Does C.N.C. actually spell the death of fine woodworking?

I was sent an interesting link to an article today about whether CNC machines were ready for fine woodworking. It got me thinking about another technological advance that occurred a few years ago, that lead to many a heated argument in magazines (the internet was around, but a lot less prevalent at the time), in club meetings, between those most passionate about their pursuit. More on that shortly.

The current situation that is still in its infancy is the rapidly increasing impact of CNC machines in the home workshop. Once, home CNC machines were reserved for the very small number of highly technically competent individuals who could take a bunch of parts from scanners, photocopiers, printers and electronic supply stores and create their own machine. Increasingly, commercially produced machines are becoming cheap enough (and are being targeted to) the backyard workshop.

Some, such as the CarveWright that I came across a little over a year ago look like glorified printers, and can be operated as easily to produce stunning results.


Another, the CNC Shark (and CNC Shark Pro) are at a price point that can be considered, and again are easily controlled from a home computer with some pretty simple software.

CNC Shark

So what is the impact of such machines, so easy to operate, on the future of fine woodworking? Will they mean that anyone with a bit of cash available will be able to produce works to rival the most skilled carvers, who have honed their skills over decades, even over generations? Will they make the years of honing fine woodworking skills simply a waste of time? Or are they just another tool in a capable workshop, able to take the focus off some mundane tasks allowing more time for the woodworker to really produce beautiful works?

Back to that previous digital technology that caused such incredible amounts of anxiety and concern amongst another group. Photographers.

Back in the late 90s (actually for about the whole of the 90s), I was heavily involved in photography, and particularly competition photography (and I wasn’t too bad at it either, if I can say that). I was awarded Associateship of the Photographic Society of New Zealand in 1999, and even then the discussions had started in earnest. Digital photography was coming, and it was going to be a tsunami that was going to sweep all traditions away in the fury. At the time, we were submitting competition entries in prints, or slides (transparencies) and those who could afford to used slides that were then printed in Cibachrome (among others) producing incredible prints. Many, many (many!) hours were spent in darkrooms, developing films, producing prints, making multigrade prints, split tone printing processes. The image was king, and you’d dedicate entire days to achieving the one perfect print of an image.

Digital photography threatened all that, and even though initially the cameras had low resolution, small colour gamuts, and a very poor ability to get the image out of the computer, it was coming, and being IT, coming fast. Even now, cameras have leapt from 3 to 5, to 6, to 8, 10, 12 megapixel in consumer models, and yet Adobe are already preparing Photoshop to be able to handle the first generation of the gigabit cameras that are just around the corner.

The concern was, with the introduction of digital cameras, and digital (computer) ‘darkrooms’, everyone will be able to produce images indistinguishable from highly skilled traditional (chemical) photographers, and years of skill will be swept aside, not by the masses, but by a few very skilled programmers putting these amazing programs in their hands, and on their computers.

And yes, to a certain extent this is exactly what happened. It can be argued that a skilled/talented photographer will be able to take the same tools to a much higher level, but significant numbers of photographic enthusiasts were swept up, overtaken by the digital age. Around 2001 I begun the transition to digital, first scanning images in from film and then working in the digital darkroom that is Photoshop. By 2005, my film cameras were retired, replaced with a digital SLR, the chemical darkroom (including a $1000 colour enlarger) sold.

LPL C7700 Colour Enlarger

I don’t think my photographic passion survived – it is a ghost of its former self, and I lament the loss. Perhaps that is why I have poured so much energy into woodworking – a return to “doing things for ones-self”, instead of watching a print slowly emerge in the chemical bath, I watch a piece of timber slowly transformed into something with aesthetic appeal.

So now, as CNC machines are becoming mainstream, will they also prove to be the death of the passion for many woodworkers, or is there a fundamental difference?

As I see the development of CNC machines, they are going to become increasingly common (although perhaps not as much as retailers of these machines would dream of), they, I believe, are destined to become another tool in the workshop, not the only one. A CNC machine will work cooperatively, symbiotically with the other tools in the workshop, and not like what happened with digital photography, replacing the old technology completely.

But it won’t be completely without pain, or feelings of immense threat to some who have worked so hard to become as skilled as they are. The furniture, such as seen in the Fine Woodworking article will raise eyebrows, and result in many discussions. Woodworking competitions particularly – will a piece that incorporates CNC machining be allowed to compete alongside more traditionally produced items?

I look in my workshop, and consider what would be the implications for me (personally) if I added a CNC machine? I see no change out there – a CNC would become another tool available, replacing none of the ones already there. It would increase what the workshop could produce though, and some projects may be completed in new ways because of a CNC machine being available. But woodworking as a whole is still safe – it is still too much of a tactile pursuit to have all direct interaction with raw materials handed over to a computer controlled machine. Traditional (non electrically powered) woodworkers (dark siders) would argue that interaction was lost years ago with the introduction of power tools.

So would I welcome a CNC machine into my workshop? Absolutely! But don’t expect me to give up a single other tool already out there – they all have their particular strengths, and every one complements every other. A CNC machine would do the same.

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