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…

Rosewood Studio – the Final Review

 

After my 6 weeks of Rosewood Studio, I felt I should write one final wrap up post on what I thought of the experience.  My weekly posts gave you a feeling far what was taught, but it didn’t really give my opinions on anything, so here goes…

 

For those not wanting to read anymore, I loved it.  It was awesome.  There, now you can leave.  For those who want more details…

 

Let’s start with the instruction.  I thought Ron Barter (head instructor) was excellent.  He has an incredible knowledge about woodworking and was always keen to answer my questions, no matter how many I came up with (trust me, I had a lot).  Even when the questions strayed off topic, Ron was keen to help out with questions pertaining to other aspects of woodworking, design, and so on.  He still answers my questions by email weeks after having taken the course! I found he was very patient, and his methodical approach really helped to limit my mistakes.  I now try to tell myself to slow down when I am working at in my shop, as I find this helps reduce my errors.  I also loved how he could turn mistakes into opportunities, so if I made a mistake in a cut, he would help find a solution to save the piece instead of simply starting over again.  The old saying about learning from your mistakes comes to mind! My only critique was I found sometimes Ron gave too many instructions at once, and I would forget some of the steps.  This is likely me being forgetful, but after mentioning this to Ron he adapted his teaching and would send me with less instructions at a time.

 

Course work:  The coursework covered a wide variety of woodworking (see my previous posts for details).  It obviously didn’t teach me everything, but what do you expect in 6 weeks?  It was an excellent overview and gave me a firm footing in fine woodworking.  Did it make me an expert furniture maker? No, of course not, it was 6 weeks!  I only wish this course could be offered through a college where this 6 week course could be spread over a semester, with lots of free shop time in order to help practice these new skills over and over.  This isn’t really a critique as I signed up for 6 weeks, but if someone did offer a course like this I think it would be awesome.  Rosewood offers longer programs, but I couldn’t afford the time commitment.

 

Facilities: Incredible.  Two of each major machine, each student gets a tool kit full of Lie Nielsen and Veritas hand tools.  Top notch quality and well maintained.  The fact that Ron does testing for Veritas means that he had one of just about every tool they make (even some ones they don’t sell just yet!).  This really helped me to figure out what tools I would like to purchase to set up my own shop.

 

Admin: Mary Ann is the admin at Rosewood.  She was very friendly and professional and answered my numerous questions in advance of attending Rosewood.  She also seemed to genuinely think I was making nice stuff and doing a good job, which always makes you feel good at the end of the day.

 

So as you can tell, I loved the course and highly recommend it.  Who’s the course directed at you ask?  Well I think just about anyone really.  You get out of it what you put in.  I learnt a ton of basics and foundations to woodworking.  But others could hone their skills just as easily.  Some of the longer courses would certainly prepare you for a career in fine woodworking, although you’d likely need a few years of experience under your belt before making a successful go at it.

 

Hope this helps convince anyone who might have been on the fence about this great wood working school!

Rosewood Studio, Week 5 – Drawer making

Week 5 of my 6 week study at Rosewood Studio was focused on drawer making.  A whole week to build a drawer?  Well when it’s made of solid wood and fitted to a shaker table, it takes a little longer than simply slapping some metal drawer slides onto an mdf box like ikea does…  Unlike ikea, the drawer front won’t fall off in a year, nor will the bottom sag, and the slightest bit of water won’t turn the entire thing into a pile of wet sawdust….

First part of this week involved fitting some runners for the drawer in my shaker table.  I used walnut simply because it matched the table and I had a bunch of scraps left over, however this part isn’t visible unless you are lying on the ground underneath the table.  Next it was onto the drawer building.

The drawer was made of walnut with a piece of birds eye maple for the front.  The sides are dovetailed (half blind on the front), and the drawer bottom is a few pieces of solid walnut laminated together to form a panel.  The front of the bottom panel is glued with the back edge being left unattached  for seasonal expansion and contraction.

Birds eye maple, while beautiful to look at, can be a bit of a pain to work with.  This particular piece had some cracks and of course very curly grain which made smoothing it very trying, however after many passes with a high angle plane and a card scraper (and some light sanding), it was eventually made smooth.  I spent almost an entire day perfecting this piece of wood, only to ruin it by cutting on the wrong side of the lines for my dovetails.  Thankfully the second attempt went much quicker.

Fitting the drawer was very finicky.  Not only does it need to slide in and out smoothly, but the reveal around the drawer opening has to be identical (9000ths of an inch).  While it was a huge pain to do, I was very pleased with the results and can honestly say I have never owned a piece of furniture that had such a smooth drawer!

The drawer was finished off with a simple walnut pull turned on the lathe.  I really enjoyed the lathe work (all 5 minutes of it… after-all it was only a pull), hopefully I can afford one in the future to add to my shop.  I put several layers of shellac on the drawer front and pull, but left the sides and bottom natural.

Next week is my last at Rosewood!  It’s gone so fast, wish I could stay for another 6!

Rosewood Studio, Week 4 – Joinery

We studied various types of wood joinery this week.  All were mechanical joints which are held together by their design, although we did glue them as a final step.  The strength that is achievable through some of these joints is truly amazing.

