Menushopping cart
Tools for Working Wood
Invest in your craft. Invest in yourself.

JOEL Joel's Blog

CNC Routing - Not Always at the Lowest Common Demoniator.


CNC Routing - Not Always at the Lowest Common Demoniator.  4A few weeks ago when I wrote about the CNCed plywood furniture at Maker Faire, the comments we numerous and scathing. I don't disagree. But the question was raised about what happens when someone with an appreciation for traditional design wants to use CNC to cost effectively extend what can be done by hand.

We make our Gramercy Tools dovetail saws by CNC'ing a walnut blank and then hand finishing it.

CNC Routing - Not Always at the Lowest Common Demoniator.  5The reason it all works is that the person who programs the CNC router to produce our handles not only has an appreciation of the type of details we look for, but also is a master CNC artist. This is craftsmanship of a digital kind followed by craftsmanship of a traditional kind that enables us to have such nice handles - not some magic bullet machine.

It wasn't easy to find a shop that could make the handle. The handle itself started out as a composite sketch based on actual 19th century saw handles and was modified and adapted to our dovetail saw and to what our testing thought worked best and looked nice. A lot of what we wanted to do was capture the design sensibility in both look and feel of an early 19th century saw handle. We think that the geometry we use, a combination of the lightness of the saw and the high hang of the handle makes it easier for a person to saw straight. But the ease of use also has to do with how the saw feels in the hand which is partly a function of the quality of the finish of the handle. We also think that the traditional look is important to get right because it helps put you in the frame of mind of the time period of furniture you are making.

One example of the detailing is that we thought the tiny radius that at the base of the horns on the top of the saw handle looked too industrial. We increased the radius for strength and then added decorative "file" notches to give a crisp demarcation line that looks better but doesn't weaken the handle. It's a Victorian feature that you see on planes a lot. The "file" is in quotes because in the first run of handles we would used a saw file to add the notches. That's the traditional way and it takes two seconds. Currently the notches are added as part of the CNC routing.

Once we actually had a proper 3D model we sent the handle out to bid. I don't remember the number of CNC firms who flat out turned us down, or the number who quoted crazy prices. I do know that the number wasn't small and the reason was that the companies that were able to do the programming to produce the blank didn't have the ability to do the hand work needed for finishing. And the companies that could do the hand finishing just didn't have the programming chops to make the handle cost effectively.

Finally, when our current handle maker said "maybe" I was ready to dance in the street (The Macarena if you must know - this was a few years ago). For the handle maker it was a chance to push his craft and we are so happy he did. The final picture shows an unfinished handle - as it came off the CNC compared to finished handle.

CNC Routing - Not Always at the Lowest Common Demoniator.  6The point of this post is to show you from practical experience that CNC made doesn't have to be primitive or the lowest common denominator. A CNC router is a tool like any other and in the hands of great craft people great stuff can be made.
Join the conversation
11/13/2013 Jim Pape
Being a purist in any moral endeavor is a lovely goal and a laudable achievement if, and only if, you have the resources to accomplish it and maintain it. I love hand tools, I use some power tools, but I don't have the resources of time, energy and money to only use power tools, and there is nothing wrong with that. Also, I admire anyone that has mastered his/her craft whether it is digital, analog, hand-tool, power tool or an amalgam. Kudos to all the masters and thank you Joel for mastering the production of a quality product!
I understand that manufacturers want to minimize the amount of time it takes to produce the maximum amount of product resulting in the maximum amount of profit. I do not, however, agree with it; especially in the field of hand tools.

In my opinion, using hand tools is a return to genuine, physical human craftsmanship. It is a pure craft that exhibits the talent, skill and personality of the craftsman. It is a craft that draws human individuals together. It is a skill that is best taught sitting "knee to knee" as it were; a father teaching his son, a master teaching an apprentice. It is human connection and intimacy. It provides work and purpose for those willing to spend the long hours, months and years perfecting the craft.

I do not agree that such a thing exists as "digital craftsmanship". To my ear, that sounds similar to calling a Janitor a "Custodial Engineer" or a garbage man a "Waste Management Technician".
In traditional woodworking, hand tools are an extension of the craftsman. In industrialized manufacturing, the human is merely a slave to the machine. Even the task of making the "file notches" that take "two seconds" by hand, you have chosen to surrender to the machine.

Introducing modern production techniques into the process is reintroducing the technology that almost caused its extinction in the first place. The industrial revolution ended the lives of countless careers and families.

