Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | February 18, 2010

Reciprocating Woodcarving Tools

When I find a real great tool or product, I am not afraid to tell the world about it.  And, I am not afraid of giving a tool a thumbs down either.  In this case it is a solid “thumbs up.”

It is almost embarrassing to admit that several years ago, I purchased a Auto Mach reciprocating woodcarver.  Before making the purchase, I tried several brands and the Auto Mach was, hands down, the best reciprocating tool on the market.  Now, here is the embarrassing part… I bought the thing, and they are not cheap at about $300.00, but hardly ever used it.  I am not sure why but I just never got into it.  It is such a fine tool that I wished I had used it much more than I had but I have always been a traditional woodcarver and traditional hand tools seemed like the way to go.  In my discussion here, I am going to reference the Auto Mach as that is my tool.  While I firmly believe the Auto Mach to be the more robust and quality reciprocating carver on the market, there are others as well and my discussion may apply to them as well.

About a year ago, I began using my Auto Mach in several ways.  Wow!  This thing is simply “too good to be true” on several fronts but “true,” it is.  Here is where I see its value:

>    I carve a lot of walking staffs in hard wood.  I mean, dry, really hard wood.  As you may have experienced, really hard wood is really hard to carve with palm gouges and whittling knives.  The Auto Mach slices through hard wood like it was cutting cheese.  I recently carved a commissioned walking staff in 20 year-old dry hawthorn… hardest wood that I have ever carved.  The North Coast Indian design was fairly intricate and the Auto Mach made precision cuts with the greatest of ease.  The final product ended up looking like a fine engraving on a hand gun.  I even impressed myself.

>     A second common use for me is doing rough-out work on larger pieces in softer woods.  Generally, I band saw out my design and then go to work with the Auto Mach, roughing out the entire carving.

>    Notwithstanding that I use the Auto Mach for rough-out, it also does a pretty dandy job on some of the more detailed work… not all, but some.  Where it does not, and after using the Auto Mach, I can easily make cleaner cuts and add greater detail with traditional hand tools.  Clearly, the Auto Mach gets me way down the road a lot quicker.

>    You have all roughed out pieces and I don’t know about you but my arm gets tired of swinging a mallet after a while… especially as I have gotten older.  The Auto Mach completely removes the need for swinging and the use of a mallet.

>    I have an inherited “familia tremor” in my left hand and I am left handed.  As such, sometimes detail work can be a bit challenging.  With the Auto Mach, I find that I have much greater control and can make precision cuts effortlessly.  Part of the reason for such wonderful control is the fact that this thing reciprocates at some 12,000 times per minute.

In evaluating a reciprocating carver, I suggest that you consider the ease in which you can hold the thing.  Some carvers require two hands and are heavy and awkward… kind of like holding an electric hedge trimmer.  I suggest avoiding those.  Others just don’t have any “poop.”  You need a tool that will perform and deliver what you want.

It may be obvious but if you use a reciprocal carver on a smaller carving, you will want the carving fastened down.

Before you run out and buy one, do inquire of other woodcarvers that have experience with reciprocating carvers.  And, if at all possible “test drive” a few brands.  Woodcarving shows are a great place for demos and experiencing tools first hand.

Auto Mach Carver

Auto Mach now has a rotary attachment that I have no experience with but I would (or should I say “wood”) love to try it.  If the rotary feature works as well as the reciprocal feature, it will be a great addition.

Now, a word about the blades.  As you know, blades are incredibly important.  Back when I bought my machine, I had several dealers advise me to buy Flex Cut blades for a reciprocal carver and to forget about the manufacturers blades. At this point, I can only assume that they were speaking about brands other than Auto Mach.  Five (5) blades come with the Auto Mach and only one of them (the flat chisel), is worthless to me.  The other four (4) are great… really great.  But, following the advise of a local dealer, I did buy the Flex Cuts as well.  Then I learned that Auto Mach actually has a large selection of gouges that are available… except I found only one dealer with any stock at all.  That dealer was Japan Woodworker and Japan Woodworker was also eagerly willing to order anything they did not have in stock… other dealers were not.  In fact, I originally bought my Auto Mach for Japan Woodworker as they were competitively priced and several dollars less than the competition with free shipping.  They also seemed well more knowledgeable to me than others.  Actually, I was also surprised at how quickly they were able to ship the blades that I had ordered when they actually came from Japan.

The Auto Mach blades are laminated steel.  The edge is hardened steel (my guess is something in the neighborhood of 64-65 Rockwell) with a softer, more malleable steel reinforcement laminated to the hardened steel.  I am most pleased with these blades, both with their shapes and their edge holding ability.  Flex Cut does offer some nicely shaped blades that Auto Mach does not but I am not sure if you can buy them individually.

I have had to sharpen an Auto Mach blade only once in hundreds of hours of use.  Reciprocal carving blades are short and not all that easy to handle when sharpening… so I inserted my blade into a Warren Tool handle which accepted it perfectly and sharpening was “a piece of cake.”

So, in your search for great tools that will make carving easier and more enjoyable, don’t overlook a good reciprocal carver.

Keep Sharp and Happy Carving!  Remember to be Carveful.

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