Technology has always been a part of woodworking, from the invention of the saw to the development of power tools. In recent years, computer-controlled machines have become increasingly common in woodworking shops. While these machines can automate many of the tedious and time-consuming tasks associated with woodworking, they also have the potential to make the woodworker less skilled. After all, if a machine can do the work for you, why bother learning how to do it yourself?
There is no simple answer to this question. It depends on how you define “woodworker.” If your definition is limited to someone who cuts lumber and assembles it into furniture, then it is likely that a CNC machine could replace you. However, if you consider a woodworker to be someone who uses their creativity and skill to produce beautiful and unique pieces of art, then it is unlikely that a machine could ever fully replace you. No matter what your definition is, it is important to remember that technology is just a tool. It can be used to make your work easier, but it cannot replace your own creativity and skill.
Adding a CNC to your shop
Welcome to What Really Grinds My Chisels, an occasional feature where the Best Woodworking Tips editors tackle subjects they feel passionate about.
I consider myself a pretty traditional woodworker. I heavily favor hand tools because that’s how I like to work. But, I also realize that there’s a particular part of woodworking that I enjoy, so I will supplement my woodworking with power tools to get me to where I want to be faster.
With that being said, there’s one comment and mentality that just rubs me the wrong way. And that is “CNC isn’t woodworking” and that it somehow makes you less of a woodworker. If you stop to think for a moment and imagine when the first powered table saw came out. I’m not talking about jack-shaft-driven saws. I’m talking about a table saw that hobbyists, like you and me, could have in their shop and, all of a sudden, cut as quickly and efficiently as the big commercial cabinet shops. How did the “real woodworkers” that were doing everything with hand tools feel about that? (And on that note—people that view woodworking with hand tools as downright holy are goofs as well).
Supplement Your Work
As a woodworker that understands the different ways woodworkers work in their shop, I see some huge benefits for some people that want to add a CNC to their outfit. First, CNC’s are great for repetitive or extremely precise work. Cutting out dozens of identical widgets? No problem. Quickly zipping out an MDF template for flush routing parts at the router table? Yes please—in a quarter of the time it would take me to make a template. Heck, let’s not even talk about repetitive tasks such as drilling cribbage board peg holes (been there, done that at the drill press …never again).
The CNC is the master of doing tasks that I just don’t want to do. Or tasks that just require much more time than I can afford to give them. Let’s not forget to mention that adding a CNC to your shop has the potential to turn into a side-hustle. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I see a post somewhere starting with “Looking for someone in the XYZ area with a CNC to cut/engrave/etc. this for me.”
I guess what I’m getting at is that a CNC is a tool to supplement your shop. It’s no different than adding a router table, bandsaw, or any other piece of machinery to your shop. Does a CNC dovetail with the way that you work? Maybe—that’s something that you’ll have to decide for yourself. But I want people to think long and hard about the notion that adding a CNC to someone’s shop immediately degrades their skill in woodworking. That’s just utter nonsense.
In my mind, if you don’t want a CNC, cool. Don’t buy one. But, keep an open mind. A CNC is, after all, a tool. Adding one into your shop just opens up other paths and expands what is possible. Are they for everyone? No —but if someone wants to add a CNC to their shop, so be it. They can work the way they want, and you can work the way you want.