Arbortech Mini Carver Review

love power carving. I’m still not what I’d consider good at it, but I thoroughly enjoy the process. It gives me a similar feeling to turning, except I’m able to do things that aren’t just… round. And it might surprise you, but it’s a heckuva lot cheaper than getting started with turning.

This is the Arbortech Mini Carver, which is their latest evolution of the Mini Grinder.  I’m going to spoil the surprise and declare, in an absolute sea of power carving tools available these days, the Mini Carver stands out to me as the best all-in-one, start-to-finish tool for a beginner. But unlike most beginner tools, this isn’t something you grow out of and replace, but rather compliment it with other tools down the track.

At $295AUD, that might sound like a steep entry point, but it’s less than the cost of a lathe, and that’s before you add on the cost of a grinder, turning tools, a chuck, and so on.

So what do you get with the Mini Carver?

  • In the box is… a carry bag. It’s not a bad carry case, and sure, I’d prefer a Systainer or an LBoxx with custom foam inserts, but I also don’t want the tool to cost another $100 just so I get a nice case for it.

    The bag is fine and much better than cheap blow molded tool cases. It lets me take the tool outside easily, I just need to add a little plastic container with dividers to protect the accessories.

  • Inside the bag, you get the mini carver itself and a stack of accessories.
    • An upgrade from the previous mini grinder, you get the mini industrial blade. This thing is a beast…. comparatively. Even though it has a slightly wider kerf than the old mini grinder blade, being carbide it stays sharper for longer, and just hogs out material. And since they’re flat teeth instead of curved hooks, they can be sharpened with a diamond file much, much easier.

      The mini industrial blade isn’t new, that’s been around for at least 10 years as an optional accessory. I bought one a few months back for my own mini-grinder. It is really nice that it has become the new standard blade though

    • And just like the new blade, there are new types of sanding discs.

      The mini grinder sanding discs had these weird, hard plastic backers that the sand paper was glued to. The rigidity made it more like a cutting disc than a sanding disc and made it kind of expensive to get more sanding discs because you were paying for the disposable plastic backer too. I suppose the counter to this is the mini-grinder was not… great for sanding. I’ve never actually used up a single disc so I’ve never needed a replacement. A fixed speed disc just tended to burn rather than sand.

      The new discs, however, use the same flexible, removable backing pad that Arbortech’s contour sander gives you. This won’t’ give you the random orbit action, but the sandpaper will follow the contours you’ve carved rather than reshaping them. And thanks to one of the new features of the mini carver itself, it can actually sand without burning but… I’ll get to that in a bit.

The Bad

I want to talk about three gripes I have with the machine. 

Unfortunately, the blade change mechanism is still exactly the same. You need to use both an allen key and flat head screw driver to lock the spindle in place to loosen or tighten the bit onto the machine. It sucks. Its not the end of the world, but I’ll admit I’ve over used a particular cutter when I should have switched because I didn’t want to have to go through that.

The second issue is the power plug has a tendency to pull out of an extension lead with little pressure. The original also suffered from this – its as if the plug is just a hair thinner than other tools. It’s not the end of the world, just its annoying having to be a little bit more careful with the cable.

I know I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel here, but the third gripe I have is backwards compatibility. The mini carver uses the same 3/8” mount as the mini grinder, but its slightly taller. This accommodates the mini industrial without the brass spacer it had to have before… but means  that the old blade doesn’t fit now because the locking screw bottoms out on the mount rather than on the blade. If you have one of those spacers, you can use that with the old blade. It would have been nice if that was included.

Whats new?

Alright, the mini carver itself. What’s new? Three things – ergonomics, variable speed … and the one everybody is going to pay attention to… dust collection.

Let’s start there, with dust collection.

Dust Collection

I’m going to backtrack a little first. There is no stage of power carving that is particularly… clean. The larger the tool, the more dust-per-minute you can produce.

If you use a rotary tool like a Dremel or Foredom, you may have encountered down draft tables for those tools. These work remarkably well, but you have to remember most carvings for those types of tools are on the smaller side – or usually just detail work on a larger piece. And the Foredom packs a whopping… one-sixth horsepower motor. There really is only so much dust they produce, and with the burrs typically used, they also produce dust rather than coarse shavings.

Enter Arbortechs mini-carver dust collection. It’s this toolless, removable plastic shroud that clips into the bottom of the tool, and a shop vac goes in the other end. It is a little fiddly to attach and remove, but not end of the world. When we look at it next to the mini-grinder, you can see the guard has been redesigned to capture as much dust as possible while still not getting too much in your way.

