Recently, along with a few of our fellow furniture maker friends and neighbours, we took delivery of a rather clever piece of equipment. Known as a CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machine, it translates the lines and contours on a 3D model on the computer screen into the precise stop/start motions and high-pitched whining of a high speed router cutter as it traces the pattern onto a blank of solid wood or sheet material.
Such a contraption would send shivers of revulsion down the spines of some of the more traditionally minded, purist woodworkers. A machine cutting your wood for you!? Where’s the skill in that? Perhaps you should ask Jack, our digital design specialist, and therefore by default, now our ever-learning and often head-scratching CNC operator. The system is far from a point and click, idiot-proof automation of super artificial intelligence. Certainly the 2D applications are relatively easy to get to grips with, but add in the Z axis, as we have begun to recently, and the work takes on a whole new dimension – literally! Tool paths must be meticulously laid down, digital layers consolidated, cutting overlaps considered, cutter speeds worked out and oddly shaped work secured down so as not to move under the forces of the cut and ruin an hours preparation and valuable material. And we haven’t even mentioned the bewildering array of actual cutting bits on the market. Flicking through the manufacturers catalogue and gazing in puzzlement at the exquisitely engineered (and at times almost sculptural) cutters on offer, you find yourself asking, “now what could that one possibly be for?”, there being little or no information on what they are best used for; such esoteric wisdom is merely expected from those in the know.
Much like woodturning and marquetry, CNC is another realm of woodworking altogether with a lexicon all of its own. Operators talk about onion skins, compression cutters and dog bones – words and phrases that would leave most other “woodies” in a bemused silence. Yes, you can turn a half-decent bowl and veneer a simply patterned box lid, but without fully diving into the subject with all its subtitles and nuances, you will only be a passer-by, paying lip service to an art more greater than a few hours spent one Sunday afternoon messing about at the workbench.
It’s the early days of our foray down the path of computer aided manufacture, but as a woodworker who takes great pleasure in the well proven hands-on approach, I have no worries about being replaced just yet. I’m grateful for the time it affords me by doing the more mundane but no less important tasks in the workshop. The template it made for me a month or so back meant that I could cut my components to shape with confidence, knowing that the various two-decimal-pointed angles and edge lengths were spot on, and we were all impressed when we saw the tricky oval table top that it cut out of a big laminated slab of plane.
Was something lost in delegating these tasks to the machine? I don’t think so. After all, we dictated the shape of the template and we dictated the shape of the table top. The computer can’t make those decisions for you – the machine was simply our tool, and I’m a firm believer in using the right tool for the job, given the circumstances. Accuracy was paramount and time was of the essence. Yes, I could have made the plywood template myself and we could certainly have found another way of shaping the plane, but given the results and the time we saved, I was overjoyed.