Creative Woodwork Driven by CAM

By Joel Cassola | Posted: 10/09/2013 9:56AM

 

  ROCHESTER, NY - Almost a decade ago Lucien Casartelli decided he would push the limits of his capabilities as a sculptor and artist by becoming proficient in CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) technology. He wanted to reach the point in his artistic career of being able to say, “If I can think it, I can make it.”

As a result, in 2004 Casartelli, who had no previous experience, began taking classes in CAM at Optipro Inc. a nearby Mastercam CAM software reseller. Soon he was producing some “pretty fun stuff” on the KOMO 4-axis router he had purchased. Eventually he added a Thermwood 5-axis CNC Router, CNC plasma cutter, laser scanner, and two computer-controlled spray booths to the arsenal of digitally-controlled tools at his 10,000 sq. ft. workshop in Rochester, NY.

There, he supports his artistic endeavors along with Bella Designs, his commercial furniture design and woodworking venture that serves clients such as artists, architects, interior designers, furniture makers, custom vehicle makers, and homeowners. It turns out that Casartelli’s decision to become thoroughly grounded in CAM has been very good for both Lucien the artist and Lucien the woodworking businessman.

Having had no previous computer or CNC manufacturing experience, learning to use the software and the equipment did not come to Lucien overnight. He received a great deal of assistance from his Mastercam reseller and persevered to learn a great deal more (sometimes painfully) by trial and error. What his passion drove him to learn for his artistic pursuits, he also applied to the commercial work by which he makes his living. As he got into using Mastercam, Lucien quickly realized that there were many things he can do now that he could not have done previously and that there were features in the software to make this CAM programming work go faster:

• Compound curves and surfaces: Working with curves and surfaces to program his 5-axis equipment allows Casartelli to produce the sweeping curves and flowing surfaces that are the hallmark of his sculptures and some of his commissioned furniture designs.

• Difficult joinery: Working with 3D models in SolidWorks and translating them into CAM toolpaths gives Lucien the ability to conceive of and execute complex joineries that he would not have imagined possible as a manual woodworker.

• Reverse engineering: Lucien uses data captured with his laser scanner to digitally reconstruct worn or damaged woodwork and furniture and then produce the replacement parts with his CNC equipment.

• Fast, accurately drilled holes: Simple things like the fast and accurate drilling of holes makes it possible to compete effectively for furniture production work.

• Managing tool libraries: A hammer and a few chisels may be an adequate supply of tools for a sculptor. However, a multi-dimensional woodworking business requires the selection and management of a vast array of expensive tools. Lucien uses Mastercam’s Tool Manager to select tools from tool vender databases within the program and to create tool and holder configurations that can be quickly called up for similar projects.

• Dynamic orientation: Projects sometimes come to Lucien as CAD Models, which are not always in the correct orientation for cutting on his CNC equipment. He uses the Dynamic X Form feature of Mastercam to reorient the model to realign the model’s planes in the best orientation for programming and subsequent cutting. It saves him a great deal of time.

• Multiple 3D cutting orientations: Even for custom woodwork there are many repetitive 2D and 3D cutting operations that require multiple cuts and different cutting tool or blade orientations. More and more often, Lucien is setting up these multiple operations on his 5-Axis router, which can be programmed to change to multiple spacial orientations with just one setup of the workpiece. He finds this use of his 5-axis system can significantly improve his shop’s productivity— something he hadn’t considered when he originally acquired it.

• Simulating tool motions: Lucien does not have to wait to see what motions the tool will make to cut the part. He can visualize them on-screen using Mastercam’s simulation features backplot and verify. With these tools he can be sure that there are no interferences that will cause cutting tools to crash and that the desired material removal and finishes will be achieved.

Today, Casartelli’s primary passion is creating his own original sculptures and furniture designs, frequently employing CAM tools to explore the “limitless possibilities of sculpture and 3D art,” working with a wide range of materials including wood, metal, plastic, and fiberglass. He said, “The software is so flexible it allows me to do anything I can think of and then some. It’s always challenging me and making me learn how I can do better.”

He acknowledges that relying on CAM as much as he does involves a certain amount of artistic risk: “A lot of people think that using a CNC Machine to make your art is cheating. I don’t feel that is true because you are still using all of your abilities that come from within to create your art. It’s just a different way, another means to an end. Computer Aided Manufacturing is really just another tool, like a table saw; it’s just more accurate and changeable on the fly. ” But is it Art? Casartelli thinks so. So does Nan Miller, proprietor of Rochester’s prestigious Nan Miller Gallery, which featured Casartelli’s sculptures in an exhibition early in 2013.

“Contrast and Contours” was a mixed media exhibit that displayed Lucien’s smooth, colorful, twisting sculptures alongside metallic paintings of the Brazilian artist Hamilton Aquiar. The exhibit was well received and Nan Miller, in a newspaper interview, asserted that Lucien’s investment in and study of advanced technologies has absolutely projected him into a “whole different level from what most woodworkers and furniture makers do. He's capable of doing so many things that aren't typical of someone majoring in woodworking and furniture. He has broadened his horizons tremendously. Now he can do his own thing in a way that he couldn't have before.”

Lucien’s computer-aided manufacturing investments have given him an additional capability which he couldn’t have foreseen— the ability to quickly adapt his business model to keep it viable in the face of shifting tastes and declining high volume work availability. Prior to 2009, Bella Designs had as many as 20 people employed largely in custom furniture fabrication and assembly projects. After the sharp economic downturn, much of that business went away. Today, Bella Designs has four employees and much of the work is focused on high end commissioned furniture and doing custom millwork for other furniture designers who do not have extensive CNC manufacturing capabilities. A great deal of this work comes to Bella Designs, not through the front door but over the Internet. 

Lucien has also found another interesting and satisfying customer base— other artists who have not learned about how to translate artistic vision into computer-modeled end results. Some are beginning to learn the requisite skills but cannot afford to purchase expensive systems on income from one-of-a-kind commissioned sculptures and furniture. Casartelli’s shop provides a clean, safe OSHA-approved environment where these craftsmen can learn and work.

“I like being on the cutting edge;” Lucien says. “And I like using technology to expand our skills and capabilities. Most artists can’t afford to bring this kind of production-caliber equipment into their own studios. But we can help them take advantage of it here so they can maximize the value of their originality and talent.”

As for maximizing the value of his own originality and talent as a museum-caliber artist, that is currently high on Lucien’s list of priorities.

Joel Cassola is a freelance writer based in Cranston, RI. He frequently writes about manufacturing technolog/topics.


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