Tools of the Trade: Micro and Flex Shaft Motors

In order to make the burrs cut, it is necessary to install them in a variable speed, rotating motor of some kind. The burr is fastened into the motor using either a collet or a chuck system. I prefer the collet system since it holds the burr more securely and allows for a truer rotation. However the collet system can be more expensive and requires a bit more set up time when changing between burrs of different shaft diameters. Handpieces can be air driven, but I prefer the electrically powered, motor-driven models since there is no need for a compressor.

The most familiar rotating motor tool is the Dremel. It is small, cheap and usually comes with a variety of accessories useful for accomplishing any number of useful household chores. Some carvers use the Dremel as it comes, simply inserting the various burrs into the motor itself. While this works, it is not necessarily the most manoeuvrable solution and carving intricate patterns or accomplishing fine detail can prove difficult.

For an additional sum, the purchase of a Dremel Flexible Shaft can solve this problem. The burr is inserted into the handpiece on the end of the flexible shaft, which, in turn is attached to the motor. The motor is hung or mounted close to the carving, allowing the carver to manipulate the handpiece like a pencil or pen allowing for much greater control.

For beginner carvers, I would recommend the purchase of a Dremel, Flexible Shaft and few good burrs. The Dremel can accommodate burrs with shafts up to 1/8″. Downside of the Dremel is the quality of the machining in the handpiece. This results in a noticeable vibration which will reduce the ability to create fine detail since the burr will wobble slightly. Over an extended carving session, the vibration will cause your hands to go white and numb, also not pleasant.

I still have my first Dremel, and though I no longer use it for carving, it is very effective when performing sanding or polishing tasks which require torque but little precision.

The next motor a carver usually invests in is a Foredom. The Foredom is a powerful flexible shaft motor. It comes in a variety of configurations, but for carving the most useful Foredom is the S Series with a standard collet handpiece and foot pedal for controlling the speed.  foredom-flex-shaft-imageThe Foredom S Series uses a 1/4 HP motor and is wonderful for roughing out a carving but is less useful for creating detail, since the large flexible shaft and handpiece are not easy to manipulate with finesse. The handpiece accommodates burrs with shaft diameters up to 1/4″.

Burrs of this size can remove a lot of material fast and need to be used with care. Burrs can ‘run away’ in certain circumstances, for example when they catch the grain of the antler, and can cause injury if they contact your unprotected hand or body. Always wear protection. Safe carving should be your motto! I sank a large burr into my thigh in an instant before I learned that a protective apron (leather preferred) is a must. I’ll cover safety equipment in my next post.

In order to create stunning detail in a carving, the preferred tool is the micro-motor. The motor is small, as the name suggests and resides in the handpiece itself. The handpiece is wired to a control box, which controls the speed and direction of the rotation. Like the Dremel, these handpieces can accommodate burrs up to 1/8″ in shaft diameter. Unlike the Dremel, the micro-motor tool is a precision instrument, finely machined with no wobble and negligible vibration, making them a joy to use.

NSK Electer Emax Micro-Motor ToolThe king of micro-motor tools is the NSK Electer E-Max.  NSK also makes dental grinders, so they know what they’re doing. Other companies, such as RAM, make lower end micro-motor tools which still work exceptionally well, but are a little bulkier and less pleasing to work with compared to the NSK. If you plan to take up carving in a serious way, invest in an NSK if at all possible. It will return your investment both in sheer carving pleasure and in results that will most truly reflect your skill as a carver.

I’ll go into greater detail about each of these tools and cover basic maintenance concerns in a future post. Happy carving!

9 thoughts on “Tools of the Trade: Micro and Flex Shaft Motors

  1. Thanks for the great info. I currently use a dremel and my hand does go numb and can ache after awhile even with the flexable shaft . Now that I know that Carving is truly a life long love it will be worth while to sink some money into a machine that is easier on the arm and hand and does a better job. I had looked into the Foredom but did not know about the micro motor.
    Happy Carving to you too!
    Peace and Joy
    Debra Hofer


  2. Excellent! Thank you Shane, I use both the Dremel and the Foredom power tools but was looking for something with more precision/less vibration and I will be purchasing the NSK micro motor asap.


  3. Well, looks like I will be spending some more money soon!!
    I had a few “run away” burrs in the past … did some damage to my clothes, broke a few flexible shafts also. When my hands get numb from the vibration I lose my grip, then I know “it`s time to quit”! I started with a Dremel, then bought a Foredom. Both are great tools, but there are times when I need more “fineness”. Sometimes I feel like I am trying to carve a pumpkin with a chainsaw ! So, I will take a look at this NSK Electer E-Max. Thanks for the tip! Serge


  4. Thank you Shane for the information and the friends – for your comments!

    I use 2 Dremels for rough treatment and for minute details – a Micro NX, a motor handpiece used in Dental laboratories, I am quite pleased with it, I was recommended to buy it by some of my colleagues, a knife-maker and a jeweller and am thankful to them for that advice. Dmitry


  5. Shane,
    Do you recommend putting the antler in a vice so that both hands are free to carve, or do you ever hold the antler with one hand while carving with the other?
    Thank You,


  6. For most of the carving I do, David, the vice for smaller pieces or clamping to a carving bench for larger ones works best. On the smaller pieces, I will take the work in hand to accomplish details that require greater mobility and during the finishing process.


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