CNC Router Aids Woodworker in 3D Design Production
May 6, 2013 | 10:31 am CDT

CNC Router Aids Woodworker in 3D Design ProductionWoodworker and former graphic designer Grant Nicholson was looking for a tool that could turn his design concepts into physical objects. He decided to purchase a computer numerical control (CNC) router because of its ability to produce 3D designs and to work with natural materials such as wood.

Nicholson selected an LC series CNC router from Techno because of the closed loop servo control with ball screw drives, which provide greater accuracy and durability than other systems he looked at. In addition, the Techno Windows-based CNC interface had a look-ahead performance that allowed the machine to route 3D parts at very high speeds and not lose position. This also includes small cavity segments, which is very important because of the detail in these areas.

Nicholson said the router has helped his company, Nicholson Design, rise to the cream of the crop in his region because of its ability to produce complex 3D designs that his competitors can’t match. The company, based in Owen Sound, ON, Canada, produces a wide range of woodworking products such as wood floor inlays and newels for stairposts.

“My Techno router pays for itself every year by increasing the quality of my work and reducing amount of time required to produce it,” Nicholson said. “I think of the router as a virtual chisel and sometimes I stay awake at night thinking about its endless possibilities.”

Nicholson received his visual arts degree in 1992 and since then has worked for both small companies and large companies such as Transcontinental Printing and Quebecor Printing. Just before starting his own firm, he spent nine years working for a local government agency, designing museum exhibits, tourism promotions, signs and publications.

“The availability of economical CNC machines with the ability to produce finely detailed work was a big factor in encouraging me to strike out on my own,” Nicholson said. “Consider how labor intensive the creation process used to be. The great sculptors had teams of assistants that would carve out the basic form. The sculptor supervised their work and made the finishing touches. In the modern day, we can’t afford a team of people yet we yearn for beautiful work that is not produced by the thousands, but rather matched to our individual tastes.”

Nicholson said that as he started planning his business, he looked as several alternate production methods. He liked the ability of 3D printing to produce an endless variety of shapes but did not like the fact that it is limited to a few different types of plastics. He looked at waterjet and plasma cutting but did not want to be constrained to producing 2D objects. CNC routers, on the other hand, provide the ability to produce 3D designs and to work with nearly any type of wood as well as foam, plastic and synthetic wood products.

“I looked at a number of different CNC routers,” Nicholson said. “Maintenance and reliability was my biggest concern. I was afraid that if the machine broke down my business would die. After meeting with the Techno salesman and seeing the machine I had confidence in its reliability. The most important reason was that, unlike the other machines I looked at in its price range, the Techno uses ball screws to move the axes.”

Ball screws have excellent power transmission due to the rolling ball contact between the nut and screws. This type of contact ensures low friction, low wear, and long life. The use of ballscrews makes it possible to produce wooden parts to a machine resolution of 0.0005 inch.

Nicholson purchased a number of router accessories which he said have played a big role in his success. The vacuum table saves time by avoiding the need to clamp every piece he cuts to the table. “I might cut out 200 parts in one setup of the machine,” he said. “It would be a nightmare to clamp each of them in place but with the vacuum table I simply place a full sheet of plastic on the table, nest the parts in the software to get the best material yield, and the vacuum holds everything in place as they are routed.”

The micro drop coolant head sprays a fine droplet of coolant onto the workpiece which is needed for cutting nonferrous metals such as aluminum and brass. In addition the Techno vision registration system accurately orients the cutter with respect to a printed image. The vision system automatically views printed dots on the sheet and corrects for any linear or rotational errors in the image or placement of the material on the machine, thus routing the contour of the shape perfectly.

Nicholson uses the CNC router to produce a wide range of wooden objects. He has created a number of newel posts, the ornamented first post at the bottom of a stairway. He has also built wood inlays by cutting interlocking pieces made from multiple types and colors of wood and veneers.

He produced a table that features a maple leaf carved into a piece of wood and surrounded by concentric ripples radiating outward. Nicholson took a photograph of a leaf and converted it to a toned extrusion. He then drew the cross-section of a ripple and spun it around to create a 3D shape. He used the router to machine the shape onto the rectangular top of a coffee table, where the 3D artwork will be protected beneath a glass top. Nicholson has also made kitchen cabinets, custom trim to match curved windows, and many other objects.

A touch probe inserted into the machine’s collet can be used to copy a 3D surface, a practice known as reverse engineering. An example of how the touch probe is used was when a client brought in a wood hand carving that he wanted Nicholson to reproduce and engrave on the 3D surface. Nicholson was able to use his LC Series machine to copy the 3D image automatically. Without the Techno machine this job would have been impossible.

The machine collected a 3D point cloud of the sculpture which he then imported into his design (CAD) software. Using various programs including EnRoute, Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and Z-Brush, Nicholson was able to manipulate the CAD data and cut the part.

Nicholson also makes 3D engraved signs. The process begins by painting or applying vinyl to the background material for a sign. A masking material is then applied to the surface. Using pointed v-carving bits, text or imagery is then machined into the sign surface. The machining is then painted. When the mask is removed, the painted artwork exhibits clean painted edges against the sign's colored background. Achieving this kind of crisp detail would be very difficult and time-consuming to produce by hand.

Nicholson produced a unique sign with a 30-inch diameter face of Medusa, a female monster in Greek mythology with snakes in place of hair. He machined the head in 2-inch thick slices of urethane sign foam to accommodate the z-axis travel of the machine and glued them together to complete the sign.

Nicholson also produces wood signs, sometimes using images as ornaments. Many router software packages employ a method of "tone extrusion" whereby the tone of an image corresponds to its depth. The darker the tone of an image, the deeper the resulting relief. For example, a photograph of a maple leaf can be sculpted in 3 dimensions by adjusting the tone in an image-editing program, extruding into 3D in the router software, then machining it into the sign using the CNC device.

“The machine has been incredibly reliable,” Nicholson said. “It has never required any service and has had almost no downtime in three years of operation. Techno has been incredibly supportive whenever I have had a problem. For example, once a pulley failed on one of the axes. I took a photo of the pulley and sent it to tech support. They sent me a replacement by overnight delivery and walked me through the process of installing it over the phone the next day. We also had an earthquake that knocked the machine out of alignment. Tech support walked me through the process of recalibrating the machine and I was up and running once again.

“The Techno router has many diverse possibilities that help me supply virtually anything my customers can imagine,” Nicholson concluded. "Advancements in software, coupled with these devices, offer an unprecedented opportunity for the creative designer to produce their ideas in full dimension, in house.  It has been a great adventure understanding the broad capabilities of this machine and I continue to discover new possibilities on a regular basis."

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