Discovering the Possibilities of CNC Designing
For the past five years, this high-end architectural millwork shop has been developing unique designs and building more seamless projects with CNC machinery.
By Bernadette Freund
Tucked away in between the desert, a municipal airport and the hills of Scottsdale, AZ, is European Design. Upon entering the facility, a flame-pattern wood design on a set of cabinet doors signals that these are not woodworkers with the usual boundaries. These custom woodworkers are building unique residential cabinetry and furniture by utilizing the design capabilities of CNC machinery and imagination.
Allan Rosenthal began the company 12 years ago and worked solo for a number of years. He started out first in laminates and then realized there was a demand for high-end veneer work, which at first was mainly audio/visual units. Then clients began asking European Design to do their whole homes.
“Our first big project was the Petrazelka residence here in Scottsdale,” says Rosenthal. “That was the first client to ask us to do a whole home, which includes furniture. That project was the beginning of me realizing that we can do this as a company and do it well. The business took off from there. I had five people then and from that point the business grew consistently.”
That project afforded European Design the ability to begin doing multiple-piece projects. The company now does as many as 30 to 40 pieces in one home, combining design creativity with CNC technology.
Custom Work Starts with the Client
Rosenthal says that much like a production shop, European Design uses the CNC machine because it reduces labor costs on its larger projects and helps with redundancies. That is where the similarities end.
“We are unique from a high-production shop,” says Charlie Scott, designer, “because we do a lot more CNC programming. For us, each cabinet is different, so we do not really have a lot of consistent measurements that we are using over and over. We are sending new programs to the CNC daily. It really allows us to create the unique pieces we design quickly.”
Scott and Rosenthal begin designing their unique pieces for CNC production by sitting down with the client and figuring out what he or she is looking for. Then Scott comes up with two or three project design sketches on paper. Once they have completed a final sketch and taken accurate field measurements, the CNC “magic” begins.
“To start working in AutoCAD for the CNC, we have a full set of plans that are approved by the client,” says Scott. “Then we look at any part that has a curve or is repetitive, and that goes to the CNC.
“For example, we take an initial sketch of a kitchen. Then I put it into AutoCAD, which makes a 3-D model of all the boxes and appliances. I will then take a unique aspect, like light bridges with curved fronts, and send them directly to the CNC machine,” he adds.
High-End Design “Tool”
“To use the machinery to its maximum level we are always thinking about what it can do,” says Rosenthal. “We always account for it when we are designing a project. We think, ‘Well, what would happen if we did this on the CNC machine.’”
“We have more of a playful attitude towards using the machine, rather than one of, ‘We have to use the machine,’” Scott says. “Usually, we say, ‘Let’s try to do this on the CNC.’ It might not work, but sometimes when we are trying to do one thing, we discover that it does something other than what we intended very well. We discover new designs in that way.”
An example of the shop’s creativity is a puzzle table that did more than just look like a puzzle. Rosenthal says the client wanted a table that was an actual functioning puzzle. Scott created a program that cut and folded the table together, all on the CNC machine.
“We made a program where we laid a flat piece of wood on the CNC machine,” says Scott, “and it came in with a router bit at an angle and cut out all of the lines. The machine cut down just to the depth of the veneer, so we could take the pieces and fold them together. It was all done with regular 3/4-inch stock. We had a long piece and then a mitered return piece so it all looked seamless when fully assembled.”
They also use the CNC machine to help the installers and builders with accuracy so the company’s design are assembled correctly on site. European Design’s woodworkers make a 1/4 inch full-size template to lay out every cabinet for the installers, builders, plumbers, electricians, etc. on the site.
“We actually take a piece of 1/4-inch material and cut real lightly into it with a router bit,” says Scott. “Then we take the templates to the job site so all of the lines for, say, a kitchen are laid out on the floor in 1/4-inch material. The plumber can come in and know instantly where the sink will be and do all of his piping. Our installers can also come in and see exactly where things go, making installation faster and more efficient.”
From Hand-Work to Machine Power
“What we could do on a project by hand really depended heavily on the capabilities of the woodworker on that project,” says Rosenthal. “Now we rely on the machine, to a point, to do some of the more intricate work, but not necessarily all of it.”
