WT263 – Can a CNC Guitar Still Rock?

On today’s Wood Talk “Weekend Edition” we’re talking about “cheating” in woodworking. Specifically, using CNC machines in your shop.


Todays show was inspired by a couple of emails that both ask whether using a power carver or a CNC is “cheating”.

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40 replies on “WT263 – Can a CNC Guitar Still Rock?”

Personally I really don’t see the need for a CNC. BUT I would really like to have a smaller mind you but a Laser engraver/cutter. I would think that CNC would be nice if you want to replicate Fret work without needing a scroll saw which too me I own one but I couldn’t make fret work to save my life.

NOW in regards to you Marc wanting an Electric Smoker.. GO FOR IT… Plus if you want to up the flavor for Mac & Cheese, Smoke some Cheddar, Gouda… Sha-ZAM. The Electric will go above fire. Buon Appetito.

Episodes like this are a constant eye roll for me. The talk of “the craft” and how the guys romanticize it just feel like a over reaction. We all wood work to some degree. I don’t really care who get something done. Mark hit the nail on the head about as long as you don’t misrepresent what you made and how you made it. I personally want a CNC and Laser so I can stop paying my guy to do the work for me at a minimum $50-$60 every time

I think cnc and 3d printing allows for a lot more creativity as it removes the tedious proccess of batching things out or the to difficult to make by hand parts. As someone who owns a 3d printer im far more satisfied by something that I designed and printed as opposed to something that I made by hand following someone elses plans. Im more interested if something was custome made rather than if it was hand made.

whenever i see a CNC involved, i normally dont watch any of the links. i do think it takes away from the craft. i figure you might as just pay for a piece if youre trying to make it with a machine. maybe CNC automotive part or wheels is ok for me.. but once its used on wood i dont know lol? once you learn the whole art of CNCing you might as well sell all your woodpecker measuring tools/routers etc..

I am about 50/50 on getting an X-carve, I currently live in Chicago (HQ for inventables)and have talked to the x-carve folks to pick one up and save on the shipping. I feel that it is cheating but still has to be “added” to the woodworking arsenal. It is not going away and I only see it getting more and more accepted as a “tool”. Just like a Domino, table saw, and a chisel, it is a tool used to save time and to get repeated accuracy. I don’t know about you guys but 85% of my “customers” are family members who could care less how I make it as long as I make it (and it has my makers mark).

My dos centavos…

I have to admit, I straddle the fence on this subject. I can see the advantages of CNC type woodworking, but there is a “purist” vein in me as well. One of the most hurtful insults I have ever received from anyone was when I was showing something I had made to someone, and they told me “you know, you can buy that at the store”. My response was “no, you cant buy THIS at the store”. They were suggesting that IKEA sold something similar for a fraction of the cost. If you are in the camp of trying to occasionally sell your woodworking – you will have to compete with the machine who did it in half the time – for half the price. I agree with Matt and Marc when they say that they are more in awe of the handmade work (modern and classic) than something pumped out by a computer. Still on the fence….

On the same line of thought as what Marc was saying, perhaps we need a new term for woodworkers: there is handmade – with hand tools (like what Shannon does), there is handmade – with power tools (like Matt and Marc do), and there is handmade – with computer/CNC tools (like others). So hand tool woodworker, power tool woodworker, and CNC woodworker.

Matt, don’t you know by now that the human race labels and categorizes everything! this goes here that goes there and this is called this yada yada yada. it is in our nature.

Oh I know LOL! I’m sure each of us have labelled and been labelled. It really is the commonality across all humans that unites us in some way.

This is just damn funny!!! Cheating? CNC is, as I have seen mentioned, just another tool which I agree with entirely! It is not alt all uncommon for me to pick up a chisel or block plane to clean up a piece. I am curious for those who would believe it is cheating if you have ever taking a project from concept to finish on a cnc? Drafting, programming, cutting… I don’t mean to sound like an ass but I would like to better inform those who don’t understand. Hell even my wife hadn’t a clue until she had an idea about a widget and I took her through the process. Unfortunately all anyone see’s is a machine running:( If anyone is ever in the Scottsdale area and you want to stop in I would be glad to show you how easy it is:)

Anyone that says that a CNC is cheating has not actually used a CNC and digital modeling tools. Digitally sculpting and setting up a work piece takes *at least* as much work and skill as sculpting by hand, it’s just a different skill set and your time is spent with different medium.

