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How to use a flex shaft: Part 2 of 7

Handpieces and foot controls

Each Sunday for seven weeks, we will be posting a different part of our series "How to use a flex shaft"

Handpieces and foot controls
The foot pedal

Nothing will turn a person off the flex shaft more quickly than a bad speed control. Although a bench-mounted hand-adjusted speed dial allows you to set a specific speed, I vastly prefer a foot pedal control, and I think most operators agree. The foot pedal becomes part of an intuitive feedback loop, with your foot responding to what your eye sees, how the motor sounds, and the resistance your hand feels as you apply the spinning tool.

In the dim reaches of flex shaft history, the foot control was a rheostat, like the one on a sewing machine. More foot pressure meant more power to the motor, which meant more speed. Less pressure meant less juice, and so fewer rotations per minute (rpm): Simple. The problem was that at slower speeds, the diminished power to the motor resulted in very low rotational force (torque); bits, burs, drills, and polishers easily bogged down — even to the point of stopping completely. 

Enter the electronic solid-state foot control, which pretty much solves the speed vs. torque conundrum, providing a full range of speeds without a loss of torque. Most foot pedals today use a “trigger switch” similar to the variable-speed switch found on electric drills.

While these switches may vary, it is really the materials and the geometry of the foot pedal that will set it apart. A bad foot pedal acts like an on/off switch, resulting in jackrabbit starts that make the motor — and the operator — jump. A good foot pedal is smooth and easy to depress. It is sturdy and delivers the full range of speeds from very low rpm to the highest without fatigue. It is a joy. (Can you hear the little Disney birds chirping?) Avoid the little gray old-school rheostats. If your machine has one, it can most likely be switched out for a good one. So, what are the good ones? 

NOTE: Some older and some specialty flex shaft machines such as the Foredom LX and TX require specific foot pedals — check with the manufacturer.

Foot pedal
Foredom SCT foot pedal
The heavy metal housing of the Foredom SCT foot pedal makes it less likely to “travel” during use.
Foredom: FCT and SCT
As with most things regarding the flex shaft, the basic blueprint for most solid-state foot pedals is the Foredom. The company’s FCT model is a plastic-housed foot control and the most popular. It works with Foredom’s CC, S, and SR flex shafts, as well as the OttoFlex and Grobet. Using identical electronics, the SCT foot pedal is a heavy, metal-housed control, and is less likely to creep under your bench as you use it. It is slightly wider than the FCT and, due to a slightly different hinge system, it is a bit more responsive. Either of these is a good choice, with the SCT sometimes running twice the price of its plastic brother.
Lucas LowBoy
Lucas LowBoy
Don’t let looks deceive you; the narrow, blocky Lucas LowBoy boasts high performance.
Lucas Dental: Lucas LowBoy
Let me say out of the gate that, at this point in time, this is my favorite foot pedal. (This is also a good time to mention that, aside from factual details, this is the world of flexible shafts as I see it. My preferences and my opinions.) The Lucas is a narrow, blocky little pedal that won’t win any beauty contests, but it has has proven to be a champ. Talk about geometry … not a curve to be seen on this control, but the way the tread hinges to the pedal makes it smooth and responsive. It’s easy to maintain a precise speed without fatigue or cramping. Available for years through the large suppliers, the Lucas went away for a while but has resurfaced and is now available from suppliers, directly from the manufacturer, and even new on eBay. It is an excellent choice and comparable in price to other pedals.
Pepe doesn’t make flex shafts, but they do make a foot pedal that is getting good reviews. Touted for its greater control at lower speeds, it is a wide-style pedal, similar to the Foredom SCT and comparable in performance and price. It’s a nice control and worth a look.

There are many options when it comes to handpieces, but regardless of the manufacturer or style, a good handpiece spins true (very little wobble) and grips the bit or tool tightly. For general work, there are two varieties of handpiece: adjustable and quick release. The merits of an adjust-able handpiece are obvious. However, the cylindrical shape is a bit clunky and changing flex shaft accessories requires you to locate the ever-elusive chuck key, loosen one bit, replace it, and tighten the new one. For someone who uses the flex shaft as an extension of the hand, frequently switching between accessories can be exasperating.

The remedy is a quick-release handpiece. Most of these work on a lever system which opens and closes a collet, allowing for chuck-key-free change. Many can even be opened while the machine is running. Quick-release handpieces are usually more streamlined and hand friendly, ending in a nosepiece which allows for an accurate “pencil grip.” It is best to leave a burr or a bit in place when not in use to keep the collet in adjustment. 

The downside to any collet-style handpiece is that it accepts only one size of tool shaft (depending on which collet you use). Drill bits are the biggest problem here, but there are “choked” drill bits that have a standard 3⁄32-in. shank terminating in a twist drill. Of course, they are more expensive — as are most of the quick-release handpieces that hold them.

Foredom handpiece
Foredom #30
The economical Foredom #30 handpiece is both the entry-level model and the industry workhorse.