As a result, the company’s woodworkers have more time to concentrate on the intricate details of a project, and the machine does all of the “grunt” work. Also the machine helps produce more visually appealing high-end custom pieces because it gives the company pin-point accuracy when drilling holes or niches.
“We did a whole house made of Swiss pearwood,” says Rosenthal. “Part of the project involved a large theater room where squares for the speakers and TV needed to be cut out. We would have had to cut out those grilles for the speakers by hand before. Now we do a program in AutoCAD and download it to the machine, which actually cuts out everything. This can save us two hours alone, not to mention the perfection the machine can give the first time.”
Aspects of the kitchen on the same project would have also required a considerable amount of labor and time if done by hand, and some of it may not have been as aesthetically pleasing, he adds.
“We would have had to use a continuous 32mm line drill before,” Rosenthal says. “With our CNC machine, we can pinpoint exactly where we want each hole to be and rout accordingly. That way, when you open up the cabinet you get a clean-looking interior instead of the ‘swiss cheese’ effect. This particular kitchen also had bulk heads, with each one having a C-channel routed in it. I think most people can imagine how long it would take to set up a jig to do 130 side panels and then rout each one.”
Without the CNC technology, labor would have eaten up most of the profits for a large project such as the one above. “It would have taken us over 20 weeks to do a project like the entire house in Swiss pearwood,” Rosenthal says.
“For doing redundancy, there is nothing better than that machine either,” he adds. “I believe we have taken that machine in a different direction to do things we find challenging by hand, as well as the repetitive work. Even if our work is one-of-a-kind, it is still worth it to use the machine rather than doing it by hand.”
Another example of the laborious and intricate work that European Design dreams up for its CNC machine is a living room space made of European plane tree veneer, which included a fireplace, entertainment center with a large curved design and an architectural ceiling piece.
“We relied on our CNC machinery immensely for this part of the project,” says Rosenthal. “We laid out all the forms on our CNC machine. Then we took sheets of material for curved cabinets on either side of a TV that we pressed and kerfed on the back, which made them flexible. We then bent it to the way we wanted it.
“We also made a light bridge,” continues Rosenthal, “that was designed to look like it was piercing the wall. We used the CNC to help us flare out the pieces so the wood grain wasn’t all going in one direction, to make it look more interesting. This was done intentionally rather than by accident.”
Making the CNC Work
“We do have one guy, Mike, who is the CNC machine operator,” Rosenthal says. “However, we have cross-trained employees or I can work on the machine when he cannot.
“Some of our woodworkers have taken a real interest in the point-to-point machine, so much so that we have an open station for programming. We have four woodworkers who can come up to the station and program their own stuff and send it back to the machine. They can have Mike run it or run it themselves if he isn’t here.
“That has been an advantage, too,” continues Rosenthal. “The reason being, if all of us up front were busy, we would be interrupted by someone asking ‘Hey, could you run this part for us.’ Therefore, having the extra station has really alleviated that and helped us be more efficient.”
Another challenge that the company encountered and addressed head-on was space.
“We really grew into our 15,000 square feet of space here,” says Rosenthal.
“The machine was in our main bay at first and it was cramped. We decided that we had to dedicate one area for the point-to-point machine in another section of the shop. That is the CNC area, period.
“I think small custom shops need to think of the footprint that a machine like this takes up, because it uses an enormous amount of space. Custom shop owners also need to take into consideration their dust collection needs and whether or not it is economical from a business point of view,” Rosenthal adds.
But business considerations aside, the company’s attitude is what gives it the ability to use the machinery to its fullest design potential. For instance one project started as just a wall and a fireplace. This blank canvas ultimately became an 18-foot-high “art-piece” mantle/ shelf with a large piece of contemporary art in the center made of three different panes of colored glass.
Rosenthal says the piece is the first thing people see when they walk into the home. This client, in particular, gave them the freedom to come up with the project design themselves, even down to the design of the glass.
“We like it when we are allowed to play with the design and can design projects ourselves,” says Rosenthal. “That is the attitude we take on projects and with our CNC machinery. I like to compare it to cooking. If we can add a little bit of salt and pepper and it still does not taste right, we can just add more salt, pepper or different ingredients. We are constantly putting projects together and then standing back and saying, ‘What would happen if we added a little bit here or changed that there.’
“We are always finding new things that we and the machinery can do. Now we can do whatever we dream up on the CNC machine.”
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