Evaluation of Home Made CNC Machine

In 2015 I decided to add a new dimension to my woodworking capabilities and shop, by adding a Computer Numeric Control (CNC) Machine. I researched available commercial and hobbyist platforms, as well as evaluating home built options. After examining all options, I decided to build a custom machine from plans readily available on the internet. My article detailing the build titled Home Built CNC Router is included in this blog.

This is a close up of the Z-Axis with the Bosch Colt Router

I enrolled in an online Google+ class to build a CNC from scratch. The plans were distributed through Google+ and I paid a fee for the class which consisted in a detailed copy of the plans in Sketch Up. In short order I had a CNC Router that could be controlled by a computer. I also had to master the software that designs the piece, and controls the machine. After ironing out the bugs and learning how to design and create wood items from my CNC I eventually produced over 100 pieces.

After producing so many items, which were mostly Cribbage Boards, I began to notice little imperfections in the pieces. The first evidence was slightly out-of-round circles, holes drilled were oblong rather than round, and shapes cut out required more and more sanding. While watching the machine closely I began to notice flexing in several of the axis which resulted in error. I quickly realized that the problem was getting worse and even though I reinforced certain areas the error was getting more pronounced. The problem was in the design of the machine, and I soon realized that I would need to construct a new machine or purchase a commercial one. I had invested large sums of money in the hardware and the software to create my old machine, and I wanted to reuse as much as possible of it for the new one. That left me few options.

The reasonably priced commercial machines were extremely limited in hardware or software choices. One of the reasons I decided to build my own machine in the first place was because the commercial ones were so limited. I had, and still have a Carvewright, manufactured by LHR Technologies but every aspect of it’s use is dictated by the manufacturing company. The proprietary software package to design items and run the machine has to be purchased only from the company. The bits for cutting and carving have to be purchased from the company, and all repair parts have to be purchased from LHR. The basic design software that comes with the machine is severely limited. You can buy costly add ons to increase the complexity and capabilities of the software but the total package is very expensive. In addition, I have upgraded the electronics and drive system numerous times including my last upgrade which consisted of replacing the sandpaper drive belt with a rubber one for $175. The machine has always been glitchy resulting in numerous projects being ruined. If the machine stops due to an error during carving or cutting it usually results in having to start the project over again, and it frequently results in wasted wood and time.

The Shark CNC System by Next Wave Manufacturing was another one I evaluated. When you purchase one of their packages, you also are locked into proprietary software although they provide a copy of Vcarve Pro by Vetric Software which is an independent company’s design software. This design software is the same one I already own. If I were to buy a CNC Package from them the $700 design software I already own would be wasted. The control software I already own is called Mach 3 from Newfangled Solutions. All of the Shark packages are very expensive, and I would not be able to use the software that I have already invested over $1000 for in the past.

Stay tuned for future articles of the new machine that I am getting ready to build. I believe it is the best choice for me to replace my old machine, and I will be able to use most of the hardware, and all of the software I already own.

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Autodesk’s Fusion 360 for the CNC Woodworker

In my last article, I wrote about the CNC (Computer Numerical Control) Router that I built for use in my Wood shop. I also have written several articles about my Carvewright Woodcarving Machine that I acquired several years ago. For many years I have been fascinated by the many and varied uses CNC Machines have for the modern woodworker. I see these machines as a new horizon for the Woodworking Industry, and believe every wood shop should have one. The reason that I built my newest CNC Router was that I did not like being locked into the proprietary hardware and software that I was forced to use to operate my Carvewright Machine, and I wanted to create a more open ended approach to my woodworking. I also did not want to pay a huge price for the software or the hardware. During and after the construction of my new CNC I was looking for a software product that allowed me to take that open ended approach and create almost anything imaginable. Along came Fusion 360 from the Autodesk Company.

Autodesk is a gigantic company that makes software for the architecture, engineering, construction, manufacturing, media, and entertainment industries. It also is based in my home state of California which gives me close access to the enormous amount of training material and classes this company has to offer. Best of all, Fusion 360 has been offered to students, enthusiasts, hobbyist, and startup company’s free for as long as you use it, and all they want is that you start paying for it when you actually make money with it. Check it out here: http://www.autodesk.com/products/fusion-360/overview. A lot of the features in Fusion 360 are not needed by me at least for now, and it’s geared toward the metal fabrication industry rather than woodworking at the present time. My rationale is that if I am going to learn a software product for my woodworking needs why not learn one that is totally amazing to use, has such potential for future growth, can be ported to virtually any machine, has the CAD and the CAM seamlessly integrated into it, and, oh yeah, it is Free.

