Power carve a Ginkgo serving platter
Once you master the basic skills needed to power carve a ginkgo leaf, you’ll be able to transfer those skills to more power-carving projects like cabinets, boxes and other solid wood furniture.
Used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, ginkgo is one of my favourite trees but for a completely different reason – their attractive fan-shaped leaves. The ginkgo’s leaf shape also works well as a unique platter. If you’re new to power carving, choose a shape you like and you’ll be more invested in the process as a whole. I’ve also power carved maple leaves, feathers and other organic shapes.
Pretty much any wood can be power carved. I generally prefer even-grained, diffuse-porous woods like maple and cherry. Dense woods make power carving harder, though woods that are overly soft don’t take carved details well, either.
A power-carved project can consist of just an object, as is the case with this serving tray. It can also be just a small portion of a piece of furniture or woodwork. Once you get comfortable with the techniques you can go on to power-carve doors, box tops, gables and other furniture parts, and then build cabinets or other parts around them.
Here are three common types of general power carving attachments. The attachment that’s installed in Brown’s angle grinder is an Arbortech Turbo Plane. An Arbortech Industrail Woodcarver is in the lower right corner. A Kutzall disk is in the lower left corner.
Once you get away from the standard power carving attachments there are many smaller options. These are all Arbortech products, and they can be used to get into tighter spots for more detailed work.
Some Sanding Options
Sanding power-carved surfaces is a big job. Some options to fit on your angle grinder are available, though many other sanders can also be used. The products featured here are all Arbortech items.
Not Too Much
Once the blank is glued up, Brown added a few pencil lines to the roughly cut blank to assist him when power carving away much of the material. Power carving works quite quickly, and without these lines there’s always a chance too much wood will be removed.
On the right side of this project you can see the first step Brown took to shape the edge. He added a 45° angle between the two lines closest to the corner. Then he further faired the edge by removing more material up to the distant pair of lines. This can be seen in the left half of the photo.
Simple Stop Collar
Brown made a simple collar to fit over one of his drill bits to stop the travel of the bit. When the collar came into contact with the worksurface, the drill bit would stop boring into the wood, allowing him to create a series of holes all at the same depth.
Holes for Depth
Working on the upper surface, Brown bored a series of holes to the exact same depth to guide him while power carving the dished areas. When the holes disappeared, he knew he was at the correct depth in that area.
Although he used an Arbortech TURBOPlane to remove most of the material on both the top and bottom of this project, Brown used an Arbortech Ball Gouge to get into the corners and leave a ramped surface just inside the perimeter of the leaf.
It’s possible to sand these shapes by hand, but a power sander speeds up the process quite a bit. In this case, Brown used an Arbortech Contour Sander to get into some of the nooks and crannies and sand the carved surfaces smooth.
A selection of hand tools will save the day and allow you to shape and smooth most of the rough surfaces that power carving leaves. Although he’s using a spokeshave here, a half round file was critical in shaping all the inner corners and curves this ginkgo leaf project threw at him.
A Good Finish
Select a finish that will stand up to water, as this tray will likely need to be washed after each use. There are many great finishing options on the market.
Power carving is a wonderful part of woodworking. Sadly, not many woodworkers venture into it, even though the possibilities are endless. I’m guessing its lack of popularity is in part because power carving takes dedicated tooling. Thankfully, that tooling isn’t overly expensive and you don’t need every type of power-carving cutter to get going. Another reason may because some woodworkers see it as dangerous. Sure, there are whirling cutters and dust flying around, but if used correctly, and with the proper safety equipment, power carving can be safe, enjoyable and really scratch that creative itch many of us have.
What tools will you need?
Generally speaking, power carving involves an angle grinder equipped with a power-carving attachment. There are dedicated power-carving grinders on the market, and they work well for slightly more dedicated power-carving tasks, but if you already have an angle grinder, that’s what I’d recommend you start with.
