Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Headin' to the Shop

These signs are designed to help people get around my client's farm...keep their dirty boots out of his office and in the shop where they belong.  I think they'll get the job done just fine.  I have a couple other projects to complete for him, and those will begin next.

There are several layers of paint on these, ranging from browns to coppers. Some gold, tan and other colors are thrown in too for good measure.  I was recently asked, "How do you know when you're done with all those paint layers?" That's a good question.  I figure I'm done when I look at it and decide that anything more wouldn't add enough to be worth it.  I'm not done when it doesn't look right.  How many layers of glaze and/or paint is that? It's always similar, but never the same.  If I keep giving answers like that, people will think I'm running for office.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Right Tool for the Job

I'm having a great time learning about how to use the ShopBot and discovering what is going to be possible.  Having said that, I still find pleasure in the amazing things I can do with the CarveWright.  A project arrived that involves making a number of signs for a local farmer's home and various shops.  We discussed his needs and I realized that based on size and style, the CarveWright was really the best tool for the job. For pieces this size it's perfect.  The signs all fall into the range of between 9-12 inches wide and 18-22 inches long.
I found a piece of reference awhile ago for a sign shape I thought looked cool.

I really like the corner blocks, but felt they stuck out too far for this project.  These signs are a bit low to the ground and I don't want them to poke somebody coming or going from his shop.  So I vectored the shapes to my own liking, and created a lower relief for the corners.  Next I added some texture to the center by using an image of aged wood.  They were set up at various sizes and with all the needed text. I carved them in 1" Azek pvc and have no doubt they'll hold up to plenty of weather and abuse.  The material is strong and with the right preperation paints like a dream.  In fact, now that they have been carved and primed, next will come paint!  First is a base coat for the "wood". Now I can begin on designs for the rest of the signage.

Additionally, it's time to start thinking about sample pieces for my first ever CarveWright class!  I'll be making a variety of pieces to show what the machine can do and to explain some of my techniques with it.  I think it's going to be a great time.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

What a Week!

Awhile back, my friend Denny Rewerts (Economic Development representative in my county) told me about a cool idea called "Fast Pitch".  The concept was that you could take an idea and present it at this event being put on by Stark and Henry county.  There would be several divisions (retail, non-retail, good idea and student) and after a brief explanation of your idea and some questions, they would pick winners. They held a very informative pre-meeting and then gave us an opportunity to do a "dry-run".  I decided to show what I've been working on:  1. custom carved artwork in composite decking 2. dimensional hand painted murals. The decking sample includes a local school sports team. One of the samples for the carved mural concept is based on a mural I'll begin very soon in nearby Toulon, Il.

At the awards ceremony, I was thrilled to find that I had won in the non-retail category.  The prize was $5000, consultation with a company that specializes in patenting, and $25,000 in radio advertising. I told the group, "Now I have to explain to my daughter why NOT winning an ipad was good (an ipad was second place)." 

The next day was just as busy!  I had to complete an initial design for another mural that will begin later this summer.  It is for the town of Arcola, Illinois as part of their Walldog event. I am the project leader of a team that will paint a mural for the World Famous Lawn Rangers of Amazing Arcola. They are a wild, fun group that marches in parades using decorated lawn mowers and brooms while wearing masks..  They also haul around a large concrete statue of Elvis.  I can't imagine how my friend Scott Lindley picked me for the job!  My goal was to create an image showing some of the icons associated with the group, and still have some fun.  I thought it would be interesting to create the "Lone Ranger" mask using the lawn mowers as eye holes...it may be confusing up close but the mask should become clear at a distance.  I'm sure it will have some changes along the way, but the event will be a blast.

There was so much happening, that I've decided to break it up into a couple entries...so stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Video Games...Meet ShopBot

Today started out well. I had many errands to run, and my daughter Elena was ready to go. Her pocket was burning with some money she'd received at Easter and she had big plans for a new Barbie.
We visited a number of places, including a quick stop at a garage sale.  I stopped because something in the yard caught my eye. Let me put it like this:

Huge black velvet painting of Elvis at a garage sale: $4.
Laughing about buying a black velvet painting with my daughter all the way home: $0.
Watching the look on my wife's face when she walked into the living room: Priceless.

I also spent some time installing a permanent computer with the ShopBot (I have no desire to keep my laptop as the primary machine running the Bot).  It's hooked up to the network and I can transfer files there instantly.

