It is hard to believe that it was only seven years ago I witnessed a CNC router in action for the very first time. I was fascinated and simply had to have one! Although I had been in the creative end of the three dimensional sign business for most of my life I didn't really know what I would do with one - but I just knew it could do fantastic stuff.

Through extensive research I quickly found out that with the relative simplicity of EnRoute, CNC routers were capable of just about anything imaginable. This journal will chronicle that journey to date and continue each week with two or three entries as we continue to explore just what is possible with this wonderful software... -dan

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Butterfly house concept

This week has been largely all about our new house and other business matters. Not much got accomplished in the studio or shop so far.

The new house was very much in mind when we purchased our first MultiCam six years ago and also the new four axis model we just replaced it with. You can absolutely bet that it will play a large role in the creation of countless pieces. Today we were talking with a cabinet shop as to how we could incorporate many unique features into the cabinet, working hand in hand with their shop on various components.
Other features of the house will include wainscoting, chair rails, wall and ceiling trim, big decorative beams, railings, light switches and hundreds of other creative do-dads throughout. The software, router and modern substrates like the heavy weight Precision Board will allow us to do many things we previously only could dream of. These details are still a ways out from production on the CNC but with the final blue prints now being drawn it is time to think seriously about how we will do it.

So here is a teaser of the outside of the house as the final look is refined through the last stages...

Since my wife Janis loves butterflies we will be incorporating that as the theme throughout. I present the 'Butterfly House'.

This is undoubtably going to be a fun project that will incorporate every single trick and technique we can muster. I am looking forward to it with great delight!


Workshops! Workshops! Workshops!

These days we are thinking a lot about our Sign Magic Workshops. The next one to be held here in our studio is now only a week away. In the shop preparations are in full gear! I'll be posting some step by steps of some of the name tags I am making for our attendees later today.

Plans are also underway to have a workshop in the Ukraine or perhaps Moscow sometime later this year. I received a copy of the Ukraine sign magazine this morning and noticed a full page ad for the workshop. Unfortunately I am only able to read a few words. 

There is also some serious talk of a workshop on the east coast in the New Jersey/New York area later this year. No firm dates have yet been set for that one. But as things firm up I'll be posting details here.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Chasing the elusive butterfly

As we begin planning our new house in earnest, one of our happy tasks is to choose the perfect theme. Like our commercial projects the theme will extend to the corner blocks of the doors and windows and throughout the trim of the building. On commercial projects this is part of the branding, while in our house it will be merely decor. But the decor will have meaning and significance. 

Janis has loved butterflies as long as I've known her. This house is the perfect opportunity to celebrate that love. So, the first task is to narrow down the theme and style. It turns out there are endless ways one can draw a butterfly. 

I'll bet there are just as many clever ways to incorporate this theme as there are ways to render them.

Stay tuned...


Friday, February 24, 2012

A few more details

Today was another day at the Fox and Hounds. We tidied up a few more details. The contractor had painted the cooler door edges and surrounding trim from bright white to dark brown. It looked pretty good!

We hung the hostess sign in the entry. I had done a few modifications from the original design. 

We also pulled down a bunch of the direction and rule signs through the pub and brightened up the raised lettering, making them more readable in the dim light of the pub. 

I double checked some measurements for one last routing project for the inside of the pub. I'll be creating an overlay panel for the back door that will be similar to the one I did for the cooler door.

Stay tuned...


Thursday, February 23, 2012

The color starts

With the carving and sculpting now done it is time to kick off the painting process. First the usual coat of FSC 88-WB primer from Coastal Enterprises. This smoothes things out a little and also is used to apply a subtle texture to the lettering by using a small brush on those areas. We set up a shop fan for a few hours to suck out the moisture. Then it was time to apply the first coat of acrylic paint. The post got an even coat of light brown acrylic house paint. It will be allowed to dry overnight and then it will get a second coat.

The sign was the second area to get some color. I started with a medium metallic grey for a base color. the sign background will darken up to almost black before we are done, but some cool highlights will shine through to give the sign sone sparkle. The 23K gold and bits of color will give this sign a lot of class. The same dark grey with black glazes will adorn the 'sandblasted' areas of the sign post but they won't be applied until after the glazes on the rest of the post are done.

Stay tuned for more progress...


