Canadian Woodworking

Power Carving

Author: Conrad Sarzynick
Photos: Caroline Sarzynick
Published: June July 2011
Power Carving
Power Carving

Practical tips on power tool carving tools and techniques.


When I began sculpting, I had a lot of enthusiasm, a tool kit of rusty carpenter’s chisels bought from a flea market and a rock as a budget mallet. I collected small logs or bought wood and proceeded to make piles of wood chips in my backyard, but never completed a carving. Within a few years, my kit included several Pfeil Swiss-made gouges, a couple of knives, a homemade adze (that didn’t work), two Haida-style curved blade knives (my desert island tool) and a real wooden mallet instead of a stone. With this expanded kit, I started chipping away at some cherry wood a farmer friend had given me as well as my parents firewood pile. Lots of chips and many small logs were started but in the end I only completed a decorative spoon in cherry and a small abstract carving in walnut. My love of hardwoods meant that carving with hand tools was a very slow process, days of malleting a large gouge into dry cherry and no satisfying forms taking shape. I had partially-carved logs all over the place, all incomplete. I knew I had a passion for carving and didn’t want to stop but this wasn’t working for me. There had to be another way. There came a time in my life when I actually wanted to finish a sculpture instead of just having a bunch of wood chips as the only rewards for my many days of efforts. This is when I discovered power carving.

Figured Wood is Sometimes Easier to Work
The twisted grain of burls and curly grain are actually easier to power carve than many straight grained woods. And the finished look is stunning.

The Arbortech Industrial, Arbortech Pro-4, Lancelot, and the Kutzall cutting disks. (Three previous photos by manufacturer. Above photo by Rob Brown.)

Ready for Action
 Angle grinder with Arbortech Industrial Woodcarving disk. The blade guard is in a proper and safe position.

Hold Your Hands Close
While carving, keep the grinder close to, but not overtop of any part of your body. This will give you lots of control. Sarzynick draws on the wood with a marker to help him imagine what shapes to carve.

Lots of Versatility
Once you get accustomed to the grinder and blade, you will be able to roughly remove large amounts of material and make delicate cuts with ease.

Sanding with Power
 You can put a flexible resin sanding disk backed with a smaller rubber support on your grinder and easily remove most of the rough blade marks.

Sanding Workhorse
Sarzynick uses a heavy duty flexshaft attached to a ¾ horsepower bench grinder with a Jacobs chuck attachment to power a variety of sanding drums and disks. 

Getting Into Tight Places
 A small sponge-backed sanding disk may come in handy, depending on the piece you’re working on.

Final Step
An oscillating multitool can finish sand many uneven surfaces.

“Jenna and Momma”
Acacia and Burled Acacia; H 17”, L 19”, W 7” 

“Dreaming Itself Boneless”
 Laburnum on Black Walnut; H 44”, L 13”, W 7” 

“Crystalized Dreambone”
Mopani on Wenge; H 15”, L 7”, W 5” 

Out of the Dark Ages

I first heard of power carving through books and magazines but was under the romantic impression that hand tools were more “authentic” than using power. This idea of tool purity eventually gave way to the practicality of actually finishing a carving. I purchased a cheap angle grinder, having seen a TV program that showed someone wood-carving with this tool. What I didn’t know and what I learned the old-fashioned way is that the stone wheel that came with the grinder was not meant for wood, unless of course you like zero results while making a lot of smoke. I soon found myself at the Lee Valley Tools front counter, where I was introduced to my first important power-carving tool, the Lancelot carving disk for the angle grinder, a circle of 22 chainsaw teeth. This was exciting; the aggressiveness of a chainsaw in a compact and maneuverable tool. At first there was fear as the whirling blade spun in my grip. How am I supposed to control this thing? Am I going to slice myself into bits? What is going to happen when I actually sink the blade into wood? And this was the revelation: when the blade met wood, the wood disappeared … gone. What had taken me minutes to do with hand tools took seconds to do with my new power carver. What had taken me hours before now took minutes. This tool would change everything for me. I began to actually finish carvings instead of simply create woodchips.

As many woodworkers know, tools have a way of breeding in the workshop. I started off with my angle grinder and now I have a variety of power-carving and power-sanding tools, all of which make my job easier and faster. With my angle grinder or carving burrs, the speed and ease with which I can remove wood allows me to be more creative and spontaneous while carving. I can sweep out shapes with several strokes, defining and refining fluid shapes with long passes of the blade over the wood, almost like modelling with clay. I see power carving as similar to painting or clay work, more in the moment. With the gouge and mallet, the focus is on removing the chip; with power tools, you work more directly in shapes and forms.