The moderately priced adjustable Foredom #30 is both the entry-level handpiece and the industry workhorse. Like the company itself, the Foredom #30 is emblematic of the basic, utilitarian flex shaft handpiece. Most basic flex shaft kits or systems come with the #30 and, if you can have only one handpiece, it would have to be this one. It is easily the most versatile handpiece style available, if not the most streamlined. 

The three-jawed chuck accepts the widest variety of tools, from fine drill bits, through the commonly used 3⁄32-in. and 1⁄8-in. tool-shaft sizes, all the way up through 5⁄32-in. whoppers. There are variations on the cylindrical #30 style, including non-adjustable collet hand-pieces that have a similar appearance. These collet-type handpieces are opened and closed with a pin and a wrench, which is a bit more complicated than turning a chuck key. There are also “Slimline” collet handpieces such as Foredom’s #8 and #28. These may be a good choice for people with small hands, but I have average-sized hands and I find that these are bit too slender to be comfortable for longer use. Although the pin-and-key collet styles spin a bit more truly than their chuck-key cousins, for general jewelry and craft use, I’d stick with the three-jawed and adjustable #30 version.

The Swiss-made Technique is the Cadillac of quick-release handpieces — but watch your knuckles!
Quick release

The Swiss-made Techno X was the Cadillac of quick-release handpieces. Its rounded, ergonomic profile made it comfortable to use and control. No longer made, it has been replaced by the nearly identical Technique, also Swiss. The only complaint I’ve heard: The once die-cast aluminum lever has been replaced in handsome machined steel, which can pack a wallop should it snap shut and whap a knuckle.

The Foredom #20 is a really nice, lower-end quick-release handpiece made in China for Foredom. Based on a European model, it grips well, spins true, and fits the hand well. It is very similar in shape to the Technique but without the whap.

Older-style quick-release handpieces, such as Foredom #18 and #52 and the Faro/Foredom #10 are a bit too slim when compared to the #20 and the Technique, and less fitted to the hand. The #18, especially, has an awkward lever system. Still, they have their fans. But for my money, the Foredom #20 is an afford-able and dependable choice.

hammer handpiece
Pros may find that the range and durability of the Swiss Badeco hammer handpiece justifies its higher price.
Hammer handpiece

Transforming the rotation of the motor into a hammering action, these little jackhammer handpieces are a wonder for riveting, stone setting, and texturing. The hammer handpiece delivers the power, allowing you to concentrate on accuracy. Each concentrated hammer blow is delivered at the end of an interchangeable “point,” or steel tip, which screws into the handpiece. Points come in a variety of shapes, including texturing tips, flat or domed points for general hammering and stone setting, and blanks designed to be easily modified.

You control the hammering speed (number of strikes per minute) through the foot pedal, and determine the strike force by a knurled adjustment wheel. Many brands have come and gone but the two main players are Foredom and Badeco. Points can be switched between brands. 

The Foredom #15 is moderately priced at around $100 and well built: Overall, a good choice.

But ah, the Swiss! Great chocolate and sweet handpieces. The Badeco, more sturdily built and with a more adjustable range of hammer force, is more expensive, as much as double the price of its cousin. It’s a great choice for the pro or the full-time user.

Swapping out handpieces

I switch between handpieces often. Handpieces are designed to pop on and off the end of the shaft. The cable/shaft ends with a fin-like key or tab, which fits into a matching slot in an arbor inside the handpiece. 

It’s really quite easy. To remove the handpiece, grip the shaft with one hand and the handpiece with the other. Lightly step on the pedal and, at low rpm, pull the two apart; the handpiece will pop off. 

To replace the handpiece, with the machine spinning at low rpm, introduce the slowly spinning tip of the shaft into the end of the handpiece. A wider opening in the arbor inside the handpiece acts as a funnel or centering device directing the key into the slot at low rpm. Under gentle pressure, the key will align itself with the slot. Once they have engaged, the chuck or collet of the handpiece will spin. As you then firmly push the two together, a small ball bearing in the side of the handpiece snaps into a groove in the metal end of the outer sheath.

NOTE: European flex shaft machines use a “slip-joint” mechanism for attaching handpieces that won’t work on American-made flex shafts.

A word about speed
No matter what speed control you opt for, remember that there are a range of speeds at the tip of your foot. Those new to the flex shaft often go right for the high end, stomping on the pedal, spinning the motor and handpiece at maximum RPM, dulling drill bits and losing control of their work. Much of the work with this tool is performed in the mid ranges, with polishing and engraving at higher rpm, and stone setting and grinding at lower.
Spring or no spring?
Regardless of your choice of handpiece — adjustable, quick release, or hammer — you have the option of adding a “duplex spring,” which is designed to act as a flexible joint between the handpiece and shaft. 

Bad choice. Springs are the first parts to fail, especially in hammer handpieces, and also have the annoying habit of grabbing hair. Save money, hair, and aggravation: Decline the spring option!
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