As a manufacturer, this is all your prerogative, but I will not be purchasing any of these saws from you.
11/13/2013 Stuart J. Rubin
Loved the article.
Have a question - totally unrelated.
Want to attach a wooden handle to a refrigerator cover (wood with frame like a giant cabinet door)
I want to drill from the back into the wooden handle, leaving 3/4 inch of space between the handle and the door. I'm going to use a smaller dowel from the edge of the door frame into the dowel holding the handle away from the door, and another dowel through the handle into the larger dowel holding the door handle. Does this seem reasonable? Should I just use a screw from the back through a hollowed out dowel right into the handle?
I'd appreciate any suggestions.
11/13/2013 Danny H.
Brian, You are most certainly entitled to your opinions and beliefs and no disrespect to them but I think you just need to " Chill out ". I for one am grateful that I can purchase finely made, exquisite looking tools without having to pay a kings ransom for them, while still keeping my well earned money in this country.
It is obviously your choice where and from who you purchase your tools from. But if your criteria is you want hand tools to be made by hand you might have a problem with finding a supplier.
All of the saw makers use some sort of CNC, routers, power sanders, power saws to make their saw handles. And they have for at least 160 years. The question I would ask you is where are you drawing the line? Is it because we are trying to do something with a traditional sensibility that was not obviously done by machine and if we did a crude machine job it would be fine? And I am not trying to be flippant but so much hand work that was done was dangerous, boring, and repetitive that in my mind - work is work, doing the best job possible given the resources available, and do repetitive work by machine makes the skill part of the job that much more interesting.
11/13/2013 John
What has happened to the old ways? Not only are you using CNC to speed up handle construction, I'll bet you are using machine-made screws to hold that handle onto the blade. And, you probably didn't even smelt your own iron ore to make the saw steel, or the files to make the handle notches! What is the world coming to when people use the mathematics, science, and technology developed over the centuries of "modern civilization" to make things??!! OK - end of rant! I've got to go find a deer antler and some flint to make a new knife.
11/13/2013 Steven Ward
I understand Brian's point of view and comments. I happen to disagree for both pragmatic "real world" reasons and with respect to what matters with respect to the produced tool.

I build custom acoustic guitars by hand using hand tools and methods either equal to or close to those used over the last two hundred years or so. I enjoy it, this being my principal motivation. However I use finishing materials that were never available in those times long past, and I use a buffer. Now I also do French Polish all by hand though the dewaxed shellacs and reducers are essentially quite different from what was available to 18th century musical instrument makers... thank goodness!

I also happen to think that automation, usually based on return on investment and competitive pressures, which are manifestations of greed (call it what it really is, a pursuit for more profit as quickly as possible, with little or no consideration of medium or long term consequences, i.e. no sense of social responsibility let alone ethical and moral consideration, that is other than of the sophist variety which can justify anything), do result in permanent, non-recoverable social damage. I happen to think that there is a place, a responsibility, to uphold employment and avoid sudden displacement of workers through obsoleting their jobs and then just laying them off.

However, this so-called "social darwinism" was much worse in the 17th, 18th,19th centuries and well into the 20th century than it is now, though with automation we get acceleration of everything both in speed and scope, which means we can screw things up faster and on a larger scale, so laws which provide vastly superior worker protections are often nullified by the accelerations of technology. I for one am in favor of true social responsibility... well, this is sadly a pipe dream by and large. I am an engineer and technologist and I am in favor of socially responsible progress. Wouldn't it be nice if in obsoleting workers we first give them serious real retraining and offer them the new jobs generated? Also offering them retraining in a new profession should that be their choice and providing subsequent support in finding that new job, should they choose not to continue in their old work now transformed and upgraded by technology into a new job that should be protected for at least one year after their retraining is complete. Of course this is pooh-poohed as socialism and it certainly is a form of serious social responsibility. I am a fiscal conservative I guess, since I believe in only spending money you have though responsible loans that can actually be repair are a reasonable risk. So the anti-social meanstream just throws people on welfare and the government blindly borrows trillions. With no further comment on these thoughts I will get back to the main point. :-)