There are many different attachments available that can be secured to an angle grinder. Some are more suited to removing material on a relatively flat surface, like a Maloof rocking chair seat, for example. These disks are somewhat flat and usually remove material fairly quickly. Some attachments may have carbide cutters, while others have tiny carbide burrs and work more like extremely aggressive sandpaper. The later are available in fine, medium and coarse types. These general categories of attachments remove material from either their faces or edges, though many will do both. Depending on the part of the project you’re working on, and what specific types of cuts are needed, periodically swapping cutters can be helpful.
Another type of cutter
Having said all that, a rotary tool equipped with a carving burr or cutter of some kind would also meet the definition of power-carving equipment. This setup tends to remove material more slowly than any type of angle grinder attachment, though it does have the advantage of being able to get into tighter spots and do more precise work.
To compare power carving with a shop task we’re all familiar with, think of the difference between a thickness planer and a block plane. On the surface, both “plane” wood, but we all know that a thickness planer is meant to remove a lot of material and take care of the grunt work. On the other hand, a block plane is meant to remove small amounts of wood in a much more precise way. This is the difference between a grinder equipped with a power-carving attachment (that can remove material quickly and efficiently) and a rotary tool equipped with a small burr or cutter (that removes material slowly but accurately).
As is the case with other tools in the shop, if power-carving equipment is used incorrectly it can bite. We’ve published introductory articles in the past about how to power carve safely and efficiently, as well as a more detailed overview of power-carving attachments and what to look for in an angle grinder if you’re going to buy one for power carving. Rather than repeat all that information here, I strongly encourage you to read all of the past articles we’ve published. A list of these can be found in the “Online Info” section at the end of this article.
As always, it’s a good idea to practice on scrap wood before trying to power carve a project. Consider using 2×6s, which are a cheap and easy way to practice power-carving techniques.
I made a full-sized cardboard template of the ginkgo leaf I wanted to carve, about 20″ wide and 15″ from the tip of the leaf to the opposite end of the stem. The stem is about 5″ long. The blank is 1″ thick. I looked at a few leaves near my home for inspiration, but if you either don’t have a ginkgo tree near your home, or it’s winter and you can’t find any, an internet search will give you millions of images to sift through.
Laminate a carving blank
Initially, I planned on laminating this blank with angled wedges of maple to produce a fan-shaped blank to carve. To be honest, it was more complex than I anticipated and decided to laminate a wide panel to work on instead. The only reason why I oriented the grain in-line with the stem was because doing otherwise would result in a very weak stem. I made sure the joints were fairly even, as it wasn’t going through the thickness planer after it was dry.
Trace, trim and mark
Trace the outer shape of the template onto the blank and trim off excess material with a bandsaw, jigsaw or scroll saw. Often a combination of these machines is the best approach. No need to be perfect, as there’s still lots of shaping to come. I left extra material near the stem area so I could add a clamp there and not risk breaking the stem.
Power carving can get a bit out of hand if you’re not paying attention. Some attachments remove material so fast and effortlessly that you have to be careful not to remove more than is needed. Some basic layout lines will guide you as you work, and I added those now: two lines on the underside, about 1-3/8″ and 3/4″ in from the edge. The line closest to the edge gives me a line I can remove material to at about a 45° angle, while the line further from the edge is a “don’t pass” line to guide me as I transition between the rounded edge and the flat surface of the back. I will fair the curved area between the two lines to create a rounded edge but won’t remove the second line until late in the process.
Another pair of lines to assist with shaping the rounded edge can be added to the 1″ thick edge of the material, about 1/4″ and 1/2″ away from the upper face of the blank. The goal will be to not remove the line closest to the upper surface until quite late in the process.
A few more lines will be added later to the upper surface of the serving tray. A line about 1/4″ away from the edge will give me another “don’t pass” boundary, while a second line marked about 3/4″ from the edge will guide me while I’m creating the large hollowed area on the upper surface. When I’m done shaping, the area between these two lines will curve upwards to the edge of the tray.
All of these lines are just rough guides and aren’t marked overly accurately. My approach may differ from other power carvers, so follow whatever approach is best for you.
The area where the stem meets the main section of the leaf will also need to be considered and marked out. I find it’s hard to visualize these junction areas clearly before starting to carve, but some people are able to visualize an area and know what material to remove and what material to keep. As a general rule, proceed with caution. Don’t remove too much material, as it’s very hard to glue material back without it sticking out like a sore thumb.
