So, what can I do with a flexible shaft?


As I mentioned at the end of the blog post “Minimal Metalsmithing,” another tool you may wish to add to your collection of skills is the flexible shaft machine. Pendant drill if you’re in England. Here is an overview on the flex-shaft.

You’ve probably seen these in catalogs. It’s a rotary tool that has an extension so that you can use tools holding only a small handpiece. This means there’s much less vibration in your hand, giving you more control and less damage to your hand. If you worry about repetitive stress injuries, this is a very good thing.

Now, I’ve got to say right off that these things are dangerous, they’re right up there with the polishing motor for danger. You must wear safety glasses at all times while using the flexible shaft. You must never use it if you are tired or impaired. You must be fully trained in how to use it safely and be aware of all safety rules. You should read all of Charles Lewton-Brain’s book, “The Jewelry Workshop Safety Report,” before attempting to use the flexible shaft.

I believe that one can only learn to use the flexible shaft in person, with instruction from a knowledgeable instructor.

Okay, have we got that bit done? It’s dangerous, use caution, don’t shoot your eye out. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Now, why would you want to use this dangerous thing?

Well, because you can grind, polish, drill and more. Sure, you could buy a polishing motor, but they take up more space and you still can’t drill.

Every jeweler needs a flex-shaft or two. Usually, you mount a stand to your bench and hang the flex shaft from that. My new bench that I gave my self for a birthday was so brand-spankin’-new that I couldn’t bear to put holes in it for the flex-shaft stand, so mine hangs from a “swing out” stand mounted to the wall.

Now you’ll want to know:

1 – where do I buy one?
2 – how do I choose one?
3 – what do I buy to use with it?

Buy a flex-shaft from your favorite jewelry supplier. The best and standard flex-shaft is made by Foredom. If you’re a professional you should have a Foredom. You’ll want the basic handpiece with a Jacob’s chuck.

If you’re a hobbyist you can get by with a more inexpensive model from Contenti. They have a kit for about $66.00. This is an amazing price. They say right in the catalog that it is good enough for hobby use, and is not intended for full time use.

How do you choose one? It’s not that complicated. You need a general use flex-shaft, nothing fancy, no quick change, no stone setter anything. Any “basic” or “beginner” kit from Rio or elsewhere will be fine.

To drill, you can buy the smallest size drill that they sell at the hardware store. I believe this is a 1/32. You can buy smaller sizes from a jewelry supply house. Drilling with a flex shaft can be tricky and requires in person training, as I mentioned. Your teacher will show you how to use a center punch to make a “starter spot” for your drill, and remind you to put a block of scrap wood under the item that you are drilling.

For polishing there is a whole array of tools you can use. Grinding wheels and silicone polishing wheels wear down and get smaller. That means they are throwing off grit that you shouldn’t breathe in. Either don’t use these wheels or protect yourself with a dust mask and adequate ventilation. Always get the MSDS on everything you use; be informed.

What wheels are you most likely to need for metal clay? You’re unlikely to need a grinding wheel if you’ve done adequate clean up before firing. Actually, you should never need a grinding wheel for metal clay.

Except if… for example, right now I have some really, really old pieces, earrings that I attached sterling earring posts to, before we knew that wouldn’t work. So the sterling broke off. So I’m going to use a Cratex wheel to grind off the nub. Then I can drill a hole and add it to a charm bracelet I’m making out of all these orphaned earrings.

A super, super fabulous wheel to have is a silicone polishing wheel, the pink and the blue. You could use this to remove liver of sulphur from areas where you don’t want it, while not removing the polish as would happen if you used a 3M polishing pad.

You’ll need mandrels to hold your varioius wheels.

Where can you learn more? You can learn a lot by reading catalogs, that’s how you’ll learn about mandrels and wheels and such. You can see some YouTube videos on the subject. Two books have been written on the flex-shaft. The older, by Harold O’Conner is a how-to book. The new one, Making the Most of Your Flex-shaft is more of a “what is” book. It’s got detail, history and answers every little question you might have. What’s this thing? Who invented this? etc.

The book “The Flexible Shaft Machine Jewelry Techniques” by Harold O’Conner doesn’t come up on amazon, but it’s commonly available from jewelry supply houses.

So that’s an overview. What questions do you have? Please post a comment if you have a question and I’ll do my best to answer. Thanks.

(c) 2007-2008 Elaine D. Luther All Rights Reserved

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About the Author

ElaineI'm an artist, writer and provider of hard to find tools for metal clay. I blog about metal clay and jewelry making and the business of crafts at All Things Metal Clay.View all posts by Elaine →

3 comments on “So, what can I do with a flexible shaft?

  1. Thanks Elaine for the information. I love the silicone polishing wheels.. I didn’t know at first to stack them up for maximum efficiency. I actually have the Contenti flex shaft you mentioned and it’s served me well without any problems for about 3 years. Thanks, Emie

  2. Peter Nassoit on said:

    Contenti has a nice one page pdf guide titled “Choosing The Right Bur” on our website. Your audience may be interested in it. All of the standard bur shapes are discussed along with specialty burs such as Florentine and Diamond Points. Thanks for the information, your site is great resource!

  3. Peter Nassoit on said:

    Sorry, the link to the bur guide is below…


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