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Add to a CNC’s capabilities with artistic software and tooling

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A 3-axis CNC router can do more than just machine sheet stock for cabinets. Given the right software and tooling, other than a spiral cutting end mill, a 3-axis CNC router can generate more artistic items than cabinets.

There are many CAD programs that can generate drawings for 2.5D and 3D projects. At the top of the list is probably Rhino. It is extremely versatile and relatively inexpensive. However, its complexity does make it time consuming to learn.

Rhino does not have an integrated CAM package. There’s a separate program, Rhino CAM Art, for tool path generation. Both programs sell for about $1,300.

SketchUp is another option. It is quite easy to learn and has numerous third-party plug-ins for artistic work. MeshCAM Pro will convert native SketchUp files into tool paths and has some CAD abilities as well as an optional 3D tool path simulator, Cut View Simulator. It also has the capability to take raster image files such as JPGs, BMPs and PNGs, and convert them to 3D files that can be used to create a tool path. This means that images from the Internet and digital cameras can be used to create objects and products for customers. The total cost of SketchUp, MeshCAM and Cut View Simulator is about $1,100.

Vectric offers a number of programs that can be used with a 3-axis router to produce artistic objects, VCarve Pro and Aspire, priced at $699 and $1,995, respectively. Both programs have CAD, CAM and tool path simulation. They are easy to learn and use.

Vectric is very dedicated to providing ongoing user support, which includes an annual user group meeting, online videos and user blogs.

VCarve has CAD drawing tools, including a line, rectangle, circle, and oval, as well as a free drawing instrument. It can import a variety of 2D vector files, such as DWG, DXF, EPS, AI, PDF, SKP and SVG, and create tool paths that appear on screen as 3D images. It can also raster image files.

VCarve uses an integral process called “trace bitmap”, which traces the imported raster image. For instance, say a customer wanted a sign made from a logo. Simply import the logo into VCarve, which will change the raster image into a vector file, create a tool path, and then produce a tool path simulation.

One very useful operation for cabinetmakers is VCarve’s ability to create molding tool paths, which can be used to create cross section profiles, arches, frames and fluting. Parts nesting is also included.

Aspire is Vectric’s most comprehensive program. It has all of VCarve’s features plus others aimed at production of true 3D objects.

Artistic digital fabrication requires angled or tapered bits. Quality is important because you’ll be making lots of cross grain cuts. I recommend bits with replaceable cutters. It’s also a good idea to purchase sign-making kits. You’ll save money and have the necessary bits at once. Amana Tools, Freud and Onsrud offer such kits.

Adding software and tooling for artistic work is a great way to keep your CNC running and add extra income. An employee who is already versed in cabinetmaking software can easily learn the new software, and your customers will appreciate the finely detailed work.

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue.

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