The real difference comes in duplication. Digital carving allows for much easier duplication, so the buyer of a CNC pice will not necessarily have as unique a pice as the buyer of a hand-carved. piece. I can see someone wanting a pice that no one else has, and hand carving guaranteeing that.

My final point is a philosophical one. When I use my hand tools, I buy them, pre-fabricated, from lie nielsen or lee valley and then i take them to the wood with my own hands. When I use the CNC that I *made* (with my own hands), that actually requires substantially more knowledge and sophistication to bring all those aspects into the fabrication process. How is *that* cheating? Calling that cheating smacks of an anti-intellectual worldview where using one’s brain to solve problems is rejected in service of the “old way.” Is it cheating when you use your gas stove? How about when you drive to the lumberyard? Wouldn’t a true traditionalist take his horse buggy (of his or her own making) to the lumberyard? Or not the lumberyard, but rather the forest to fell trees. I could go on and on, but I’ll go a step further and label the pure traditionalists hypocrites. They’re drawing an artificial line of their own choosing and using that to diminish the fruits of someone else’s labor.

I choose to judge the work product on its own merits.

It seems a little oversimplistic to say that not using CNC is the same as hating all technology and harkening back to the good old days. You’re right in that it is a totally different skill, and thus I believe it is deserving of a different title. Not calling that portion at least woodworking is helpful I think, and if you do call it something else I don’t think it’s cheating to be awesome at two things.

Sticking with the ice cream thread, I like DQ. It is quick, easy and tastes good. However, I understand that it is a mix dumped into a machine and ‘poops’ out soft serve. That does not make me appreciate it any less. However I do recognize the quality and effort in some of the home made ice cream. It does taste much better and it feels ‘special’ when I consume it but it also isn’t an everyday thing. If I am going to treat myself to something special I will drive past 3 DQ stores to get that home made treat, just not every trip. You also did not venture into the discussion of cost. I am willing to pay more for higher quality ice cream, just not every time.

I may have traveled way off track here. Hope I got my point across. I am going to go get some frozen yogurt.

As a thing to note, using my CNC has never been as simple as pushing a button. I think that is a bad way to describe a CNC. From designing, to generating gcode, to setting up the stock to be milled, setting zeros etc., it is a lot of work. It might even be faster to use hand tools, but the duplication and accuracy between parts is unparalleled.

I think the single biggest aspect is how your work is presented. As long as you are up front with how it’s constructed, I don’t see a problem. However, imagine a couple booths at a craft fair (where people often value HOW it’s built). Both booths have similar quality products, but one was built in a fully decked out CNC/Machine shop and other entirely by hand. If they both are upfront about it, it’s fine. But I’d probably feel cheated if I bought something (and paid what good woodworking is worth) from the CNC guy on the assumption it was handmade.

I feel – often, not always – that when someone is buying something local or from a craftsmen, it is because they somewhat explicitly don’t want a “commercially” produced product. Put another way, I don’t want to buy a bespoke item that is built the same way ikea builds their products.

Anyhow, as long as it’s not misrepresented it’s prefectly fine. Although I think we can all agree they shouldn’t use pocket screws :P.

Recognizing everyone will have a different take on this, I do believe using a CNC to make parts for a project isn’t cheating as much as it is just a different thing. I know Matt says “no more labels!” But as far as calling a thing what it is I think using a cnc is more like manufacturing than woodworking. The whole build includes elements of woodworking and and manufacturing, programming and finishing.
So while I personally wouldnt feel good about using a CNC as woodworking itself, it doesn’t have to be omitted from furniture making or guitarmaking. Everything can fit under the umbrella of those pasttimes but maybe not under woodworking specifically.

Hopefully that makes sense.

Provocative topic this week. In my opinion, the fine line giving the nod of respect to the non-user of something like a CNC…..if you need to move the wood or tool itself, it is handmade and gets the respect. Understanding and adjusting for the grain, feel, feed rates, etc is the art of woodworking and therefore I think that is why I would have a little more appreciation for the product made without something like a CNC. All that said, I ca still look at the CNC product and woodworker and appreciate what they did. In my opinion…kind of like calling rap music! Not music in my opinion, but certainly a related art form!

