People have been carving wood for thousands of years, the oldest known carved wooden object found to date is the Shigir Idol, a totemic sculpture which stands nearly three metres tall. The Shigir Idol is believed to be 11,000 years old which is twice as old as the pyramids. The tradition of wood carving by hand is still alive and well but increasingly many carved items are now produced using machinery. In this article, we’ll take a brief look at the different types of wood carving machine available today.
Hand operated wood carving machines
Wood carving with a router (2D)
Probably the most basic type of wood carving machine is a simple router, such as a plunge router, fixed based router, or trim router. This method of wood carving is mainly suitable for creating flat 2D wooden signs, engravings, and plaques. There are three methods of 2D wood carving using a router: freehand, using templates as a guide, or the use of a router pantograph.
Freehand router carving
A quick and easy freehand method of router carving is to print out the design onto a piece of paper, then glue this to the wooden blank. Next, fit the router with the appropriate cutter (small V bits work well for lettering). Make sure that the wooden blank is firmly clamped to the workbench and that it is set to a comfortable height. Depending on the complexity of the design (and hardness of the timber) it may take some time to complete the carving.
Use the router’s depth stop and locking lever to adjust and set the cutting depth. Making shallow cuts will produce the best results as the router is less likely to snatch or wander. The router will need to be held firmly when carving and the work area kept free from chippings. It should also go without saying that safety goggles must always be worn. With a bit of practice, freehand router carving can produce some really impressive results and can be an excellent way to customise furniture, wooden panels, and doors.
For a more accurate (and repeatable) method of 2D carving with a router, letter and number templates (stencils) can be used. Templates are usually made from acrylic and can be bought from many good online woodworking suppliers. If preferred, you can make your own templates from MDF or plywood. Letter and number templates are an inexpensive way to create good-looking signs and the process is very straightforward.
First, a reference line is drawn to aid in the accurate positioning of the template. (Alternatively, a wooden guide batten clamped to the workpiece can be used.) Next, the position of the letters (or numbers) are marked out with a pencil to gauge the correct spacings. The template is then clamped to the workpiece. A guide bush (which matches the width of the template) is then fitted to the base of the router. A suitably sized cutter is fitted to the router, and the cutting depth (2 to 3mm) is set before routing begins. You can see the process of using templates in this video.
A router pantograph is (loosely speaking) a cross between freehand routing and using templates. The router pantograph is basically a jig made from parallelograms, identical in principle to the tool an artist would use to reduce or enlarge a drawing. Each cross-section of the router pantograph has a mechanical linkage. A router is fixed at one point of the pantograph using a base plate fixture, and a stylus/tracer is fixed to another point.
When the user moves the stylus over a 2D image the router mimics this moment. Depending on where the router is positioned on the pantograph, the final copy will either be smaller or larger than the original image. Router pantographs can be used to copy almost any 2D image onto wood, but are more commonly used for making signs, as shown in the video below.
3D wood carving machine
So far, we’ve talked about 2D wood carving – but what about a 3D wood carving machine? What are the options here? Well, there are basically two choices available: the hand-operated (manual) 3D wood carving machine, and the more advanced computer controlled (CNC) 3D wood carving machine. At first glance they seem to do the same job, however, they’re really two different types of machine. Let’s take a closer look.
3D wood carving duplicator
Also referred to as a router duplicator or copy carver, the 3D wood carving duplicator is a very effective way of copying an existing 3D wooden object. It can be used to copy items such as propellers, guitar bodies, gun stocks, or furniture components like table legs or chair seats. A 3D wood carving duplicator is basically a router jig which can move in 3D dimensions. It works like this:
The duplicator is made up of two main components. The main router and stylus assembly (with a counterbalance weight at one end) and two horizontal bearing rails. The main router and stylus assembly (which is attached to linear bearings) can be pushed and pulled along a bearing rail by the operator, this moves the main assembly along the width of the carving area. In a standard single pivot design, the assembly is also free to move up and down like a seesaw (or teeter-totter), this is what cuts depth.
The main assembly is attached to two horizontal bearing rails, which allow the main assembly to also move left to right along the length of the carving area. A router is attached to one side of the duplicator’s main assembly, and a stylus (or follower) is attached to the other side. As both are fixed to the same axis they are able to move in unison. As the user guides the stylus over the object being copied (the master) the router copies this movement whilst carving a wooden blank (as shown in the picture above), hence the phrase copy carving.