I have been learning how to use this software for about two months now, and have made several wood items with it on my machine. I am new to both Computer Assisted Drawing (CAD) and Computer Assisted Manufacturing (CAM). I won’t lie to you, Fusion 360 is not the easiest software to learn especially after using the almost plug and play interface of the Carvewright System for my early adoption to CNC Manufacturing. I have never taken any CAD Training before and also am learning CAM, at the same time, which in itself is hard to understand. Most designers draw parts with a CAD Software program and then send the design to a Machinist for the CAM end of the process. Fusion 360 let’s you do both, or if you prefer, you can design an item and send the drawing to a machinist with a CNC Router, or a Milling Machine. You can also port the design to a 3D Printer to be manufactured, or have it cut with a Plasma Cutter.

Autodesk University is the Learning Center for Fusion 360 as well as the other numerous software products offered by this company. YouTube also has a vast library of Fusion 360 videos that can be used for training, and learning the software. As I said earlier. I have been learning how to use Fusion 360 as a total novice and I am amazed at how much information I have digested by pure osmosis. I intend to continue and even accelerate my learning and will seek out online as well as conventional classes that I can attend. I also will continue to document my learning process of this software and my incorporation of it into my woodshop.

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Home Built CNC Router

I had been considering for some time building my own CNC (Computer Numeric Control) Machine for the shop. If you have read my previous articles, you know that I have had a Carvewright Machine for several years and have made numerous wood items with it. I love it, but it is sometimes finicky and hard to use. The design software and all of the other aspects of it are proprietary requiring me to be dependent on the LHR Company for carving bits, parts, etc. Because the design software is easy to use, it lacks in capabilities. In order to expand the capabilities you have to buy their expensive software in pieces depending on what you want to accomplish. You can actually spend more on the software than the machine itself. I wanted to break away from this dependence and strike out into the world of free form design. I decided to acquire a new machine that was limitless in it’s capabilities.

Pricing and researching the commercial CNC Platforms available was a daunting task but it allowed me to learn more about how the machine actually works and what mechanics are involved. There are numerous complete machines available that range in price from $1200 to $7000 for the hobbyist, to $30,000 for the commercial wood shop. Some come with their own software which is also proprietary, and some will run on Standard G-Code. The G-Code is the language the machine uses to communicate instructions. You can type these instructions line by line to the machine but as you can imagine, it can be extremely difficult. Each movement of the router is choreographed efficiently to carve, cut, engrave, or shape the item being processed.

I found an online course being offered by Popular Woodworking on how to build your own CNC Router and I enrolled in the class for a small fee. I quickly ran through the course because I had done so much research beforehand. It supplied a Sketchup Model of a CNC Machine made from MDF Plywood, and included several options for electronics and drive capabilities. It took me about 3 weeks to build it and equip it with the components that I wanted. It is fully functional now, and I am starting to learn how to make it work. The photos are of the building process. I had decided early on to build it and equip it with the strongest and most powerful drive components that I could afford. It has 3/8 inch 10 turns per inch lead screws combined with 425 oz Stepper Motors. It uses a 36 volt power supply and I mounted a Bosch Colt 1 horsepower router as a spindle. This means that it will cut, drill, shape and grind metal and hard plastic if I decide to. The cutting area is 20″ X 28″ X 4″. It uses a software product called Mach 3 to deliver the machine instructions to the Stepper Motors and I have begun learning how to design with a extremely powerful software product called Fusion 360.

Mach 3 is the industry standard for the home hobbyist as well as the commercial machinist to operate CNC Routers, Lathes, End Mills, and Robotic Manufacturers. I have it running on an old Pentium Computer with Microsoft XP Pro. I design products on my office computer with Fusion 360 and transfer the finished G-Code to the shop computer via a USB Flash Drive. Because the entire machine is 30″ wide by 60″ long, I also had to redesign my shop work bench to make it wide enough to accommodate the new addition. I was able to place my new machine and my Carvewright side by side which allows free access to both as well as the computer.

In the weeks and months ahead, I plan to chronicle the building and learning process. I have included some photos of the CNC Machine construction and the overhaul of my shop.

The building process of the frame base made from 3/4 inch MDF

The building process of the frame base made from 3/4 inch MDF

This is a close up of the Z-Axis with the Bosch Colt Router

This is a close up of the Z-Axis with the Bosch Colt Router

The inside view of the Z-Axis Bearings made from High Molecular Density Plastic

The inside view of the Z-Axis Bearings made from High Molecular Density Plastic

View of the old Shop Bench before overhaul

View of the old Shop Bench before overhaul

New Work Bench

New Work Bench

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Carvewright/Compucarve Machine Update

I have written other posts about my Compucarve Woodworking Machine in the past, and thought it was about time to do an update on what I have accomplished with it, as well as the upgrades I have incorporated into it, since it’s purchase almost two years ago. I have written in other past posts that it is an “A” Model having been built in 2007. Since the Compucarve – as it was then called – was created, it has had a constant progression of updates and upgrades resulting in the newest Carvewright – as it is now called – with machine, as well as software advances.