Looks to me like CNC is, or is moving closer and closer to being, an automated woodworker. An automated woodworker (CNC) as a tool is not comparable to a chisel, a router, or a table saw because a chisel isn’t automated, a router isn’t automated, and a table saw isn’t automated. Those three tools require an operator to accomplish an operation. Once the CNC is turned on, it operates itself. True a table saw runs on its own power, but a woodworker performs the operation, ripping, cross cutting, etc. With CNC, the task in performed entirely by the machine.

Drafting and programming tell the machine what to do. To analogize, drafting and programing a CNC equate to crafting a roll for an old time player piano. (I give you that it is craft to produce such a roll for an CNC.) Once the roll is created, an old time player piano can play itself, albeit there were also player pianos that required a machine operator: you had to sit at those kind and push the pedals with your feet, and while doing so could say “Look ma, no hands!” Mom knew you weren’t playing the piano, were a machine operator not a pianist. If you can stand at a CNC machine and drink coffee and stare out the window when the operations are performed, you aren’t even a machine operator. That’s what automation is and while you drink your coffee you are observing an automated woodworker, or observing whatever moves by on the other side of the window. It is woodworking. It’s just that by definition, you aren’t doing it. You may have many skills that told the machine what to do, but that doesn’t mean that you did the actual work: the work itself was done automatically. And that is woodworking, it’s just that if the CNC did it, you didn’t do the work even if you told the automated woodworker what to do. Telling someone or something what to do isn’t the same as actually doing the work.

An automated woodworker will create a rosette to an esthetic [the philosophical theory or set of principles governing the idea of beauty at a given time and place-dictionary.com]. I like it all, I like what an automated machine can produce, I like what a Mary May with her carvings can produce. Mary May of her rosettes can honestly say “I made this.” With CNC, with an automated woodworker, to be honest, one has to say “An automated woodworking machine made it.” To not say so would be cheating, where cheating would be to pass off someone or something else’s work as your own.

Interesting… part of the conversation went to the CNC being an assistant; if someone had a human assistants would that be cheating?? no… just effective use of what you have available to you.

On the subject of Guitars. I went through the steps to make a dulcimer, but it sounded terrible, like a kid put rubber-bands on a Kleenex box. I was not able to ‘tune’ the panels, obviously I am as tone-deaf as a CNC. That being said, I contend that a CNC can reproduce(or poop as Matt put it) parts accurately and repeatable.

I agree that using a human assistant isn’t cheating until you say of something you both made “I made this.” You could have a turner buddy make your table legs, but you couldn’t then without deceit say “I made the table.”

I wonder if much has been written about CNC as a sort of locally grown, open source alternative to the likes of an Ikea? A community center shop with rough boards, CNC, and open source files could get rid of an Ikea, could get rid of an Amazon as well if distributed robotic manufacturing becomes the foundation of the next ‘new’ economy. Just like electricity generation could be local with solar, wind, etc., obsoleting the grid and its inefficiencies and vulnerabilities. If wealth production could be decentralized and democratized we would as a species at that point only have ourselves to blame if we couldn’t get along.

Sorry if this isn’t the right forum for this, but the Bradley is awesome. I have one and did receive some flack from the “purist” types, but like you said, the bottom line is delicious BBQ comes out. The auto advancing wood and timer on the smoke is great. You will love it.

Lesson learned; I thought about mentioning that, but didn’t. So far, I am under the impression that you can only use their biscuits, which does seem like a draw back. However, they are widely available. I actually buy mine at sporting goods stores, Most stores that sell hunting things also carry smokers, and the Bradley biscuits. Or, ordering them online is an option. They have a ton of variety to them, and aren’t expensive. I feel like I might try and figure out a way to use some of my scraps, in it though. One nice thing about their Biscuits and the auto-advancing doo-dad is that you always get good smoke. You really can’t over-burn the wood, so you don’t get any of that bitter, acidic horribleness.

I guess my bottom line with it is that I can put my food in, set the temp, and smoke time, and walk away for hours. The only real thing that you need to do if you’re smoking a chicken or something like a pork shoulder is pay attention to your thermometer. I’m trying to think of a good woodworking task to relate this to, but I blew it.

