Rise of Modern Machinery
Thursday 27 May 2010
CNC routers allow the dream designs of some top bespoke makers to become an affordable reality. Andrea Hargreaves reports
There you are, lying sleepless in bed with a head full of ideas that you know will excite your client, carved 3-dimensional shapes that will bounce the light and shadow the voids. As day breaks reality comes crashing in. The hours and hours spent making the piece will either bust the customer budget or bankrupt the workshop, so it is back to the CAD screen for something a tad more conventional.
But it does not have to be that way thanks to Computer Numerical Controlled or CNC routers. Originally developed for mass manufacturers to carry out repetitive jobs with absolute precision, ease and cleanliness, doing the jobs of panel saw and spindle moulder, and with the ability to cut mortice and tenons, the CNC router frees the maker of fine furniture from design constriction.
For the price of a luxury car Barnaby Scott of Waywood took the plunge and bought one just over a year ago. He wanted to take advantage of its 3D and 2D cutting abilities.
He said that one particularly exciting aspect was its 3D shaping capability, so that when they started designing imaginations couold run free. Inevitably when designing something it was necessary to keep half an eye out for how he was going to make a piece, so he had to get back to the real world because of budget. He had always hated that, but the more capable the kit the less he had to make those compromises, a perfect example being a 3D shape that he would otherwise have had to hand carve, and where one 3D shape interacted with another.
He said that table legs resembling ribbons could be cut viably on the CNC router, adding that he had just made a cabinet where the handles appeared to bulge out of the doors. It had a beautiful curved inner surface in a different wood. The two handles came together at the corner of the cabinet as if mitred together. The mitre and the void left a beautiful 3D shape, work that would have been so difficult and so slow by hand that they would never have done it.
That was a Pounds 12,000 commission and Barnaby reckoned that without the CNC machine the true price would have been nearer Pounds 30,000, therefore unviable.
The other side of the machine was its 2D capabilities which really did speed up cutting shapes, allowing the piece to be drawn on the computer, a piece of wood installed on the machine and a nice sweeping curve cut with accuracy.
Talk about erosion of skills was nonsense as his company was still embedded in the craftsman way of working, with one person seeing the job through to the end. CNC routing was just another tool in the toolbox. The machine had been fully functional for a year and most of that time had been spent on making jobs that were in the pipeline.
Waywood was now beginning to break free but there would always be constraints. Before we had a spindle moulder we had to design that way, now we design in the knowledge that we do not have a 5-axis machine, but the gloves were off. It had been exciting.
Waywood will be using the machine to cut a jigsaw-pattern oak floor for the showroom.
Gareth Neal and Matthew Burt also exploit the advantages that CNC use brings to their work. Gareth even mounts a saw blade onto the machinery to create his skeletal pieces. Last year he told F&C that he had always wanted to use the CNC machines to do something. There were so many exciting opportunities with different processes going on. The world had opened up the design-art furniture scene, and it was a huge industry with lots of amazing objects out there.
Matthew, who is known for his evangelical approach to wood as a resource to be treated as a precious material, has no problem with the use of CNC machines and variously either buys time on them to cut 3D repeated shapes or hand carves where the job could have been done by CNC. He makes a tray from offcuts that is CNC-ed apart from preparation, assembly and finish.
Computers, he said, could dominate and destroy. Any tool was only as good as its operator, only as good as its cutter maintenance and only as good as the designer behind it. It was a question of if the tool could bring work to the hand more quickly it was very useful. If it could do more work more economically it was very useful but he did not want it to dominate what he did.
It was a very large investment that normally ended up benefiting the banker but the repayments were considerably less than what you would pay in a year to a maker. It was a very useful addition to the armoury of tools.
He said that when he began working in wood the material could be manipulated by not that many tools. Now we were flooded out with tools and needed to take a measured response to which tool to use according to which idea you were bringing out. The way you use them could start to dominate a workshop and in most hand-workshops this was another task the maker needed to learn because when you purchased a CNC it was like another apprenticeship, so he bought time on one, but if he was bashing out more product he would invest in one.
One company that is no stranger to the benefits of CNC routing is Unto This Last. Based in Brick Lane in the East End of London, it takes advantages of the speed offered by the machine to give lead times of between one and three weeks to make items of furniture within an extensive catalogue.
The core material is Latvian birch ply and the name of the business echoes the title of the book written in 1860 by John Ruskin who, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, advocated a return to local craftsman workshops.
Ruskin also said: A thing is worth what it can do for you, not what you choose to pay for it. Had he written this today he could well have included the CNC router in his reckoning.