Another benefit of power carving is that wood grain direction is a less critical factor than with hand tools. Sometimes with hand tools, you want to carve in a certain direction but the grain of the wood makes this a challenge by splitting out. Although grain direction does affect power carving to a degree, it is a much smaller issue. Even though it appears as though the angle grinder is carving away deep grooves with a single stroke, each of these strokes is made up of hundreds of tiny cuts. These small cuts are less likely to chip out or split compared to a larger hand-powered blade. The small size of the many cuts, paired with the great speed at which they are removed, allows for cutting in all directions. In saying this, you will still find when power carving that cutting is easier in some directions than in others. End grain may be slower and less clean than if you turn the work piece and carve with the grain. Usually by changing the angle of the tool, you will again find your sweet spot without fighting the wood. Grain direction can be especially tricky when hand carving figured woods like fiddleback or burls. The grain of figured woods goes in so many directions that almost every gouge cut can feel like it is tearing. Hand-sanding figured woods can also be a challenge; if you are not careful, you can produce a surface that undulates with the pattern of the grain. Burls are a joy to carve with power tools, probably even easier than straight grained wood. And by using power sanding to smooth a burl, a perfectly smooth surface can be achieved.

Choosing a Carving Blade

The main tool I use when carving my wood sculptures is a cutting disk powered by an angle grinder. There are several different styles of angle grinder carving wheels on the market and each of them performs a bit differently. Here are my thoughts on four popular disks: the Lancelot, the Arbortech Pro-4, the Arbortech Industrial cutter and the Kutzall carver/sander.

The Lancelot is what many first-time power-carvers start with (including myself) because they see “chainsaw” and “22 teeth” and get excited about that. I happily used this cutter for many years but it does have its drawbacks when compared to other wheels. The major issue with the Lancelot was the possibility of kickback. This occurs when the teeth dig deep and grab the wood firmly, forcing the tool to quickly jolt with force. Kickback can lead to an unwanted gash in your work and the sudden loss of control is potentially dangerous or, at the very least, a shock to the nerves. Another possible issue with the Lancelot is that it has 22 teeth, many more than other carving disks. For those with a phobia of sharpening, this can be an obstacle. For those brave souls comfortable with the chainsaw file, it won’t be a problem. And for those who don’t want anything to do with sharpening, or if the chain becomes damaged, a replacement chain can be purchased instead of replacing the entire wheel. As for performance, the Lancelot carves well but I found that the other two Arbortech units have more control and produce a smoother finish than the Lancelot.

For someone starting out with power carving, I would more readily recommend the Arbortech Pro-4 blade. The Pro-4 carving wheel is approximately the same price as the Lancelot and for me it outperformed the chainsaw-toothed carver. It is fabricated from a single piece of steel with six “chip limiting” cutter teeth. When it comes time to sharpen, you only have to sharpen six teeth and the chip limiting greatly reduces kickback while increasing control and producing a finer finish. The Pro-4 is often sold with an optional clear plastic blade guard, probably intended for use in construction. This blade guard severely limits the manoeuvrability of the carver and it’s bulky and cumbersome. I would recommend purchasing the Pro-4 without the guard in order to save money and frustration. This only pertains to the guard sold with the wheel. Always, I stress, always use the blade guard that comes with the actual angle grinder. This guard is very critical; it directs the woodchips away from your hands and, more importantly, it prevents your hands from entering the spinning blade. Everyone wants to keep their fingers.

The Arbortech Industrial Cutter is the disk I now use for my sculptures. It is three times the cost of the other carvers at around $170 but its benefits are worth it if you plan on doing a lot of carving. The Industrial carver performs much like the Pro-4, smooth controlled carving without the fear of kickbacks. What sets the Industrial carver apart is the three carbide teeth. If you carve hardwoods or softwoods with a lot of silica this is indispensable, as the very hard carbide teeth will stay sharp for much longer. And when the blade eventually becomes sluggish, by simply loosening the screws and rotating the round cutting teeth you have a fresh sharp edge in minutes.

This can be done several times per tooth, until the tooth is eventually spent and replacement teeth need to be purchased. I have used my Industrial cutter on very hard woods over a period of seven years and I think I have only replaced the teeth twice. You can also extend tooth replacement by using a small diamond file to hone the carbide teeth.

Kutzall disks use thousands of needle-like carbide points instead of blades to abrade the wood surface. This works well with figured or problem woods and in all grain directions with no chipout. Its large surface area allows for long sweeping strokes and smooth blending and grading. Because the Kutzall disk abrades instead of cutting, deep carving can be slower than with the other carvers. Also, the Kutzall produces dust and not chips so good ventilation is necessary. There are several “grits” of Kutzall disks on the market. The most readily available is silver. In my experience, the silver Kutzalls carve well but sometimes load up with wood and resin. Because the Kutzall is made of carbide, this imbedded wood and resin can be burnt out using a propane torch, thus renewing its performance. You can do this but it might be more prudent to find yourself a coarser grit than silver. Kutzall makes an orange and a black version with coarser grits that do not clog up and cut much quicker.