Don’t leave the hard parts until last
If there’s an area you’re particularly worried about I’d suggest first practicing on a scrap to at least give yourself an idea of how to approach it. Once you’re more comfortable with your approach, tackle that area of your project first. Most people leave the hardest part until last, but if you leave the trickier part last and mess it up, you’ve lost all the other work you did first. If you mess up the tough section first, you can more easily change gears and start over.
I generally work the entire area to be power carved in stages rather than power carve one area completely, then move on to the next. A bit here, a bit there, bringing the entire project along at about the same rate, is an approach I like. Once a small amount of material is removed everywhere you can more easily see where the next bit of material should be removed. This is especially true at junctions such as where the stem meets the main section of the leaf.
Once you’ve read the articles mentioned at the bottom of the article, your attachment is on your angle grinder and your safety gear is on, it’s time to carve. I started with the lower outer edge. With the blank clamped to my worksurface upside down, and with a portion of the blank hanging over the edge, I began removing material from the edge to start to round that area. I started at about a 45° angle, kept slightly away from the lines and rotated the workpiece as I worked.
Part way through the process I started to hit the edge at different angles to create more of a rounded edge than an edge chamfered at 45°.
Flip it over
Once I removed most of the material from the lower outer edge I turned the workpiece over and started carving the dished area in the top. To keep the depth of the dished area somewhat consistent, I bored a series of 3/16″ holes 1/4″ deep before removing any material from the upper surface. I used a collar around my bit to limit its travel. Once I remove the material around each hole, I know the surface is fairly even.
I focused on the area in the middle of the top, then moved towards the areas just inside the line. I made sure not to power carve past the line, but to get fairly close to it. Power carving as smoothly and evenly as possible is going to make the future steps of further evening out the power-carved surface much easier.
Having different power-carving cutters comes in handy. Just like it is with a saw or plane, no one item will do it all. I have a selection of power-carving cutters that I swap between a few angle grinders. Some of the smaller cutters are great for smoothing transitions between edges, and this is the approach I used next. I further refined the transitions as well as the nooks and crannies inherent in a ginkgo leaf.
You’ll need to put away your power-carving tools and reach for some hand tools once you can’t get into the tighter areas and you need to further smooth the transitions between surfaces. I started with hand tools on the underside of the leaf, using files, spokeshaves and small hand planes. Work in stages as you remove the last bits of unwanted material, and stand back and take a look at the workpiece as you go to make sure things look even.
Power sanders make great partners in this process, as they will quickly assist with smoothing the surfaces and creating a surface that’s ready for a finish. Arbortech makes a sanding attachment called a contour sander. It fits on an angle grinder and is small enough to get into tight spots and flexible enough to contour to the different shapes left by power-carving equipment.
Once the underside is complete, flip it over and work on the upper surface. The inner corners will be hard to reach, but a variety of hand tools will eventually allow you to smooth the curves and leave an organic-looking surface.
Shortly before you’re done smoothing the leaf portion of the project, turn your attention to the stem. Bandsaw the remaining waste, then go through all the same stages you used to shape the leaf. What will remain should be a slightly curved stem that transitions from the leaf nicely.
Take a break
The nature of power carving is quite different than most other forms of woodworking. I find it’s best to step away from the project for a day or so before applying a finish. This gives you fresh eyes to see any areas that might need further shaping and leave you with a better project.
Finish it up
Once you’re confident you’re done, apply a few coats of finish to enhance and protect the project. Select a finish that will stand up well to moisture, as this tray will get wet. Most finishes will be safe to eat off when they cure, so that’s of lesser importance. I wanted a finish that wouldn’t yellow much, so I opted for OSMO’s TopOil. I also like the finished look and feel of the finish. TopOil stands up to stains and water very well and a new coat can easily be applied down the road.
I let the first coat dry for a day, then applied the second coat. After a few days I buffed it smooth with some steel wool and served some snacks on it. It’s a stunning serving tray that will surely get a lot of use, not to mention compliments.