21 Rotary Tool Tips and Tricks for Automata-Makers – Dug’s Tips 6

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A basic high-speed rotary tool and an assortment of compatible bits21 Rotary Tool Tips and Tricks for Automata-Makers

The high-speed rotary tool can do the work of dozens of other tools. With the right bits and accessories, this little powerhouse can cut, carve, engrave, drill, grind, sand, brush, and polish a variety of materials! Here are some tips to help automata-makers get the most from a rotary tool.

1: Choosing a Rotary Tool Try to choose one that has at least two speeds — more if possible. Depending on the material to be cut, different bits will work best at specific speeds.

2: Wear Eye Protection Because of the extremely high speed at which the tool operates, it is essential to wear eye protection at all times when using a rotary tool. Some operations require hearing protection and a particle mask as well. It is always a good idea to wear sturdy leather gloves to protect your hands.

3: Let the Tool Do the Work The speed of the spinning tool should do the work — not the force you apply. Always use light pressure and make multiple passes if needed. This will give you more control and keep your bits from wearing out quickly, or worse, breaking.

From this angle, the bit is rotating clockwise. Move the tool from right to left for the best finish when sanding wood.Tips for Sanding Wood

4: Sand with the Direction of Spin When sanding wood, move the tool in the same direction as the debris that is being thrown from the spinning bit. This will give you the smoothest finish.

5: Replacing Sanding Drums Unscrew and remove the rubber drum from the mandrel completely. Dust the rubber with talc powder, slip the new sleeve on the rubber drum, and screw it securely to the mandrel.

A 1/4 inch sanding drum makes shaping cam profiles an easy task6: Sanding Cams to Shape Sanding drums are great for shaping wooden cam profiles. Sometimes you can do this while the cam is mounted in the automaton — a great time saver!


A homemade disc can be used to remove the fuzzy bits from detailed carvings7: Sanding Fine Details in Wood Specially designed radial bristle brushes allow you to sand fine carvings without loosing detail. You can make an inexpensive version with a small section of an abrasive cleaning pad screwed to the end of a mandrel.

Essentials for woodcarving with a rotary tool: a flexible shaft attachment, tool hanger, safety glasses, and particle maskTips for Carving Wood

8: Set Up for Carving A flexible shaft attachment makes carving with a rotary tool much easier. These shafts work best with the tool suspended from a hanger. You will be making some dust, so wear a particle mask and place a fan nearby while working.

9: Roughing-out Carvings Sanding drum accessories are great for bringing a carving to shape after sawing it out. Start with a large, coarse grit drum and move to a smaller drum with a finer grit of sandpaper as your carving becomes more detailed.

A small head carved with a sanding drum and finished off with grinding stones in the rotary tool10: Carving with Stones Wood carving bits often leave a rough surface on woods such as Basswood (a.k.a. Lime). Try using grinding stones for the final stages of carving. The pink/orange/brown Aluminum-oxide stones remove material a little faster, while the darker gray/blue/green Silicon-carbide stones remove material more slowly, but leave a smoother finish.

11: Cleaning Wood Cutting Bits and Sanding Drums Many professional woodcarvers recommend using chemical oven cleaner to clean sawdust out of metal woodcarving bits. You can also try burning the wood out with a small torch. To clear out stones, sanding drums, and sanding discs, run the tool against an abrasive belt cleaner.

From this angle, the spinning bit is rotating clockwise. Move the tool from left to right when cutting metal.Tips for Cutting Metal

12: Cut Metal Against the Direction of Spin When cutting metal it helps to move the tool opposite to the direction that the debris is being thrown. Mount the piece to be cut in a vise, and hold the tool firmly with two hands because the tool will attempt to “climb” up and over the object being cut.

13: Dealing with Brittle Cut-off Wheels If you’re breaking the thin cut-off wheels when cutting metal, stack two wheels together and screw them both to the mandrel. For the thicker, fiberglass reinforced cut-off wheels, a small washer placed on either side of the disc will increase the rigidity of the wheel.

Two stacked cut-off wheels make a slot in the stripped screw so that it may be remove with a flat-head screwdriver14: Removing Stripped Screws Brass screws are fairly easy to strip. Use a cut-off wheel to make a notch across the head of the screw, then back out screw with a flat-head screw driver.

Tips for Grinding and Shaping Metal

15: Deburring Tubing and Other Cut Edges Regardless of how you cut metal, a burr and/or sharp edge can be left behind. Use sanding drums or grinding stones in your rotary tool to quickly smooth them.

The depression on the end of this grinding stone is used to round over the ends of the pins16: Rounding the Tips of Pinwheels Pinwheels that are less-than-perfect can sometimes jam. Rounding over the jamming pin ends can help.



