Power Carve a Serving Dish
Power carving is a woodworking technique that not many woodworkers know much about. With a bit of knowledge and a healthy dose of practice, you can add this to your arsenal fairly easily, and it will open up a brand new door for you.
I’ve been power carving for about six years now, and I absolutely love it. Flat, smooth wood can be beautiful, with its unique grain and a nice finish, but when wood is sculpted, it literally (and figuratively) adds a third dimension to it.
When I started power carving, the learning curve was pretty steep. Playing around with a few different power carving attachments with a selection of wood species gave me a good idea of what could be done. Using Arbortech’s new Ball Gouge adds yet another dimension to my power carving. While most power carving attachments are great for adding gentle curves to wood, this Ball Gouge allows me to carve down into the wood more easily, producing a somewhat rounded cavity – great for bowls, spoons and the like.
Draw an Ellipse
Brown cut a piece of scrap to length, then removed some material from both ends so it came to points. Once it was clamped to the workpiece, a string was used to trace an ellipse on the blank. Sketch in two more layout lines offset 1/4" and 1/2" to the inside of the ellipse drawn with the string.
Add a piece of masking tape around a drill bit so the holes stop about 3/8" away from the bottom of the blank, then drill a series of holes in one end of the cavity. Notice the two additional layout lines – stay at least 3/4" away from them when drilling the holes.
Let the Chips Fly
With long, even passes, Brown uses the Arbortech Ball Gouge to remove material from the cavity area of the dish. Stay about 1/4" away from the inner layout line until the overall depth of the cavity has been shaped.
Time for Hand Tools
Starting with gouges with a very curved edge, then moving to gouges with only a gentle sweep, Brown works his way around the cavity of the best as he can. Sharp tools are crucial here.
Here the cavity is almost done, though it’s still very rough. The undercut area near the perimeter is starting to be shaped, and the surface will get a bit more smoothing before reaching for some carving gouges to smooth the surface further.
Cut the Perimeter
Trim the outer waste on the band saw, then smooth that edge with a disc or edge sander.
Perfect the Edge
Once the dish edge has been routed, draw a series of pencil marks on the edge. Now you can use spokeshaves, files and sandpaper to fair and smooth the routed edge.
Use a large quarter round bit in your router table to create a partial bullnose edge around the perimeter. Here, Brown used a 1/2" radius bit, but only used about half of the bit’s edge for the cut. Be careful to keep your fingers away from the cutter during this operation.
Power carving isn’t something you jump into head first. Like driving a vehicle, learning the basic dos and don’ts, and experimenting with some simple, hands-on techniques, is how you can stay safe and get the best results. I can’t go over all the safety tips here, but we have a video on our website about using an Arbortech Ball Gouge, and I also shot a short video about how I used the Ball Gouge and a few other tools to create the cavity in this dish.
The learning curve is steep when familiarizing yourself with a new tool, and that is especially true when using this Ball Gouge. I’m an experienced power carver, but this tool was different than anything I’ve ever used before. It took some time to get used to. There was a bit of bouncing at first, but after some practice I got the feel for how it should be used. Just take it slow and practice a lot before starting in on the real thing.
I played around with the Ball Gouge while making a few of the small household items shown in the lead photo at the start of this article. Once I was comfortable with the new tool, I started working on this dish. With a piece of 2×6 spruce cut-off I started into the prototype. I got half way through an elliptical-shaped dish, with a hollowed cavity in the center, and stopped because it was a bit boring. After looking at it a bit later I realized that maybe only about half of the dish should be hollowed out, as this would create a bit of visual tension in the piece. To me, this one change injected some energy into this otherwise boring project, and I was off. The finished dimensions of my dish were 5-3/4″ wide x 12-1/4″ long, but feel free to make any adjustments to suit your needs and likes.
The real thing
I started by dressing a 14″-long x 6″-wide chunk of 8/4 hard maple down to about 1-1/4″ thick. To give it a bit more intrigue and visual contrast, I glued a piece of quarter-cut cherry veneer to the upper surface of the maple. When dry, I needed to lay out the outside shape of the dish, and added two additional offset lines to work towards. To do this, I cut a piece of wood 10″ long, tapered both its ends to a point, and clamped it to the center of the workpiece. I could have used two nails, but one nail would have left a hole in the side of the dish on which I wasn’t going to do much power carving. Some string tied to make a 22″ circumference allowed me to use a pencil to trace the outer layout line. I then added another line offset 1/4″ inside the first line, and a 3rd line offset 1/2″ inside the first. The area between the 2nd and 3rd lines was going to remain there, but I had to adjust the lines at the end of the workpiece that was not going to be power carved, as I wanted to leave more of the cherry veneer at that end.
