Introduction to CNC machines

You may have heard the term “CNC” a lot in the last few years and found yourself wondering what CNC machines are all about. Read on to learn about how these machines are changing the way people work wood.

CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machines have been around for many years. A simple explanation of CNC is that a computer is used to control the movement of a tool – most often a router, with lathes being second most common. This movement can be controlled very precisely, in thousandths of an inch or decimal millimetres. You can use CNC machines to carve, cut out and shape just about anything, and one of the big pluses is that you don’t have to use any jigs. With a CNC, if you can imagine it, you can make it.

CNC machines

Dovetail jigs

Dovetails are the hallmark of finely crafted furniture; they are attractive, strong and can elevate a project from the average to extraordinary. Their limiting factor for most woodworkers has always been the level of skill required to execute them.

While there is obviously a role for hand cut dovetails, particularly in custom furniture, there is likewise a time and place for machine cut dovetails. In a kitchen with 30 drawers there would be 120 corners to cut. That’s a lot of chisel and saw work. While it might take you three or four days to cut all the joints by hand, you could easily cut them in a day using a dovetail jig.

Dovetail jigs

Take the plunge into the world of track saws

When I first encountered a track saw, I was smitten. As a general carpenter focusing on renovation work, I was building custom cabinetry and built-ins for additions and renovations, so most of my work was based at a job-site; portability and flexibility were essential in a tool. The idea that a saw could be easily moved across a piece of fixed material instead of moving the material across a table saw was not a new one; I was more than familiar with circular saws. I had never, however, thought of a circular saw as a particularly accurate tool. Wandering cuts, burn marks and splinters seemed challenging to avoid. The combination of a brilliantly designed track and dedicated saw, which together could rival the accuracy of a panel saw, was a revelation. I took the plunge (pun intended) and, after some initial research, purchased a Festool TS75 EQ track saw and have been using it for almost two years now.

track saws

Files and rasps

Today’s woodworker has many options for shaping and smoothing, and invariably the first tools that come to mind are usually powered. Routers and sanders are undoubtedly the most popular choice, but they don’t always provide the fine control required for shaping contoured parts. 

Files and rasps have been around for hundreds of years and can be among the most useful tools in the wood shop. They excel at fine control and precise removal of material with little or no tear-out, and are especially useful for highly figured woods. Of course, files are also associated with metal work (such as putting a new edge on cabinet scrapers), but we’ll be looking at woodworking files and rasps here.

files and rasps

Making a wooden smoothing plane

A good metal smoothing plane costs around $350 these days, while the cost of a wooden smoother is essentially the price of a stout blade at $50, plus about $20 for a piece of dense exotic wood. There are several key features that come together to make a smoothing plane work well. Vibration is something to be avoided. We do this by selecting a dense hardwood such as Jatoba, maple, or, if you want to make the plane more interesting, try cocobolo or bocote. All of these dense woods do a good job of reducing vibration.

In this article luthier Ted Brown shows you how easy it is to make your own heirloom smoothing plane.

smoothing plane