A miniature hammer sculpted from a large nail using diamond-coated bits. The wood handle was shaped with a sanding drum in the rotary tool.17: Sculpting Metal There is nothing harder than diamond. When used in a rotary tool, diamond coated bits allow you to shape almost any kind of metal, even steel.

The right angle attachment for the rotary tool is great for working in tight spacesTips for Drilling

18: Drilling it Tight Spots If you need to drill a hole somewhere that is hard to reach, a drill bit in a flexible shaft attachment will sometimes fit where other tools cannot. The right angle drilling accessory will also allow you to reach some very tight spots.

19: Drilling Holes in Glass Yes, you can use a rotary tool to drill holes in glass! You will need a diamond hole-cutting bit and lubricant. You also need a multi-speed rotary tool so you can use a slower speed. Apply light pressure, drill for a few seconds at a time, then apply more lubricant. Carefully repeat this process until you’ve penetrated the glass.

Tips for Getting Most out of Your Tools

An emery impregnated polishing wheel cleans up the right side of this rusty scraper plane20: Breathing New Life into Old Tools You can save money by picking up second-hand tools and restoring them yourself. By using grinding stones, brushes, and polishing buffs, you can sharpen, clean, and polish old tools back into working order.

21: Accessorize! There are many accessories that can be attach to a rotary tool. When used in conjunction with the right bits, a rotary tool can be transformed into a wood cutting saw, miniature router, wall tile saw, planer, drill press, glass engraver, and more. Here’s a handy online bit-finder tool. The high-speed rotary tool is a versatile tool that can grow with you and your projects!

For a list of materials and further reading visit Dug’s Tools and References page.

Dug’s Automata Tips, Techniques and Tricks
A quarterly column by automata-maker and enthusiast Dug North

Copyright 2011 Dug North

Warning: The topics covered in this column include the use of tools and materials that have the potential to cause damage to property and/or bodily injury. Your safety is important and it is your sole responsibility. Always read and follow the safety instructions that come with tools and materials you use. Wear safety glasses, use guards and other forms of safety equipment, follow safety precautions, and use good judgment. Seek the guidance of experienced outside sources whenever required.

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21 Rotary Tool Tips and Tricks for Automata-Makers – Dug’s Tips 6
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  1. RUSTY NICHOLS says:

    THANK YOU !!

  2. Dug North says:

    Hi Charlie,

    1) Cutting speed depends on the cutter you are using and the material you are cutting. It is mostly trial-and-error. Some folks start at at a slow speed and work their way up to see which works best. In general, plastics and aluminum will be cut using a slower speed. Wood and steel often respond well to higher speeds. Always keep the amount of pressure you use light.

    2) Do you have a selection of collets? Be sure you have one that is just a bit bigger than the shaft of the burr and tighten the nut securely.


  3. charlie says:

    I have a 170w Ozito rotary tool set (its a cheaper model) as I am trying to
    carve signs pictures into wood and I have a few questions if you could help?

    1) whats the best speed to carve with
    2) I bought some cheaper burrs which i started to use and all was going well then i noticed the burr coming out, unfortunately I didnt manage to turn off before it disappeared, luckily not into my face. Looking at the flexishaft tip the collet had bent open and the metal screw in bit that secures the collet and tip in place has also bent. Where did I go wrong? The Burrs seem sturdy even if cheap, i ensured they were screwed in tight ect before starting. Is it the Ozito thats just rubbish (i have read some bad reviews) or is it the burrs or just me? I dont think i pushed to hard??
    3) What is the best wood to use.

  4. T.R.Hart says:

    I’d be lost without my Dremel. Just in case any of you mold and cast your figures I can recommend links. Most of my art supplies are from hardware stores but some things are harder to get.

    As Always thanks for the tips Dug. I really liked the video spot on your work.


  5. Dug North says:

    Hi Rebecca,

    I appreciate your enthusiasm!

    The round thing that looks like a circular sander at the top may be a cut-off wheel, but I’m just guessing. The L-shaped thing sounds like an Allen wrench, but I’m not sure where it would be used on your tool. The tiny wrench is for screwing down the “collet nut” on some models of rotary tool. The collet holds the bit and the collet nut holds the collet on the rotary tool. The little stone is used to clean the grinding bits when they have become clogged up — usually with metal particles.

    Here is a great poster published by Dremel that shows most of the common bits and accessories: http://www.dremel.com/en-us/customerservice/ManualsAndLiterature/Documents/2011%20Accessory%20Poster.pdf

    I hope this helps. Best of luck!


  6. rebecca smith says:

    eeww sorry for the long post, I can type so quickly I lose track of length SORRY

  7. rebecca smith says:

    OMG – THANK YOU !! You know about 3 years ago I bought a plastic gadget called “Engrave It” as seen on TV but I bought it at Walgreens for 10 bucks because it looked like fun. AND it was so fun I basically burned it out within a week.

