OK, all you Neanderthals* out there can just calm down, because you’re not going to like this one bit. We are taking a look at StlWork, a new software program designed specifically for CNC routers and milling machines. It is the brainchild of Fred Smith, the founder of IMService, a company in New Hudson, Michigan, and it was conceived to solve a problem that many small professional shops face: the cost of CAD/CAM software.
Fred decided that the entry point – usually upwards of $10,000 – for the software you needed to run CNC routers was too high. He wanted to see if something more reasonable could be developed. So he and a programmer got together and built StlWork, a CAD/CAM program that costs less than $500 and will run most CNC routers. And while most of us don’t have CNC routers in our shop today, how many of us had computers in our homes 10 years ago?
The cool thing about this software, besides its price, is that it uses an existing standard file format. That means if you have a standard 3D model file (in most cases, this is a file ending in .stl) you can plug it into this software and your CNC router will carve it in wood. Models are essentially 3D drawings of objects that will be translated into a wood carving through Fred’s software. So where do you get these files?
Fred says that you can get them all over the place, either by purchasing disks with a collection of models on them or finding them free on the Internet. Many university sites have archives you can search through for .stl files that have been built by students. It’s kind of like clip art for your CNC router. If you can find it, or buy it for a nominal price, you can carve it in wood.
“That’s what really got us excited,” says Fred. “It’s tough making your own models. With our program, you can just go and borrow something someone else has made and they don’t care if you use them.” It’s probably good etiquette, he adds, that if you use someone’s model and sell the piece to a customer, you should send him or her a royalty.
With StlWork, you can edit the model and make it larger or smaller. You can also isolate part of a model, e.g. a rose that you particularly admire, and just have that carved in the wood.
Fred’s company also created an inexpensive modeling software, Imapi, that works in tandem with StlWork. This would be useful for those who want to design a project from scratch, letting them draw the model on the screen and then transferring it into router movement. It will also let you alter the models you gather elsewhere.
Finally, StlWork has translators built in so that if you find other popular 3D files you want to transfer to wood, this will transform those files into the standard .stl format. Files that end in .dxf and .vrml files are examples of models that can be translated. “If you do happen to find one out there, and you want to cut,” says Fred, “you just run it through the translator, and five minutes later you’re making sawdust.
The cost of CNC routers has become more approachable in recent years. If this trend continues, the woodworking hobbyist may be looking at adding this kind of tool to his or her workshop. In such a case, this software is going to be an important tool ? even if you can’t hold it in your hand ? to many of us. You can download a demo of this software at Fred’s website.
*Ne-an-der-thal, n. 1. a woodworker who forswears the use of power tools and uses hand tools that have been around since the dawn of time to build and finish projects 2. woodworkers we secretly have a soft spot for.
– Bob Filipczak