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Choosing Power Carving Bits

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Make smart purchases with a basic understanding of the cutters available

In power carving, the bur or bit is the part of the tool that does that actual wood removal. The power carving tool, such as a flexible shaft machine or micro motor, spins the bit at a high speed and the cutting surface or abrasive on the bit removes the wood. Power carving bits go by names such as burs, cutters, carvers, stones, and discs.

 

Bits are manufactured from a variety of materials and are available in many shapes, head sizes, and shank sizes. The sheer volume of bits available can be overwhelming. By breaking down the categories and taking a look at the performance of the different types of bits, you can choose the best bit for the job.

Shank Diameter

The shank is the backbone of the bit. One end of the shank is inserted in the rotary power carver. The head of the bit is formed around the opposite end of the shank. The most common shank diameters are ¼", 1/8", 3/32", and 1/16". Flexible shaft machines accept any of these diameters when equipped with the appropriate collet. Micro motors typically accept 1/8"- and 3/32"-diameter shanks, although, optional collets can be purchased for alternate size shanks. Air turbine machines use only friction bits with a 1/16"-diameter shank. Generally, the larger the size of the bit's head, the larger the diameter of the shank. Use the largest bit you comfortably can for the area you are carving. When inserting the bit into your rotary power carver, make sure the shank is as far into the tool as it will go.

Head Shape and Size

Bits are grouped into a few general shapes. The shape of the bit's head determines the contour of the cut. The larger the head, the more wood it will remove. Larger bits are generally used for roughing out a piece and smaller bits are used to add details.

Many of the shapes have very specific purposes, but we tend to use the ball, cylinder, flame, and pear-shaped bits the most.

Bull nose/ball nose:
  • Combines a ball with a cylinder
  • Use to make concave cuts and hollow out areas using the top
  • Use the side to cut flat areas and round edges
  • Creates a cut similar to a U-gouge with the top and a knife cut with the side
Cylinder:
  • Use to cut flat areas, round edges, and make stop cuts and V-cuts
  • Creates a cut similar to a knife or straight chisel
  • Hold the tool at an angle and use the top corner to make V-cuts
  • Smooth-end or safe-end bits are the most useful
Flame:
  • Use to make concave cuts and V-cuts, and to recess areas
  • Creates a cut similar to a U-gouge when using its side and a V-tool when using the tip
Large taper:
  • Use to round edges, make concave cuts, and access hard-to-reach areas
Small Taper:
  • Use to access hard-to-reach and angled areas
  • Create feather barbules and hair
Oval:
  • Use to round edges, create lumps and bumps, and make concave cuts
Ball:
  • Use to create concave cuts and to hollow out areas
  • Creates a cut similar to a U-gouge
Inverted Cone:
  • Use to make V-cuts for feather barbules and hair
Disc:
  • Use to undercut feathers and make channel cuts
  • Cut off thin pieces of unwanted wood
  Pear:
  • Use to round edges and create lumps and bumps when bird carving
 

Grits and Materials

Bits are made from a variety of materials. These materials vary greatly in cost, cutting speed, durability, and the smoothness of the surface they leave behind. The most coarse and longlasting bits feature aggressive carbide points bonded to a metal shaft. These bits remove wood fast, but leave a rough surface. The finest cutting bits are man-made stones which produce a smooth surface. Coarse bits work best at slower rpm and finer bits work best at higher rpm.

