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Not Your Grandfather's Saw

Fine furniture makers find a place for digital fabrication tools.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

It’s not hard to find high-end custom wood furniture in the Pioneer Valley, which is home to renowned designers such as Michael Coffey, and fine woodworkers taught in the English arts and crafts tradition at the Leeds Design Workshops.

Their pieces can take hundreds of hours to make—and command prices, in some cases, in the tens of thousands of dollars. But local wood furniture makers are not all forging ahead in the 21st century beholden only to the hand tools they learned in decades past. Many employ digital fabrication technologies to help them shape unique pieces out of lumber.

Machines like computer-numerically-controlled (CNC) routers—which carve wood based on digital renderings, without human hands—have been greeted with skepticism by some furniture makers over the past two decades. And debate still rages in some woodworking and design circles about the appropriateness of automated equipment supplanting hands-on skills.

Still, local proponents of CNC equipment say the software-dictated machines are simply tools in their toolboxes that save them hours of labor, and thus money. They insist the high-tech machines don’t diminish their craft, as they are artisans who still spend ample time designing and chiseling, carving, cutting and sanding the pieces by hand.

Coffey—who is in his 80s and keeps a busy schedule in and around his Hatfield workshop—has followers around the world. They collect his modern sculpted furniture made up of sweeping, undulating curves that can mask their underlying functionality.

“I’ll use any technique, tool—like CNC machines—that will do what I’m trying to do, get me where I’m trying to go,” Coffey said. “But it doesn’t deter me from my basic path, which is to work with solid wood and to produce unique and creative things which please me and please other people.”

Coffey started experimenting with CNC machines in the past decade, after using everything from chainsaws to sandpaper to form his trademark curves in pieces such as chairs, tables and cabinets. He still employs those older tools, but also—with the help of colleagues—enlists computer-controlled routers to shape the wood to near-approximations of his drawings.

The CNC process is not ideal for Coffey. It leaves the routed wood with machine marks, and the software programs don’t always translate his drawings of compound complex curves with ease. The machines cannot get into tight spots, and can leave tears.

“I found basically that they work for some kinds of designs and for a portion of the design,” Coffey said. “They don’t work for everything, and they don’t do the complete job, by any manner of means, because there are just too many limitations.”

Still, they can prevent wear and tear on tools and human bodies. Coffey estimates that using a CNC machine saves him up to one-third of the labor on a piece.

Coffey doesn’t own a CNC router, but has worked with craftsmen who own them, including Mason Rapaport, owner of Rapaport Designs. The cozy custom furniture and cabinetry shop is in the old mill building at One Cottage Street in Easthampton. Rapaport, who has a distinct contemporary style of his own, invested roughly $25,000 in a four-by-eight-foot ShopBot CNC router four and a half years ago.

Rapaport’s business is in the same rambling building that once housed the Leeds Design Workshops, which from 1977 to 1989 was one of the country’s leading fine woodworking schools teaching traditional techniques. Leeds was started by David Powell, who apprenticed in post-World War II England at the Edward Barnsley Workshops, a center of the 20th century British arts and crafts movement.

Rapaport—straining to talk over the noise of the CNC machine routing walnut panels for Coffey—said he doesn’t see the computer-dictated tool taking the place of traditional hands-on furniture making.

“I see it as more of something to help you, like every other machine in your shop,” said Rapaport, who trained under fine-furniture designer Roger Heitzman in northern California.

“We’re not using a water wheel and a bunch of pulleys anymore,” he said. “At some point people had to make the jump from using a pile of chisels to get the shapes that you want to routers and molders and stuff like that. So I see this like a natural progression.”

Still, some furniture makers see a downside to the prevalence of CNC equipment.

Dana Roscoe, a woodworking instructor at the Hill Institute in Florence, is concerned about the impact the so-called “CNC movement” and ready-to-assemble furniture company Ikea are having on custom furniture designers’ livelihoods.

A graduate of the Cabinet and Furniture program at the North Bennet Street School in Boston, Roscoe was trained in 17th- and 18th-century reproduction. He favors the arts-and-crafts style when he makes furniture in his spare time.

“I was trained to see all those details [in woodworking] and I see that level of detail diminishing,” Roscoe said. “You know, when we think about a skill, a craft like handcarving, the CNC just can’t get into the corners. They can’t make a tool precise enough to do what you can do by hand. So it’s got to round things off. It’s got to cut corners, and suddenly that becomes the new benchmark. So we’re just losing our appreciation of what makes things that are handcrafted unique.”

