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Small shop grows with CNC purchase

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A CNC router can give a small shop big capabilities. As proof, I submit John Lesage’s 900-sq.-ft. space in Guilford, Conn.

Lesage added a ShopBot PRT96 in 1999. Previously, Lesage and a partner were making large mahogany gates with table saws and routers. It was profitable work, but a lot of time went into cutting material and routing the joinery. It was also physically demanding and made quite a mess.

Lesage purchased his ShopBot PRT96 CNC router in 1999.

Once the ShopBot was up and running and Lesage grew comfortable with the Vectric Aspire software, the venture became even more profitable. He was making a better product — faster and more economically — and the machine was doing most of the work.

Lesage says it didn’t take very long to learn to use the machine. He has a background in graphic design, but mostly relied on ShopBot’s active user community for help. “And the CAD/CAM programs on the market now are even easier to learn,” he says. “ShopBot’s operating system is much more user-friendly than it was in 1999.”

The client’s desk, designed with SketchUp.

Lesage also made the switch to SketchUp, a free computer design program. Recently, he designed and manufactured a table without ever meeting face-to-face with the client. He sent the designs through email, made any necessary changes and presented the client with the finished piece on delivery.

He adds, “The ability to build the piece of furniture digitally, part by part, allows changes to be made easily. I also find that, while designing, I can visualize the various parts being cut on the ShopBot, as well as the jigs or fixtures needed to secure the raw material to the spoilboard.”

Lesage also repairs wooden boats and uses the ShopBot to make replacement parts. The machine has a 4’ x 8” table, long enough to make the necessary lengths of railing and decking. The biggest advantage, he says, is in the material savings. If he designs the part correctly, the ShopBot will cut it correctly the first time and there is little “fine-tuning” afterwards. These savings add up quickly when working with teak and mahogany.

The ShopBot has also given him access to the sign-making market. He designs the signs with Aspire, then sends a digital proof to the client. After approval, the shape of the size is roughly cut with a 1/4” bull-nose bit and finish cut with a 1/8” ball nose bit. Then the lettering is engraved with a 60-degree V-carve bit.

Sign-making has emerged as a new market for Lesage.

The signs are often made from mahogany and teak and the shape and form can take five to eight hours to machine. For these long runs, Lesage sets up the ShopBot to run overnight.

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Despite the age of the ShopBot and the Porter-Cable 7518 production router used as a spindle, dependability has never been an issue. Lesage is a stickler for regular maintenance. He’s changed the parts that typically wear out — stepper motors, drive gears, ball bearing rollers tat carry the carriages on the linear guide tracks — to keep the ShopBot up and running. He replaces the router’s motor brushes three to four times a year and the bearings once.

Lesage has few plans to upgrade mechanical portions of the ShopBot or switch to a VFD spindle, though he is looking into a vacuum hold-down system. He’s constantly on the lookout for software that that will make his job easier or can expand the capabilities of his shop.

Because very little of the shop’s production is from sheet goods, he doesn’t have vacuum hold-down capability yet. Instead, he makes one-off jigs and fixtures that often incorporate De-Sta-Co material handling clamps. In some cases, he just screws the material to the spoilboard or uses Shurtape DF-545 double-sided cloth carpet tape.

Sure, sometimes he has to get creative. But when he thinks back to making those mahogany gates by hand, he’s quite happy to have the ShopBot sitting in his shop.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue.

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