    Battery operated (the spring connection for the battery was slightly crooked & melted into the plastic casing XD XD) light with just a single needle size, I etched on anything the thing would work into. It was the most fun I’d had in YEARS doing something with my hands. So I finally JUST bought something I thought would work in a similar way and it’s a minslipmaskin kit from Biltema, and slipmaskin means sander & slip maskin means ‘grinding machine’ (this is in Sweden) and it has a whole bunch of those little stone sanders like the one you are using on that little demon mask face. I just went online to look up the proper way to use some of these attachments and your tips/techniques & tricks no 6 IS PERFECT help and advice for a 100% novice such as me!!! 😀 😀 When I had that silly little Engrave It, I DID take a crudely carved wooden spoon I got in Morocco (for like a dime) and engraved little designs all over it. Spirit Bears and geometric native american style patterns. Whenever I showed it to someone, they assumed I had bought it for a lot of money and that it was traditional native american art LMAO ! I said ‘no, first I colored it with sharpies, then I used an engrave it to etch through the colors to make the design/contrast’. Now that was kind of a good feeling. Apparently I made ART out of nothing but cheap wood, cheap engrave It and SHARPIES! â?¥â?º yay â?º

    The first thing I’m going to grind on is a rectangular knife holder, the kind that is a 3 dimensional rectangle with just different sized slits/slots cut into the top. The rest is just a plain & fairly ugly pine looking block of nothing. It’s been sitting in a cabinet for 2 years being absolutely non contributing LOL so I think it needs to step up and earn it’s keep.

    Thanks again for your sander tips “dug” – and for example, the very first tip on moving in the direction of the spin of the circular sander, I probably would not have figured that out and it seems like it will make a big difference in the long run.

    I am so excited haha I just remember having so so much fun etching on things. Really just a hand held single needle cheapy thing would have been fine for my entertainment, but, honestly except for art stores (which are way out of my budget) I just can’t find something like that. They guys at Biltema suggested this minislipmaskin and it has 10 different shaped sanding stones (like the one use used up there, same thing but all different shapes) a needle, a couple of drill tips, a round thing like the circular sander at the top, some buffers, one of those things that looks like an L and it doesn’t say what it is and I have no idea what it is, a teen tiny wrench looking thing that is non adjustable, and a little square stone (sharpening? no IDEA it also does not say what that is for) HEY your very first picture has the little wrench and the rectangle of ‘stone’ – what are those things for? My spinmaskin is very similar to yours, only cheaper quality and newer. Lots of the same tips and stuff though !!

    It’s not battery operated so I’ll be stuck with a cord, which I kind of hate, because I wanted to go out into the woods and sit around alone and etch into little sticks I might find, but, at least I can have much fun at home.

  8. Dug North says:


    Fantastic tip! Dremel has recommended speeds for just about every bit and every material. You’ve provided a tip that should allow even the simplest models to work their best. I can’t wait to try it myself!

    How does one tell a triac from variac based dimmer? I checked the Credenza lamp dimmer specification guide online and couldn’t find this type of information.


  9. Iggy Saturation says:

    Great tips. Here’s one for you, if you have a single speed dremel you can make it continuously variable by using a triac based light dimmer. In the US, something like the Lutron Credenza. You cannot use the triac controller on the multi-speed models as the electronics in multi-speed dremels are the same thing, and they will interfere with each other.


    A variac will work even on multi-speed models to give you extra control.

    Most dremels speed controls are stepped increments. A reason for continuous is there is no feedback control on most dremel multispeed models, except the newer 4000. Under load, the ‘recommended’ speed maybe slower than expected, so now you can adjust to your need and technique as needed, rather than limited by the tool.

  10. Dug North says:

    Marie – Glad the tips are proving useful. Keep up the good work!


  11. Dug North says:

    Mike – Great idea! I will give that one some thought.

    -Dug North

  12. Mike McCarthy says:

    Never thought to use the grinding stones for the final stages of carving. Thank you! How about a tips/techniques on using small hobby motors – batteries or plugging in to a wall socket – to power the automatons?

  13. Dug North says:

    A reader wrote to me to provide additional information for two of the tips:

    Tip #11: Using a torch to burn the wood out of burrs is mainly recommended for Tungsten Carbide burrs (the aggressive, pointy ones) that become clogged. Never use a torch on a stone.

    Tip #2: I should have also highlighted the need for dust control masks and/or dust collectors — especially if using exotic or found/recycled woods, which can cause allergic reactions. The solution can be as simple as an air filter strapped to a box fan.

    Thanks to deanS for these improvements to the article!


    • Witte Kraai says:

      In fact, the steel brush tool can easily clean up clogged bits as well!

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