Carved wood with copper metal inlay

Carving Wood for Metal Inlay

Carving wood for metal inlay is easily accomplished with readily available tools. Metal inlay adds value and an abundance of visual interest to any woodworking project. I’ve seen phenomenal success with my sales of wood turned items in my booth at craft shows, mostly when my work features the combination of metal and wood. Watch the accompanying video on carving wood for metal inlay or read about it in the proceeding article.

Craft Show Booth Items Featuring Carved Wood with Metal Inlay

candlesticks with copper metal inlay
Cocobolo Ikebana with Copper Metal Inlay
Oriental Peppermill with Bronze cast handle
Cocobolo Bowl with Dripping Copper Metal Inlay

Carving tools for Metal Inlay

Before I begin with power carving, I’d like to introduce the tools I use for carving wood. While you can start using hand carving tools and knives (Fig 1), I find it’s too slow for my production work, so I turn to power tools. You’ll see an assortment of carving tools in Fig 2 with one common feature….the flexible shaft. A flexible shaft (Fig 3) attaches to a handpiece (Fig 4) that allows me to manipulate the carving bit in a fluid-like manner rather than fixed in a rotary tool like a Dremel tool. Fortunately, if you own a Dremel rotary tool, you can purchase the flex shaft as an option. It provides you the same freedom of movement as professional dental-type models without the need to hold the motor. It’s lightweight, maneuverable, and one of my most used attachments.

Selection of hand carving tools
Fig 1. Hand Carving Tools
Assortment of Wood Power Carving Tools for Metal Inlay
Fig 2. Power Carving Tools
Dremel Rotary Tool with Flexible Shaft
Fig 3. Dremel Tool w/ Flex Shaft
Dremel Flexible Shaft Handpiece
Fig 4. Flexible Shaft Handpiece

You can also use a mini air grinder for carving (Fig 5). They are lightweight and inexpensive but are loud and need an air compressor capable of supplying enough air volume to efficiently operate the tool.  

The Grizzly rotary tool (Fig 6) emulates a professional dental model that works quite well for carving wood for metal inlay. The shaft is also interchangeable with industry-standard handpieces. I’ll be using an H-28 Handpiece (See Fig 6 center). It’s slightly smaller than the included handpiece and more comfortable to control with small cutters. This tool also features a foot pedal speed-control (Fig 7) that frees both of my hands for the carving task. It’s a nice safety feature. If I need to stop the machine immediately, I can respond quickly by lifting my foot off the control.

Mini Air Die Grinder for carving wood for metal inlay
Fig 5. Mini Die Grinder
Grizzly Rotary Tool with Handpieces
Fig 6. Grizzly Rotary Tool w H-28
Rotary Tool Foot Pedal Speed Control
Fig 7. Foot Pedal Speed Control

Speaking of safety, you’ll also want to protect your eyes and lungs from wood chips and wood dust by wearing safety glasses and a dust mask. A dust collection system is also a plus when carving wood. A carving glove can protect your hand, too, so wear one, especially when learning to power carve.

Carving wood for metal inlay with power tools is accomplished with an assortment of bits. They come in various shapes and sizes, so experiment with several to explore the possibilities of cutting different shapes, grooves, and channels (Fig 8-9).

Various Wood Carving bits for Metal Inlay
Fig 8. Carving Bits For Metal Inlay
Various Wood Carving bits for Metal Inlay
Fig 9. Carving Bits For Metal Inlay
Diamond Shape Wood Carving bit for Metal Inlay
Fig 10. Diamond-Shape Bit
kutzall 1/4 inch spherical burr for the controlled removal of wood with a rotary tool.
Fig 11. Carbide Rotary Burr

Practice Carving Strokes in Wood

“Practice with each cutter before carving your first “keeper” to get a feel on how it will respond to the various speeds of the rotary tool for the optimum cut. Always start slow and increase the speed to see how the cutter will handle it. The bit I’ll be using for carving in this article is a diamond-shaped steel cutter (Fig 10). You can purchase this cutter on my website, plus many of the supplies used for metal inlay.  Another handy bit for metal inlay is the carbide rotary burr  (Fig 11), which is ideal for aggressive removal of more extensive areas of bark inclusion.