Reaching around the world!

It never ceases to amaze me that people from literally around the world take the time to follow our blog regularly. Most who follow the blog are fellow professionals, who desire to learn about how we do things in our shop. I get lots of emails from these folks which often include pictures of projects they have done, inspired by what they have seen on our website. It is kind of cool to know that we have provided some inspiration to people so far away, to people I have never met. The internet is an amazing thing!
Today I recieved an email from Konstantin, who owns Domino Art in Dnipropetrovs’ka oblast’  which is a province in the Ukraine. His email was short with the words  'Due to your ideas...'  The email also contained some wonderful pictures of some very imaginative work. His email suggesting we helped inspire the work was gratifying. 

Thanks for taking the time to contact me Konstantine! And keep up the wonderful work!  Their website is at www.domino-art.com.ua

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sign Magic Workshop almost here!

The last couple days have been frantic with many meetings and lots of organizing. I haven't had much time to create routing files. The beauty of having a MultiCam is I can easily keep it busy while I do other things. It can work all by itself(as long as I fed it the right instructions)

The next Sign Magic Workshop is just over two weeks away. So the CNC is kept busy cranking out textured letter panels for our guests to practice their painting and glazing techniques. Custom name tags for each guest will be the next task. I'll be doing step by steps on a few of those files in the next days. 

Stay tuned...


Monday, February 20, 2012

Ultimate project?

They say the hardest project for any artist to do is one for themselves. I know it to be true through experience. But these projects also allow us the ultimate freedom to do what pleases us and have the potential to be out best work.

My wife and I have been dreaming of our dream house for almost twenty years. We've drawn plan after plan, we've considered thousands of ideas. As you can imagine we don't want our house to be 'normal' in any way. From the first day I spun up the MultiCam more than six years ago I knew it would play a huge role in the construction. We've played and experimented with materials and finishes. Now the time has come to put all that experience to the ultimate challenge... our new house.

As the time draws near to begin construction the pace has quickened. It is time to put the best of the best of the ideas down, figure out ways to make it all work together. The final plan has to be functional, build-able within a budget we can handle and at the same time has to be the most incredible showcase for our work.

The ideas I'm currently drawing are not final, some are little more than rough scribbles. All are subject to change and revision. Some will hit the cutting room floor. But they are getting close and finally are boiling down to what we like. This will be a routing extravaganza both inside and out! before we are done we will also use every technique and trick I can think of.

Stay tuned for the best project yet!


Sunday, February 19, 2012


Once the router was finished cranking out all the pieces of the Lark Rise project it was time to start in on assembly. The first task was to weld up a steel frame that would go through the sign and also down the post to provide structural strength. 

Although the sign board looks like it can swing it is actually welded in place. The horizontal steel pipe is welded to the vertical pipe that goes from top to bottom through the middle of the post.

I used my die grinder to carve in the woodgrain into the post. The vertical cracks and splits were done with a narrow bit in the same machine. 

 I have a little more work to do on the back before we begin the priming and paint but it is almost ready to go already.

Stay tuned for more...


Friday, February 17, 2012

Routing times with textures

A question that often pops up in our email box and at workshops is about routing times. Folks want to know how long it will take to run these kinds of files. The reality is there is no simple answer. Mostly it depends on the router you own.

My new MultiCam is significantly faster than my old router. I've been told this is because of more powerful servo motors and larger spur gears on the drives. I just know it is faster and quieter than my old one by far.

There is also the matter of how the router is set up or tuned for lack of a better word. When a router goes from horizontal travel to vertical travel it literally stops as it changes direction. This effect can be dampened somewhat by changing the driver parameters to have the router cut the corner a teeny bit, meaning it can be taken faster. My MultiCam tech tuned my last router for me and in the process sped it up by half before the quality of the cuts changed enough to notice. I'd love to have him come back and play with my current machine and in the process make the cuts a little smoother and have the machine speed up significantly. I can only imagine the speed we would get out of it then.

Servo motors can be pushed a lot harder than the old stepper motors, meaning these types of machines will cut down on the router times by a whole bunch. But all this costs money too and we have to decide where the wallet stops and the patience kicks in.