When that appreciation diminishes, he fears, customers become more apt to buy less expensive furniture rather than handcrafted pieces.

Local craftsmen maintain that they do not allow the CNC routers and other advanced technologies to dictate their designs.

Silas Kopf, a world-renowned studio furniture maker whose shop is in Easthampton, employs a laser cutter to shape some of the decorative wooden veneer in his distinct marquetry tables, desks, cabinets and chairs.

“It’s another tool,” he said. “And so the design challenge then is to learn how to use the tool and to make it something that enhances the design,” as opposed to detracting from it.

Kopf, a former resident at the Leeds Design Workshops, said he prefers the laser cutter over a saw for cutting veneer into designs that are repeated multiple times in his pieces—such as dozens of trumpets covering a desk he made. But he does not rely on it for more unique patterns, and recognizes that there are downsides to using the laser—which can burn the edge of wood and create shapes that look almost too perfect.

For more than a decade, Kopf has hired a fellow marquetry master in Texas to cut some of his veneer shapes for him with a laser, and now he is pondering whether to purchase one himself and learn the corresponding design software.

The CNC world, unavoidably, is dominated by computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing software. Rapaport said a major obstacle he had to overcome when first using his computerized router was learning how to build the computer models based on Coffey’s designs.

Bruce Volz and Tony Clarke also had to adjust when they bought a five-by-10-foot Thermwood CNC router a year and a half ago. Their Northampton business, VCA Inc., makes custom furniture and architectural elements for high-end residential and commercial customers across the country.

Volz said he and Clarke put off the sizable CNC equipment investment—of more than $100,000—until the technology was developed to a point they liked and their staff could master the machine and accompanying software.

“It’s a whole different mindset,” said Volz, who, like Clarke, is a Leeds Design Workshops graduate. “Coming out of the craftsman tradition, if you will, it’s a whole different way of approaching the work. Traditionally it’s all about hand-eye coordination, hand-eye skills, where when you shift in to CNC, your computer-driven world, it’s a whole different part of your brain. It’s not necessarily the same people.”

Volz has found the CNC machine works especially well for cutting complex wooden shapes like ellipses. To be competitive, he said, VCA really has to employ all the tools at its disposal, including the time-saving CNC machine.

Indeed, such equipment is being used not only by current woodworkers but also future ones.

Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton has had a CNC router for several years. It was purchased on the advice of an advisory committee of real-world experts.

“One of our requirements (under state law) is to have the same standards as industry currently has,” Principal John Kelly said. “So we have to scramble to continue to get the tools,” including the CNC router.

Inevitably, technological tools like CNC routers and laser cutters have lowered the barrier to entry into custom wood furniture making. And Williamsburg’s Bill Sayre sees nothing wrong with democratizing his beloved craft. He is a former Leeds graduate and instructor who took over the program from Powell.

“There has always been a wide range of ability, skill, experience,” Sayre said. “We all started out as rank beginners ourselves, in our basements or something, and then sought out the instruction and the skills as we went along.”

Sayre noted that he has had students of all ages, including some in their 60s who were “desperate to make something with their hands.”

“They weren’t the most skilled person, and you looked at their stuff and you wouldn’t say it was the most refined furniture you ever saw, but it still had a lot of value to them,” he said. “You don’t want it all to be elitist, where only the best can do it and no one else can touch it. You’ve got to have a wide, broad base to make the whole thing work. So I’m all for making entry easier. You do a little bit and you appreciate the finer things that you see in a museum or in someone’s shop.”

When it comes to major furniture companies, CNC routers and laser cutters are the norm. The new technology that big businesses like Stanley Furniture and Thomasville Furniture are assessing now is three-dimensional printing, according to American Society of Furniture Designers president John Conrad.

Such large shops have started to use 3D printers to create furniture hardware such as poles, backplates and hinges, Conrad said. The quick fabrication machines work especially well when designers need to experiment with the look of hardware styled after something that they don’t tangibly have but can envision.

“Maybe you can’t find the original piece that you might have had in mind. Maybe it was in Elizabethan England or in France or in whatever, and you see a picture, and you’ve got elements in your head, but you just can’t get them out and have it in your hand, if you will. I’m hearing they are aggressively going after using 3D printing technology for hardware,” said Conrad, speaking on the phone from his office in High Point, N.C.

Back in the Pioneer Valley, many local artisans say they don’t want to see 3D printing of furniture—at least not any time soon.•

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