And of course, when using all of the above tools, please refer to all manufacturers’ labels and owner’s manuals for proper product usage.

Practice carving with diamond shaped cutter for metal inlay
Practice Cuts on Prototype of Form
Actual cutting edge on diamond shaped cutter
Fig 12. Actual Cutting Edge

Understand Your Tools

Some rotary tools can turn forward or reverse, so be sure to set it to spin in a counterclockwise direction. Because of this rotation, cuts are made top-down or right to left due to the cutter’s spin. Cuts are always made toward yourself. Being aware of the cutting direction gives you total control over each cut and helps to avoid any kickback. Also, be aware of the cutting edge as seen in Fig 12. By plunging the cutting edge into your work, you can cut a thin shallow v groove or a deep V cut and everything in between. The depth of cut allows you to control the quality of line by varying the width of the cut. It’s similar to drawing with a quill pen…the more pressure you apply, the wider the line.

Don't cut from top of form down
Fig 13. Don't Start Cuts at Top of Forms
Begin or continue cuts from side of form down
Fig 14. Cut from the Side Down to Taper Lines

Avoid starting a cut at the top of forms (Fig 13) because the cutter wants to catch and run around the form plowing the cutter into your finger. It’s best to turn your work upside down and continue those cuts from the side (Fig 14). The same is true in abrupt curves at the top of forms. Don’t attempt to make any cuts in these areas. Instead, flip your work and proceed from the side to the sharp curve.


Tuck your elbows into your side and use your thumb for support on all the cuts (Figs 16-17). 

Keep firm control on your handpiece, but at the same time, try to relax your movements and let the tool do the cutting. Don’t expect to make deep cuts in one pass. The deeper the cut, the more light passes are required for a safe and controlled cut. And let the tool do the cutting. It’s just like cutting mat board or cardboard with a utility knife. You keep scoring lightly with total control until you cut through. Press hard, and you lose control.

Sketching In Designs

Before making my first real cut, I sketch some pencil lines over the mill’s cracks and surface (Fig 15). While I can fill the crack and have a straight line of metal, I prefer to hide the crack as if it never existed. By sketching and then carving several curves that incorporate movement, I can conceal the original crack and add visual interest and appeal to the metal inlay. The combinations of curves I use are similar, but since there are no templates or plans to follow, each carving is unique. This peppermill (Fig 15)  is now  prepped and ready for carving.

Sketching lines on form for carving for metal inlay
Fig 15. Sketching Lines for Carving

 There is a crack on this side of the mill that proceeds into the bottom of the base. I’ll handle that in a second operation when cutting the base. The top is cracked as well. I can carve and fill that at the same time I do the side because I will have clearance when mounting it back on the lathe.

 Carving begins by laying in a series of light cuts. These light cuts establish the direction of the initial channel. I’m also widening the gap on the original crack and cleaning up any torn edges. Keep the movements of the handpiece flowing when entering and exiting each pass. A flowing cutter will give you a nice transition between the beginning and the ending of each cut.

 If you attempt to cut an arc shape, try to get as smooth a line as possible on the first pass. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look all that great after one pass. You’ll fix it on subsequent passes. My left hand is making the turn, not the tool. Just continue to take light cuts to refine the shape, form, and quality of line.

Establish light cuts at first
Fig 16. Lay in Series of Light Cuts
Use a supporting thumb to establish curves while carving
Widen the Original Crack for Metal Inlay

View the accompanying video at the top of this page and watch the movement of my hands closely as I cut various curves. Each new initial cut overlaps the previous cut slightly. Overlapping helps the cutter to stay on the same path. Take note as to how each line develops slowly. A sharp cutter and light passes are crucial when cutting the first pass on curves. The first cut establishes the path and the second cut establishes a partial depth. The next several cuts correct any errors the first two created. Once the curve is smooth and flowing, each subsequent pass widens and or deepens the previous cut. Once I’m pleased with the channel’s depth, I concentrate on the smoothness of the curve’s edges. I also begin to pay attention to the thickness of the line. If you can’t see the sketched in pencil lines of your curves because of dust buildup (Fig 17), blow it away and begin carving again. Slow down slightly when cutting across an intersecting line (Fig 18). You should anticipate the cutter reacting a bit differently when crossing an intersecting line.