Joints we covered included: dovetail, half blind dove tail, sliding tapered dovetail, mortise and tenon, through tenon, split wedge tenon, fox tail tenon (demo only), bridle joint, dowel joint, and a few others I’m sure I’ve forgotten.  We also made a small raised panel door, similar to what you would see in kitchen cabinets.  The technique used to cut the joints varied from machines (horizontal mortiser, table saw, tenoning jig, router + jig, bandsaw) as well as hand tools (dovetail saw, chisels, hand planes).  Overall I had a fair bit of success with the joints, although I did manage to glue one part of my panel door on backwards.  It looks fine, but the panel is slightly off centre because of the backwards part.

We also spent some time making a shooting board as well as a bench hook.  The bench hook was nothing fancy, however the shooting board (for planing end grain) was made with a removable 45 degree fence so that I could also shoot mitres.  It added a bit of complexity to the build but we had extra time so decided to do it.

As the week wrapped up I also cut the piece of birds eye maple to be used for the drawer front of my shaker table.  It’s a pretty spectacular piece of wood, can’t wait for next week where I get to build my drawer for it!

Tool of the Week – Router Plane

What could you possibly need a router plane for?  That’s what I thought before this week.  You use this tool by setting the cutter height at the depth of the groove you are trying to flatten out, then you run it back and forth till it smoothes everything out.  Sounds simple? That’s cause this tool is incredibly simple.  I used it a ton this week on the mortise and tenon joints in my side table.  Fitting the tenons into the mortises needs precision down to the 1000th of an inch, and this little plane made my life much easier.  As far as planes go it’s pretty cheap at under $60 each.  Apparently the blade is tricky to sharpen, luckily that wasn’t for me to do…

Rosewood Studio, Week 3 – Shaker Side Table

After getting a grasp on hand tools and machines in week 1 and 2, we put all our new knowledge to good use this week making a shaker side table.  We had to follow a set design (way too difficult to have each student doing their own thing), but we were free to chose whichever wood combination we liked best.  Ron gave some good input into what combinations work best, and really helped me to get the most pieces out of the least amount of wood, saving me some $$$ in the end.  While all tools are supplied at school, you do have to pay for your own lumber which you can either bring yourself, or buy from the school (rates are competitive with local shops).

The table is 18″ square at the top and includes a 3″ drawer (to be made in a future week).  I decided to make mine out of Black Walnut, a favourite wood of mine.  While some people like to avoid the light coloured sapwood of walnut, I love the contrast and chose my pieces in order to highlight it.  For the drawer front, there was a piece of curly birdseye maple that was just asking to be used.

While this seems like a simple table, it did take most of the week to get all the parts milled to size and all the joinery cut.  The aprons of the table are held together with mortise and tenon joints, while the top is held on with screws in oblong holes from the stretchers below.  Besides a few screws in the top, everything else is held together with wood glue.  The glue up was a little harry as I had a bit of twist to deal with, but nothing that a half a dozen clamps couldn’t fix…

The finish is about 12 coats of blonde shellac, padded on over several days.  I may still put a coat of poly or varnish on the top of the table to give it some more durability.

What I really liked about this week was learning all the steps and proper order of operations to be able to finish a project like this.  Knowing which parts to cut first and when parts should be finished made a huge difference in completing this project.  For instance, the entire table had finish applied before I glued it up, as many of the parts would be hard to access once it was assembled.  I also liked how Ron was very approachable with questions on how I might apply these techniques to my own projects down the road.

Next week we’re on to joinery!

Blurb – Black and White Text Book quality review

I’ve made several books before, but I’ve always been tempted by Blurb’s “Black and White Text” books.  They come in both Trade (6×9″) and Pocket (5×8″), and are significantly cheaper than their other offerings.  You still get a full colour cover, however the inside pages are “cream” and while called “Text only” books, Blurb advises that:

While perfect for text, the textured, low-contrast paper also gives black and white photos and drawings a decidedly edgy and lo-fi feel. 

I’d been reluctant to try as I couldn’t find a single review on the web about printing pictures in this type of book.  So I thought I’d give a quick summary of how it turned out and a few sample pictures side by side with the originals to see how it looks.

Sorry about the thumb, had to hold the book somehow!  Anyways, as you can see, the paper is definitely cream colour, which affects the whites.  Also, the blacks are not that “deep” compared to the original (a scanned black and white negative).  That being said, it still looks fine, not sure if I find it edgy, but lo-fi perhaps.  The type of picture above (contrasty, lots of light and dark but not so much midtones) seems to work best with this format.  It isn’t as good as the original but it’s not bad and not a lot is lost due to the printing.

 

The above picture shows where this format doesn’t work.  The picture has very small differences in shades of dark grey along the fence line.  In the original you can see these differences clearly, in the book however, most of the detail is gone, in fact the one pedestrian is even hard to see.  While this is disappointing, now that I know, I will refrain from using this type of picture.

Finally, this picture shows the quality of the printing up close.  The picture was printed 3.5×3.5″ so it has been blown up significantly.  As you can see, the printing really looks a lot like newsprint.  Good quality newsprint, but newsprint nonetheless.  Again I’m not being critical of this, just pointing out what you can expect from this type of book as examples are hard to find on the web.

Overall I’ve been quite happy with the book.  You can’t beat the price at under $10 for a 150 page 5×8″ book.  So long as you know what types of pictures to include or not to include, you can have an excellent book for a rock bottom price.

If you’re in need of a 5×8″ calendar (day planner) with pictures of Paris, or if you just want to check out the print quality for yourself, click here to see my book (or buy it if you like!).