Rotary tools are extremely versatile hand-held power tools that let you perform a number of different tasks. They’re mostly used for making intricate cuts in all sorts of materials, so if you’d like to give your art that “wow” factor, then you should definitely consider getting a rotary tool.
However, even though rotary tools can be used for all sorts of jobs, they’re not all built the same. Some excel at engraving wood and stone while others are better suited for carving metal. So join us as we dive into the world of rotary tools and learn about the different features that make them suited for certain tasks. But before we go too far, let’s talk about the basics.
What is a Rotary Tool?
Rotary tools are compact tools that use a variety of attachments to perform a wide range of different jobs. Even though rotary tools are mainly used to grind way thin layers of metal, they’re also handy and engraving, buffing, sanding, and much, much more.
Even though the type of work you can do with a rotary tool is dependent on the type of attachments mounted to the tool, the real magic sauce behind its versatility is its high-speed motor. The maximum speed of the tool varies from model to model, but it’s not uncommon to find rotary tools that can go beyond 30,000 RPM. Admittedly, the diameter of the tool is quite small and thus easy to reach high speeds.
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Corded vs. Cordless Rotary Tools
Unlike so many other power tools, the decision to choose corded or cordless rotary tools isn’t all that difficult. Since the tool is naturally lightweight and compact, the only thing you need to consider is whether you can live being tied down by a power cord or not.
The obvious benefit of corded tools is that the only limitation of the runtime is the heat produced by the motor. As long as the motor is cool to the touch, you’re free to grind away to your heart’s desire. Of course, your range of movement is limited by the power cord, but an easy solution would be to use an extension cord.
As for cordless rotary tools, you get to use the tool wherever you are on the planet as long as the battery still has some juice. This comes in handy when doing extremely intricate engraving in where the power cord might obstruct your view or simply be too short to allow maximum freedom of movement. You’re also limited to the amount of work you can do per charge, but modern cordless rotary tools come with beefy batteries that last for more than 30 minutes of continuous usage.
Rotary Tool Buying Guide
In this section, we’ll talk about the various specs and features that you should be on the lookout for when shopping for a rotary tool. However, it’s crucial that you know what materials you’re going to work with since certain rotary tools are best used for certain projects. To assist you in finding the appropriate model, we’ll divide this section into three parts based on the materials you’re engraving. The three sections are rotary tools for wood, rotary tools for stone, and rotary tools for metal.
Rotary Tool for Wood Engraving Buying Guide
When choosing the right rotary tool for engraving wood, there are certain features and specs you need to be aware of. This guide will describe what things make for a good rotary tool for wood carving.
The size of the motor determines how well the rotary tool will cut through your workpiece. For obvious reasons, a stronger motor is ideal since it’ll allow you to carve any material, including wood. The minimum motor rating we’d recommend for wood engraving would be 1 amp, though it’s not going to be too difficult to find a much powerful motor than that.
Carving through wood is a bit different from carving through other materials. A higher speed is actually ideal since it has a lesser likelihood of leaving unsightly burn marks. All rotary tools are built to deliver thousands and even tens of thousands of rotational spin per minute, so speed is also not too much of an issue.
However, a truly versatile rotary tool should have a variable speed dial or pre-settings. Some models let you change the speed of the bit on the fly while others require you shut it off when switching between gears. The mechanism used to change speeds is up to you based on personal preference; what’s important is that it can deliver between 5,000 RPM and upwards of 30,000 RPM.
The two most commonly used materials to make rotary engraving bits are carbide tungsten and high-speed steel. Carbide bits are considerably more expensive but last longer and do not dull as easily. HSS bits are cheaper and dull much more easily than carbide, but if you don’t use your rotary tool regularly, then HSS bits can actually be more cost-effective.
The size of the bit indicates how much material it’ll remove per rotation. The diameter of a bit can be as tiny as ¼ of an inch to as large as ¾. Larger bits remove more material but also do not offer the same control as smaller bits for producing more precise, intricate details.
Cylindrical Bit and Pointed Bits
For engraving in wood, the two most suitable types of bits are cylindrical bits and pointed bits.
Cylindrical bits have more surface area than pointed bits, making them more adequate at removing a ton of material per sweep. This comes in handy when you need to dig deep into the wood before etching finer details with a pointed bit.
Pointed bits are used to etch intricate details in wood. With a steady hand and a keen eye, you can produce beautiful trim and carvings on your wood-based art.
Rotary Tool for Stone Engraving Buying Guide
Seeing as how the stone is considerably denser than even the toughest wood, the right rotary tool for the job will need to be significantly more powerful. In this section, we’ll go over the various specs of a stone engraving rotary tool and the appropriate bits.
Variable Speed Dial
A multi-speed or rotary tool is infinitely better than a single-speed model since it lets you carve all sorts of materials, provided you use the right bit. For engraving stone and concrete, we’d recommend getting a rotary tool with a speed dial rather than preset gears. The minimum speed you’d need would be roughly 4,000 RPM, and the maximum speed can be as high as you’d like.