During my drive earlier in the day, I had been thinking about the fact that moving the spindle around the table with the keyboard was nifty, but not very handy when you were trying to line up the bit to a specific spot on the table.  I thought it would sure be nice to have a remote for that...like on the big machines.  The answer came in the form of a wireless Xbox 360 controller I already had at home.  I have a device that plugs into the computer so the Xbox controller could be used for games on a pc.  I found an inexpensive application that would let me map the buttons/sticks on the controller to specific key strokes on the computer keyboard. In under 15 minutes and for only $9, I'd added a wireless remote for the ShopBot.  Here it is in action (my digital camera isn't great for video and has no sound, but you'll get the idea).

More fun just around the corner!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Wild Horses

The reason I decided to create a version of our local school mascot is because there is a pizza place here in Wyoming called "The Rebel Inn".  By adding a flying disc of pizza dough to the rebel, you have their logo.  The owner of the place is also the owner of a trucking firm. Keith is a proud member of the Wyoming community and wants very much to see small business succeed.  He graciously let me borrow one of his box trucks to travel all the way to the U.P. of Michigan to get the ShopBot and only asked that I fill up the tanks.  I will be doing a few other things for Keith as I get comfortable with the new tool. I thought giving him the first full project off of the machine was a good start.  It's way too flat for my tastes, but each day moves me closer to DIMENSION!

Today I decided to try something I've been thinking about for awhile.  The composite decking that is now available is pretty cool. It's designed to last much longer than wood and not require stain.  I did some small tests with my CarveWright and found it could easily be carved.  So today it was time to scale up.  I loaded 6 boards, each 5.5" wide on the table.  I decided to stay with the local school mascots, and opened the logo for the "Mustangs" from nearby Kickapoo.  I carved the logo at only 1/16" deep, but I feel it's still to deep. I would not want anyone to trip over the engraving. I will do another sample at 1/32 which I believe will be just right.  I think it would be very cool to have an 8' diameter logo in a large deck.  At 1/32" I believe the water, dirt, debris that might linger in the carving will be minimal and easy to sweep/blow out.  At 31" wide it's still relatively small.  For a larger logo, a larger bit would work quite well.  Thanks to Bill DeBekker and Jim Lohmann for some tips on feeds and speeds.  Bill forgot more last week about cnc machining than I'll learn in the next year.

Each day is another step...and a great deal of fun.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


The last 2 weeks have been something I'll always remember, but the last 3 days have been especially awesome.
It began with turning on the power to the spindle on the ShopBot.  It quietly came to life and sat waiting for my first set of instructions.  I could barely tell the spindle was even running! My experience with the CarveWright turned out to be a tremendous help.  In some ways, it's like learning a new language, but already having some basic vocabulary.  I can build rockets and robots with my CarveWright, but I have to learn new techniques in order to make the ShopBot fly. 

I have spent some time looking at various pieces of software and decided that rather than listen to sales pitches for them all, I'd just start from scratch and try several of them to see how they look from the vantage point of someone just starting out. How hard would it be to create a file? How difficult to set up a set of instructions for the machine to cut (called a toolpath)?  While I enjoy reading manuals as much as the next guy, I believe an intelligently designed application should allow you to find what you need without a trip to the manual every few seconds.  Additionally, features these days are added at a fast rate. An application that looked great 2 years ago might or might not look as well rounded today.

I decided to begin with a tutorial for one of the demo applications and followed quickly along.  It wasn't too difficult to take a pre-made file (in this case a set of vectored lines and curves) and generate a toolpath based on a 90 degree V-shaped bit.  I decided I'd start small and work my way up in size. I have a 4'x8' table but it just isn't time to explore that whole space just yet. Baby steps will ensure success.  I set up a small piece of Azek pvc material and put in my V-bit.  The spindle was warmed up and ready to go.  Once I'd done a few things (for instance you have to do a process to let the machine know how thick the material is  and where the tip of the bit is as well) I loaded my file and hit enter.

For the first 15 seconds my hand hovered over the emergency stop button as I watched it go to work.  I was waiting for some indication that I might have missed something or selected some setup function improperly. I had nothing to worry about.  In under 4 minutes this little piece was done.  My daughter was with me (her school is on break) and we watched it quickly carve the little file.  Once done, I lifted it off the table, blew off a few stray shavings and handed it to Elena:

My daughter was as excited as I was at this first, small success.  We decided a celebration was in order.  We made some sandwiches, popped a bag of popcorn, grabbed some drinks and jumped on our bicycles.  Elena just learned to ride without training wheels a couple of weeks ago, and it was time to get her some more experience.  We are fortunate enough to have the Rock Island Trail pass through our town and just a couple miles down the path in one direction is a bridge that crosses a small creek.  We rode there, parked the bikes and had our lunch on a small patch of sand below the bridge.  We talked about what candy the easter bunny might bring and Elena found a tree with roots sticking out of the bank that looked like a perfect home for some garden fairies.  Eventually we just sat in silence enjoying the sun, our popcorn and each other. 

