CWB July 2001

Software 'Brings It All Together' for Architectural Woodcarver

A Houston-area woodcarver uses Delcam's ArtCAM software to expand his creativity and speed up production.

Jerry Frederick is a self-taught artist and sculptor. He can paint in oils and sculpt in wood and clay. But until technology caught up with his vision - computerized woodcarving - his day-to-day job was working in machine shops, making the oil and gas industry's vital parts for well completions.

Now after 20 years, technology has let him quit his day job managing a CNC machine shop in Texas. Today, the chips coming off his machine tools are mahogany, poplar and pine rather than steel. His new business, Camcraft 3-D Inc., in Sugar Land, TX, specializes in architectural custom-carved woodwork for doors (both cabinet and entry), stair railings, columns, corbels, archways and ceilings.

Camcraft 3-D is the third business Frederick has started. But it is the first one "where it all came together for me," he says, referring to equipment, opportunity, customers and technology. Frederick started Camcraft 3-D in 1997 and went full-time late in 2000. The business has "come together" so well that he has given one of his three part-time workers a full-time job. And he moved the business from his garage into a spacious leased facility.

One key factor in Frederick's success, he says, is using ArtCAM Pro design and manufacturing software from Delcam International. Using ArtCAM in conjunction with two Multicam routers (soon to be four), Frederick says he can be faster and more creative than a lot of his competition, including some craftsmen doing carvings by hand. He adds that business is booming as word-of-mouth spreads among Houston-area residential architects and general contractors.

Speed is vital in his market, because carving high-quality woods, then fitting and installing them, can add six to 12 months to the time needed to finish a new home, Frederick says.

"Architects and contractors turn to Camcraft because they don't want their completion money (the last 10 percent, which is often most of their profit) tied up in what, to them, are small details," says Frederick. As an example, he cites a job he will be doing on a large home in Houston's posh River Oaks area, which he expects to last two years. The ArtCAM software will help reduce the design and routing time, as well as speeding up installation with better fits.

Creativity is also important to Frederick's multi-millionaire homeowner clients. People who can afford whatever touches they or their family members desire are rarely satisfied with standard catalog offerings, he says. They are even less pleased, he adds, when they are told they have to wait four to six months. With ArtCAM, he can develop designs working side by side with customers, he says. They can tweak the designs to their heart's content. Then Frederick cuts a full-size sample in pine or poplar.

"In about an hour, customers can see exactly what they will get before we buy any expensive hardwoods or start carving," he says.

It is here, of course, that Frederick's sculpting and painting abilities are really put to the test. No matter what design element clients want, Frederick says he can create it and cut it. "Sometimes I think the architects come in here just to see if they can stump me with something I can't do," he says. "They haven't been able to do it yet."

Compared to making oil and gas well-completion equipment, he adds, "This is fun."

Camcraft currently has a pair of Multicam CNC routers. One has a 48-inch square bed and the other a 24-inch square bed. A third router is on order and will have a 48-inch by 96-inch bed and an automatic tool changer. With the software and routers Frederick says that he can rout and finish a 4-foot by 4-foot ceiling or wall panel in a few hours. "A piece that big used to take me weeks," he adds.

To start his carving work, Frederick uses a 3-D Roland Picza digitizer. "With the Picza, we can really crank up the resolution," he says. It creates huge files, but Frederick has a pair of custom-built PCs with 700 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium III CPUs to handle the work. Each machine has 384 megabytes of RAM. ArtCAM and AutoCAD also run on these PCs.

Frederick says he usually uses the Picza to scan his own drawings, paintings and clay sculptures after customers accept his concepts and designs. The scans are imported directly into ArtCAM as "pix" files. The actual reliefs of the carving are created within the Delcam software.

"Until they see this," Frederick says, "homeowners have no idea how much can be done." They often choose intricate designs based on ArtCAM's capabilities.

The digitizer and software's high resolution qualities not only provide realistic detail, Frederick says, but also ensures precise fits between large arch and ceiling panels and between carved frames and carved inserts. "It doesn't matter if each panel is designed and routed independently," Frederick says. "When you fit them together you cannot see the joints, even in curved archways and door inlays."

For example, in a project called the Temple of the Winds, carvings were designed as a solid surface in a CAD package and exported as a 3-D Studio file, a free-form CAD package. The Studio files were imported into ArtCAM, split into eighths for machining, then reassembled into a perfect whole.

Because he knows the pieces will fit when he is all done, Frederick says he can start with either the inset or the surround. This flexibility is a great advantage when edges or surfaces of a Camcraft carving have to fit precisely with some other design element whose dimensions are not under his control, he adds. He digitizes such pieces and uses those files to start his own work.

This is where Frederick's previous work experiences and strong CAM background are helpful - in addition to 20 years in machine shops, he learned to program in APT [automatically programmed tools,] which can be considered the first true machine tool-programming language.

Asked about the return on his ArtCAM investment, Frederick speculates that payback was reached during his third carving project, a matter of weeks. "For an average user in the architectural carving business, I think the payback period would certainly be less than six months," he says.

"I now can do as much in one month as I previously did in two years working part-time," he adds.