The files that take the longest are the ones with the most texture... with the detailed woodgrain files taking the longest.  But they do look mighty fine when they are done. I come from the days when we did things the old way... applying the heavy sandblasting mask, pounding it down, then drawing out the design and patiently hand cutting the frisket, peeling out the parts not needed and then sandblasting the sign. That job is right up there with cleaning an oven (the old fashioned way). I can think of a thousand things I'd rather do.

Now I build the file in my studio, looking up occasionally at the gorgeous views I enjoy. Then I lay down a sheet of Precision Board. start the router and go do something fun.

Today I did a file that was a good one to analyze. It was a detailed sandblasted woodgrain that would push the capabilities to the max. It also has some flat bits so we could see how much the router sped up on those areas. The sign measured 44" tall by 28" wide meaning it was about 8.5 square feet in area. The file was programmed at 300 inches per minute horizontally (X and Y axis) and 150 inches per minute in the Z axis. It had an 80% overlap on the final pass using a 1/8" ball nose bit. The rough pass was done using a 3/8" ball nose bit and an 50% overlap and a 0.10" offset.  I timed both cuts and also shot some stills and video.

Here's a shot of the rough pass in progress. The sole purpose of this pass is to remove material. In doing so it eases strain on the 1/8" tapered ball nose bit I use for the final pass. The roughing pass took 35 minutes from start to finish.

The automatic tool changer changed bits while I was answering my email this morning. I can fairly hear it from my office. The noise pitch of the small bit is slightly higher. This finish file took just under six and a half hours to route from start to finish or 45 minutes per square foot. Not bad in my book, and certainly a whole lot after than doing it by hand!

Here's the video of the finish pass. I programmed this file at 300 per minute but in the one minute of the video the router only travels 108 inches - one third of the speed I actually programmed it.  The reason is the texture, slowing down the forward speed with the up and down movement. If you watch the movie all the way through you will notice the router speed up significantly on the bottom triangle and on the top part of the sign - both smooth areas. Obviously routing times will increase as detail is increased. 

With texture being so important to the work we do in our shop I have to calculate these increased routing times into the project budget.

The thing to remember however is not to solely determine the cost of the project by routing times. If you do you are selling yourself short - especially if you have a fast router. If my hourly rate is the same as someone else's with a slower router and I price by time and materials alone, then the sign becomes cheaper - simply because I can do it faster. Personally I'd like to be rewarded for investing in a faster machine and stick the extra cash in my pocket!


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Creating the Lark Rise sign files

 The Lark Rise sign was next up on the agenda. I created the lettering vectors in Illustrator and then imported them to EnRoute where I created the rest of the vectors for the design.

The sign face was fairly simple, with the inside to be routed out. The flags along the top were raised and bevelled.

I put some wood grain in the background using a sandblasted redwood bitmap from my TEXTURE MAGIC collection. 

The lettering outline was built as a separate flat relief, moved into position vertically and then merged highest with the background.

The lettering was prismatic lettering created with the bevel tool and a 0.15 base. The triangle on the bottom of the sign was also rested with the bevel tool as a separate relief before being merged highest with the background.

The sign will be cut in three layers, the top face being routed from 1.5" thick 30 lb Precison Board. The middle and back layers will be cut from 1" 30lb Precision Board. I will weld up a steel frame to glue into the center to provide strength. Since I'm using 1"x1" square tubing I created  1.1" cuts through the center piece to make room for the steel. The glue will fill in any gaps.

The two cutting files for the middle and back looked like this when I was done. These will be shaped using an offset cut.

Stay tuned as the sign comes together...


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Pure magic in four axis

I love curves, textures and fancy bits, especially if they take a good design over the top. The fourth axis opens up a whole world f possibilities that weren't easy previously. It is pretty exciting.

In the last post I showed how we built a file of the twisted and fluted post with a beautiful taper. Now it was time to let the machine do the work. As I build more files and experiment with the tool pathing I am slowly getting more familiar and comfortable with it. I learn best by repetition and experimentation - both of which take time.

Here's a short movie of the process...

Stay tuned for more...


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A weird shaped block

This whole fourth axis routing thing is forcing me to think in brand new ways. Being all new means I really have to work at getting it right. I'm sure that over time it will become familiar and quicker. Knowing EnRoute means I don't have to learn much as far as the program itself. But this was using EnRoute in a whole new way. 

