To CNC or not to CNC…. That is the question…

I’ve been dreaming of a CNC for years… I once bought a book on how to make your own CNC and even had some money set aside for the parts, but things got busy in life, we moved a fair bit and lugging around a piece of equipment that size just didn’t seem practical.  Now that we’re settled a bit more, and my woodworking/design business is growing, my thoughts have been led back to the idea of a CNC.

doll crib cnc inventables

I make a lot products that require precise repetitive cuts.  To this point I’ve done this mostly by hand, drawing the parts out, cutting close with the bandsaw, and sanding to the line.  For some items I’ve rigged up a jig for my router, but all of these would be simpler with a CNC.  Some products have tested the limits of my current tools, while others just aren’t worth making due to the amount of time it takes vs. how much people are willing to pay.  While a CNC would have an upfront cost, it would allow me to start it running and then work on other projects while it cut out parts.  Three things have been stalling my purchase so far: 1-cost, 2-know how, 3-man vs. machine.

cnc carved dish walnut1- Cost: Fairly obvious one, these machines aren’t cheap.  I’m used to powerful woodworking tools that have had little change in the last 50 years, meaning my 40 year old Unisaw is the same product as one bought today, except mine costs 1/10 of the price and all parts are metal instead of practice.  There aren’t many used CNC’s around, and they are getting better all the time so newer IS better.

2- Know How: While I was once a computer geek, writing computer programs as a kid, I haven’t done as much of this recently, and it’s a bit overwhelming to figure out where to start, how to use the software, and which one to use.  I see lots of people saying it’s pretty simple and you’ll learn fast, but I’m not convinced so far.

3- Man vs. Machine: I work with both hand tools and machines.  I’m not partial to either, although hand tools are quite and generally make less sawdust which is always nice.  I use the best tool for the job, and the reality is that often that is a machine because time is money, and this isn’t a hobby for me.  But the other day I heard someone saying that if it’s made by a CNC, it takes away from the artistry of it.  It’s an interesting comment, but if we look at painters, no one criticizes them for selling prints of their work instead of one off works of art.  I see a lot of product descriptions of makers stating things are “hand carved”, “hand dipped”, “hand made”, etc.  What is interesting is my wife runs a bakery, one of her best selling products are Macaron.  In order to make these, you whip egg whites, which she does with a commercial mixer.  Would people pay more if she whipped them by hand? Likely not, she’d probably just get huge biceps and a case of tendonitis.  The truth is, my products cut by a CNC would be more accurate than me cutting them, so resulting in a higher quality item for my customer, so it seems like everyone should be happy with this?

x-carve CNC inventible

Where am I going with all this?  Well last night I stumbled across the Inventables website, they just came out with a new product called the X-Carve which is a CNC that you assemble yourself.  They’ve really put some thought into this machine, enabling you to customize size, motors, and spindle all to your liking (and budget).  There are reviews starting to come out across the net and they are very positive.  It’s great to see so many actual woodworkers reviewing this product as it gives confidence to someone like me that I’m just as capable to make great use with this CNC.

It also addresses my issues….  The price is very affordable, especially since you can configure it to your needs, and the testimony from other woodworkers has really helped me to believe this is something I can handle and learn fairly quickly.  As for the Man vs. Machine debate, the more woodworkers I see using this CNC, the more I feel it’s just another tool in my shop, one that has infinite possibilities for my woodworking business.

So am I buying one?  Not sure on this.  While it’s affordable, it’s still a fair chunk of change, and once it arrives I still need to assemble it and start learning how to use it.  This might be a great summer project as my shop is not air conditioned and it gets really hot and humid here, so tinkering is much nicer than sweating buckets while making things.  Summer is generally slower for my shop, so a great time to learn new things.

cnc rocking chair kids

One other thought I’ve had is my 5 year old (seen above when much younger) loves to make things with me.  I think this could be a real fun item for Sunday mornings, she can dream up something, sketch it on the computer, and head out the shop to make it.  Just for that purpose it would be worth it in my books.  I’ll keep you posted what I end up doing…

52 Create – Milk Crate Prototype

52 Create, my weekly creative outlet for 2011.  I’ve been wanting to make some wooden boxes that look like milk crates for quite some time now.  Ideally I’d like to make them with a CNC, but until I build one, it looks like I’ll be making them by hand instead…

The box is made out of my favourite, baltic birch, with 1/2 inch sides and a 1/4 inch bottom so it is very sturdy.  The final version would have handles cut out and possibly some design in the sides and bottom to more closely resemble a milk crate.

 

I was a little frustrated with the joints on this project.  I used the table saw for accuracy, but found the joints didn’t line up perfectly, and some cuts were not as straight as they should have been.  I feel like I was very careful with my measurements and set up, so perhaps it is a case of  a low quality blade or improper set up of the fence, I’ll figure it out eventually.