When I purchased mine off of Craig’s List, I found that it had barely been used with only 17 hours of carving time on it. It now has over 188 hours on it. So even though my particular machine is over seven years old, the original warranty would still have been in place as far as usage hours are concerned. The original warranty was carried by Sears, and was two years or 200 hours which ever came first. These machines were notorious for mechanical breakdowns, and the user frustration levels are still quite high based on forum entries in the Carvewright Forum even today. The posts are in large part questions from perplexed users about what they believe to be insurmountable difficulties encountered during some aspect of the carving or designing process. The forum is an extremely valuable resource in solving just about every conceivable problem that the user can incur. The people answering these perplexed users have been there done that, and know from practical experience the best and cheapest way to solve their dilemma. It’s like having thousands of consultants on call 24/7 to help you solve whatever problem that comes your way.

Over the years, probably the most consistent problems that have arisen in the mechanics of the Compucarve/Carvewright System has been from the Quick Change Chuck used for holding the router bit that does the actual carving. My machine originally had one on it, and although the usage hours were quite low, the chuck was rusted internally and caused me some difficulty until I learned how to operate and maintain it properly. The system allowed for a bit with a built in collar to be popped into the bit holder and snapped into position. This was incorporated by the designers to speed up bit changes, and to ensure that the router bit was held in a consistent, secure fashion so that ease of use and repeatability was achieved. The Quick Change Chuck was a sleeve with retainer springs, bearings, and numerous working parts that were subject to rusting and wearing caused by high heat, wet sawdust, and humidity. After some intense cleaning and lubricating I was able to free up the mechanism and used it for several months. It was difficult to use, and required that I frequently lubricate it during use. I decided to upgrade to the newest chuck, the Carvetight as the company calls it, and purchased the updated parts which included a new circuit controller board and a new ribbon cable as well as the chuck itself. After some difficultly I was able to change out the parts and get my machine back into working order. I never looked back. The upgrade has made it much easier to change out bits and secures them very tightly while also reducing noise and vibration. It also eliminates the need for the press fitted collars on the bits so conventional router bits can be used.

Another upgrade that I have made is a dust extraction attachment that hooks directly to my Shop vac. Although the original Compucarve was advertised as not really needing dust extraction, it was claimed that the mechanism would sustain severe dust conditions and continue to operate. That was true to a certain extent but the machine works much better with dust extraction incorporated into it. I am able now to complete numerous carves without extensive cleaning in between. The machine functions much better when the internal parts are not enveloped in the fine dust created from carving wood. I also believe it will increase it’s longevity.

I have had to replace the sandpaper belts that propel the wood back and forth inside the machine since I have owned it due to my own stupidity. I was carving an item on a sled to economize the use of wood, and used screws that were too long to secure the item on board the sled. The screws protruded through the bottom of the sled, and caused the sandpaper belt to tear prematurely. One of the advertised upgrades is the inclusion of rubber belts to replace the sand paper ones, and I considered upgrading to the new belts when this occurred but the cost of the upgrade was prohibitive. You can replace the normally long lived sand paper belts three or four times compared to the cost of one set of the rubber ones.

The design software has also been upgraded over the years, with the newest version now listed as 3.0 at a cost of $300. The progression was 1.0, 2.0, and now 3.0. My version is 1.187 which was the last version given freely with each new machine. You can get version 2.0, when you buy your new Carvewright but currently you must pay extra for version 3. I have done quite well with version 1.187. It has severe limitations which require workarounds but I have been able to get it to do just about everything that I have wanted to do with it. There are also numerous software upgrades that you can buy individually. I have listed some of them in other articles on this website.

Take a look at my photo gallery to see some of the items that I have created with this machine, and currently sell in my online store, and what I offer for sale at the Apple Shed in Tehachapi.

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CNC Carved Flyboxes


I recently decided to start using my Compucarve CNC Carving Machine to it’s full potential, and try to create some CNC Carved Fly Fishing Flyboxes to sell on my ETSY Website. I purchased a downloadable plan that supposedly only needed to be inserted into the machine, and a perfectly shaped final product would emerge from the machine ready for the finish to be applied. Well I had never purchased such a plan and had very little experience with the design characteristics of the Compucarve/Carvewright Design Software as it related to the final product. My first couple of carves had flaws such as hinge misalignment, and holes drilled out of the side of the box. The original box plan called for a 1 inch thick front piece, and a 3/4 inch back piece. It had a carving of a fish, a fishing pole, and a fishing net lying on a pile of rocks. It is a two sided carve with two sides that are joined together with hinges, and the box is kept closed with magnets. A cavern is carved inside the box to create a storage compartment for each piece. So it is a very tricky carve. The carving machine drills out the hinge holes as well as the magnet holes.