The first thing I had to determine was how I would glue up the blocks with the maximum usage of my material. 

I decided to cut the blocks to shape in the top view as well. While it wouldn't save much materials it would save a bunch of sawdust on the floor as I routed and perhaps a little wear and tear on the machine. I would cut a rounded center slot in the two center pieces to accommodate the steel pipe I would glue in there and use as a centerpiece to clamp to. This steel would also provide structure to the sign post. The center slot was created as an inset relief. The balance of the routing would be simple offset cuts. The MultiCam made quick work of this project. Each piece would be cut twice.

Once the MultiCam was done it was time to start gluing up the 30 lb Precision Board. I used Coastal Enterprises PB240 - a one part glue activated by a spritz of water. It expands as it cures so lots of secure clamps are necessary.


We are almost ready to kick the lathe into gear. Stay tuned...


Monday, February 13, 2012

Details, details and more details

We are down to the final bits and pieces for the pub project. As they begin to operate for real in the renovated facility the need for an abundance of operational signs immediately became apparent. For these signs we opted for a faux copper look. The signs do what they are supposed to but blend into the scenery.

The files are simple but effective - still dimensional but not overly so. The signs are simple flat reliefs with a subtle texture (from the TEXTURE MAGIC collection) 

 The washroom sign reliefs were all built separately and then merged (highest) as a separate step. The front and back of the sign were build in separate pieces and glued tougher after routing. The eye bolts were welded to a steel rod which was laminated into the center for strength.

The lettering was added as a last step as a slightly domed relief.

The pieces were routed from 1" thick 30 lb Precision Board. The signs were roughed out with a 3/8" ball nose bit and the find pass on the MultiCam was done with a 1/8" ball nose bit.

I sculpted the hand using Abracadabra Sculpting epoxy. It was all painted with metallic acrylic paints, then aged with dome dark brown glaze.

There were lots more of these small signs throughout the facility and the list seems to be getting longer all the time.

We also hung the Keep Calm sign today. It looks at home in its final place.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Creating a file for a fancy turned column

The center section of the post is the next assignment. It will be routed on the four axis MultiCam. First I had to determine the scale and shape of the piece. I called up the tracing I had done of my concept drawing. I duplicated the center section flipped it and lined it up before merging it with the first half. I then measured the diameter, length and also did a trace of the profile. These measurements and the vector would be used later.

I wanted the post to look like it was turned with flutes winding around. to create these I drew a long rectangle and then used the duplicate menu to create a 12 copies.

I created a rectangle that was 36" tall by Radius times Pi. I positioned the pieces, rotated the flute vectors so the joining sides would line up. I created two horizontal vectors to line up with the ends, and also lined up the profile. 

I selected everything and rotated it so I would create the relief in the horizontal position. First I would create a mesh file of the profile using the sweep two rails function. It is a simple process. I selected the mesh command., then defined the slices and stacks. I tend to use higher numbers than necessary but my computer can handle the large files. The command prompts make it easy. Select first rail, then the second.

Then it asks for the swap sections. Clicking twice on the profile will define the shape all the way across with the same profile.

The mesh looks like this when it's done. 

I then created a zero height relief (in yellow). When I hit the render button it only showed part of it. This immediately told me the mesh profile was too low.

I checked the front view and sure enough the mesh file needed to be raised.

The next operation was to merge the mesh with the relief, I selected both the mesh and the relief which lit the combine button. I used the ad to button and hit apply. 

In an instant we had a relief in the shape of the profile of the post. 

Next up we would create the rib reliefs. I selected the vectors and then used the dome command.

It looked like this when it was done.

I merged the profile relief (as the base relief) with the dome ribs using the add to command.

Once I was done I rendered it to check and see what had happened. It looked perfect.

In the 3/4 view I could really see what was happening.

I used the sweep two rails function to create the bottom of the column. as a quarter round. I moved it up into 

I did the same for the top of the column.

As easy as that the relief was ready to wrap for the four axis router.

The simulation of the wrapped relief looks like this...

I have to check everything over and confirm all measurements, then I'll tool path the file and get it ready to send off to the router. Before I can do that I have to route the blocks to shape that I will be glued up for the block. It will have structural steel laminated through the center. I'll be showing that process next. Stay tuned...