Carbide-point Bits
Carbide-point Bits
Carbide-point Bits
Brand names:
Typhoon, Saburr Tooth, Kutzall
Average price per bit: $15 to $20
Shank diameters: ¼", 1/8", 3/32"
Durability: High: we have several bits we have used for more than ten years without a noticeable change in their ability to remove wood
  • Most aggressive bits available
  • Used for rapid stock removal when roughing out both hard and soft wood
  • Produce a relatively rough surface
  • Typhoon, Saburr Tooth, and Kutzall Extreme make cleaner cuts, collect less debris, and are easier to clean because the points are structurally aligned
  • Kutzall bits cut fast, but leave a rougher surface and can be difficult to clean
  • Cut wood, acrylic, plaster, and fiberglass
Carbide Cutters
Carbide Cutters Bits
Carbide Cutters
Brand names:
Various
Average price per bit: $12 to $20
Shank diameters: ¼", 1/8", 3/32", 1/16"
Durability: High: long-lasting bits are nearly as durable as carbide-point bits
  • Produce a relatively smooth surface on woods
  • Available in fluted and cross-cut styles
  • Large bits with ¼"-diameter shafts useful for roughing out carvings
  • Smaller bits can be used to add detail to carvings
  • Cut wood, acrylic, plaster, and fiberglass
Carbide-grit Bits
Carbide-grit Bits
Brand names:
Dura-Grit
Average price per bit: $15
Shank diameters: 1/8"
Durability: High: tough carbide grit stays sharp and won't tear loose, but wears out faster than carbide cutters and carbide-point bits
  • Available in several grits
  • Available in most shapes including cutting wheels
  • Cut wood, laminates, fiberglass, gourds, and ceramics
Mini Saw & Carving Drills
Mini Saw & Carving Drills
Mini Saw & Carving Drills
Brand names:
Various
Average price per bit: $10
Shank diameters: 1/8", 3/32"
Durability: High: Mini saw drills are made from high-speed steel coated with titanium nitride; carving drills are made from high-tempered steel. Both types of drills have great heat resistance and life
  • Used to drill holes and carve out from the holes on pierced turnings and relief carvings
  • Difficult to control on an in-the-round carving
  • Cut wood up to ¾" thick.
  • Come in a variety of sizes
High-speed Steel Bits
High-speed Steel Bits
Brand names:
Various
Average price per bit: $11
Shank diameters: 1/8", 3/32"
Durability: Medium: longlasting, but not as durable as carbide bits
  • Available in more shapes than carbide bits
  • Useful for cutting grooves and countersinking
  • Less expensive, but less durable than carbide, diamond, or ruby bits
  • Cut wood, bone, antler, plastic, and soft metals
Stump Cutters
Stump Cutters Bits
Stump Cutters
Brand names:
Various
Average price per bit: $9 to $11
Shank diameters: 3/32"
Durability: Medium: vanadium steel cutters last longer than high-speed steel bits, but not as long as diamond or ruby bits
  • Serrated edges remove wood quickly, but leave a smooth surface
  • Cut most woods, bits wear out faster when carving hard dense woods
Diamond Bits
Diamond Bits Bits
Diamond Bits
Brand names:
Various
Average price per bit: Plated: $7 to $10,
Sintered: $20 to $25

