protective outer sheath, which in turn spins the cutting head affixed to the handpiece. The set up is similar to a dentist’s drill. The torque of a heavy-duty motor, however, is typically much greater, because you are grinding through wood not through tooth enamel.
Many different brands are on the market, which include Foredom and Dremel. The system that I selected was the Mastercarver® brand, sold by Wood Carvers Supply.
Motor. Motors that power a flexible shaft system are available in a variety of sizes from 1/10 horsepower to ½ horsepower. I wanted one with plenty of torque for woodcarving, so I chose a system with a heavy-duty 1/3 horsepower motor, capable of generating a maximum speed of 30,000 rpm. The motor typically has a wire loop on the top which allows you to hang in from a telescoping rod assembly. The advantage of one of these hanging assemblies is that it you can easily adjust the position of the motor for convenient access to your carving. Motors are generally capable of running in either forward or reverse direction, but you will probably only need the forward setting.
Speed Controller. To control the speed of the motor most people prefer to use a variable speed foot pedal control. This control works like the gas pedal in your car. Just step on the pedal and you will go from 0 to 30,000 rpm in a heartbeat. Another option is a bench-top controller. Varying the speed with this controller is simply accomplished by turning a dial.
Handpiece. While the handpiece of a flexible shaft cutter is not as lightweight as the one that a dentist uses, it is compact and allows for precision control when you are carving, cutting or texturing the surface of a carving. The system that I have uses two different handpieces. For roughing out a carving, I use the heavier handpiece that can accept burrs with shafts as large as ¼” (6mm). This thicker and heavier tool can withstand the vibration of heavy grinding. For detail work, a much thinner and lighter weight handpiece is easier to manipulate. In addition to the carving handpieces, other accessories are available, such as a reciprocating carving tool which accepts a variety of carving blades. Grinders and sanding attachments are also available.
Safely Using Flex Shaft Tools. As a flexible shaft cutter rips through wood, it can create flying debris and cloud of dust. In addition to protecting your eyes by wearing safety glasses, you should always wear a tight fitting dust mask. Use of a dust collection system can also help filter airborne particles.
As you are working with this equipment, always be aware that the cutting burr is spinning at high speed and is capable of cutting you or getting tangled in your clothes. For this reason, avoid wearing loose clothing and never wear gloves when working with this equipment. To prevent any cuts to your body, wearing a leather apron is advised, because is unlikely that the burr will snag and get caught up in the leather.