Computers in the Shop: Yes, No — and Maybe

In last issue’s editorial, Rob asked your opinions on bringing a CNC into your shop. Do you want to? Would you even consider it? Or is that just heresy?

Some said ‘no way’ to a CNC. – Editor

“I have been woodworking for over 20 years. To me part of the joy of designing, and building a project is the challenge of making something as perfect as I can, and to fix the mistakes I make. When I can give it as a gift or sell a project, and the person looks at it and says, ‘You made this?’ and I can say with pride ‘Yes.’ I feel if you put computers in the shop and they do the detail work, it may as well be a production shop. And when someone asks you made this, I would have to say well, no, my computer did it. For me, woodworking is a form of relaxation and to use my brain to figure things out.” – William Terle

“I am not now and not ever going to prepare for computers to take over the tools in my woodshop. The joy of woodworking is in the actual design and implementation of that plan into the construction of your item. No machine can take the place of hands on planning and construction. The pride is in the finished product, not in the successful computer setup.” – Dan Gapa

“The computer is the thing of the future, but not in my shop. I enjoy doing the measuring and all that goes into a project. The computer would take away the enjoyment I get of being in the shop.” – Dale Sweigart

Others made a distinction between the usefulness of computer-controlled tools for those doing professional or production woodworking, versus those woodworking as hobbyists. – Editor

“As a hobbyist, I will not be going there. If I made my living at it, I would be more willing to spend the thousands for some of the CNC routers/lasers but not as a hobbyist. Plus, having a computer control the woodworking, where is the woodworking skill in that? Might also have something to do with teaching an old dog new tricks.” – Jerry Granahan

“I worked as a programmer and an IT professional for over 20 years, so I’m no stranger to computers. Woodworking has been a hobby of mine since I was 10, so when I had to retire (from IT) about 10 years ago, I decided to have a go at professional woodworking. I don’t build anything without first drawing it out on my CAD program. Personally, I like Corel’s Designer X6, but that could start a ‘religious’ discussion. But that’s where the technology ends. Drawings go into the shop and the silicon stays in the design studio. My work is created, using power tools of course, but completely by hand. My customers certainly appreciate that fact but, more importantly, I get the satisfaction of having created a piece of art.

“The capabilities of computer-controlled tools can be debated ’till the cows come home. If you are manufacturing a product and need computers to speed that process, I can see the value of such tools. Customers may or may not see a difference in the final product. Real artisans, however, I think will all ultimately feel personally cheated by employing such technology. And, at the end of the day, that is what is most important to me: how I feel about my work. In a world where the celebration of mediocrity has become mainstay, I think we all owe it to ourselves to keep that in perspective.” – Todd Wise

“The question is whether woodworkers view themselves as craftsmen or producers. If your goal in woodwork is to have more stuff, then by all means drop a hunk of wood or plastic or whatever material you like into a CNC printer and press ‘Go,’ but if your goal is to make woodwork, it would require the human to actually make it. I know the argument will be made that it is just another tool to manipulate, but at some point you stop being a maker and start being a programmer. In the immortal words of Seinfeld, ‘Not that there is anything wrong with that’; it just stops being woodworking.” – Dohnn Wood

“I think — so far as myself, that is — computerized tools are fine for the professional woodshop where time and profit are utmost for that particular owner. I use hand tools for their simplicity and the satisfaction involved. But I also use time-saving tools, such as table saws, etc., that have been part of our woodshops for so many years. I suspect the reduced cost and convenience of a computerized shop will eventually be commonplace in a generation or two. I haven’t given much thought to it, but it seems we’re currently using what will be considered antique tools by our great-grandchildren.” – Richard Coski

But there were some interesting thoughts, accompanying this discussion, about the comparative usefulness of some other, more common, shop tools. – Editor

“Automated tools are ‘tools.’ They’re likely useful for certain tasks. Like chisels. Or thickness planers. Or band saws. Having said that, I’m waiting for a converged device that can use some sort of swappable head so I can use the same basic 3-axis machine (with appropriate software control) for CNC routing, 3D printing, and laser engraving/cutting. It seems like that’s not an unreasonable expectation.” – Scott Chapman

“I’ll be first to admit that I am far from a master craftsman other than my email, ‘master sawdust maker.’ While I can see where some improvements in shop technology must come along, especially in a production shop, I fail to see why a CNC machine is needed in the one-car garage shop. The true craftsmen and women are being lost to programmable machines. On the upside, I have found some great deals on tools that Dad used but the kids don’t have any idea what a planer does and why are there so many different kinds. When family asks what I want as gifts for whatever I always say clamps; any kind will do. As far as I know, they are not computer controlled yet.” – Larry Dennis

“This technology is just too darn expensive for a home shop, particularly in light of the fact that most of us still use relatively inexpensive hand tools for at least some of our work. I was willing to pay upwards of $4K for a SawStop table saw, but look at its versatility compared with a CNC machine. Although I’m quite computer literate — a mainframe programmer for many years before being an IT manager for another several years —  regard the present ‘home’ CNC machine as little more than a well-to-do person’s toy. I regard these machines, at their present cost and capability, much like the first personal computers of the late ’60s and early 70’s. One had to load the operating system and programs with electrical switches whose on/off position represented bits. And they had no capability to do real work.” – Austin Wade

“I think that if I were busy enough to use one of those really cool engravers at least once a week, I’d go ahead and get one. I’m not. As a dedicated but (at this point in my life) a decidedly hobby woodworker, there is little that those things can do that I really would pay that much money for. Once I might have, when I had a small sign shop that specialized in very high-end custom signage, but not now.