Those of you that do woodworking regularly know that 1 inch thick stock is hard to find, and can be expensive. It is especially expensive if it is an exotic or rare type of wood. I did not have any 1 inch thick stock so I did a series of glue ups of some wood I had available in the shop. I had some weird sized pieces of Redwood that I had inherited from my father. It had been in his shop for years, and it had been stored in my garage attic for about a decade. It was very dry, but had a beautiful figure. I decided to carve a couple of fly boxes out of it. Unfortunately, I was still in the trial and error phase of getting this carving plan ironed out so I wasted several pieces of some really cool wood. Redwood is extremely light, and holds up well to water and dirt so it is a good choice for a fly fishing box.

Because I wanted to offer these fly boxes for sale on my Etsy website, I wanted to distinguish my boxes from the numerous others offered by other shops. Most of the other offerings were not carved, but are laser engraved. They have several choices that can be made by the purchaser so I also wanted mine to be configured by the buyer. Etsy had just recently offered a feature where you can offer several choices which are picked by pull down menus. I didn’t just want to offer the pattern that I purchased originally so I came up with several variations. You can see photos of the variations below. I also wanted to make these boxes a production item where I could put out a lot of them should they become popular.I didn’t want to have to continually glue up stock so I created my variations out of 3/4 inch thick stock which is much easier to find. I also wanted to offer a choice of wood for the box to be made from. I can make them out of any kind of wood but I limited the choices to Pine, Redwood, and Mahogany. I may expand to other woods at a later date. I also wanted to make mine unique by carving the buyers name on the front of the box with the design. I used some of my grandson’s names as examples in the sample boxes featured in the photos below.

The first boxes I have made have been finished in Lacquer. I am experimenting with this finish and liked it at first because it dried quickly and protected the wood from the elements, but it requires a lot of coats to make it look good. I still don’t know if I will continue to use Lacquer in future boxes. I may end up with some type of Spar Varnish, or Polyurethane finish. The interior compartment is lined with Ripple Foam, and the hinges are 10mm Barrel Hinges so they disappear into the box lid. The two pieces are held firmly closed with a pair of 1/4 inch rare earth magnets.

Check them out on my Etsy Site, and let me know what you think.







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Carvewright Woodworking CNC Machine Gets A New Software Update


Loop Trivet in Designer Software

Loop Trivet in Designer Software

In previous articles of this website, I mentioned that I had purchased a used Compucarve Woodworking CNC Machine. Over the past year or so, I have been designing and carving projects that could only be made on one of these machines, and it has become invaluable to my shop. I had wanted one of these amazing machines for quite some time, but was put off by the initial cost, and the fact I had heard about numerous problems encountered by the original owners. Continual mechanical breakdowns occurred and durability was severely questioned by some of the original purchasers. Sears Roebuck Company had originally sold the machines, but after several years of dissatisfied customers, quit selling and backing the product, although they still sell most of the service parts through their online parts department.

My particular machine is a Sears Craftsman Compucarve and is considered an A Model being one of the originals. When I purchased it, only 17 hours of use were accumulated on the digital counter. After purchase, I learned that the accompanying software would not load into a non-registered computer, and I contacted the company directly. The rights to the machine are owned by a company named LHR based in Texas. They informed me that I would have to have the original registered owner contact them and transfer ownership to me before I could use the software that came with it. I contacted the people I purchased it from, and they notified LHR. The software used to design carvings that is sold with the machine is proprietary and can only be updated through a licensing process conveyed from LHR. The machine has progressed through the A, B, and now C Models. Several mechanical enhancements have been made through the progression, and all models can be upgraded to the current C Model with replacement parts.

The Designer Software has a steep learning curve, but after some intense study on my part, some obtained information from the website forum, and several trial and error carvings, I gradually began to understand it, and the mechanical workings of the machine. Both skills have to be mastered or the operator will soon become frustrated and abandon the attempt. The company website forum has numerous dedicated followers whom are happy to help newcomers overcome the machines initial difficulty. The forum is: www.forum.carvewright.com/forum.php. Without the extensive information contained in this forum, I would have easily joined the ranks of dissatisfied owners that give up using the machine out of frustration.

The title of this article reveals that new software is being made available for the existing machines, and can also be purchased with a new machine. The old version of the design software will end with 1.187. The new software begins with 2.0. LHR says that 2.0 is written with a different programming language and will not be compatible with the old version. They will not update 1.187 but will continue to give it away free with all new machines purchased. The 2.0 version will be offered as an upgrade for $200.00 to old users and new machine purchasers. I intend to stick with 1.187 for as long as possible. The old 1.187 version has several add on features that can be purchased separately. Some of these are:

The Centerline Text Feature adds an additional Rout Mode for the Text Tool feature. This feature is designed specifically for use with the 60° and 90° V-groove bits which carve text with pin-point accuracy. Centerline text carves point-to-point in vector mode following the center of the letter. $99.00

The Pattern Editor Software allows the manipulation of a scanned or imported image on a pixel by pixel level. It is also used in conjunction with the Scanning Probe which allows you to turn your machine into a 3D scanner and make your own patterns. $199.99