It isn’t the tools that make you a woodworker; it’s what you create with whatever tools you choose to use. I’ll give you an example. Are Eddie Van Halen or Stevie Ray Vaughn any less of a guitar player than Andres Segovia just because they choose to use an electric guitar to make music? No, All three are great guitar players.

It isn’t the tools; It’s what you can do with them.

A few years ago, a friend bought a CNC router and I used it to make a project. I was so intrigued by it that I joined a local FabLab (sort of like a machine shop you could become a member of) so I could use their laser cutter.
It was really exciting to have the machines poop out perfectly fitting parts every time but that was only after I had to learn about three new software packages first and also after first having to produce a number of test parts that did NOT fit and which wasted material. Also, I had to spend many hours away from home to use these machines because I do not have space for them anywhere in my house.

After doing several projects, I sort of lost interest in the whole thing and returned to mostly hand tools because I can start working wood with the ideas I have in my head and I do not have to spend hours drawing them out in final form first. If I had easier access to CNC machines, I might do more of that sort of thing but I doubt it.

Also, these machines are so slow! If you think sawing by hand with a bow saw is slow, try using a CNC mill. And, in my experience, you cannot walk away from the machine and let it work – too many things could happen; you need to stand there and watch it with your hand near the big red STOP button. It’s worse than cutting with a bow saw – it’s like watching someone else cutting with a bow saw.

In the end, it’s about your creativity. The only ‘cheating’ in my mind is if you misrepresent yourself. The tools do not imply anything other than your desire to make some steps easier on yourself.

Of course a CNC guitar rocks! How do you think they are made! Believe it or not fender couldn’t keep up with demand with spokeshaves and block planes haha. It’s a tool designed to make a process faster, more accurate, and cheaper to manufacture and that’s exactly what it does. It doesn’t have a place in my woodworking because I enjoy the connection between me and the lumber and the satisfaction in knowing I made it with my own two hands

As it has always been, a computer or computer controlled mechanical device is only as good as what the human programs it to do. And don’t bring artificial intelligence into this, we are far from letting computers build what they want. So the artistry and craftsmanship still lies within the mind and then to the best tools we all have, or hands. Whether these tools are pushing a hand plane, wielding a piece of wood through a table saw, or making a drawing on a computer to run through a CNC they are an extention of our creativity. It is the finished product that is dictated and judged by the end user. So in a hundred years when there are ultra high definition 3D full color X-Ray scanners, what is that piece going to say about how it was made. Will the human or computer grading the piece for its value degrade it for being CNC? If it shows, probably yes.
So as Marc had stated before, the definition of woodworking is the shaping and forming of wood products. If you use a CNC you are a woodworker. So it comes down to what everything we as humans should do and that is to do what makes us happy. And the naysayers should not worry about it as there will be some hand gizmo or gadget that will to make your woodworking easier someday.

Note to WT264. People who knit and sew do have this problem. As i had heard my mother contemplate using one of the quilting machines at a store she occasionally visits. I had asked her if the issue of machine use in her hobby of quilt making is similar to that of woodworking. She laughed and said the conversations come up just as often as it seems woodworkers do. She had also noted that she chooses not to use machine quilters as it takes value away from the quilt. A appraiser will be able to tell a machine stitch from a hand stitch and value the hand made high than the machine.

I agree that using CNC is manufacturing rather than craft, as the latter involves risk of imperfection. Listening to the discussion I was reminded of the book, “The Nature and Art of Workmanship” by David Pye (1968). I pulled it off my bookshelf and turned to Chapter 2, “The workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty” which includes this passage: “If I must ascribe a meaning to the word craftsmanship, I shall say as a first approximation that it means simply workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgement, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works. The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making … With the workmanship of risk we may contrast the workmanship of certainty, always to be found in quantity production, and found in its pure state in full automation.”

Full disclosure: I have never used CNC – just watched a demo at a woodworking show.

Late to the conversation, but…

It seems analogous to arguing about whether an author should use a pencil, typewriter, or word processor to write a book. For me, the results matter much more than the process.

The only thing hand made is a Snowball.

Everything else had some type of machine to make the tools. Just like using a jig saw to cut a template or a band saw or a CNC they all make the same product and they are all machines and it’s just the skill that that each tool requires.

I bought the CNC because it challenges my brain to figure out how to design and excute what I can dream up..

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