“I think of other ‘timesavers’ whose only contribution to my present level of effort is to take up space in the shop. That includes a dovetail jig: I can cut hand dovetails almost as fast as I can set up the darn jig, with less waste for making adjustments. It also includes a fancy miter fence for the table saw. My sliding miter saw does a better job with less fiddling. The ‘helpers’ that I use are ones I have built for myself, including an adjustable pivot so I can cut accurate circles on a band saw, a big angled table-and-fence attachment for my floor-standing drill press so I can drill the peg holes for hammer dulcimers at a consistent angle, and a fence for the table saw that lets me cut consistent rises on panels for rail-and-style paneling. Honestly, the only ‘pro’ gizmos I use regularly at all are the tenon jig for the table saw and a mortising machine that I got super-duper cheap when the local Home Depot stopped carrying that kind of special tool. Time may come when I no longer need to go to a day job to pay the bills that I might get more fancy toys, but at this point, it is not likely.” – Louise Heite

And still others love either the idea — or the reality — of computerized machines in their shop. – Editor

“I love the new stuff! I built a CNC router several years back from plans I bought online. I find that it opens up new possibilities and new ideas. Of course, I use it in conjunction with my other shop equipment, but it’s an exciting new tool for sure.” – Joe Jackson

“CNC excites me. All for it! Usually an early adopter. Just cannot afford it, nor the space to place it.” – David Naugher

“I have been trying my best at working with wood and other materials for a couple decades, but I never seem to be able to create that masterpiece. I guess it is all in the eyes of the beholder. I recently bought a small 2’x3′ CNC (DIY type – aluminum extrusions), and I was able to make some things that sparked people’s interest enough to ask me ‘how did you do that,’ and combining it with other mediums (stain glass) I was able to fill Xmas stockings with some pretty cool gifts that really energized me. I like my CNC and everyone that looks at it asks what is that? That’s the cool part. I am an average woodworker with  unlimited possibilities. All I have to do is figure out how to program it into my CNC. The CNC has not replaced tools in my woodshop, instead it has expanded the way I think about how I want to design something. I give it thumbs up for the price of a really, really nice table saw.” – Jay Euto

“So far, I have used the services of a local shop to have laser engraving for two projects. My daughter was stationed in Afghanistan and sent an aerial view of her base via email. My wife and I saved all of our email correspondence with her. After her safe return, I made a wooden ‘treasure’ box to store copies of that correspondence and had the wooden lid laser-engraved with a copy of the photo of the base where she had been stationed. My second use of the commercial engraving was to have small multi-layered plastic tag engraved with my granddaughter’s name. I then attached the tag to a small piano-shaped music box I had made with my scroll saw for my granddaughter’s birthday. (The tag worked perfectly to cover a small blemish where I had to apply glue after an accidental split occurred in the wood).

“In my opinion, the computer-assisted techniques really added significantly to the ‘value’ of my projects, but did not detract from my personal effort in making them. Many projects really are completed by two or more people working together. Just think about all the projects made to a spouse’s specifications and all of the projects where we need a second opinion about how to change a design or choose the best dimension or layout.

“Although I would love to add skill in using CNC laser or routing techniques to my personal abilities (and I could afford to do it), I do not plan to make that investment considering the limited number of times I now think I would use it. For those who belong to woodworking clubs, however, I think the club’s investment in the equipment for use by all members should be considered. For me, I will continue to take my projects about a mile up the road to where my friend has his engraving shop.” – Jim Thorp

Silicone vs. Silicon

On another topic related to our writings about computers in the shop, a few readers took us to task — gently — over the use of the word “silicone” instead of “silicon.” – Editor

“In your latest newsletter, you write about ‘silicone’ chips invading the workshop. I’m sure you really meant to write ‘silicon,’ but if you didn’t, you should have! As Wikipedia states, ‘Not to be confused with the metalloid chemical element Silicon.’ Anyway, thanks for the newsletters. There are often interesting topics presented.” – Roger Meachem

“I really enjoy reading these bulletins.There’s always something interesting, and usually something useful or inspiring. I don’t want to come across as a grouch, but you’ve transgressed one of my literary pet peeves: ‘How ready are woodworkers to allow motherboards and silicone chips…’

“I’m certain that you realize the chips of which you write are silicon (a mineral with many applications in electronics) and not silicone (a compound variously used as water repellent, caulk ingredient, and gasket material). I wouldn’t call this a complaint, more an attempt to uphold the magazine’s usual high standards. Keep up the good work.”- Earl Miller

Thanks for your sharp eyes; we’ve implanted the correct word in Rob’s original editorial. – Editor

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