The Conforming Vectors Feature allows for v-bit routing along a carved surface. Without Conforming Vectors, these types of routs can only be made on flat surfaces. You can apply the conform feature to Centerline Text, lines drawn with the drawing tools, the Outline tool, and importer DXF files. $49.99

The DXF File Importer Feature gives you the ability to import 2D vector files saved in DXF (Drawing eXchange Format) file format. Manipulate the files with the DXF Importer software and save to a format that can be carved on your CarveWright. $199.99

The STL Importer Feature allows users to convert 3D STL models, created from any 3rd party 3D graphics program, and slice them into patterns for the use in the CarveWright Designer software. $199.99

The Vector Drawing Suite (2D Advanced) Feature allows you to use very advanced drawing tools & image tracing abilities that before were only available from 3rd party software packages. $199.99

The Keyhole Function allows for plunge cutting keyhole shaped mounting slots in items such as picture frames and plaques. It comes with a special keyhole bit that is mounted in the machine. $39.99

The Pattern Modeling Suite (3D Advanced) Feature allows the modeling of 3D relief patterns in the CarveWright Project Designer software. $199.99

As you can see, the add on software alone at a price tag of $989.93 collectively, is almost as expensive as a new basic carving machine ($1399.99) to purchase. The good thing is that you don’t have to purchase any of the add-ons for the machine to carve most of the items you desire. I have not purchased any of these add-ons and I accomplish beautiful wood carvings including signs, of all types. Once you learn the work around, for the various types of carvings, the machine will accomplish almost anything using only the basic software. The key is understanding how the software and the machine work together to carve an item.

Version 1.187 is a result of years bug fixes and added on features. There are literally thousands of patterns available on the web that you can import into the designer software, and utilize in your carvings.

Machine maintenance is crucial with the Carvewright Machine. The manual tells how and what to lubricate, and how to keep your machine in good working order. Several maintenance tips are included in the company website, as well as how to install various components and mechanical upgrades.

In the weeks to come I will write new articles about my use and care of my machine. My Etsy site has an example of a Oak Trivet that I carved using my Compucarve.   


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Various Finishing Techniques


One of my heroes of woodworking is David Marks. He used to have a show on PBS Called “Woodworks” on which he made numerous unique wood items step by step for all of us novice woodworkers to emulate. I used to watch that show, and wish I could finish all of my woodworking creations to look even half as good as his. Recently I found his finishing formula that he has perfected over years of trial and error on his website, Djmarks.com. I am re-posting it below:

David Marks Sanding Formula

A high quality finish starts with good surface preparation. This means thoroughly sanding the surface with 220 grit sandpaper or higher. I usually sand to 320 grit to bring out the clarity of the grain. Because of the time limitations of the show, we generally don’t demonstrate much sanding. After removing the dust (I use compressed air, if you don’t have compressed air, a vacuum cleaner and tack rags work well), I apply the first coat of sealer (Seal-A-Cell) liberally to the surface allowing it to soak in for a few minutes and then use some soft rags and buff off all of the excess. This is important otherwise you will have resins that get sticky and leave an uneven surface. I let this coat dry overnight preferably at 70 degrees or warmer. A cold and damp environment can cause a finish to lack clarity and delay drying time.

The next day I thoroughly buff the entire surface (including the backs and bottoms of furniture which I finish to balance the piece and maintain equilibrium with 4 OT (0000) steel wool. This is the finest grade and I find that it really smooths the surface. After removing the steel wool dust, I apply the first coat of Arm-R-Seal gloss. As a rule I always build the finish with coats of gloss whether it is oil, lacquer, urethane, etc. Then, if I want a semi gloss or satin sheen, I’ll use that for the last 1 or 2 coats. Keep in mind that the Arm-R-Seal dries faster so I usually just work smaller areas up to 12 square inches and overlap the finish. Again, I brush it on, let it soak in for a minute and rub the surface dry with a clear cloth. Let it dry and repeat the process.

I find that a total (including the sealer coat) of 4 or 5 coats usually creates a nice smooth finish that protects the wood while bringing out the beauty and depth of the grain patterns.

I learned from watching David’s show about tung oil finish. He used it on almost everything he made back then. I have used it on most of my wood items over the years, and have found it to be easy to apply, and durable. My polychromatic or segmented bowls are all finished with it. It also brings out the grain and texture of the wood. The brand I have had great success with is Minwax Tung Oil Finish. I sand to at least 220 grit, and then apply several liberal coats of tung oil wiping of the excess about 30 minutes after application, and then letting each coat dry over-nite before applying the next. Minwax Tung Oil is easy to find, is not too expensive, and can easily be used to refinish the piece in the future.

I also recently found a homemade formula for wood finish that you can make yourself to save money, or to get the exact finish you want. It is a thinned varnish topcoat. It is a 50/50 mix of varnish and mineral spirits. It can be easily wiped on with a soft lint free cloth to fill in high and low grain differences. For best results you need to lightly sand in between coats, letting each coat dry completely before applying the next, and you will probably need to apply at least two coats for good results. Most store bought wipe on poly finishes are just a 50/50 mix of varnish and a solvent agent such as mineral spirits.