Concrete is much tougher than wood. Therefore, in order for a rotary tool to engrave effectively in stone, it needs a more powerful motor. We recommend finding a tool that comes with a motor that’s at least 2 amps, but a higher amperage rating would be ideal.
Since most stone carving is going to be done outdoors, we recommend that you look for a high-quality cordless rotary tool. You can make do with a corded model and an outdoor-safe extension cord, but to truly eliminate any hassle, cordless is the way to go. Keep in mind that cordless 2-plus-amp rotary tools may be a bit difficult to come by.
In order to engrave concrete effectively, you need to mount diamond-tipped bits into the rotary tool’s chuck. Diamond-tipped bits offer enough strength and durability in engraving hard materials like concrete and stone without dulling the bit. These do have a high investment cost, but they’re much more effective than regular carbide. Plus, they won’t dull nearly as quickly when used for grinding stone.
Flex Shaft Attachment
Even though a flex shaft attachment would be useful in any situation, it’s extremely handy when engraving stone. The odd shape of stone would make even the thinnest, most compact rotary tool a bit of a hassle to maneuver. The flex shaft allows you to really get the diamond-tipped bit in the tiniest crevices without having to hold the rotary tool’s body at an awkward angle.
Bits for carving stone come in all sizes. For this reason, we highly recommend finding a model that comes with an all-size chuck, or a chuck that can mount up to ¾-inch bits. You may also want to consider the bits themselves since, like wood-carving bits, larger bits remove more material but aren’t as precise as smaller, pointed bits.
Rotary Tool for Metal Engraving Buying Guide
Engraving metal with a rotary tool is more similar to engraving wood than stone. This section will discuss the various things you look out for when searching for a rotary tool to cut/grind/sand/engrave metal.
It’s extremely important that the rotary tool comes with a sufficiently powerful motor in order to engrave or cut through metal. However, the strength of the motor ultimately depends on what sort of metal you’re working with.
If your project calls for engraving soft aluminum or pewter, a smallish 2-amp motor would be adequate. Harder metals like stainless steel would require something beefier – around 5 amps – in order to make clean cuts and grooves.
You’ll also need to consider the thickness of your material. Thicker pieces like pipes or conduits would require a stronger motor to cut through. As for thin sheets or bars, a 2- or 3-amp motor would suffice.
Even though corded tools are almost always more powerful than cordless, both corded and cordless rotary tools produce enough power to engrave, cut, and grind metal.
If you decide to get a cordless rotary tool for its supreme portability and maneuverability, take a look at the size of the battery. The battery doesn’t necessarily indicate motor power, but it does play a role in how long the tool will run. Metal, which is denser than wood, will deplete the battery quicker, so to work comfortably without having to swap batteries or wait for them to fully charge, consider getting a cordless rotary tool that uses a 20V battery.
Variable Speed Dial
Engraving, cutting, and grinding metal are three jobs that have different speed requirements to do effectively without producing sharp edges. Engraving and grinding metal need to be done at high speed – more than 10,000 RPM – whereas cutting metal should be done at a lower speed of around 3,000 to 5,000 RPM. Once again, we recommend finding a model that has a variable speed dial that lets you choose how much speed to deliver. Preset speeds might be either too slow or too fast for engraving and cutting jobs.
The bits used to engrave metal can be anywhere from ¼ of an inch to ¾ of an inch in diameter. It’s a good idea to get the largest chuck available that can clamp onto bits of all sizes, especially if you plan on using your rotary tool for creating intricate designs as well as grinding away rust.
Rotary tools are handheld power tools that have a million and one different uses. They’re mainly used to grind away rust, remove fine layers off your workpieces, and cut through metal and stone. However, if you’d like to up your woodworking/metalworking/stone-engraving game, then a rotary tool can help you. Using a carving or engraving bit, you can add super-fine details to your work with ease.
There are both corded and cordless rotary tools to choose from, and each has its own set of benefits and drawbacks. If your work keeps you outdoors and away from power outlets, a cordless rotary tool can be your best friend, especially if it comes with a large battery that supplies 20 to 30 minutes of continuous runtime. A cordless rotary tool can also come in handy when working in tight, cramped spaces – e.g. under your car or in corners – without the fuss of tangled power cords and extension cords.
If you’ve read our article from start to finish, you should find that the “right” rotary tool depends on what sort of material you plan on working with. In this article, we’ve discussed how rotary tools differ based on whether they’re designed for wood, stone, or metal.
However, you could get the most out of your rotary tool by getting a powerful, high-speed tool and swap out attachments based on your needs. It’s extremely important that you have the right bit for the job since not every bit is made with the same material (carbide, high-speed steel, diamond-tipped) work the same on different materials.