Shank diameters: ¼", 1/8", 3/32", 1/16"
Durability: High: sintered diamond bits are almost as durable as carbide bits; plated diamond bits are less durable than sintered diamond bits
  • Plated diamond bits feature a single layer of diamond particles embedded in the shaped metal head
  • Sintered diamond bits feature diamond particles bonded with powdered bronze matrix, which are then bonded to the metal head
  • Sintered diamond bits can be sharpened and reshaped slightly with a diamond dressing stone
  • Plated diamond bits cannot be reshaped
  • Used to texture and carve fine details
  • Available in several grits
  • Available in more shapes than any other bit
  • Used for final shaping, texturing, and detailing
  • Cut wood, hardened steel, glass, ceramic, bone, antler, stone, and precious metals
Ruby Bits
Ruby Bits
Ruby Bits
Brand names:
Various
Average price per bit: $9
Shank diameters: 1/8", 3/32"
Durability: Medium: last longer than stones, but are less durable than diamond bits
  • Particles of ruby bonded to a metal frame
  • Remove wood quickly, but leave a smooth finish
  • Available in fine, medium, and coarse grits
  • Cut steel, ceramic, wood, soft and precious metals, bone, and antler
V Stones
V Stones
Brand names:
Foredom
Average price per bit: $3 to $5
Shank diameters: 1/8", 3/32"
Durability: Medium: last longer than ordinary aluminum-oxide stones, but less than ruby bits
  • Made from a vitrified self-sharpening aluminum-oxide grain
  • Cool-running and long-lasting abrasive stones
  • Cut wood, metals, acrylic, glass, and marble
CeramCut Blue Stones
CeramCut Blue Stones Bits
CeramCut Blue Stones
Brand names:
Foredom
Average price per bit: $2 to $3
Shank diameters: 1/8", 3/32"
Durability: Medium: last longer than other stones, but less than ruby bits
  • Made from ceramic and aluminum-oxide for strength and cutting speed
  • Run cooler than other stones, which makes them less likely to burn wood
  • Leave a smooth finish
  • Cut wood, mild steel, steel alloys, and ferrous metals
Aluminum-Oxide Bits
Aluminum-oxide Stones Bits
Aluminum-oxide Stones
Brand names:
Various
Average price per bit: $1.50 to $2.50
Shank diameters: 1/8", 3/32"
Durability: Low: least durable bit
  • Available in various grits
  • Red (coarse, 80 to 150 grit) and white (fine, 400 grit) are mostly used for wood
  • Red used for fast wood removal
  • White used for fine texturing, such as bird feathers or mammal fur
  • Stones can be reshaped and sharpened easily to extend their life.
  • Cut wood, mild steel, and soft metals
Silicon Carbide Bits
Silicon-carbide Stones Bits
Silicon-carbide Stones
Brand names:
Various
Average price per bit: $2 to $3
Shank diameters: 1/8", 3/32"
Durability: Low: last longer than aluminum-oxide stones, but are less durable than CeramCut Blue Stones
  • Silicon-carbide mixture bonded to a stainless steel head and shank
  • More aggressive than white stones but less aggressive than red stones
  • Used to create lumps and bumps on bird carvings, with a limited ability to create feathers and hair
  • Cut wood, aluminum, brass, glass, and gemstones
Carbide Cutters
Ceramic Texturing Rods
Brand names:
Various
Average price per bit: $22
Shank diameters: 1/8", 3/32"
Durability: Medium: last longer than white stones, but are less durable than diamond bits
  • Used to create feather barbules, fur, or hair
  • Available in three grits: 300, 800, and 1200
  • Entire 2"-long rod can be dressed or shaped for texturing, giving the rods longer life
  • Cut them in half and dress the four ends with different shapes and sizes
  • Our top choice for creating fine detail for feathers and hair
Sanding Bands & Discs
Sanding Bands & Discs Bits
Sanding Bands & Discs
Brand names:
Dremel, Foredom, 3M Cubitron
Average price per bit: drum: $3, sanding bands: $0.50 to $0.75
Shank diameters: ¼", 1/8", 3/32"
Durability: Medium to low: ordinary aluminum-oxide sanding bands last as long as ordinary sandpaper, 3M Cubitron ceramic aluminum-oxide bands last at least twice as long
  • Require a reusable mandrel or rubber drum
  • Available in many grits
  • Drums available in many sizes
  • Cartridge and tapered rolls available for split mandrels in various sizes and grits
Cushioned Sanding Drums
Cushioned Sanding Drums
Brand names:
Various
Average price per bit: $16 to $17
Shank diameters: ¼", 1/8"
Durability: Low: the drums are very durable, the sandpaper cover lasts as long as ordinary sandpaper
  • Mandrel with soft rubber backing and a slot for the sandpaper to be wrapped around the rubber backing
  • Work best with cloth-backed sandpaper
  • Includes a metal template which allows you to cut any grit of sandpaper to size
  • One of our most-used tools
Defuzzing Pads & Radial Bristle Brushes
Defuzzing Pads & Radial Bristle Brushes
Brand names:
3M, Scotchbrite
Average price per bit: $0.80 per 6" x 9" sheet: $1.50 per bristle brush
Shank diameters: 1/8", 3/32"
Durability: Low: synthetic steel wool pads and synthetic or horse hair bristles wear out quickly
  • Pads require a mandrel, clamp one or two squares on the mandrel
  • Pads used to remove fuzz before texture is carved
  • Brushes used to remove wood fuzz and clean area between barbules and hair before painting
  • Create your own pads by cutting 1½" to 2" squares of synthetic steel wool
Radial Bristle Discs
Radial Bristle Discs
Brand names:
3M, Scotchbrite
Average price per bit: $1.25 per individual disc
Shank diameters: 1/8", 3/32"
Durability: Medium: last as long as 3M ceramic aluminum-oxide sandpaper
  • Require a mandrel, usually stack in groups of three to six on the mandrel
  • 3M Cubitron ceramic and aluminum-oxide particles are embedded in the bristles
  • Disc diameters range from ¼" to 3"
  • Disc grits range from 80 grit to 1 micron (14,000 grit)
  • Use slower speeds for control, faster speeds for aggressive wood removal
  • Useful for defuzzing
  • Cut wood, precious and soft metals, and ceramic
 