Choosing a Power Grinder 

During my first power carving years, I simply used the cheapest angle grinders I could find and was completely satisfied. The theory was that grinders are typically made for use on metal and concrete, and because wood is a much softer material any grinder should be able to handle the job. If I did burn out the machine or clog the works with wood dust, I was happier to replace a $35 grinder than a $100 one. And for the most part this is true. For the beginner, I would either recommend the grinder you already have or something inexpensive. For those that want enhanced performance, higher amps equals more power and less likelihood of the machine bogging down under aggressive carving or harder woods. I now have brand-name grinders between 8 and 10 amps but tools with higher amps than this start to get large and heavy.

Regardless of the cost of the grinder, here are some things that are important to consider when shopping. Make sure the blade guard can be fastened very securely to the unit. When carving, the guard will be repeatedly bumped and you will find that your hand will sometimes push against it, so it is critically important that it is solid to make sure your hands are protected from the spinning blade.

Each brand and model of grinder has a different feel to it and you should find the best feel for you. It should be nicely balanced and comfortable, not too heavy, and the handle should be in a position that feels right. This tool can be used for hours at a time so it is important that it is comfortable and as easy to hold as possible. And don’t sacrifice comfort and ease of use for higher amps. It is not worth having a machine with higher amps if it feels awkward and heavy, so pick up a variety and give them a hold.

Another very important thing to look for when purchasing an angle grinder is the access and ease of the ON/OFF switch. There is nothing more frustrating (and dangerous) than trying to turn off a handheld bladed machine when the power switch is hard to find or is stuck in the ON position. A switch unintentionally sliding to the OFF position while carving is also very annoying. Test the ON/OFF switch to make sure it locks securely and releases readily in both positions and is easily accessible. A thin gap beneath the actual switch means it is less likely to trap small wood chips. A larger gap under the switch is likely to get clogged causing it to jam. I have learned this the hard way many times.

Protect Yourself

Before beginning power carving, it is important to consider your personal safety. I will begin by telling a little story of the most horrifying example of a lack of safety I have ever witnessed. I was at a local wood show where a fellow was sitting in a chair giving a demo on bowl-carving using an angle grinder. No hearing protection, no goggles, no gloves, he was sitting in a chair holding his bowl in his lap, securing it with one hand. In his other hand he held his whirling angle grinder without a blade guard. One simple mistake would be catastrophic. Everyone who walked by took a double take in bewildered fear. It still makes me cringe thinking about it.

I recommend wearing a pair of good all-leather gloves that fit you well. Gloves that are bulky and oversized should not be worn. Proper-fitting gloves will allow for a solid controlled grip with no excess material potentially getting caught by the blade. When carving with an angle grinder, a fast stream of wood chips is propelled from the cutter often directly at your hands. Leather gloves will protect your hands from the chips abrading your skin. I also recommend wearing gloves while sanding. When using rotary or belt sanders, this will protect you from an annoying burn and for hand-held vibrating sanders this will protect your hands from the possible negative effects of prolonged vibrations.

Other essentials for power carving are a good dust mask and eye protection. When I began carving I used a silicone cartridge style mask and full-seal goggles over my glasses. Unsealed goggles are not recommended because wood chips can fly at your face from different angles getting in your eyes or trapped behind the lens. Because I carve a lot, I now use a one-piece full-face shield respirator. In addition to protecting my lungs, it protects both my eyes and entire face from flying chips.

Earplugs or earmuffs are also necessary as the tools are loud.

Angle grinder safety

Make sure the metal blade guard is securely locked in place in the proper position. This guard will keep your hands from accidentally sliding into a spinning blade. Before you plug in your tool, make sure it is in the OFF position so you won’t get a surprise when the plug enters the socket.

A rule I have made for myself when carving with the angle grinder is to always make sure no part of your body is directly beneath the tool while it’s running. It has never happened to me but in the unlikely case the tool slips from your hands, you do not want it to fall on your foot, leg or, if you are sitting, your lap. And always hold the tool with both hands. This will give you a safe and fully controlled grip. And never hold or manoeuvre a work piece while the machine is on. I learned this lesson the old-fashioned way; finger tips don’t grow back. I was lucky I only lost ¼” and not my hand. Safety first. Now every time I need to change the position of my wood, I turn off the grinder and move my carving safely.