Handles prepped by CNC. As a custom handmade guitar builder (classical, flamenco, acoustic, etc) by traditional handmade methods, the whole point of tools is to build, by hand, the best guitar. I use finishes that make the better guitar and which players want and demand. Right now I don't spray anything but in principle I am not opposed to spraying a finish. I could build a sprayer compressor off a water wheel, windmill, foot peddle or bicycle frame for those mechanical purists out there.
:-) The saw handle is semi-rough cut by CNC out of top grade wood and is hand finished. The end result is an excellent saw. It would be more than possible to do this in a way that it would be impossible to tell that the saw was not made entirely by hand... the handle, anyway. :-)

All so-called handmade saw blades are made with improved methods, staring with the saw metal processing, using methods not available in the past, both recent and dim past. So do we really want to use what would be inferior metals to make our saws and other tools? Progress in metal technologies and other areas can still be applied in what we now call "handmade" tool production but I guarantee you the methods used now would astound our esteemed classical tool builders of times past.

Having said all of this, getting back to my motivations for building guitars by hand, sometimes we just pure pleasure from doing something the old-fashioned, anachronistic, inefficient way because it is enjoyable, though it could be inferior. That's where I draw the line. If there is a method that results in a notably superior result, well then I vote for a superior result. So far to date I can achieve a superior result using what are considered handmade methods though I am sure Tárrega would be amazed if he were here now and I am also equally sure he would jump at the chance to upgrade his skills... he was an innovator in his day though considered one of the foremost master guitar builders of guitar building history.

Sorry for the tome, I had some free time today. :-)

I would buy your saws in a New York minute, but they are pricey. Imagine what they would cost if you made them entirely by hand methods! And automation often does not increase or reduce the profit margin. the profit margin often remains about the same. But all handmade methods result in a higher price due more time, more labor but again the profit margin, what ends up in the worker/factory pocket after all overhead expenses, is often the same. Automation can reduce the production overhead a lot, of course. I dream of responsible environmental and technological progress with responsible serious social behavior (not just tokenism)... I am probably delusional. :-)
11/13/2013 Jim
Here's the existential problem, one of which will be solved as costs for a CNC router fall.

It costs too much for the average schmoe to start this way, and they take up considerable space.
The difference between a machinist punching in G-code and a woodworker is immediacy;
the CNC implement adds a layer of distance between the maker and the product.

It is more than just a tool, it's (often) a substitute for skill, where money buys proficiency.

Any woodworker that has completed the prior steps, making things by hand, may legitimately call
a CNC made product "woodworking".
11/13/2013 john baker
I do agree with Brian right up to: "In traditional woodworking, hand tools are an extension of the craftsman."

After that, not really.

I think that even those craftsmen at the dawn of the industrial revolution would have rellished the idea of a band saw just as Joel has latched onto the CNC. The smaller shops couldn't take advantage of the industrial revolution as readily as the large ones; the cost being too high. The term 'craftsman' during that time, outside of its use for a style, probably meant 'poor' more than anything else. As everyone in the business was in the business to make money it is no surprise that anything that helped make more money, quickly, especially in those days, was quickly taken advantage of.

I think we tend to romaticise how things were made before then, much like the cowboys have been romanticised. They both were difficult jobs with hard tasks...or taskmasters...that suffered few flaws in workers and didn't pay well until the job was mastered... and even then didn't pay very well. I have read most of 'Joiner and Cabinetmaker' and has it ever open my eyes to where our craft has come from, particularly the small poor shop without access to the 'latest greatest'. The products were very well made and reliable, if not beautiful as well; the trade was not. Skills were developed in order to make what little you had to work with work well and be reliable (Doesn't sound much different than the hobbiest today). That was how you got a reputation and more work.

I think the CNC machine should be seen as just a much quicker version of the band saw...and maybe more accurate as well. If you are in production and have many to do, why not!! Less time cutting; less time forming and finishing. There is still a place for the hand tool for one off jobs, for high end or reproduction work or restoration ...and for the band saw for much rough work.

Of, course, I'll never be able to afford one. =(
That just means I'll be getting real good with hand tools =)

God bless
11/13/2013 DB
Brian, having dealt with some members of the Westboro Baptist Church I can only say you scare me! Joel, keep up the good work. I think highly of your tools and your insight!
11/13/2013 Nck
CNC has one advantage people haven't mentioned. It's bespoke.

When you look at modern parametric CAD systems such as Solidworks, you can design a handle that is customisable. If you want a larger grip, its a parameters. If you want to change the angle of the handle, its a parameter. etc.