Maintenance

Maintenance

Over time, you will accumulate a number of bits to meet your carving needs. It makes sense to keep the bits sharp and in good condition in order to protect your investment. We recommend the following tips to prolong the life of your bits:

  • Store your bits in a holder of some sort to prevent them from banging into each other.
  • Don't apply so much pressure that you burn your bits.
  • Clean your carbide-point bits with a brass brush.
  • Remove stubborn sawdust with oven cleaner.
  • Use a wet white whetstick to clean diamond bits.
  • Use a neoprene rubber bar to remove dust from ruby bits, stones, sanding discs, sanding drums, and cushioned sanding drums.
  • Reshape and clean stones with a diamond hone or dressing stone.

Every carver has his or her own favorite bits. Experiment with bits of different sizes and materials to get a good feel for their capabilities. When selecting a bit for a specific purpose, power carver Jack Kochan asks himself the following questions to help determine which bit to choose:

  • How fast do I want to remove wood?
  • How much wood do I want to remove?
  • How smooth do I want the wood to be when I finish this section?
  • What size bit is best suited for the area I want to carve?

Recommended Starter Set

We recommend the following bits as an initial investment:
Recomended Bits
A defuzzing pad and soft bristle brush
Recomended Bits
Small carbide point bits, from left: fine cylinder, coarse flame, coarse ball, fine ball
Recomended Bits
Two cushioned sanding drums (large and small) with assorted grits of sandpaper
Recomended Bits
Regular-grit diamond or ruby bits from left: pear, safe-end tapered, medium flame, small flame, small tapered
Recomended Bits
Texturing bits from left: small taper green stone, small ball green stone, small tapered stone with a rounded tip, blue ceramic rod

In addition to the bits above, choose carbide-point bits with ¼"-diameter shafts for roughing out.
Recomended Bits
Smaller carvings require smaller and fewer carbide-point bits, from left: fine cylinder sleeve, coarse cylinder
Recomended Bits
For large carvings, use large carbide-point bits, from left: fine cylinder sleeve, fine cylinder, fine ball, coarse ball
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Comments (23 posted):

