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.

17 Responses

  1. Hi Stu,

    I guess I can’t interest you in some darkroom equipment then. I feel sad and disappointed in my collection of darkroom equipment both manual and semi-automated gear. But digital brought many benefits as well.

    I wonder how we will adapt to digital woodworking, time (and probably not much of it to pass) will tell.

  2. I think if anything, CNC will make handmade woodwork even more special. Think about the difference between “I printed this photo of your dad out on my inkjet,” and “I hand enlarged and developed this photo of your dad for you.”

    Computer-produced gifts will certainly be well received, but handmade gifts will always be greeted with more “wow”.

  3. I watched one of those make it programes that showed how garden spades were made and marvelled at it’s CNC wood lathe making the handles.

    The analogy with photography is a good one. When photography was first brought out it was seen as the replacement for fine art painting but people still paint and people want to buy paintings rather than photos.

    So in a similar way, I’d expect woodworking to change in a similar way with perhaps carving that works with the wood (rather than treating it as a blank cube) to become more dominant in fine art carving.

  4. I attended a talk recently and the speaker was a hand tool guy, but he says he views his power tools as apprentices. Master craftsmen back in the day weren’t the ones ripping, flattening and sanding. That is what the apprentice was for. CNC will just be a smarter apprentice.

    I also follow a few blogs of people that do CNC furniture design and they really don’t have any idea about how to go about it. Most of what they make is the flat pack knock down CNC sort of stuff you would expect, the rest just looks like Ikea.

    Sure it looks nice, but I don’t see any of it lasting or being kept.

  5. “Sure it looks nice, but I don’t see any of it lasting or being kept.”

    That’s a good point. Fast processes can mean “fast furniture” and “fast fashions” and “fast turnover” by the end-user of the furniture.

    I expect hobbyist CNC users will also use alternative materials (i.e. not wood) so “CNC Woodworking” will probably become something else, and woodworking will remain woodworking – because it will actually use wood!

  6. Maybe these new CNC tools will promote increased interest in woodworking and even woodworking with handtools in time? We brought a Canon G10 for my partners parents at xmas. They are people who mostly didn’t care about how a camera worked, or how film and prints were developed – just so long as it produces good photos. But now, with a good camera, we’re having discussions around the finer points of exposure, composition, digital workflow etc. Without a computer and a good camera – I don’t think we’d be having those discussions…

  7. Some great comments in there – cheers everyone!

  8. CNC Machining. Well to start you usually have to have Program to tell the Computor what you want to machine !!
    To create a Program you have to have Computor Skills to write the Program.. then you have a Computor driven Machine to Machine the Component all of which is very expensive stuff
    If you intend to Machine a heap of the Said Components that has been Programed to be machined you will find that the overall expense is out of this world. If you have a Component that has very Complex Contours that requires a Tool to machine in three axis to enable you to get what you want then go for it otherwise you can Machine it in cheaper ways such as Three Dimensional Tracing by a Single Vertical Milling Machine
    Wnt to know more Contact me Regshanhan

    • I agree with Simon, you really don’t need to know programming to work with CNC these days.

      • Hi Andy and Simon.
        I am a Trained Engineer and I must say, I have not come across ANY Computor Controlled Machine where you do not have to have experience in the Operation of this type of Machine. Yes I know you can have a Program that you can Enter But what about how to get Cutting Tool in position in relationship to Program in regards to the Workpiece. Sounds easy But I am afraid you still need some one to teach you how to operate it and you have to understand and remember what you have been taught

        I have done many Years at being trained and I can tell you if I had to operate a CNC Machine it would take me quite some time before I fully understood the operation of this Machine Yes I have operated a Cnc Machine that was Put together in Canada I had to travell and spend One week over ther to get to understand the Operation of this Machine so we could export it into Australia

        • Hi Reg- if you read Stu’s article, you’ll see there are CNC woodworking machines out there already that don’t need high degrees of specialist knowledge to operate them.

          CAD drawing? From AutoCAD, CADAM, Catia, Sketchup, Illustrator, Photoshop

          Think you’ve missed the point of Stu’s article though- he’s not referring to factory sized industrial machines. These are ones made for the home or small business workshop, and don’t require the owner/operator to have extensive training.

          All you need is the machine, a computer, and a drawing and the software renders the required program, as was demonstrated at the last woodworking show

  9. That might have been true 20 years ago, but these days you can buy an off-the-shelf machine and all you have to do is supply it with an Illustrator or CAD drawing.

    Nor is it all that expensive really- under $5k will get you a machine all ready to go. No programming required.

  10. How many more photographic images are taken today vs. 30 years ago? (a lot more)
    How many chemical darkrooms were physically destroyed by digital imaging? (none)

    Digital photography is a tool. It’s different from chemical photography, but your digital camera didn’t make you get rid of your darkroom…you chose to, for reasons that are your own.

    Me? I don’t want anything to do with the expense and the facilities required for chemical photography, and I think my Nikon DSLR is the cat’s pajamas.

    I don’t know anything about what will or will not destroy the soul of woodworking, but I bet you that retro-grouches and grognards have lamented the development of every single tool since the pointy stick. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with that…the old ways are just fine, and they get the job done. I really admire Roy Underhill’s work, but I don’t want to work that way.

    It’s up to the craftsman to choose his tools, and the only measurement that makes any sense is whether the work is beautiful or not.

    (Granted, I’m a terrible photographer, and an even worse woodworker, but I’m a dab hand with the CAD packages, so that’s a tool that works for me.)

  11. So far I know, base on my experience with Marunaka CNC-router at factory in Indonesia. I may say that:
    1. CNC with all computerize operation need a well achievement in software application EDP. And It consuming a lot time to set it up before operating it in. Unfortunately in Indonesia to get a good programmer is not easy.
    2. The cost of it against the stimulant and variable processing in Cutting, shaving and molding are not economist, CNC only good in a big scale Mass production line, not for small scale unit production,
    3. The function of CNC performance, still can be placing by Copy shaver, Router and Molding unit. etc
    Despite of woodworking’s threatening, I do not agree with it, in fact CNC only performing the fine-cutting and routing, it is not to do entire job of wood working, definitely not for assembling and finishing work which are the essential factor in context of ‘Fine Woodworking”
    Am I right ?

  12. It makes sense to use CNC for what CNC can do, because it saves time and money, It does not obsolete hand skills because there are many details a CNC router just can’t do. Even where CNC is heavily used, you often see “the hand of the maker” in the hand details.

    I know some incredibly skilled craftsmen who eschew CNC, but make $20,000 to $30,000 a year. How much sense does it make to incorporate CNC to do the things CNC can?

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