That means it becomes possible for the small scale producer to produce a handle customised for the customer to their preferences, and run it off, finish it by hand.

That's not large scale industrialisation, it is bespoke craft. The difference between an off the peg suit and a Saville row custom made suit. They will still use electric sewing machines, and finish by hand, made to measure to the customer.

That's what CNC can do at the top end.
11/13/2013 Stewie S.
Like all the saws in the Gramercy Tools line this saw is hammer set and hand filed which gives it a far smoother cutting action.

I would be guessing Joel this is being done after the teeth have been punched out on a Foley Machine.
11/13/2013 Stewie S.
I think Steven Ward summarized the bigger picture extremely well.
11/14/2013 MarvW
There is nothing new about using a CNC machine. They've been around for many years. The wood for a saw handle was once part of a tree. From the time it was part of a tree to when it gets mounted in a CNC machine it was sawed and planed and experienced a number of stages that entailed the use of modern machinery. So why all the ranting about using one more method to speed up the process of making a saw handle? My only concern for Joel is, he has found only one guy who would take on the task of making his handles in a CNC machine. When manufacturing anything in quantity, you must have more than one source for everything or any one thing can bring the process to a stand-still. My cap is off to Joel for doing whatever he can to speed up the saw making process as long as it does not detract from the quality. If it results in more profit, that only means to me that he'll stay in business longer so he can continue to supply us with not only good saws but everything else his business offers. By the way, Joel, I have a whole new concept for a saw handle you might be interested in. This is not a joke, I'm serious. Email me.
11/14/2013 Paul
I was a somewhat amused with Brian's "holier-than-thou" rant - he read your post via a computer, he replied via some sort of digital device. I'll bet he uses a pencil in his shop instead of a piece of carbon or coal. He probably even owns a gas powered vehicle. A bit of a hypocrite. :-). We use the tools that help us get the job done in the most efficient, cost effective manner; if we're doing it for ourselves we can afford to take the longer "hand-made" path. If we're trying to create a product to sell to feed our family we need to be more resourceful. If you hadn't told us you used CNC would we have known? Probably not. We thought your saws were beautiful before. Guess what - they still are. I've bought a couple of your hand tools. They are extremely well designed and well made - CNC and all.
11/15/2013 Brian J. Stafford
I should like to offer my gratitude to you gentlemen for illustrating much of my point most perfectly while remaining most unaware of it. It would also seem that there is a collective agreement that if we cannot retain every aspect of integrity in the use of hand tools, then to the wind with it entirely.

I was unaware that offering my thoughts was to give such license to attacks on my character; especially the thoughts of Mr. "D.B." and his vulgar inference of me being connected to the Westboro Baptist Church, no doubt expressing his personal disgust with my faith that I made no mention of here and that has nothing whatsoever in common with WBC.

I thank Paul for pointing out to me that if I use anything other than a broken rock to work with, then I have no right to call for tradition in any aspect. I could go on with individual accolades, but I believe you get the point. I am confident that you all may rest most peacefully knowing that you have done your part to ensure that people like myself no longer feel welcome to share their thoughts.

