Digital Woodworking Tools in 2016

A Good Year for Digital Woodworking Tools

Using a 3-axis CNC, the underside of a sofa table’s ovoid shaped top is being rough cut in 3D. The edge is a combination of a tapered angular bevel on the sides that graduates to a progressively curved taper over the length of the top. Sounds complicated, but once you work out the design in 3D CAD software and do the CAM programming, it’s an easy task for the CNC to do. 

When it comes to digital woodworking, you can comfortably say that in 2016 we live in interesting times. Woodworking never sits still. There are always new options and methods being created for new ways to do things. The same is true when it comes to the tools we use. When you add digital technology, the evolution moves more quickly. In the last 18 months or so, we’ve seen several companies begin to offer CNCs that are well designed and sized right for woodworking tasks in small shops. Since digital tools are still new to many woodworkers, I thought I’d wrap up 2016 with a look at the state of digital woodworking hardware. We’ll focus on CNCs. We will get into laser cutters later on next year. So, let’s have a look at what’s available.

Desktop Sized CNCs

There are a lot of small machines that are suited for small carvings, but for more powerful machines with the added size, precision and power to cut furniture parts out of hardwood, there are few options. In the desktop sized category, there’s the 18” x 24” ShopBot Desktop. It may be small but it’s a capable CNC with a lot packed into a small package, linear rail guides for precision and a small industrial spindle that’s quiet and powerful for its size.

Small Shop CNCs

I consider this the sweet spot of digital woodworking CNCs. All of these machines are big enough to make many furniture parts (sometimes you’ll have to use special techniques for larger parts) but small enough to fit in most home shops. The are sized 24” x 36” to 24” x 48”. They are well engineered, sturdy and accurate, use quality alignment and drive components capable of precision work, water cooled spindle options and a minimum Z clearance of 6”. The Laguna IQ even has 4″ of overhang on one end that you could use for edge, vertical and joinery work. They all also use simple hand-held control systems and are priced between $5500 to $8500.

Laguna Tools  IQ 24” x 36”

Axiom Precision 24” x 36” and 24” x 48”

ShopBot Desktop Max 24” x 36”

Powermatic 24” x 48”

ShopBot Buddy 24” x 32” and 24” x 48”

Laguna also offers the IQ Pro 24” x 36” CNC with a tool changer and the SmartShop 4-Axis 24” x 48” machine with a rotational 4th axis. Make sure you watch the video of it carving a rifle stock in action. Wood turners will be impressed.

Mid-Sized CNCs

If you’ve got a little more room in your shop for a larger CNC then you might consider a 48” x 48” machine. There are a number of machines available. Laguna has several models in the midsize range as does Axiom Precision, Legacy, ShopBot and others. Prices are definitely coming down. These larger machines start around $12,000.

Large CNCs

Larger CNCs in the 48” x 96” sizes and above are readily available if you’ve got the space and power. There are a number of excellent industrial grade makers of large machines, but for the purpose of this article, I’ll be sticking to the more well known moderately priced suppliers who typically use mechanical hold downs rather than more expensive and power hungry vacuum systems. The big change in the last two years is that the entry level price point has dropped significantly to $16,000 and up.

Laguna Swift Series of T-Table CNCs 48” x 96” and larger

ShopBot PRSalpha CNCs at 48” x 96” and larger

Just above this size range and feature set is Felder. This well known Austrian maker of high-end woodworking machinery has an extensive CNC line. Some of their 48” x 96” and larger CNCs in standard packages with vacuum tables, tool changers and very fast speeds are available at remarkable prices never before seen on European machines.

New CNCs

New CNC designs for woodworkers have been introduced by Legacy Woodworking Machinery. They offer CNCs in interesting configurations that are well suited for woodworking tasks. From 24” x 60” to 32” x 72” and more. These are great sizes for furniture making with a lot of thought put into woodworking friendly features such as over travel so you can clamp work on the end of the table, adjustable beds or a 4th axis for rotation for CNC turning.

CNC Kits

If you want to build your own CNC, I recommend taking the kit approach rather than attempting to build one from scratch. Doing it right on your own is harder than it seems. Two great kit suppliers come to mind. CNC Router Parts has kits of all sizes. They are well engineered and thought out, especially the Professional line.

Here is what happens when you get a designer involved. Brian Oltrogge’s beautiful Platform Grumblau 48” x 30” Platform CNC is certainly one of the best designed and yet inexpensive CNCs available in kit form.

2017 Will be the Year of the Smart Tool

Looking ahead to 2017, it’s not just about traditional CNCs. It going to be the year that Smart Tools start to enter woodworking shops. By that, I mean tools that are similar to the power tools we already know but with digital smarts added to increase precision, capability and usefulness. Smarts, accuracy and price will start to break down some of the resistance to adopting digital tools. Just as Festool Dominos have found their way into many woodworking shops because they just make sense, Smart Tools will work their way in as well.

The ShaperTools Origin is one of the most anticipated new digital tools in the coming year. I wrote about it previously and will have more about it soon. It combines a hand-held router that uses digitally controlled correction to deliver CNC accuracy. Its touch screen interface and downloadable online plans make it a tool that’s easy to use and beginner friendly. The best of MIT smarts and Silicon Valley combined into one very smart router. Availability is expected to be September 2017.

Another smart tool similar in concept to the Origin is ShopBot’s Handibot. Built around a router, it is portable but, “moveable” might be a more accurate description. It’s pretty large. Unlike the Origin, the designs you run on it have to be created outside the machine.

The Maslow CNC, which I’ve covered here and here is a CNC kit that, along with a router, some plywood and lumber, gives a plywood-focused woodworker close to CNC accuracy in a vertical CNC for under $500. That’s right, $500. It is expected to be available in May 2017.

Looking ahead

Digital woodworking is still something of a new idea for a lot of woodworkers. Through this blog for Popular Woodworking, possible future print articles and my own blog site at Woodworking.Digital, early in 2017 we’ll continue to introduce basic concepts, ideas, equipment and methods. But, once that foundation is laid it won’t all be about introductions. Woodworkers want practical uses, projects, techniques and examples of ways to put these tools to regular work. We’re going to do a lot of that.

This coming year, I’ll begin to write about the CAD, CAM and other software that’s needed for digital woodworking. Several complete digital projects are already planned, including of all things, a new workbench designed for hand-tool woodworking that’s partially made with digital tools. How’s that for a dichotomy? With any project, I’ll include alternative hybrid methods wherever possible for woodworkers that don’t have digital tools.

Finally, it’s good to remember that though these tools are digital, they still have much in common with both hand-tool and hybrid woodworking. As always, use hand tools, power tools and digitals tools whenever they are most appropriate and in the ways that you prefer. In all three often overlapping methods, we need to work smart. So I’ll have much to say about good techniques, working accurately and workflow in digital woodworking.

All the best, and here’s to a great 2017. Now, get out to the shop and make something.

— Tim Celeski

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