The beauty of a 3D wood carving duplicator is its simplicity
There are few moving parts and no programming required or complicated electrical circuitry to go wrong with a wood carving duplicator. The operator is always in control and unlike a computer controlled wood carving machine, the user is not removed from the carving process. Much like using any hand-operated woodworking machinery, a 3D wood carving duplicator still requires a certain amount of skill, understanding and judgement to operate.
A duplicator is a time-saving device, rather than an automatic push-button solution producing exact carbon copies on demand.
Clone wood carving duplicators
Clone duplicators produce two types of high-end 3D wood carving duplicator:
Both duplicators offer similar duplication capabilities, however, the Clone 4D has many additional features unique to this sort of hand-operated wood carving machine. To expand their versatility both the Clone 3D and 4D can be fitted with a rotating clamping system. This enables 360 degrees of carving, perfect for duplicating objects such as gun stocks or table legs.
The short video below demonstrates the capabilities of the Clone wood carving machines.
DIY wood carving duplicator
If you search the internet for a DIY wood carving duplicator you’ll see quite a few different designs, some good, some not so good! At first glance, building a wood carving duplicator seems pretty straightforward. However, it’s only after you’ve actually made one that you realise there’s a lot more to it than first meets the eye. If you’re going invest your time, money and energy into building a wood carving duplicator you need to make sure that the design is good and will give the best possible results.
One of the best DIY wood carving duplicators is the Easy Carver. It’s been used by woodworkers all over the world since 2008, so is a tried and tested design. The all-metal construction means that the Easy Carver is solid, robust and accurate. To keep the build costs down to a minimum, the Easy Carver utilises readily available off-the-shelf parts in its construction. Another feature that makes the Easy Carver stand out from other DIY wood carving duplicators is that it uses a standard plunge router for carving. So when you’re not using your router for copy carving it can quickly be removed from the Easy Carver for normal routing jobs. The Easy Carver can then be dismantled until the next time it’s needed.
Five model sizes can be built using the Easy Carver plans, from the Easy Carver 200 (capable of carving 200mm wide) right through to the Easy Carver 600 (which is capable of carving up to a whopping 600mm wide). It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Easy Carver is probably the best DIY wood carving machine available today.
CNC wood carving machine
The final wood carving machine we are going to talk about, is the computer controlled CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine. A CNC wood carving machine works by taking computer generated code, and converting it into electrical signals to drive the stepper motors that move the machine. These movements are very precise and can be accurately repeated over and over.
In order to produce an object, the object first needs to be designed using CAD (computer-aided design) software such as Autocad. The final design then needs to be converted to a language the CNC wood carving machine understands, generally this is G code.
CNC wood carving machines come in many different sizes and variations, from 2 axis machines capable of 2D carvings to 5 axis machines designed for complex 3D wood carving. Prices range from just a few hundred pounds for a small 2 axis desktop machine (only good for cutting soft material such as foam or plastic) to hundreds of thousands of pounds for a commercial grade machine used in manufacturing. Some CNC wood carving machines use a conventional router for carving. The cutting speed of the router and whether it’s on or off is manually controlled by the operator. Other CNC wood carving machines use a spindle motor to carve, the spindle motors functions are fully controlled by the software.
CNC wood carving machines are capable of producing some amazing high precision work that can be replicated over and over again completely autonomously. However, there can be a steep learning curved required if you’re not familiar with using the software. With CNC the skill is less in the woodworking and more in the programming. Also, the smaller workshop size CNC wood carving machines tend to be lightweight and slow and may struggle to cut hardwoods.
What’s the best Wood Carving Machine for you?
If you need ultimate precision and want to automate the carving process as much as possible then a CNC wood carving machine is the only real option. But this ultimate carving machine does come at a cost and not just a financial one. The CNC wood carving machine relies heavily on the use of software and the skill of the programmer to produce the results. Now, this may not be an issue if you have (or can afford to employ someone with) the right skills, but what about the woodworker who just needs a more simple and straightforward wood carving machine?
Well, that’s where a 3D wood carving duplicator comes in. It cannot produce the same level of accuracy as the CNC wood carving machine, and it can’t produce one-off pieces of work. But, if you’ve previously been carving by hand and have a master to work from, then a 3D wood carving duplicator is the way to go – it will save you so much time. The simple design means that there is very little to go wrong and they are easy to operate. Best of all, you still feel engaged in the carving process, a wood carving duplicator won’t do the carving for you, it does the carving with you.