Simple Home-made Wax Carving Tools

Q: I want to start carving waxes for jewelry, but the official tools are so expensive! I’d like to get started with some basic home-made tools; any suggestions on what I need to do? Also, I’d like to rig up a wax lathe for turning small round jewelry parts—any suggestions on how to do that?

A: Get some pieces of wood dowel, perhaps ¼ inch diameter, 4 inches or so long, or as long as you like. Drill a small pilot hole into each end, and hammer a largish finishing nail into the end far enough so it’s secure. Now hammer the head of the nail flat (sideways). The resulting “spoon” or blade shape can be further shaped with files, sanding disks, etc. Don’t heat these up if you want any cutting edges you form to remain fairly usable, since the hammering work-hardens the mild steel, and heating will anneal it to soft again. These aren’t exactly pro-quality tools, but are extremely low-cost to make, and quick too, and for basic-level wax carvers, will work fine.

As for the wax lathe, start by getting a flex-shaft tool with a #30 style Jacobs chuck. That’s a tool you’ll find a lot of uses for, and is well worth buying if you’re serious about making jewelry. If you do get one, then find the type of nut that’s designed to be driven into a drilled hole in a piece of wood, with protruding spikes around the threaded center section holding into the wood—I think they’re called T-nuts. They look like a disk with an internally threaded tube in the center, and usally have 4 spikes cut and bent down from the rim of the disk to be parallel to the tube. Anyway, get a matching bolt, perhaps an inch long and small enough to fit in the chuck, and some standard hex nuts as well to fit it. Cut the head off the bolt and thread first the hex nut, then the T nut, onto the end, with the prongs facing out. The thread of the bolt should come just to the end of the hole in the T nut, and then the hex nut is tightend up against the T nut to jam it in position. Or you could silver solder the T nut to the bolt, so long as neither your bolt or T nut is cadmium or zinc plated. If it’s either of those, then use low melting lead solder or stick with the hex nut and no solder.

Anyway, the T nut can be heated up and melted into a chunk of wax rod, into the end. Try to get it centered reasonably well. The threaded end of the bolt then fits into your jacobs chuck and voila, you’ve affixed a block of wax to your rotating tool for turning with files, scrapers, or whatever. You can brace the whole thing over your bench pin in use and fasten it down, resting any turning tools against the pin as well. Files, though, are safer. This, by the way, is essentially the same way that wax rods are mounted to the Matt wax lathe. Simple, and it works well. The Matt lathe has additional bells and whistles, and is easier to use for more tasks, especially making an inside ring hole, or for delicate turning with turning tools, since the tool rest is built in. But you can do it the simple way too.

There’s also a neat little tool for sale you might consider. I seem to recall a name like Ringmaster or maybe Waxmaster. It’s a threaded rod with a fixed stop nut halfway down, then a thread-free area that mounts to your flex shaft, with a tapered plug that rests against that fixed nut. Another is mounted in the other direction, and secured with a second movable nut. It also comes with a series of plastic collets, with matching tapers drilled into each side. You mount the right-size collet on the shaft between the nuts, and then a section of wax ring tube stock, which you have previously filed, scraped, or otherwise made the desired ring size, gets mounted on that collet. When you tighten the end nut, the collet expands, holding the wax in place, ready for you to lathe-turn just as you might do with the wax mounted to the T-nut I previously described. As I recall, this was not a costly tool. Maybe 20 bucks? It would be a little harder to actually make, so it makes sense to buy it if you can afford, and want it. The advantage over the T-nut method is that because you start turning with the inside hole already the right size, the band can easily be made concentric, and as well, it’s easy to flip the band end to end while working, or to remove and remount the band as you work. The T-nut method doesn’t allow that.

by Peter W. Rowe M.F.A., G.G.