I went directly to the band saw and almost started cutting the outside shape, but quickly realized the workpiece would be much easier to secure in my vise for power carving if both its sides were square and straight. I was lucky.
Back to my workbench, where I used the Arbortech Ball Gouge to rough out the center cavity of my dish. This is where I started recording the video I mentioned above. To make sure I didn’t carve right through the workpiece, I drilled a series of holes to within about 3/8″ of the bottom surface of the blank. Just stay away from the outer edge of the cavity as you drill these holes, as the edge of the cavity curves upwards near the edges.
Trying to stay at least 1/2″ away from the inner layout line, I slowly removed most of the waste material. Any rushing here will either leave you with a shortage of wood to properly shape the dish or damage the little bit of wood that’s needed to shape this area properly. This step took me about 10 minutes, as I was doing my best to stay patient. Obviously this amount of time will vary greatly depending on your skill and experience with power carving. The initial passes I make with the Ball Gouge are a bit more aggressive, as there is more material to remove, but as I got closer to the final depth each pass was made with a lighter touch, to leave as even a surface as possible.
The trickiest areas to work were where the outer edge of the cavity meets the side wall of the dish. I sized the height of the dish to work nicely with the diameter of the Ball Gouge, and as long as the passes in this area were controlled and precise, it left a fairly even transition between cavity and side wall. I was also careful to evenly and gradually shape the transition between the full depth area of the cavity to the far end of the dish, where no material was removed. This transition needed to be even to look good.
Further smoothing with hand tools
With the power carving complete, I focused on removing the tiny wood projections left by the Ball Gouge, with a small carving gouge. With most of the projections now much smaller, I switched to wider gouges, with gentler curves, allowing me to bring the surface more even to the touch. Sharp tools are a must here, and will leave you with much less sanding down the road.
This step doesn’t need to leave you with an ultra smooth surface, just a well-shaped surface that’s about the correct depth all around, and has even and properly shaped areas near the transition between the somewhat flat bottom and the sharply curved side walls.
Jazzing Up Your Carving
Carving wood into a sculpted, 3D shape is a lot of fun, and it can yield some stunning results. If you want to step it up a notch you might want to consider adding some colour to the piece you make. Sometimes it’s just a simple approach, like adding some colour to the side of a serving dish, that’s enough to capture the look you’re after.
There are many approaches when adding colour to a piece, but I opted to use Varathane’s Ultimate Wood Stain, in Antique Aqua. I really liked the blue paired with the lighter maple bowl. I added a simple vein line on the outside face of the bowl, between the upper and lower portions, just to visually separate the coloured surface from the natural maple, then stained right to this vein line. This gave me a really powerful and clean look.
Power, then hand sanding
I have an RO90 Festool sander, which is great for situations like this. It gets into a small space, and can be set to an aggressive mode to remove lots of material and flatten a surface. I used it to do the vast majority of smoothing before submitting to hand sanding the rest of the dish. Working up through the grits and ending with an even side wall, with simple, gentle curves, is what this stage is all about. Don’t stop until the surfaces are all ready for a finish, as once the outside edges of the dish are shaped it will be harder to secure it in a typical ship vise.
If you don’t have a small sander to get into the cavity and do the dirty work of levelling the surface, I would suggest using a mix of small hand planes and rasps, as well as using a very light, even touch when it comes to the last pass with the Ball Gouge to minimize the height difference between the peaks and valleys.
Shape the outer edge
I then cut the outer edge of the dish to shape on my band saw, smoothed that outside edge with my disc sander and used a 1/2″-radius roundover bit to heavily ease both the top and bottom outside corner, creating an edge something similar to a bullnose. At this point I used some files and a spokeshave to even out the bullnose edge before hitting it with sandpaper to produce the final surface.
Finish it up
At this point I made sure the underside was sanded, before giving a final sanding to the veneered top surface and easing all of the edges. I sanded this dish to 180-grit.
As for a finish, I wanted a non-film-forming finish that was easy to touch up. Most penetrating oil finishes would be fine, but I opted for hemp oil. I find different oils leave you with a different colour, depending on the wood, so I would strongly recommend applying a few finishes on some scrap wood before making a final decision. Most of these types of oils dry slowly, leaving a soft, smooth, even finish that’s nice to the touch and is food safe, but the difference for me is in how they look on the species I’m working with. I applied about five coats, letting each coat dry for at least one full day before reapplication.