 

Renos are pretty much finished at my house and the weather is starting to warm up so I hope to tackle some more ambitious projects in the upcoming weeks.

 

Other 52 Create projects.

Rhino for Mac OS X

While I have yet to start buiding my DIY CNC machine, I have started to learn some design software so that I can use the machine once it gets built.  While there are numerous programs out there, I’ve switched almost completely over to Apple right now, so I needed something that would work on my computers.

 

Rhino is a very well respected design software that is just getting ported over to OS X.  Because they are still in the process, they need feedback, and your feedback is worth free trial copies of the software.  There are bugs of course, but the price is right, and since I haven’t really picked a software yet, this lets me “try before I buy”.  So far I’m still in the tutorials, which although good, are written for the PC version so the menus don’t always seem to match up, but on the whole it is fairly intuitive.

 

The other cool thing is that they have an App for the iPad that allows you to show your projects on it, even letting you rotate and zoom.  I think that could be key in dealing with clients, being always able to show your product to them.

 

OLC Bike: CNC Plywood bike for the masses!

Designed by Andrew Maynard Architects, this bike is primarily made from 6mm plywood using a CNC machine.  It’s claimed it can be produced for $35!!!  The idea is to strip the bike down to it’s most basic components, the simpler the better.  It has 2 gears and built in LED lights and is suggested as an almost “throw away” sort of item (not as exciting, you should never throw away a bicycle!).

What could be truly fantastic with this bike is they could be made locally so long as a CNC machine was available, so no more need to ship pre-made bikes all over the world, they could be sold in kit form or assembled for you for a small fee.  Using a CAD program and CNC you could very easily scale it bigger/smaller for different users. No idea on what the weight of this thing might be…  Heavy wheels could truly make this a beast to ride, and cross-winds could be fairly treacherous.

Unto this Last – have you seen this? Will you start making them? Please?

DIY CNC machine? Build it yourself!

A CNC machine is basically a router  that moves in all three axes over top of a material to carve out the shape that you desire.  The router is controlled by a computer so that very precise and consistent cuts can be made.  I have wanted a CNC machine for about 10 years now, so what’s stopping me? Well they cost about $10,000. So until I have a lucrative furniture design business, this isn’t likely going to happen.

Unto this Last makes all of their creations using a large format CNC machine. The materials are plywood or other sheet goods and the computer optimally cuts out all the pieces.  This is a key element to their products as they can arrange the cuts so as to not waste any material whatsoever.

In the last issue of Make magazine, they had an article about DIY CNC machines. These very precise instruments were something that I had never dreamed were possible to be made at home, however the author assured the readers that they are not only possible to make, but fairly simple in their construction. I was absolutely hooked, I read the article about 10 times…

My next step was to visit their website where they had vast tutorials and how to’s involving DIY CNC machines.  The site is being constantly updated and has tons of helpful stuff on it.  It’s nice to see feedback from other DIYers saying what works/doesn’t work on their machines and simple work arounds.

Finally I couldn’t help myself, I went online and bought their newly written book Build Your Own CNC Machine.  I’ve read it all the way through already!  The book is well laid out with easy to follow instructions as well as helpful suggestions on where to buy some of the more hard to find parts (motors, etc.).  The design in the book is for a 2’x4′ machine, however the website shows bigger versions as large as 4’x8′.

So what’s my next step? Well, I obviously can’t get started on this till after our Parisian excursion, but I’m planning on building this in the fall. I’ve already set aside some money for the electronics, while I have most of the wood already laying around the garage.  I’d like to see if I can upscale the design to build it for a 5’x5′ sheet so that I could use sheets of baltic birch.

Over the summer I plan to do some reading and playing with CAD programs as well as work on some designs to test out the new machine once it’s built.

Portable Chalk Boards

For the upcoming wedding we needed some way to tell everyone what the various hors-d’oeuvres and desserts were. We thought about printing them on tent cards using InDesign however this seemed a bit wasteful and only a one time use.  So with our love for Chalk boards we decided we’d just make a few mini chalk boards that we could use for the various wedding events and then we’d have them for future projects (might look nice in a bakery?).

I grabbed a sheet of Baltic Birch (1/2″) and cut out some 12×14″ rectangles with rounded corners. Took the router and rounded all the edges (this helps to stop the plywood from splintering).  A quick hinge on the back helped them stand upright, all that was left was a quick coat of chalk board paint.  I’ve always used roll-on paint, however the local hardware store was out and only had spray.  I thought this might give a really nice smooth finish, but after 3 coats it was not thick enough and you could even see the wood grain through it.  So I drove around town till I found a can of the roll on stuff. Two coats later and they were ready to go!  One of the nice things is they fold flat (ie flat pack), so they are easy to transport (and would be easy to make on a CNC…)