Another so called homemade finish is thinned shellac. Shellac can be purchased in flakes, and stored dry until needed. It is usually mixed with denatured alcohol. Because alcohol is used, it drys very quickly. You can custom blend the shellac to achieve the correct color. Because it is mixed by you when needed, only the amount you intend to use for each application is mixed, therefore maximum economy is reached. Shellac has been used by woodworkers since the early 1800’s. It is non-toxic, can be used as a sealer before applying a stain (to even out the stain’s application), can be custom mixed with nearly any color, and is very easy to use to refinish the item in the event of damage of the surface. After the first coat of shellac dries, lightly sand with 400-grit. Wipe off the residue and apply a second coat. Repeat until the desired number of coats have been applied.

This direct application will result in a high-gloss finish. If a less glossy, satin finish is preferred, try buffing out the final coat with some 0000 steel wool and (non-silicon based) paste wax. Lightly work the wax over the finish until it is thoroughly covered. Allow the wax to dry, then wipe off and buff to a lustrous finish.

I have never used Shellac so I can not recommend it. Technology has come a long way since the 1800s in just about every aspect of our lives especially woodworking. In my experience the quick and easy approach to woodworking tasks allows you to accomplish more, and be more productive in the long run. That being said, a gorgeous finish can really make a piece.

I have also used Watco Danish Oil Finish on a lot of items I have made. Danish Oil is basically a wipe on oil based finish that you can buy in numerous colors. It stains, seals, and protects in one step. It also comes in clear finish. Like Tung Oil, it is easily applied coat by coat until the desired finish is reached. But unlike Tung Oil it also stains the wood changing or enhancing the color. I have used it mostly on furniture that I have built. The thing that I like about it especially for furniture is that it can be used to smooth out imperfections in the wood, and can be used in the future to refinish the wood when repair is needed in the surface. It says on the can that it hardens in the wood, not on the wood. I have found it to be extremely durable and the surface holds up well to day to day use. The mission style living room coffee table and end table that I made, my computer stand that I made, and my 58 year old Walnut Office Desk are all finished in Danish Oil.

Preparing the Finish

As you prepare to finish, you’ll find that paint thinner can be used to cause defects to show up before the finish is applied. What you see with a wet coat of paint thinner is what you will see with a finish. Blotches, scratches, glue spots, and other flaws are easily detected. Paint thinner evaporates fairly quickly and leaves no contaminant on the wood. You can use any kind of finish without problems, after the thinner dries.

If you see scratches or machine marks from sanding, you might not have sanded adequately with your last grit of paper. Re-sand, and check again. If you still find prominent scratches, go to the next finer grit, and sand the wood thoroughly once again. This can not be stressed enough! The sanding process is one of the most important yet least understood aspect of wood working. The hard work you put into this step pays huge dividends in the end product.

Woods with fine pores, including pine, cherry, birch, and maple, tend to blotch when stained. This uneven coloration is a result of variations in the density of the wood. Anything put on the surface tends to absorb more in the softer areas than in the harder areas of the wood. The greater the absorption, the darker the color. I have also found that quartersawn Oak has a tendency to blotch and some times lighter areas of the wood actually get lighter after stain is applied.

Whether it’s due to normal squeeze-out or an unnoticed drip, dried glue will produce an unsightly spot in the finish. Once the glue starts to set scrape it off with a sharp blade, and wipe the wood with a damp rag. If they show up after you have applied stain or a topcoat, you’ll have to re-sand the area to remove them.

Wood conditioner can be used like a thin film of finish to block stain from over-penetrating porous areas. It partially fills pores and evens out the surface. You can buy ready-mixed wood conditioner or make your own by mixing two parts mineral spirits to one part polyurethane or alkyd-resin varnish. To apply conditioner, brush it onto the surface and allow it to penetrate thoroughly. Then wipe away any surplus, and let it dry overnight. Lightly sand the surface with 220 grit, wipe clean, and apply stain. I have found that Minwax Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner, and Behr Classic Oil Pre-Stain Conditioner both work well if you don’t want to mix your own.

For the most consistent color, even between wood parts of different shades, apply stain to a layer of film finish applied after sanding, instead of the bare wood itself. Brush on or spray the sealer evenly across all surfaces, and allow it to dry. Scuff-sand the surface with 220 grit, and apply the stain. The sealer does make it more difficult to achieve dark stain colors, but it eliminates blotching and lessens grain contrast.

There are many water-based finishes on the market. In my experience water-based components are not as durable or eye catching as oil-based finishes. They are however, much more forgiving of brush strokes or slight wood imperfections. Because I do not use them, I can not recommend them. If any of you readers have had either good or bad experiences with water-based products, please post your comments so the rest of us can learn from your experience.

