Introduction: Carving Wood Using Power Tools (puppet Example)

About: I like making all sorts of stuff, out of found materials: furniture, wild food, whatever! I've learnt loads from generous people out there, so reuse any useful ideas that you find here...

This Instructable hows you how to carve wood without chisels, using power carving tools. I am making an automaton and I've used the build of its head as an example of how you can do this yourself. Power carving is much more subtle than you might imagine. I've included the bare bones so you can see what is involved.

The puppet head for the automaton describes the basic process in this video. It shows extracting wood from logs, roughing out with an Arbortech, fine carving with rotary burrs in a die grinder and finishing off with sanders.

The rest of the steps here cover the power tools used, and a bit more detail about the head and how it was built, which is not essential to read, but I've included in case anyone is interested. Power carving is well worth trying if you like working in wood. You can carve into grain in a way that is much harder with chisels.

Also, to get started you don't need all of the specialist tools.

If you only want to make big things, you could get away with just the Arbortech. If you want to do fine carving, then the die grinder using rotary cutting burrs is the business! Actually, for many years I have used a cheap Bosch router body out of its cage. That is a very cost-effective alternative. Spend the money on tungsten carbide cutters. Having quality cutting burrs is more important than the particular tool you use to power them. You need something fast though - 20,000+ rpm, so drills are no good for this.


Step 1: Power Tools for Carving Wood

The main power tools shown here for carving wood are...


THE best power carving tool for rapid removal. Essentially a rotary chisel, the Arbortech is a metal flywheel with circular cutting blades, that is fitted to an angle grinder. This is awesome for roughing out the basic shapes. It will gouge off wood in seconds, but with a surprisingly fine cut. It tends to leave grooves like a gouge chisel. It can be used to shave quite fine amounts off.

When using the Arbortech you MUST wear eye protection, gloves and ear defenders. Ideally also a leather apron. It throws off large chips at speed which really hurt if they hit your hands and will blind you if they hit you in the eye.

Die Grinders

Die grinders are an in-line grinder, like a very fast drill. Used with a rotary tungsten carbide burr, they spin at up to 22,000 rpm and leaves a really fine finish. A big advantage is that you can change the cutters, so you can grade down from rough to smooth cutting heads. You can also use different shapes to suit different shapes you need to carve.

Die grinders are also pretty powerful tools and need two-handed respect. You can hold it like the Arbortech but it is not so violent, and so you can also hold it in other ways. For example gripping the head end more like a pencil. You still need to grip the motor body well to keep it under control

You can also use some routers like the die grinder, if you can take the motor out of the cage.

Power sanders

Also featuring were...


The Dremel is a micro die grinder really. It is just as useful, but really only for fine detail

Power planer

For wide concave surfaces, these will take off wood quickly

Reciprocating saw

For cutting blocks and widening holes


To get recesses started and to create holes

Step 2: Carving the Basic Head From Oak Blocks

The most important part of this build was making the basic head.

Raw Materials for the head - LOGS!

It is carved using power tools from a base block created by laminating chunks of oak log together. Several oak logs in fact. In the pictures you can see the basic logs, which I picked up in the woods a year or more before this build. The raw logs had been left in the shed to season. It was still a bit green, but that's fine.

After a bit of sawing up into lengths, I split the logs to get some raw block shapes. To do this, I used my hand axe as a wedge and the lump hammer to drive it into the log. I did this on my lovely anvil. It is best done on something solid.

Eventually I ended up with some nice squarish blocks. I smoothed these down using the monster planer-thicknesser. It levels off and smooths the faces like you wouldn't believe. It isn't something to get your arm caught in though. It is a very scary machine.

Once planed smoothed, the block pieces fitted together really tightly.

Planning the design against the wooden blocks

I chose some blocks that when arranged together, looked sufficient for a head. Then I made a quick sketch of how a basic head could possibly be carved from these pieces.. This was good enough as a guide to draw out the shapes on the blocks with a Sharpie.

Temporary jointing of the pieces into one block

Before carving, I needed to join the pieces together. For this, I used a long bolt through the pieces. This would allow me to take the pieces apart later.

To insert the bolt, I drilled a hole drilling through the top of each block above the top of the head, so it could be left in place while I was carving the head itself. The blocks were secured with nuts on either end. These were bolted on tight. Friction did the rest.

