Brian Whitehurst helped customers solve difficult programming challenges while working for a reseller of leading high-end CNC programming software before starting his own woodworking shop. Whitehurst saw a market opportunity and decided to go off on his own, producing complicated architectural ornamentation that was mostly made by skilled craftsmen working with power tools. Whitehurst has since carved out a substantial market niche by producing decorative wood carvings on CNC machines.
“CNC machining is taking the architectural ornamentation industry by storm by producing a better product at a lower price,” Whitehurst says.
In his previous job, Whitehurst was a senior applications engineer representing Delcam, a CAD/CAM software supplier to the mold, tool and die sector. His job was to work with manufacturing businesses that were having difficulty producing complicated parts, determine a software solution that would meet their needs and train their staff. When very difficult problems arose, Whitehurst would write the CNC program himself. During this time, he felt the urge to start a business of his own.
Although the majority of his experience was in the metalworking industry, he was drawn to woodworking because so many companies were still using power tools to produce the increasingly complex parts being demanded by the architectural market. Another attraction was woodworking machinery’s lower price point.
Quality at a low price
“I was confident that I could provide far better quality and lower prices by using a CNC machine to compete with companies and individuals that were producing carvings by hand,” Whitehurst says.
Producing complicated pieces such as carved moldings and friezes is a slow process by hand. First piece production is typically assigned to an experienced craftsman who cuts it out with hand and power tools. Less experienced workers can then duplicate the piece using a tracer. The result is often a piece that requires extensive finishing by hand, to chisel and sand the piece the way a customer wants it.
“The beauty of a CNC machine is that you can define every detail of the piece to absolute perfection in your CAD/CAM software and then do something else while the machine produces the part,” Whitehurst says. “While programming is a labor-intensive process akin to cutting out the first piece by hand, once it is completed other pieces can be produced without the attention of a person except for loading raw wood and unloading finished pieces on the machine and occasionally checking to be sure the tool hasn’t worn out or broken. The result is that architectural ornamentation can be produced at a much more competitive price on CNC machines.”
The first critical decision facing Whitehurst as he began operations was which CNC machine to purchase. He was aware that a new class of machines that has appeared over the last several years is far less expensive than machines designed for metalworking yet offers similar accuracy on wood and plastics. After studying these machines, he selected a PC-driven CNC wood router from Techno, Inc.
“With this setup, I have found that I can produce just about anything that customers ask for,” Whitehurst says. “For example, one customer asked for a molding that looks like a grapevine with the grapes protruding in 3D. They gave me a picture of what they wanted which I scanned and then turned into a 3D model. To transform the 2D image into a true 3D relief with a hand-carved look works this way. The artwork is colored by the use of brushes and flood fill tools and each color is assigned to an individual 3D shape profile. The different types of profiles that can be generated include plane, round and angular. The parameters of these profiles are controlled by defining the basic shape, start height, limit height and wall angle, giving almost total control over a wide range of 3D effects. The program builds 3D reliefs by assigning a height to each pixel in the 2D image. I provided my own artistic interpretation and also designed the molding in such a way that it can be machined quickly. I cut a sample piece in MDF, give it to the customer, listen to their feedback and then modify the program so that the finished pieces are exactly what they want.”
“Another interesting piece that I made recently is called a corbel – a triangular decorative bracket that fits in the corner between a ceiling and wall,” Whitehurst says. “The program takes a solid block of wood and whittles it down to an intricate 3D design on three sides. The complexity was so great that I didn’t get it exactly right the first time. I cut sample parts in inexpensive wood and then measured the errors and used them as an offset to correct the program.”
Whitehurst adds that his new business has also spawned several offshoots. While he is building his production machining business, he also acts as a consultant to other woodworking companies that want to establish a 3D machining capability and provides custom programming services.
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