Many thanks, gentlemen, many thanks.
11/15/2013 Shawn
I also wonder why you use CNC? It doesn't really help with the price. At $190 it's not a particular cheap dovetail saw. And the shape looks like it's made with a round over router bit. What are the benefits?
11/15/2013 Charlie Simpson
I enjoyed your article. If you are ever looking for other CNC shops, or need a quote, please give us a call (
11/20/2013 Dan Sutterlin Http://
I think the real beef we as tool buyers should have is the marketing of such tools. I know I feel like puking sawdust when I see a Holtey plane selling for the same money (or more in some cases) that you can get a Sauer and Steiner for. One is a handmade tool and one is a production tool. This is a huge difference and we as tool buyers need to be aware.
I have a machine shop full of guys who could make a precise, beautiful plane from blueprints using modern equipment. It should be understood that one type of tool represents a craft and one is an art, and should be purchased as such. It needs to be CLEAR that there is absolutely no art involved in CNC manufacturing at this level and a tech school graduate should be able to do this stuff on his first day on the job. Honestly.
The real point here is the following: I can print out a copy of Starry Night but I could never paint it. Sometimes though, a print is all we want. The onus is on us to be skillful enough to know the difference.
Konrad (whose stuff is brilliant) has his side plates water jetted, a CNC Machine. The art in CNC is in the programming. And as a corollary being able to program CNC well enough so that you don't need a 5 axis machine drive up your costs prohibitively. You also need a crew that understands where the machine stops and handwork begins. And if it were so darn easy to produce the result we need we would not have seen such variance in bidding, refusals to bid on the project, and such second and third rate quality all over the place.
11/21/2013 Dan Sutterlin
You and I both know the difference between the two makers, and I think they are incomparable in terms of hand work and overall beauty. My point was that being educated and knowing what you are buying is job one.
The reason most shops will no quote making wooden parts is that it DESTROYS CNC equipment. Sawdust is like a sponge that leaches the life blood (lube) off of every working surface in what is most likely a 100+ thousand dollar piece of equipment. The numbers just don't justify ruining a machine for what is most likely a very low dollar job. The major variance in bidding had a lot to do with the mess and maintenance involved and trying to quantify that is not easy. Congrats on finding someone willing to do it for a reasonable cost.
While I cannot say that throwing wood at a regular machinist would be an "easy" proposition, the programming is not complicated at all. And by the way, Reverse engineering the side of a Spiers panel plane and making a 2d profile is a 2 hour job at best.
Let me be clear. I absolutely love the fact that high quality "user" tools are available from firms like yourself, lee valley, and lie neilsen. This can only make the industry stronger. If everyone thought like Brian (above), I could barely afford to own one plane and I would never want to use it.
11/23/2013 john power
Every tool invented was an attempt to improve on what was available or what came before, the CNC machine is no different from a metal hand plane in that regard. I learned to make furniture by hand and worked for many years making high end custom furniture using both hand and power tools- I left the trade just as CNC/CAD was coming into use. Working wood by hand, is really hard work! I'm talking 8+ hrs a day 5+ days a week etc. If your using hardwoods it is even more labor/energy intensive. The romance of working wood by hand wears off pretty quick when you've been rasping, sawing, hand planing a stack of parts hours on end for days. I've done it - your elbows, back, shoulders, fingers hurt and it gets really boring. Using a machine/tool that makes work more efficient and less taxing on your body is the right tool for the job. CNC is the obvious tool for plywood, sheet goods and repetitive cutting/shaping operations. I have great respect for anyone who can make a living in this day making things by hand. The other 99% of woodworkers who need to feed their family, a CNC is the right tool to make their business viable.
12/04/2013 Billy Jensen
CNC makes the work faster. It doesn't mean that it has a lower quality because design and detail is the same since the CNC product can be finished with a traditional method anyway.
Comments are closed.
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.
JOEL Joel's Blog
BEN Built-It Blog
BREN Video Roundup
EVT Classes & Events
WORK Work Magazine
Newer Entries...
JOELTransferring Patterns to Wood and Other News - 01/08/2014
JOELThis Weekend in Brooklyn, Quiz Show Answers and Gramercy Tools WorldWide - 01/01/2014
JOELMerry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Happy and Healthy New Year - and It's Quiz Time - 12/25/2013
JOELHoops, Handles, & Ferrules - 12/18/2013
JOELDecorative Japanese Chisels - 12/11/2013
JOELApparel Oft Proclaims The Man* (upping your game) - 12/04/2013
JOELHock Knife Kits! - 11/28/2013
JOELBooks You Should Read This Year (If You Haven't Already Done So) - 11/27/2013
JOELMathieson Cabinetmaker's Floats and Early Shapers - 11/20/2013
JOELCNC Routing - Not Always at the Lowest Common Demoniator. - 11/13/2013
JOELGlovewear Comes to Town - 11/06/2013
JOELMaker Faire Furniture - 10/30/2013
JOELSappy all Over and Holdfasts & Saw Vises are Back In Stock - 10/23/2013
JOELWoodworking in America Is This Weekend! (and some last thoughts on Maker Faire) - 10/16/2013
JOELA Visit to the Kaufman Collection - Empire Furniture is Truly Hideous and Other News - 10/09/2013
JOELArchitectural Woodworking - A Wedding in the Mansion - 10/02/2013
JOELMaker Faire Was Maker Fabulous - 09/25/2013
JOELMaker Faire - Who, What, When, Where, & How - This Weekend! - 09/17/2013
JOELMy Disappointing Visit To The Renwick Gallery (and other news) - 09/10/2013
JOELPractical Sculpture - Chess Pieces in the Village - A Visit to the Chess Forum - 08/27/2013
Older Entries...