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JOEL Joel's Blog

The Future of Furniture - Part 5 - Forming Sheet Goods


The Future of Furniture - Part 5 - Forming Sheet Goods 1
Click here for Part 1 - Introduction
Click here for Part 2 - Goals
Click here for Part 3 - Information
Click here for Part 4 - What Can a Newbie Build

I think it is fair to say that most furniture is made of solid wood or sheet goods - the latter being plywood, melamine, or MDF, depending on budget and design considerations. As discussed in the last blog, cutting sheets goods accurately and with a clean, ready-to-glue edge isn't trivial, and it's a real roadblock for a lot of beginners who are just trying to build their first pieces of useful furniture.

The obvious solution is to use a table saw, panel saw, or a portable saw and rail system like the Festool TS55. The first method requires a large amount of free floor space - eight feet on each side of the saw. The second method requires eight or nine running feet along a wall. The last method requires saw horses, and at least ten or so clear feet to set up the saw and have a little room to work on a full sized (8') panel. All of these methods require an initial capital expense of $600 and up and some training (not much).

I don't think any hand tool can cut a clean edge in plywood, so I don't think that's practical for any except very rough work.

Professional cabinetmakers in New York City have similar problems. Space is at a premium, and while having a table saw is pretty important for some of the work, breaking down panels to exact size can be slow, and errors are expensive. Noah Grossman, a cabinetmaker located in Brooklyn, applies a solution to the problem that is becoming more and more popular among professional woodworkers.
The Future of Furniture - Part 5 - Forming Sheet Goods 2

The walnut plywood panels above are part of a sideboard Noah designed and built, but instead of cutting all the material in his own shop (which he certainly has the capacity to do), Noah found it was easier and cheaper to outsource the cutting up of the panels to a CNC shop.

All across the country, CNC shops offer exact dimension cutting of sheet goods usually for a fixed cost over material cost. CNC shops can cut, rebate, drill, form splines for joinery, drill for hinges, and perform many other operations. Unlike a small shop with a basic CNC router, the best of these shops have sophisticated materials-handling equipment and automatic tool changers for flexibility. Modern CNC shops are set up to handle sheet after sheet of goods far more efficiently than any single person feeding a table saw could. Another bonus: as long as the CNC receives a correct data file, it's their responsibility for tear-out, damage, and any other screw-ups. Other parts of cabinets can also be outsourced very economically. There are many companies that will be happy to make dovetailed drawers for you in any size and quality for your cabinet. Noah did point out that outsourcing the sheet goods was only part of the project. The base of this sideboard was made from solid, using regular methods, in his shop.

Currently I am not aware of any CNC shops that cater to weekend warriors. Pro shops just don't want to deal with the learning curve and hand holding amateurs need. But I think in the future, after some brave entrepreneurs decide to specialize in the non-professional market, outsourcing the cutting of sheet goods will be a major facilitator for sheet good projects of all kinds. If you want to build a kitchen as a part-timer, having everything correctly cut for you makes a very large project manageable. Outsourcing precise material cutting will also encourage the creation of all sorts of free-form furniture that an amateur can design but can't really make in a regular shop. Most importantly, the parts of a project, as in Noah's case, that are made of solid wood, can be made by hand in a small shop.

I don't see much advantage in owning your own CNC machine if you are only doing a few projects a year.

Noah called this approach "Custom Ikea," and he's not far wrong. But big deal! Much of modern furniture design look like Ikea design, only better made, out of better materials. Ikea specializes in modern furniture; just because something in an Ikea store looks at a distance like your modern project is no reason not to build modern stuff, if that's what you want.

The last picture, another project by Noah Grossman and Alec Gessner, is a fairly straightforward run of white cabinets. Here CNC was used to cut up a large amount of similar panels. This is a real win for the small shop because handling that many sheets of lightweight MDF is a physical and logistics challenge in a small shop. Getting the dozen or so cabinets correctly cut and ready for assembly makes for a better, quicker job.

