There’s a funny thing about digital tools that use Cartesian coordinate and movement systems — these are tools that operate in three-dimensional space. Though digital tools may look different, they have a lot in common.
Digital tools in this group include CNCs, laser cutters, 3D printers, plasma and water jet cutters, CNC mills. They all use positions and paths defined in three-dimensional space as X, Y, and Z. Though each machine may produce different results and use different mediums and methods, they all work pretty much the same, moving left and right, forward and backward, up and down.
Mechanically, these machines have a lot in common, too. They use rails, gears, belts and stepper motors to move about. Watch a CNC, a laser cutter or a 3D printer and you’ll see that the movements are all the same.
If you use CAD, you can use all these tools
There’s one more tool to add to this list. All these tools are driven by CAD software. 3D CAD lives in X,Y and Z space, just like these digital tools. That means you get a bonus if you’re a user of CAD software. If you can create drawings in CAD, you can use not only CNCs for woodworking, but also Laser Cutters, 3D Printers, and many other digital tools as well. That’s yet another great reason for woodworkers to learn to draw in CAD. CAD is the key.
For cutting patterns, plywood or solid wood parts on a CNC, most woodworkers just need simple 2D files. Carving, shaping, angular work takes three dimensional CAD drawings. Besides CNCs, let’s see what else you can do with 2D files.
Laser cutters require simple 2D drawings created in CAD or other vector-based drawing software. So, if you’re already creating files for CNC work, it’s a short jump to making or converting files for Laser Cutters. With a 2D drawing, lasers can etch detail or designs into a wood panel. They are also great for cutting veneers and inlays. You can also do insanely detailed and accurate marquetry.
Lasers can do even more. With a laser cutter, you can easily cut parts out of thin wood, plywood or MDF from simple outline drawings. The same is true for cutting a variety of plastics, leather and other soft organic materials.
And, all you need are the same kind of 2D drawings used for cutting parts on a CNC.
3D CAD and 3D Printers
3D Printers require 3D drawings. If you’re using 3D CAD software for CNC work, then you have the tool you need to produce models for 3D printing. So, the question you may already be thinking about is this: could a 3D printer be a useful tool for a digital woodworker? Might want to ratchet up your expectations a bit because the answer is going to be yes.
I’ve been using 3D printers for the last six months. I’m already convinced that with a little exercise and imagination they can be a useful tool for some woodworkers. I know what you’re thinking. A 3D printer makes stuff out of plastic. We’re woodworkers, we make stuff out of wood. Weird, right?
Look past the medium for a minute and think of 3D printers in a different way. A printer can be a tool-making machine you could use to make hold down clamps for CNC routers that could never make out of wood. How about joint connectors for knock-down furniture? Or, custom router templates, jig parts, knobs and many other useful things for the shop. These are all useful and a good start. But there’s more.
You can use a 3D printer to print scale models before you commit to complex full-scale final work. And, then there are lots of unexplored possibilities for what could be done with a wood-based filament.
Exploring new tools
Fear not. I’ll always be working on new ways for woodworkers to use and get the best out CNCs. But, exploring what can be done with laser cutters and 3D printers has resulted in some interesting possibilities. This is a topic we’ll explore in more detail in future posts. Lots of fun to come.