If you have a furniture business, however, unless it is making chairs out of green timber dragged out of the forest by a horse, the chances are the wood you are using will see a piece of machinery during the making process. It could just be a planer, table saw or hand router, but where do you draw the line? As more and more people are using CAD, the next logical step is to use the electronic files you have already created and have them machined on a CNC machine. Prior to owning a CNC, any jobs I had drawn in CAD were printed off on paper with dimensions which I would transfer to the wood/template/jig in the traditional pencil and ruler fashion.
When running a one man operation the dream is to find efficient ways of working where everything comes together first time without a problem and the customer receives a nice product which they can’t pay you for quickly enough. The reality isn’t quite like that as you know and I can assure you that buying a CNC router will not make your working life easier overnight. It can frustrate you just as much as any other machining operation and destroy timber just as quickly if not quicker than planers and saws. The amount of timber wastage when using solid timber is also higher on a CNC than a band saw. On the flip side, if you are using sheet materials then you can nest components together to make the most of a sheet of ply or dare I suggest MDF.
So I hear you asking is it really worth it? The answer is yes if you would like to create a slightly different revenue stream and probably not if you are focusing solely on solid wood individually crafted furniture. The main advantages of using the CNC as a sole (or small group) designer –maker are; repeatability, accuracy, speed of manufacture, adding value to designs with engraving/decorative routing and you don’t have to pay wages.
The biggest advantage I find is if you have already created a 3D model of your design to show to a customer. You then have a starting point from where you can process your CAD model into 2D components via Computer Aided Manufacture (CAM) software. Again this all depends on the type and size of the job. Converting 2D drawings into components that are cut out on the CNC doesn’t happen by magic, it takes time to modify your 2D generated CAD drawings using a CAM package into something that resembles what you want it to look like after it has been machined on a CNC. Rebates have to be accounted for, tools have to be assigned, are the pieces too small? how will I hold the workpiece? The list goes on. File conversion and machine set-up is often the biggest time component in doing the work on a CNC and can often be 95% of a job. If you are going to be making 100’s of them then it is worthwhile but a one-off is debatable unless you are charging for set-up time.
I was contemplating how I could make things quicker or take on slightly bigger jobs, something that a CNC would be useful for. Having previously worked as an engineer I had lots of CAD and CAM experience so it wasn’t too daunting a prospect to manipulate the files etc. The daunting prospect was buying and installing a machine. Then fate stepped in with a particular project to quote for 10 art gallery benches in a particular style that would be an ideal candidate for CNC machining. I couldn’t find anyone locally who was keen to do the CNC machining for me and it was going to be a pain getting materials delivered elsewhere and working on prototypes in someone else’s workshop before pressing the button and cutting out multiple parts. I took a bit of a gamble and bought a machine directly from China (this is a whole different story) to do the bench project. It is a fairly basic machine with one spindle (router) an 8’ x 4‘ bed with extraction and a vacuum pump to hold the workpiece to the bed. The machine cost around £15,000 by the time it was installed, albeit I did most of the installing and hired an electrician to wire everything up. It requires an old PC with windows XP to run the CNC control software called Mach3 which you can buy for £150, although other CNC control software is available for similar money. This software is mainly aimed at hobbyists but is more than capable of doing what an individual maker would require of it. Similarly CAM software aimed at hobbyists will do more than you will need on a daily basis.
So the control/software element is not too expensive and most people can get their hands on an old computer for nothing or very little. You may think that £15,000 is a lot of money and I would agree with you but I took out a 4 year loan on £12,000 (my original budget!) which works out at about £230 a month. My thinking here was surely I could make £230 a month on the CNC. The alternative was buying a machine in the UK for £35k with a very similar specification. For £35k you get it installed by the supply company but you still have to lift it in place and they give you a few days of training. A few days of training might get you started but it will by no means cover everything that you need to know.
What about support? The machine I bought is built using components that are used on pretty much every CNC machine and are available in the UK - a pre-requisite of buying the machine. The machine did come with a year’s warranty (from when it was put on the boat!) which I basically assumed was worthless considering the distance although the company were helpful after the purchase and still reply to my queries two years later – albeit the language barrier can cause a problem. I ask most of my questions on a CNC forum which will generally point you in the right direction.
What have I used it for? Apart from the bench project I have made bits of kitchens, cabinets, beds, tables, signs, gifts, shaped worktops and lots of other items. Jig making is good on the CNC as the accuracy it can achieve is very good and you can cut lots of jig components out of sheet material and incorporate handles etc. It is also useful if you use a domino machine; you can machine your domino slots in one half of your component and do the others with the domino, using the CNC’d one as a template. Birch ply drawers are great to make on the CNC as you can basically make sides, back and front with finger joints and grooves for the base. Make the joints snug and with a bit of glue you have one solid drawer which you can almost assemble straightaway. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, especially for makers who prefer to hand cut dovetails, but they are aesthetically pleasing and when working to a tight budget are a win for the customer and you.
As an individual maker you are often working alone and even if you have a panel saw for ripping sheet materials the CNC wins as you only have to move the sheet onto the CNC bed once, cut your components out and remove the much lighter pieces – saves a lot of manual handling of heavy boards. I have a sheet material rack close to the CNC which allows me to wrestle boards onto the machine by myself. I also located the CNC so that a pallet of sheet material can be delivered and sit right next to it which allows me to move a sheet over without any help.
You are still never going to compete with IKEA and I am guessing that you probably don’t want to, but it is possible to make some very nice products on a CNC. There is another avenue of design/manufacture starting called open source furniture making which I personally think is a good idea. Websites are file sharing CNC layouts, generally on a sheet of birch ply which can be assembled almost immediately to make a pre-designed piece of furniture. A member of the public can contact a manufacturer listed on the website for a price on available designs. Generally they are encouraged to try and choose a manufacturer as close to them as possible. The payment is made through the website and a percentage of the cost goes to the designer. The obvious benefit being that there are not loads of flat packed furniture lying in stock and they can be made in the country where people are buying them.
So, to re-cap, buying or even using a CNC is not going to make your fortune overnight but when used in conjunction with other machinery/techniques it can prove to be very useful and versatile. It has allowed me to take on much bigger jobs involving sheet materials which I would normally have thought twice about as my workshop is mainly set up for solid timber furniture. Furniture makers are by nature problem solvers and find various ways to do the same job. A CNC can be put to use in a variety of ways to help your business by combining a machine to do laborious work with existing hand skills to make unique products.