Always test out the stain or finish on a piece of similar scrap wood before applying it directly to your wood creation. You can also use this process to get just the shade or color you want for the final look. Once stain or finish are applied, it is hard to go back and remove. In most cases it must be sanded completely off to bare wood again to avoid blotches or spots in the final product. Once you have developed your own tried and proved method, you will be able to predict how a certain stain or finish will look on your final product.

I hope this information will help you to make a decision on what kind of finish to apply to your next woodworking project. If you would like to take a look at some of my wood projects that I have for sale please take a look at my etsy site. Please email me with any comments or questions that you might have. Please feel free browse the entire website and read my other blog posts.

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The Tehachapi Loop Trivet


Tehachapi Loop

A couple of months ago I purchased a Compucarve computerized wood carving machine. I had been wanting one since they had been marketed by Sears sometime around 2005.  The purchase price and the bad press they had received due to mechanical breakdowns, had caused me to put ownership on the back burner. I continued to follow the machines progress, and even looked into building my own computerized router machine, or as they are known,  a CNC machine. The idea of creating something on a computer and having your vision realized by a machine, intrigued me.

Recently I was perusing Craig’s List when I found a machine for sale in my local area which was reasonably priced. After I got the machine home and started to tinker with it, I found that it only had 17 hours of carving time on the odometer. The original warranty period was 200 hours or two years whichever comes first. I estimate my machine to be about five years old.  It is a Craftsman Compucarve, and is classified as an “A” Model. This means it was one of the original designs offered by the company. The most recently made machines are classified as “C” Models, and have quite a few upgrades to the original. My older machine can be upgraded to the new version with some after market parts. As I mentioned earlier, Sears Roebuck and Company originally sold this machine in their stores, and as with any Sears Mechanical Product, they sell the parts through their online source searspartsdirect.com.

My “A” Model Machine has a “Quick Change” router assembly and as the name implies the router bits are popped in and out quickly by the use of bit adapters fastened to the bit. This feature, although very handy, was the cause of many of the “A” Models mechanical problems, and I believe ultimately forced Sears to quit selling them. There are two after market improvements to this defect that can be purchased reasonably and are also easily installed by the user. One is called a “Rock Chuck” and the other is called the “Carvetight” System. Both are options I have for the future for my machine. When I purchased my machine, it came with a complete set of router bits with the quick change adapter. If I were to upgrade to a different router assembly, I would have to also purchase different router bits which are very costly. For this reason I will stick with the “Quick Change” system on my machine until I am forced to quit using it due to mechanical failure. I will write more details about my Compucarve in future articles, but this blog post is about The Tehachapi Loop Trivet I created with it.

The machine also came with computer design software which allows you to create just about anything your heart desires. After I learned some of the design features I was itching to create something with it, and I came up with the idea of a 140 year commemoration of the building of  The Tehachapi Loop(see photo). The Loop as we in Tehachapi call it, was constructed beginning in late 1873, and was completed with the passing of the first train in 1876. The Loop connects the San Joaquin Valley, and the Mohave Desert through the Tehachapi Mountains.  A 4000 foot long passing train will cross 77 feet above it’s rear cars in the tunnel below. This spherical helix allows a heavily loaded train to cross the Tehachapi Mountains in corkscrew fashion gaining altitude as it goes. It was one of the greatest engineering feats of it’s day, and today, has remained virtually unchanged from it’s original design. It has been revered by train enthusiasts worldwide. My shop is only a few short miles from the loop in the Old Town of  Tehachapi or Williamsburg as it was called then.

My design is a circular shape about 9 inches in diameter with the words The Tehachapi Loop at the top and 140 Years at the bottom(see photo). It features a carving of a train going through a tunnel. The dates 1873, and 2013 depict the span of service of this very famous local landmark. I had originally tried to have train tracks going around the perimeter of the disk to illustrate the looping feature of the tracks, but after fumbling with this idea for quite some time, I abandoned it and went with the wording in circular placement.  Maybe a future version will have this looping feature if I can work it out. The train picture in the center was also quite difficult to get right. I found an acceptable photo of a modern diesel train emerging from a tunnel on the internet and had to tweak it several times with photo enhancing software to get the image just right. I also had to draw lines in the photo to enhance the lines of the train and to highlight the background and tunnel.  The wording was also difficult to get right so I had to go through several trial and error fonts before I finally settled on the final version. Now that this creation is saved on my computer hard drive I can change different aspects of it, and create a totally different end result if I want to.

