From the hobbyist carver to the professional sculptor, rotary tools provide a versatile means of manipulating wood. Rotary tools perform rough work, detail work and finish work; they can chip away large chunks, engrave intricate patterns, sand surfaces and apply polishing compounds. Whether you’re carving a wooden sign or sculpting a masterpiece, understand the names, characteristics and applications of various rotary tools and choose the right tool for your wood-carving project.
Rotary rasps, also called cutters, are sharpened or abrasive cutting points that appear in a variety of shapes, including cones, spheres and cylinders. In general, rasps remove material and carve surfaces by abrasion or chipping. The abrasive rasp’s surface is covered with a coating of abrasive mineral grit, such as carbide or diamond. As the tool spins, the grit grinds away at the wood's surface. The body of a rasp that chips away material is surrounded by sharpened serrations or flutes that cut through wood much like a drill. Unlike a drill, the rasp may be freely moved from side to side during cutting.
The cutting wheel is a disc-shaped tool with sharpened teeth protruding from its circumference. As the wheel spins, the tool’s operator presses the sharp-toothed edge against a wooden surface to slice, shear and remove chunks of wood. Cutting wheels are a miniature version of the carpenter’s circular saw—they can cut across the length and width or into the surface of a piece of wood. Cutting wheels are particularly useful for removing large portions of wood during rough shaping.
The engraving point appears similar to a sharpened lead pencil—a cylinder shaft that tapers to a fine tip. However, at the engraving point’s tip there is not lead but abrasive mineral grit. As the tool spins, it is pressed against the wood’s surface to gently grind and remove material. The engraving point is capable of creating fine lines for intricate and decorative carving.
The rotary file smoothes and deburrs surfaces. Like the traditional hand file, the rotary file’s surface is covered in sharp points or scales. Rotary files appear as cones, cylinders and spheres. Their unique shapes allow them to fit against edges, into channels and corners. A spinning rotary file lightly abrades a carving’s surface, leveling uneven spots and removing material prior to buffing and polishing.
The sanding drum smoothes surfaces during the finishing phase of a carving project. The sanding drum's cylindrical shape resembles a barrel or drum. An abrasive mineral grit coats the tool's exterior and, when pressed against wood, the spinning drum lightly removes material. Like sandpaper, sanding drums feature either small mineral chunks for gentle removal, called light grit, or coarse chunks for intense stripping, called heavy grit.
The buffing wheel, sometimes called a polishing wheel, is a disc-shaped tool used to burnish, polish and finish wooden surfaces. Buffing wheels are typically made from a natural fiber, such as cotton or sisal. The spinning wheel rubs and distributes polishing compounds, such as jeweler's rouge, onto a carving's finished surface.