The first time I saw a lot of furniture that had been CNC-milled out of plywood was at a Maker Faire some years past. 

The furniture was clever stuff. The more interesting designs interlocked without any additional fasteners, some of the simpler stuff used a few screws. I was deeply impressed... Until I thought about it.

We can't deny that a CNC router is a useful tool. Sometimes you see it used to dumb down a traditional design such as a frame and panel, where the panel is faked by simply routing the depression into an MDF board. This is loads faster than doing it the traditional way, and if the client doesn't care that it's fake, makes good business sense. But at the same time, more and more shops use CNC for making real parts, sometimes at the very high end. Dovetail drawers are a snap, panels are easy, and complex mortise and tenons are pretty simple. CNC carving can also add details and complexity which were previously not cost effective. With a direct connection from the drafting and design phases to manufacture, there is additional savings in time.

But in the search for streamlined, push-button manufacturing, I felt some of the folks showing at that Maker Faire forgot something important. From a making standpoint, being able to push a button and have a machine spit out parts that snap together is very cool. But from an end user standpoint, what is important is design, quality, and cost. I think a CNC router does best as just one tool in the arsenal of many. In the hands of a skilled craftsperson, CNC can really open up your design options. But trying to make a CNC router the be all and end all limits your options and wastes material. Also, square edges and visible joints are nice in some contexts, but modern furniture loves sinuous curves done by rasp, sander and eyeball.

It's a cool technical challenge to design anything while limiting yourself to only one material and one method of fabrication. And for that the makers of the furniture I saw at the show deserve credit. But as the harbinger of the future, I am not holding my breath. What I am waiting for is for traditional cabinetmakers to evolve the CNC-cut ideas that I saw into something that I want in my house.


This "Tools & Craft" section is provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.

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