Loop Trivet in Designer Software

Loop Trivet in Designer Software

The Compucarve uses a memory card reader, and card, to transfer the data to the machine without having to have the computer in the dusty environment of the workshop. I create and save at my computer at my office desk, and hand carry the memory card to the machine.  The carving process causes a lot of sawdust in and around the machine itself. I can imagine what a laptop or a desktop computer would look like after carving a few items while attached to the Compucarve. I also had to create a sled that the wood to be carved travels on through the machine. I have the sled set up for the ideal sized wood piece of 11 inches by 11 1/4 inches. This allows the piece to stay under the rollers of the machine while the carving process takes place to avoid snipe. During the carving process I have to change bits several times, and have to flip the wood piece over so my Old Town Woodwork logo can be carved on the back. I will eventually offer this trivet for sale on my etsy site, but for now, it is not offered for sale until I get the entire manufacturing process perfected.

As I mentioned earlier, I will write more about the amazing Compucarve Wood Carving Machine in future articles. In the mean time I will continue to create items from wood and other materials with it. I have learned a great deal about the maintenance, and upkeep for these great woodworking tools that I want to pass on to my fellow woodworkers. The design software has a big learning curve as well, but once you master it, you will be truly amazed at what you can create with it.


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Segmented Bowl Disaster


One of the types of woodworking I have tried to master for a while is the art of creating, producing, and finishing Poly chromatic Bowls or Vessels. This has been extremely difficult to master, and has actually caused me one of the only injuries that I have received while woodworking.

I intend to delve into the subject of Poly Chromatic or Segmented Bowl Woodworking at length in future articles but for this article I am going to focus on how I recently ruined several months of work in a single afternoon. I had worked for about 6 months on a bowl design that I had created with my Bowl Design Software, and had decided since my earlier endeavors had been successful, to create one with intricate and complicated patterns. See my Segmented bowl below.

Destroyed Bowl

This particular bowl had hundreds of segments, each separated with contrasting wood spacers, and fashioned from six different types of wood. It was going to be a masterpiece. However, because the process had taken so long, and the pattern had become so intricate, I tried to hurry the process by taking shortcuts and modified the design on the fly. Let me explain what I mean.

I will give you a basic understanding of segmented or poly chromatic bowl creation, if you do not know much about it, at this point. I will write other articles about this in the future because this is a fascinating part of woodworking that involves creative design, cutting, sanding, gluing, and intricate lathe work.

Bowls or Vessels are assembled by cutting multiple segments from wood in mathematical shapes that form rings, which are in turn glued in stacks of concentric shapes. It sounds complicated, and it is, but the things that can be created in this way are absolutely amazing. If you want to see the work of a true master in this field, check out this bowl done by Ray Allen, that is in the Smithsonian Institute. His creations are on display there, and demonstrates the highest standards for most Poly Chromatic Bowl Designers. But to continue with this article.

Like I mentioned earlier I had worked for several months on a particularly intricate design when I decided to try to hurry the process because I was growing impatient to see the final product. I had assembled several layers and was following my software design closely to that point when I skipped a couple of identical layers deciding to make the bowl stand shorter than the original plan. By doing this I inadvertently reduced the concentric sizes of the layers which made the bowl have a staggered appearance.  Being inexperienced at segmented bowl creation, I failed to recognize what had gone wrong until I tried to define the final shape on my lathe. Because I had to remove so much material while turning, the side walls became too thin, and I broke thru the side causing holes. You can see from the above photo, that the sides of the bowl became very thin as I had to remove more and more material. As I tried to complete the shape of the bowl, my tool broke thru the surface.

Lessons learned:

  • Follow the designed plan
  • Precision of segment shapes are critical in the structure of the vessel
  • Be patient and precise

Some of the segments were so small that they were hard to sand to precise shape which resulted in the rings being slightly out of round. For those of you who have done lathe work, out of roundness requires you to remove more material. When you remove more material from a ring, the next ring glued in succession has less bonding surface and causes you to sacrifice more material from the next ring. These errors resulted in wasting a lot of precision woodwork that had to be carved away from the shape.

I have created several poly chromatic bowls in the past that are beautiful, and I have been proud of. You can see some of them that I have for sale on my etsy site. Some of these bowls involved small intricate segments but I did not get in a hurry to finish them so they are much more precise. Also this destroyed bowl was the first time I used a sled on my band saw to cut out the segments. I believe this had a lot to do with the product because tiny errors in the cut either from the drift of the blade or induced by the sled resulted in much more sanding than in the past. Normally I use my Chop Saw or Table Saw to cut out the pieces.

The design of this bowl also called for tiny sub-segments of wood between each segment that obviously varied slightly in thickness. This also caused the rings to be misshapen just slightly causing the ring to be not perfectly round. I cut these sub-segments out of hardwood rather than using thin veneer, which introduced the variance in thickness I previously mentioned. I hope the mistakes I have documented will help you to not make the same errors.

I want to thank you for reading this article. I invite you to contribute to this blog, and ask me any questions you might have about this subject or any other woodworking subject. I will try to answer all questions that I can. Poly Chromatic Vessel creation is only one of the labors of love I have with woodworking. As I stated earlier, I intend to write much more about Segmented Turning, Design, and the methods that have worked for me in the past.

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