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CNC Router for Woodworking: DIY Wonder or Craftsman's Nightmare?

Updated on July 5, 2015

When my husband, the ultimate DIY guy and a finish carpenter who mostly uses hand tools for woodworking, recently discovered what the ShopBot, an example of a home CNC wood router, could do, a pained look crossed his face. "I'm obsolete," he said somberly.

CNC routers are "computer numerical controlled" machines that take the fine work of measuring, sawing, wood carving, planing, drilling, cutting mortises and tennons, and even collecting dust out of the hands of the carpenter and put it into the processors, planers, drill bits, and other fiddly bits of the computer and router machine. What can be achieved in terms of project design, time savings, and labor savings with a CNC wood router is nothing short of stunning. But even more stunning is that these computer / router machines are now affordable for use in the home shop.

CNC Router Invades the a Whittler's Pace

Currently, most CNC routers are used commercially. A few forward-thinking wood hobbyists have tried out the smaller home versions. But the CNC router's primary existing market consists of professional wood shops, furniture manufacturers, and other commercial enterprises. The CNC wood router's ability to do fast, repetitive precision work automatically by working from digital project plans has meant enormous savings for these enterprises, even given its initially hefty costs. But now you can get a ShopBot, a popular computer controlled router brand, for under $10,000.  And given how much a wood hobbyist spends on tools and machine equipment in the name of his or her hobby, this seems barely cause to blink.

Obstacles to the ShopBot Revolution

But what about the emotional component of woodworking? Is it simply to be discarded? As with most skilled crafts, the manual labor is half the fun for many carpenters and woodworkers. True, the time-consuming nature of many woodworking tasks can be considered nothing but tedium. But what about the psychological satisfaction a craftsman or craftswoman gets in meticulously hand carving designs into wood? What about the triumphs of achieving, with an old-fashioned chisel, a well-cut dovetail after the frustration of multiple trial-and-error efforts to get there? There's some virtue in this.

And what about the skill component? Will creative thinking, design savvy, spatial awareness, gross and fine motor skills, and other abilities cultivated by the woodworker go out of style? The complaints of older generations that "It's all automated! They don't know how to make XYZ the right way anymore!" seem to echo in our ears when we look at what a CNC router can do and what human carpenters no longer have to do. Devotees like my husband, who actually want to work with their hands and who appreciate the challenge of a difficult project - and, more poignantly, who want to teach these skills to the younger generations that follow them - are indeed becoming dinosaurs.

Because, as my husband carpenter has pointed out to me, it will not be very long before people begin to realize en masse the vast potential of affordable CNC machines. Imagine a world where everyone owns a CNC router machine in their home. Where buying a bed is as simple as downloading the router plans and feeding it to the machine. Where designing your own bed is as simple as downloading generic plans, altering them a bit, and feeding it to the machine. We're far from that world in terms of legal and logistical infrastructure, but we're not very far from that world in terms of technology. When that world comes to be, far more than professional carpenters will become obsolete.

CNC Router Remains Just a Tool for Now. But the Signs are Ominous. Woodworking is Changing.

For now, though, it's not true that the professional or amateur woodworker is obsolete. If you buy a ShopBot or other premade CNC router, or even build your own homemade wood router using a computer and software, they won't do you any good if you're a rank novice at the craft. You still need to have a carpentry clue. You need to set up the woodworking project and provide the finishing touch, and this takes some carpentry know-how. And conversely, if you're a pro or you know the woodworking hobby like the back of your hand, but that's all you know, and you live in terror of computers, you'll need to get up to speed.

But the labor, time, and creativity demands have been cut drastically. In one day, on a whim, you can create a beautiful, ornate woodcarving out of a digital photograph, while the human labor component is reduced to a fraction of what it was, consisting, as my spouse puts it, of setting up the machine, then wandering over to the fridge, pulling out a Coke, grabbing some chips, and sitting down to watch football for eight hours.

The existence of small and mini CNC router machines, table top CNC machines, and low cost CNC routers for the home is a signal that a new order of carpentry is encroaching, in the same way the art world was revolutionized by the technology of computerized graphic art, but perhaps even more comparable to the intrusion of the affordable computer. With cheap CNC routers comes the accessibility of an almost futuristic way to work wood and other materials.

When it comes to building wood furniture, wooden carvings, musical instruments, wood parts, and almost anything out of wood - and I've neglected to mention that most CNC routers also work with foam, plastic and even aluminum - automation on a whole new scale is on its way in.

So if you have plans to become an old-fashioned carpenter, you might want to stem those plans and aspire instead to become a new-fangled "carpentry engineer," "material-based designer," "plastic master," or whatever fancy title the user of CNC router machines will own.

See the author's disclosure statement about compensation for this article.


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