Stage one - roughing out with the Arbortech

The Arbortech is a rotary woodcarving blade for an angle grinder. You bolt them on your grinder just like a normal blade. The blade is a disc with three little circular section tungsten carbide blades attached at 90 degrees. When spinning they cut a groove like wood carving gouges.

The big difference is the power, My grinder is quite heavy duty so it has plenty of oomph. It also spins at about 12,000 rpm. With three blades on the revolving disc, that's 36,000 cuts a minute or 600 per second. This cuts through the tough oak like butter - amazing. I LOVE this!

With such a beast of a tool, the head needed to be securely clamped in the vice...

the Arbortech is good because roughing out is so quick. One of the problems of doing this with normal chisels, is it takes quite a while and there is always a temptation to start finessing details before the roughing out of the core shape is done.

Despite its power, the Arbortech can give quite a subtle control.

Most of the pictures show the various stages of moving from log blocks to a single head

Stage two - fine carving using rotary burr rasps in the die grinder

After the basic shape of the head was created in the round, it was time to swap power tools from the enormously effective carving power of the Arbortech blade to something much more subtle.

For this I used various solid tungsten carbide steel rotary burrs in a hand held die grinder. This is a specialist metalworking tool. The burrs are meant for cleaning up castings, mouldings and dies. They have no trouble at all cutting through wood

These burrs have about 10 cutting edges round their cutting head. The die grinder they are used in, is similar to an angle grinder except they have a collet head which holds bits like these burrs.

Die grinders spin even faster than angle grinders. My spins at 25,000 rpm. That is about about 4,000 cuts per second when using a burr with 10 cutting edges!
(10 x 25,000 = 250,000 cuts per minute or 4,000 cuts per second - awesome)

The rounded cone shape burr allows quite subtle carving. You need both hands to keep it under control.

Stage three - carving super fine detail using a micro burr in the Dremel extension drive

Stage four - Using power sanders to smooth off the shapes

Once tjhe detailed shape was created, I stopped using the burrs and switched to sanding. For this, I used my multi-tools with sander attachments. The mains Fein is the most powerful (and smoothest). The cordless Makita is handy though. For details, I also used the filing sander, which has a narrow 9mm belt.

Here, I am smoothing the convex curve of the cranium...

Step 3: Adding the Internal Mechanism

This Instructable is not really about making the metal mechanism. You can find more about that on the Making Weird Stuff blog here:

The shots here show the various ways in which the face mask was carved out to accommodate the levers and other mechanisms. This required a lot of subtle carving out with the die grinder and occasionally the Dremel using a tiny burr - the same principle, but subtler though much less powerful.

Step 4: Adding an Articulated Hollow Neck to the Head

The movement in the puppet head is created by a rotating cuff of wood with some jointed neck sections that allow some craning forward and backward. These were carved from blocks of oak. The main head was hollowed out so that an angled plastic tube could be glued in as a conduit for the control cables.

Step 5: Carving the Supporting Base From Multiple Jointed Wooden Blocks

The base that supports the neck was buitl up from multiple pieces of oak block. A central piece was initially carved out. Oak splits quite easily, so this proved not to be strong enough. To counter this, pieces of wood were built up with the grain in opposing directions (like a chunky plywood).

Some pins and jointing biscuits were added in to add reinforcement and some hot glue added to add strength and resilience.

Step 6: Some Basic Power Carving Techniques and Grips

Here are some shots of how the carving was done. The progression is from Arbortech to die grinder to belt sander to fine sander

There are two main ways to use power tools for carving:

Clamp or otherwise secure the object you are carving and hold the tool to carve

Most of the carving is done this way. I have included as many shots as possible that show various grips. Mostly holding an angle grinder for carving is the same as holding it for grinding, but when using the die grinder it can be held in other ways. For example, you can grip it a bit like a pencil for fine detail. For this, it is useful to secure the motor end under your arm, to stop it kicking if you hit some end grain.

Clamp the tool and hold the object you are shaping

This works really well for fine control when shaping small objects. The best way to do this is to use a large wooden faced woodworking vice. I use this to secure large belt sanders (great for smoothing convex planes), the small finger sander (for shaping and smoothing small pieces) and the die grinder (much the same)

Woodworking Contest 2017

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Woodworking Contest 2017