Fig 17. Dust Build-up Interference
Carving across an intersecting line
Fig 18. Carve Cautiously Acoss Intersecting Lines

To widen a previously cut path, be aware that both sides of the diamond-shaped cutter remove material when pushed or pulled in either lateral direction (Fig 19). It is not just a plunge-cut cutter. Keep this in mind when refining the curves. It will add an enormous amount of control and detail to the quality of line. By incorporating these techniques, I can broaden out curves by pulling the cutter toward myself and making the path a little wider. Broadening your cuts create a fuller curves with a much nicer transition from thick to thin. A little bit of subtle carving can add a lot more volume and life to the quality of your line.

Both Edges on Diamond Shape Bit Cut
Fig 19. Both Sides of Diamond Shape Cut Laterally
Variety of Carved Lines Metal Inlay
Fig 20. Use Sides of Cutter to Broaden Lines

Why Use Intersecting lines?

I usually don’t leave individually carved lines running off the form. I would much rather see an intersecting line. The intersection stops the eye from flowing off the form (Figs 21-23).

Single Lines Allow Eyes to Leave Form
Fig 21. Single Lines Visually Run Off form
Intersecting Lines Keep Eyes on Form
Fig 22. Intersections Stop Visual Flow
Intersecting Lines Keep Eyes on Form
Fig 23. Intersecting Lines Add Visual-Interest

While the two carved lines in Fig 24 intersect, they still carry the eye off the form. So I sketch in some pencil lines to prevent that from happening. These lines should also help visually balance the adjacent intersecting lines as well.

Intersecting lines still flow off form
Fig 24. Sketched Lines Add Visual-Stop
Sketch and Carve to Add Visual Stops
Fig 25. Final Carving to Add Visual-Block

Cutting Fluid Curves.

Use the pencil lines only as a guide when carving. Don’t try to trace over them with the cutter. If you do that, you won’t cut fluid lines. Study the relationship of all the cut lines and how they play off one another. You want to focus on the line you’re cutting and how it develops. The trickiest part of carving fluid curves is to get the cutter to enter the previous cut. By doing so, you create a seamless fluid line. You can achieve this with some practice. So take your time in the early stages when learning to carve, and it will become second nature before you know it.

If the handpiece is getting in the way when making acute cuts, i.e., inside of coves (Fig 26), try flipping the piece around and attacking it from a different angle. In Fig 27, you can see that the handpiece has nothing to bump up against, and I can swing the cutter through a smooth arc, cutting a fluid line.

Tight Handpiece clearance when power carving
Fig 26. If Handpiece Bumps Against Work...
Flip Piece Over For Clearance
Fig 27. Flip Piece Over For Clearance

Now that I have a handful of carved projects, I can fill them in with metal inlay.

You can learn more about carving wood for metal inlay from my DVD titled: Metal Inlay Techniques for Woodturners and Woodworkers. The learning curve for metal inlay is fast, easy, and fun, and you’ll be creating highly desirable unique pieces in no time.

Carving Wood For Metal Inaly in Peppermill
Carving Wood For Metal Inaly in Peppermill
Carving Wood For Metal Inaly in Peppermill

Leave a Reply

Ted Sokolowski

Ted Sokolowski

Ted is the author of several woodworking DVDs including his popularMetal Inlay Techniques for Woodturners and Woodworkers Ted loves to create classical forms within the medium of wood, and especially loves to embellish his woodturnings with metal inlay, metal spinning and even casting. Ted has been turning fulltime for over 20 years and is well known along east coast art & craft shows for his unique peppermills and candlesticks.

Share this post