Donna_T on 08/09/2009 17:40:37
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This article gave good explanations for use of all the bits--and a good variety of them were covered! About the only thing not covered that I use would be the little paper cone-shaped "guge" sanders, but I understand they're not actual bits. In most cases, it gave the carver a choice of several bits to achieve a desired effect. That's always good. I like that at the end, it gave a list of a few bits to start a collection of power carving bits. When starting out, it's always so hard to know which to get and we often get duplicate and/or more than we really need. Good article--good photos--good advice. Donna T
Callynne on 08/11/2009 08:26:54
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That was a great article!! I've been rotary carving for some time and have learned a lot by making mistakes and choosing the wrong bits, this article will be a huge help to new carvers AND a huge help to someone like me, who still has questions about all the bits she hasn't tried!! Thanks guys, great job!! :D Deborah P.S. I love the little cone shaped paper sanders Donna!
Paul_Guraedy on 08/11/2009 08:35:10
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Bob, I read the article with a lot of interest. Is there any chance that WCI could take this article, laminate the pages and offer them for sale? I would love to have something like this on the wall of my carving shop. Carvers are often asking about bits and this would be an easy intro.
xsailer on 08/14/2009 00:09:07
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I've asked severals times for exactly what this edition of WCI #48 offers concerning the fine article of Choosing Power Carving Bits article by Chuck Solomon and Dave Hamilton. I think the lamination suggestion of Pauls is a good idea and intend to keep this edition close at hand for reference. Thanks
Claude on 08/17/2009 19:10:02
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Bob: Thanks for posting the article online. This is a fabulous reference for both experienced and beginning power carvers! Claude
Ron T on 08/17/2009 20:09:04
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Bob, Thank you for posting this article. Perfect timing since I'm going to have to rely on power carving more now.
Shannon on 08/18/2009 13:00:23
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You can download the article online (see link above) - print it out at home and laminate it. We don't have plans to sell laminated copies - but it's a great idea!
squbrigg on 08/19/2009 08:03:41
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Paul ..... just a suggestion, print the pages off on Photo Quality Paper , 8 1/2" x 11", Kodak or Canon or similar. The weight of paper is much heavier and keeps it shape and the gloss finish will help repel dust. Bob
Smitty on 08/19/2009 08:47:48
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Thanks for the article. I will be trying power carving this winter and know this will be of great value when choosing bits.
Keoma on 08/20/2009 10:41:16
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Rock On Power Carvers!!!
-woody- on 10/09/2009 11:41:23
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This is in regards to their article in the summer issue #47, "How To Select the Right Power Carving Equipment" on page 42. Where can I get more information about the Weaver Clean Carver, the cabinent that is pictured? I have tried to look it up but I can't find anything about it.
BobD on 10/09/2009 11:47:26
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Unfortunately, it's no longer made... The authors suggest the Razeaire by Razertip as an alternative. Bob
-woody- on 10/21/2009 01:02:54
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I'm looking at it now and it's exactly what I was searching for. Thanks!
sccarnes on 10/21/2009 08:52:31
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bob , i to am going to rely more and more on my power, like some of the others am forced that direction, after many years of power carving, i think i learned something from the article, thanks to all involved, as keamo said" rock on" SAM c
telecarver on 11/16/2009 23:57:56
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A couple of useful additions that were not covered in the article are the mini-mops available from Klingspor carving catalog and custom high speed bits from Rico Tool Co. in Bridgeport Michigan. The mini mops are similar in function to the radial bristle discs but sand much more aggressively for areas that are not highly detailed. They speed up sanding of a carving tremendously. The custom made high speed bits I use are very aggressive and leave a relatively smooth finish. High speed steel is less brittle than carbide allowing for a sharper angle on the flute. This allows the flute to slice easier and more aggressively. These bits are not available through woodworking catalogs but are far superior to any that are. I order them custom made from Rico Tool Co. Another woodcarver turned me onto them and after trying them, I would never go back to carbide fluted or standard high speed bits. You will be amazed! They don't hold and edge as long as carbide but the increased cutting ability far outweighs the shorter edge life. They are also fairly inexpensive. I order them in lots of 10 and send them back to be resharpened a number of times. Each time they are resharpened they get a little smaller so I end up with an assortment of subtle size differences to use in different applications.
BobD on 11/17/2009 11:11:09
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Good point about the custom bits. Our goal with the article was to cover the commonly available bits. There are many manufacturers out there making custom bits, and there was really no way to cover them all. Bob
n0n02u2 on 04/29/2010 10:50:28
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I have always wanted to learn wood carving. I bought a dremel and many little extra things to use. Your post will prove to be beneficial to me as it explains the uses and durability of what I have collected to use. Thank you
Gillie on 11/02/2010 11:45:25
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Hi, Gillie here, I live on the east coast of England and I have just bought a Draper multi tool as a start to try out woodcarving as a retirement hobby. This is really interesting to me as I know what to ask for when I go to the DIY store to buy accesories.
GaryHanson on 07/18/2011 17:45:59
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In the section on maintenance it calls for a white whetstick and a neoprene bar for certain cleaning tasks. Any suggestions where to get these items? Thanks Gary
BobD on 07/19/2011 08:24:03
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I'm sure you can find them at most places that sell power carving bits, but I know Foredom carries them. Foredom Electric Co. - Dress-Clean-Reshape Best Regards, Bob Duncan Technical Editor
County Mounty on 05/11/2012 21:40:35
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Great article now the bits make more sense to me. Now if I could only make them do what you guys do with them .
County Mounty on 05/11/2012 21:42:18
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This article gave good explanations for use of all the bits--and a good variety of them were covered! About the only thing not covered that I use would be the little paper cone-shaped "guge" sanders, but I understand they're not actual bits. In most cases, it gave the carver a choice of several bits to achieve a desired effect. That's always good. I like that at the end, it gave a list of a few bits to start a collection of power carving bits. When starting out, it's always so hard to know which to get and we often get duplicate and/or more than we really need. Good article--good photos--good advice. Donna T Great article now the bits make more sense to me. Now if I could only make them do what you guys do with them .
torpidhummer on 05/12/2012 11:07:18
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Thanks Bod for the article Bod,something I have been looking for a long time. Oscar
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