Once we returned, I decided to take the first tutorial and do something "off tutorial" with my own file.  I have a vectored image I'd made of our local school sports mascot, the stark county rebel.  I quickly created the toolpath without having to check the manual or tutorial, and generated the file.  I loaded up some black pvc a friend had left with me, and ran through the process to begin carving. In under 11 minutes, this 32" tall version of the rebel was carved.  I'd done it correctly! 

Now I can move on to the next tutorial about carving 3D shapes...bit by bit (ha ha) getting closer to understanding the techniques I'll need to stand eye to eye with my friend Dan in what I'm calling "Router Wars II".  As the spindle cycled down, I couldn't imagine a better day...and this is just the beginning.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Giggle Factory

I tend to get excited about things.  When I see potential and possibility, it spins up my excitement motors to a high rate.  What I don't do much is giggle.  Laugh? Sure..most of the time. But today I giggled.  The cnc machine is in place and all the wires to the computer have been connected.  I still need to hook up some 220 for the spindle (router), but everything else is hooked up.

I can't thank John enough for the wonderful job he did with packing, and the precise written layout he did of all the wiring. It made reconnecting it all a painless process.  I attached the final wires and turned on the controller box just as my wife Ashley got home last night.  I loaded the controller software and cautiously pressed the direction keys...and it came to life.  It moved across the table with ease.  I set the jog speed a bit higher (the fast speed to move the router around) and it quickly glided wherever I asked it to go. 

This morning, I'm cleaning up the tools I used to get it all re-assembled, and getting ready to go get the breaker box for the 220.  I couldn't help myself, though...I had to take the router around the table again for a spin.  As it moved, I giggled like a 6 year old at Christmas.  There is so much work and fun ahead and I can't wait...

Monday, April 2, 2012

Miles Per Second.

I arrived home late last night, along with a good friend named John.  He agreed to accompany me on a trip to upper Michigan (They call it the U.P.).  We were there to pick up a 4' x 8' Shopbot CNC.  To be completely honest, I'm not sure it's fair to call it a Shopbot.  The owner is an amazing craftsman named James Lohmann.  He produces extraordinary architectural millwork and other wood-related wonders.  He showed us musical instruments, art gallery quality furniture and more.  He has a shop full of delightful machinery- much of it industrial and saved from scrap.  He has machined new parts, improved designs and generally proved that newer isn't always better.  Here are some pieces he created on the machine:

While the machine we picked up started as a Shopbot, Jim has turned it into something much more.  He replaced the x,y and z rails with hardened steel, reinforced the Y carriage and added additional motors to carry the two heads he was running.  The motor mounts are upgraded as well.  He put together a stellar vacuum system that is capable of holding parts less than an inch square.  In short (for those of you who might be lost in all this machinery jargon) he put this Shopbot on steroids.

His alterations brought an amazing level of accuracy to the machine and he wanted to show us what it could do.  We set up my computer, and Jim loaded a 3D model of a shell that he had created.  We put in a spoil board (to keep the table top from accidentally getting carved) and loaded up some Azek pvc.  The shell was carved in two passes. The first was designed to remove material quickly and then a finish pass to add the final details.

I watched transfixed while it quickly turned the material into a smooth shell.  The finish was amazing.  It was a pleasure to watch and began to heat up the engines that run my imagination.
Next, we loaded up a portion of a project I had created. It was a "steampunk" six sided dice.  Jim
wanted to show how small the machine could carve and keep detail.  We reduced the scale of the piece so that each square was about 2".  The final pass was done with a carving bit that was 1/32 of an inch in diameter.  He told us that he's done work with a bit that's 1/64 of an inch in diameter.  He showed us a bit, but I could only barely see the tip.  The piece carved quickly and I snapped a picture. The nickel is to show the scale.

The details were crisp, and the finish was amazing.  I spent a couple days taking notes and generally learning everything I could.  Jim was generous with knowledge and tips that will save much time.  It was time to disassemble the machine and load it.  It is heavy.  Let me say that again. It's HEAVY.  I think the Egyptians responsible for the pyramid construction would have been impressed with the methods used to get that machine into the truck.  The expensive Columbo spindles were wrapped with care and put in with all the accessories and it was time to depart.  9 hours later we were back where we had begun...in my driveway.  This morning I begin the process of unloading and assembling this addition to the arsenal of things I use to bring my ideas to life.  I'll be thinking about the time I got to spend with my friend John...and the amazing new friend I have in the U.P.  
     They measure how fast a cnc machine moves in "inches per minute".  I'm measuring how fast my imagination is moving in miles per second.