Note: You are all invited to our book signing party for Yoav Liberman celebrating the publication of his new book: Working Reclaimed Wood: A Guide for Woodworkers, Makers & Designers.
When: Saturday December 15, 12 - 3 pm at our showroom in Brooklyn.

Yoav's approach to "The Future of Woodworking" is non-traditional, and shows the potential of what you as a maker can do with wood, using as an inspiration some existing materials that have exhausted their original purpose.

Snacks and stuff will be provided.

The Future of Furniture - Part 5 - Forming Sheet Goods 3

Join the conversation
12/05/2018 Bob Groh
Very interesting and thoughtful. While, for my piddly stuff, I don't see any economical use for CNC, for a furniture shop - totally.
12/05/2018 Jim
What ever happened to cutting a 4 X 8 panel with three 2 X 4s screwed on top of two sturdy sawhorses, using a clamped straightedge and a circular saw? It works great and can be done in a 6’ X 10’ area.
12/05/2018 Eric Weissman
I do have a table saw and the space in which to use it, but I still break down full-size sheets into manageable pieces with a circular saw and a dead-simple shop-made guide I saw in something like Popular Mechanics forty years ago. Cut a 12" strip from the long dimension of a sheet of plywood. Cut a narrow strip from the factory edge for the saw's shoe to ride against and affix it to the remainder farther from the edge than the saw will cut. Use the blade you will be breaking down panels with. The first time you run the saw along the guide the cut edge will tell exactly where the saw will run subsequently. Position it over your marks, clamp down and cut away. You do not need to invest in a track saw.

Of course, I'm an amateur and don't do this day after day.
12/06/2018 Steve Eckel
I cut sheet goods with a zero clearance jig along which I slide a circular saw with a finish blade. Gives a “splay-free” cut.
12/06/2018 John Eugster
I'm in agreement with the other comments, with a small shop or garage space it's really not a problem to break down the sheets before you bring them in. Straight edge (shop made) and my small Porter Cable trim saw and sometimes in the back of the truck make this easy enough. Seems to me, with my old school attitude that if I have a CNC company cut the sheet goods, then another one make my drawers, and then assemble the hole thing with a Kreg jig I've left the realm of woodworker to one of talented assembler!
I think didn't express my point well enough. For some people doing everything from soup to nuts is part of the challenge, excitement, and interest. For others, especially beginners, the cost and learning curve for woodworking - especially when the goal is something practical, is a turnoff. Also a person with a home shop might be more than happy to do a small project that is a labor of love, but be turned off by the amount of labor it takes to do a kitchen - especially if the person doesn't think that they will live in the house very long. There are no hard and fast rules here and the goal of woodworking as a hobby for people vary. And most important anything that enables more people to make stuff I think is a good thing.
12/06/2018 Daniel Burgoyne
When I realized that I could buy a sheet of wonderful oak or walnut plywood and have it cut to dimensions by the store, it allowed me to transport the material in my small car to my new apartment and assemble and finish it in the room where it was going to be used. I am not saying that this is the future of furniture making - just my way of getting some things built cheaper for my apartment.
01/04/2019 mike
Joel, there is a company called Cabinotch that is owned by one of the large forest products companies. They are not exactly the outsourced CNC solution you describe, but close. They don’t take custom orders but have a template library of 100s (or more) cabinets (both face frame and euro style). They are designed as kitchen and bath cabinets but with a little creativity can be made into furniture. They supply the carcase and face frame pre milled, pre-cut and ready for glue. You add doors, hardware, molding, decorative touches and finishes. It is a great small shop solution. I work out of a one car garage and have made a decent about of money of using their kits. My shop (and skills) are perfect for making doors, drawers, etc but wrestling sheets of 3/4” ply is difficult in my space.
01/10/2019 Chad
It's not really possible for you to fail to express your point as you have never had one. There are as many small-scale fabrication shops as there are grammar checkers. The fact that you're unaware of these and other facts doesn't really mean too much to anyone outside of Shady Pines.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.