Since it’s very dangerous to hold a piece of wood when angle grinder carving, it’s necessary to stabilize it. Whenever possible, I use clamps to secure the piece to my workbench. Longer, heavier pieces may not need to be clamped and can be stable enough by leaning it from the floor to the edge of the bench or wedging it into a corner. Make sure the piece will not move unexpectedly. Strapping it down to a surface can also be effective with oddly shaped pieces. The trough in the back of my bench is sometimes used to wedge a carving. For smaller pieces that will have a flat uncarved base, a scrap piece of 2×4 can be glued or screwed into place, this addition can then be clamped on a bench or a vise. I have also heard of people using homemade sand-bags to gently contour around a piece to stabilize it. I often use carpet underlay or other padding if I want to protect the piece against clamping pressure.

Holding the Angle Grinder while Carving

When possible, I try to hold the tool with its cord end as close to my body as I can. This allows for very stable and controlled carving as my whole body gets behind the force of the tool, not just my arms. Carving with arms extended is less stable and, after hours of removing wood, this can become very tiring on the arms and can lead to a sore back. With the tool close to your body you can move about by shifting your legs and core, allowing for smoother controlled movements that are less fatiguing. And if you experience a kickback, you will still be able to maintain good control of the tool compared to having your arms extended.

For someone starting out with an angle grinder cutter, the easiest and most controlled carving technique can be compared to petting a cat. With the disk’s flat edge facing the work piece, stroke the blade in downward passes. Start slow and gentle until you get used to how the blade cuts. In time, you will become more comfortable and will begin to work the blade into the wood in numerous ways, by making deeper edge plunges, scooping, upward strokes, side strokes, pull strokes and some you will make up yourself. The tool is very versatile and, with some practice, you will find you are roughing out shapes as well as making delicate and refined strokes. A word of caution: don’t get overly confident too soon, or the tool will be sure to let you know. Sticking with the basics is the safest option, especially when learning.

Sanding Uneven Surfaces

I complete the first stage of rough sanding with a 36-grit flexible resin sanding disk backed with a smaller rubber support and powered by the angle grinder. The smaller disk support allows the disk to flex and contour to the shape of the carving. This technique very quickly sands away rough and uneven surfaces, preparing the wood for more refined sanding. From there, I move to my sanding workhorse; I fitted a heavy duty flexshaft to a ¾ horsepower benchgrinder with a Jacobs chuck attachment (both the flex shaft and the Jacobs chuck retrofit are available at Lee Valley). This powers my various sanding drums and disks. By leaving one of the stones on the grinder, a flywheel is created; the momentum of this spinning stone ensures that my sanding attachments never bog down under heavy use. It is a joy to use. I sand through the different grits using a large pneumatic sanding drum (I have many different shapes and sizes of these very useful sanders). These drums can be made soft or hard using a bicycle air pump. This allows you to create crisp concave edges with a firm drum, as well as smooth convex surfaces with a soft drum. Depending on the size and shape of piece you’re working on, you may want to use a small sponge-backed sanding disk. These come in a larger size as well. Not wanting to damage a carving by using my vise, I usually sit while sanding so I can safely support the carving with my body or lean it against some carpet underlay on my bench.

Additional smoothing with an oscillating multitool is sometimes the only way to finish sand a piece. While the sanding drums and disks are excellent, especially for removing deep scratches, these little units are good for controlling surface rippling and creating smooth flowing surfaces. This sander comes with a maximum of 240 grit. I usually like to go to 400 or 600, so I use Velcro-backed random orbit circular sander disks that come in higher grits and cut them to the shape I need.

Carving – my Personal Approach

I carve organic freeform sculptures using an intuitive process. I usually discover what I am actually making during the act of carving. An act of discovery, the end result is always a new surprise. I start by studying the wood to see what I have to work with. Is there any interesting grain? Are there cracks that I want to remove or emphasize? Does the wood lend itself to possible shapes? Do I see any ideas starting to take shape? I then quickly remove any obvious unwanted sections: distracting cracks, a section of rotten wood, or I smooth out a bumpy surface. This initial prep work will often produce shapes and surfaces that I will work from. Areas that I am certainly going to remove are outlined directly on the wood with a pencil or magic marker. As I start to get ideas, I will draw them on the wood to help me imagine them before I commit them to carving. I do a lot of thinking while I am carving because, once wood is removed, it’s gone forever. Eventually, what I’m carving starts looking different from my original piece of wood and shapes begin to evolve. My job now is to tie together all the various elements I have started and to make it a harmonious whole.

For me, power carving is about creating sculptures. But the tools and techniques lend themselves to table edge treatments, chair making (seats and legs), bowl carving or any other element that requires more than a straight edge. As well, I use power tools from start to finish but others may use an angle grinder to rough out a carving and then refine it or add details using hand tools. Or a furniture maker might use these techniques for a specific element in a larger creation.

Power carving changed everything for me and it allowed me to create sculptures instead of just woodchips. For those thinking of giving power carving a try … jump in! With a little practice it just might become an addition to your bag of woodworking tricks. Whatever it takes to get it done, it’s all about creating in wood.

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