Jewelry Tool Tips From the Archives: Choosing and Using a Flex Shaft

As my jewelry-making interests have changed in recent years, I’ve found myself digging through back issues of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist and their old newsletters with a new perspective, looking at the things that apply to my craft now that might not have before. I’m amazed at all the things I’m learning, and for an old-fashioned girl like me, it’s always wonderful to find another thing that never goes out of style! (Did you know it has been in publication since 1947?!)


Here’s a great archive piece I discovered by Helen Driggs, about choosing and buying a flex shaft, one of the most versatile tools in any jeweler’s studio.

Beginner’s Guide to an Essential Tool

by Helen Driggs
(Originally published in LJJA‘s March 31, 2009, Flashcard newsletter.)

I’ve owned a flex shaft for about four years, and I honestly can’t remember life (in the studio, anyway) before that. You can do so much stuff so easily that reaching for the handpiece becomes an automatic gesture–so much so that when I teach or take a workshop in a different studio, I’ll sometimes find myself reaching out to get the tool that isn’t there!

Like many people who become a metalsmith by way of another art discipline, in the early days I hand-finished my work. Then, I got a Dremel from my dad (most girls request girly stuff from dad at Christmas, but not me!) and used that for several years. The Dremel was a fantastic little tool for my older cold-connected and assembly-based work. But once I bought a torch and started soldering and stone setting, I knew it was time to move on to the more powerful flex shaft, so I started gathering information.

Basically, a flex shaft system consists of a holder, a “pendant” or hanging motor with a long drive shaft connected to it, a foot pedal, and a handpiece. The foot pedal runs the motor, like a gas pedal. The motor turns the drive shaft, which is locked into the handpiece on the other end. The handpiece can be used with literally thousands of different attachments that cut, sand, polish, abrade, burnish, drill, carve, and hammer many materials including wood, wax, plastic, glass, metal, and stone.

There are many brands of flex shaft systems to choose from. Here’s a checklist of what you’ll need to know and why it matters when you buy one for yourself:

What will you do with it?

You need to answer this, because the HP (horsepower), RPM (revolutions per minute), and torque (power behind the rotation) of the motor will factor into your decision. If you’ll be doing basic jewelry-making tasks, polishing, some setting and light-duty work, you won’t need the HP or RPM that a production jeweler, stone carver, or stone setter might. Many units can be switched from forward to backward rotation as well, so keep that feature in mind. I actually own two units: one for general work and one with a quick-change handpiece specifically for stone setting. I also have the stone-setting one set up as a freestanding unit so I can take it with me to workshops or get it off the bench when I need more space.

What type of handpiece will you need?

The other important choice that depends on what you’ll be doing is the type of handpiece. There are many options: quick-change, Jacobs-chuck, collet, chisel, and hammer. Each type is suited to a specific task.

Quick-change handpiece: This works with 3/32″ shank attachments. These save time because you don’t have to use a chuck key to crank the handpiece open and closed every time you need to change tools. Instead, they feature a lever or button release to remove the attachment. The downside to these handpieces is that you can’t use larger shank attachments, and they are not compatible with some of the higher HP motors.

Jacobs-chuck handpiece: A chuck key opens and closes three gear-toothed jaws that hold attachment shanks of various diameters, usually from 0-4 mm. These are more time-consuming to use than the quick-change units, but the jaws are versatile, strong, and really secure, even with tiny, tiny drill bits.

Collet handpiece: Machined for precise stops and starts, the collet handpieces are slim and tapered for production work and exacting pavé or bead setting. Tip: Keep a bur in the handpiece at all times because the collet jaws are tensioned, so an empty one may become damaged over time if it isn’t holding something.

Chisel handpiece: Designed for carvers, the chisel handpiece works like a miniature jackhammer. This type of handpiece must be used with higher HP motors in forward-rotation mode only.

Hammer handpiece: Just as you’d guess, the hammer handpiece is used for texturing, burnishing, and stone setting. You’ll need a high HP, low-speed motor with this type of handpiece.

What type of foot pedal will you need?

There are several options here as well, from all-purpose to non-slip or manual or dial-controlled models you can set to a desired top or constant speed. Again, verify compatibility with your chosen motor model by matching up the plug and socket configurations.

Don’t forget to order a replacement motor brush kit, lubricant, and an owner’s manual for your unit. You’ll need a motor stand of some sort-either a screw-in bench-mounted hanger, a clamp-on hanger, or a freestanding desktop swivel stand. Many models come with a “starter set” of burs and attachments, too. You can also purchase accessories that are driven by the flex shaft motor, including drill presses and mini belt sanders. –Helen

If you’ve been a subscriber or reader of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine for awhile, you know how much valuable and timeless information is in each issue. Now there’s a great new way to enjoy past years of expert jewelry-making knowledge. Get the 2003, 2004, and 2005 years of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine, all in a convenient colection! That’s 36 full issues! Imagine the treasures, knowledge, and expert tips you’ll find in all those back issues!

updated 10/2018

Learn all the ways to use a flex shaft in your studio!

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