Arbortech say it’s for collecting dust when sanding…. And when sanding, it does a pretty good job of collecting dust. Okay, so we’re not talking Festool level dust collection, but it’s getting decent collection when sanding. This type of dust is the worst for your health and does tend to make the worst mess because it clings to all surfaces.

 

When carving, the results aren’t as great, perhaps picking up half the chips. Don’t get me wrong, half collected means clean up time is also halved but it still litters the workshop and I’ll likely still end up carving outside.

I did find, however, this varies a great deal depending on what blade you’ve got on – the included Mini Industrial blade and the old style blade were probably the worst, while I found the mini turbo and a King Arthur Tools carbide burr were the best. This would likely be the difference between blades that cut on the edge, and those that cut on the ‘face’ of the disc.

Could it be better? Maybe. But also maybe not. The bottom line is it’s a compromise – better dust collection can only be achieved with a bigger shroud that encompasses more of the cutter… which then ultimately means you’ve got fewer degrees of movement and shallower depth of cut. Not a situation anybody wants.

Bottom line is that it doesn’t make this an “inside the workshop” carving tool but you can sand inside the workshop.

Ergonomics

Next up is improved ergonomics. The obvious improvement is the new anti-vibration handle and it does what it says on the box – no perceivable vibration gets through the handle, so I don’t feel the need to wear gloves for that purpose. Switching back and forth between the mini carver and mini grinder, the difference in vibration levels was obvious in just a few minutes. The mini grinder had me wanting gloves in about two minutes, the mini carver I lost track of time because I couldn’t’ feel the vibrations at all.

It should be noted that the handle uses a different thread than on the mini-grinder, so you can’t get the new part and stick it on the old tool.

The body of the grinder is slightly larger diameter, it made no real difference in grip comfort for me, but it could pose a problem for those with smaller hands that found the mini-grinder a bit on the large side.

Finally, on ergonomics, the new motor is considerably quieter – both no load and cutting sounds are quieter. The old motor had a much more piercing pitch, so this is a welcome improvement for me as it makes carving considerably less fatiguing. You should still wear hearing protection, but it’s much more pleasant.

Variable Speed

The standout feature to me though, is the variable speed.

 On paper it might not seem like all that big of a deal – more power and more rippums is more better, right? When combined with the included new flexible sanding backing pad, suddenly the mini carver can do sanding while the mini grinder just burnt wood.  

With the mini carver set to the slowest speed, it does a great job of sanding, but pick it up to two or three, with a coarse grit sand paper you can do a lot of smoothing out of curves and tool mark removal with the sanding discs. I’d recommend using 80 grit or coarser for those tasks.

Four or five on the speed dial seems to work best with carbide burrs, while max speed suits the industrial carving blade.

Variable speed was the last major feature the competition, primarily the Merlin 2 from King Arthur, had over the Mini-Grinder. You could argue that the Merlin2 still wins in the weight department, which at a featherlight 550g is seven times lighter, but the Mini Carver has 7 and a half times more power.

Who is it for?

Bottom line, who is this for? If you’re just starting out and are interested in powercarving, the mini-carver is a no-brainer. It’s more or less self contained in that a project can be done from start to finish with just this power carving tool.

Larger tools like the turbo-plane can be much scarier for beginners too – even if they’re safe, a four inch disc on a regular grinder is scarier than a two inch disc that has the blade further away from the handles.

If I had to recommend one tool to get started, it’d be this – its the perfect starter tool and it doesn’t get less useful as you start branching out with more tools.

If you already have a mini-grinder, it’s a bit of a harder sell. The mini-carver is better, but it is an evolutionary tool rather than revolutionary. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all very welcomed features and it’s a much more pleasant experience… but ultimately it doesn’t stop a functioning mini-grinder for achieving similar results.

If you have a mini-grinder and were 

  • looking at buying a carbide burr for the mini-grinder – the variable speed  mini-carver with coarse sand paper actually works better.
  • looking at buying a pair of anti-vibration gloves – with this tool you don’t need them. 
  • looking at buying the mini-Industrial blade… well it’s included with the tool.

Eventually the little things may start to add up, but that’s going to have to be your call.

The mini carver is now available in Australia, and should be in the US shortly.

You can find out more information on Arbortech’s website