Using CNC To Build Ukuleles - Good or Bad?

Pete Howlett

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7 ways to make money each day eh Bob? Forever the entrepreneur! Well done. I'd love to make income resewing and prepping for others. There is just no demand in the Welsh boonies for this type of service.

It might surprise y'all but out of the 15 - 20 hours it takes to build my Revelator designs, only 2 of those are spent using CNC technology. I expect most luthiers talk of hand work but are using side benders, power tools and machinery to wrought the wood. CNC does all this by itself instead of having you stand hold the work and feeding it into the machine. Tropes - beware of them.
 

BradDonaldson

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Here is my take on this; if you have a need to produce many identical parts, then a CNC machine is probably a good idea. Currently I don’t have that need and do not have any such tool. Now, if the price of such equipment comes down and the ease of use improves, I may get one.
Brad
 

Sporky

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Speaking only from the side of the consumer, I think it depends what you're looking for when investing in a custom instrument.
If it's knowing that someone spent as much time and toiled as much as possible on it, then I imagine that knowing some of it was done using CNC would lower the appeal. But then the same goes for any nice tool.
If it's knowing that it's truly unique and flawed in its own ways, then automation COULD lower the appeal. That is for example if the builder produces something identically for every single instrument, like a logo.

Otherwise, I don't see why it would matter. I do dislike that some brands (Enya) mass produce ukulele with huge fretboard inlays that are all absolutely identical and then sell them at huge prices. It can look great but to me it doesn't have the same value as a handmade work of art. The issue is only in the pricing though. Generally, why be upset that automation allows more intricate designs to be made available to more people?
I will end by saying that if I was to spend $10,000 on a custom with tons of inlay, I would want it to be done without CNC, the same as a drawing is more precious to me than a print.
Though as Pete eloquently put it, a lot of skill and effort still goes into harnessing the technology. (And obviously there are more steps than printing).
Would I care if the fret slots or other "calculated" and standard building blocks (like bracing or fretboard) were made with assistance of software? Probably not.
 

Pete Howlett

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The right tool for the right job. I've found a way of harnessing 21st Century technologies and integrating them with traditional hand skills. It was an essential step for me and I'm an unofficial 'ambassador' for using CNC router - today cut braces and a gluing caul with it, radiused a Revelator body edge on my table router and hand carved a neck using a rasp and 70 year old wooden spokeshave. I hand planed and fitted a set of ribs, hand planed and glued end blocks, cut back a finish by hand with 400 grit paper and changed a bandsaw blade ready for cutting out a tenor back and front prior to dimensioning them with my speed sander. That's is how my day went. Time spent on the CNC router - 10 minutes. Time spent at bench - 5 hours and 50 minutes. Hand made? No. Machine made? No. When you strip it back the whole thing is a complex pice of choreography whose dance troupe comprises machines, hand tools and my 46 years experience knowing how these fit together in my hands.
 

tonyturley

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I'll agree the CNC end takes a lot of work, for me at least. The software I'm using is rather primitive, requiring a fair bit of testing and adjusting with scrap wood before I'm willing to stick my good wood under the cutter. But it's part of the path I've chosen for my own work flow. If I was doing this for $$$, I'd need to purchase a much better machine and software if I was to incorporate CNC into my work. But the CNC components are a very small percentage of my instruments, and even though I've been tempted, I cannot justify the cost of a significantly better setup.
 

Pete Howlett

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Yes you have to have the work to justify it but honestly is $2000 a 'big' investment when you can use the machine for things other than luthiery to help 'pay' for it. It's a question of how you 'employ' this worker.
 

Graham Greenbag

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I got that idea when I went to the Schimmel piano factory in Braunschweig, Germany and the production manager told me that was why they bought the CNC.

Setting aside the ‘characters’ on this forum automation in its various forms does allow cheaper manufacture and reduced costs to the customer become possible. Of course automation costs money to buy and use so, if cost savings are to be gained, carefully costed business cases have to be made to justify the expense and identify savings. Production Managers and Production Engineers make a living doing such things and their employers don’t have them on the payroll out of generosity ...
 
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Pete Howlett

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Illness took away the choice from me... and stimulated me tottery a different way of making ukulele. However, if I was firing on all cylinders I'd still get one; they are so much fun.
 

Pegasus Guitars

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Pete- Most people that I know who have these things say they could not have done it without some outside help in getting the programming figured out. How did you deal with that, or are dealing with that, and how long did it take you before the tool actually became useful? Those seem to be the main issues with these tools that are not exactly plug in and go. Maybe at some point these tools will become Mac friendly, which will make them more accessible.--Bob
 

Timbuck

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Yes you have to have the work to justify it but honestly is $2000 a 'big' investment when you can use the machine for things other than luthiery to help 'pay' for it. It's a question of how you 'employ' this worker.
I spent over 3 times that amount over the last five years just on band saws.
 

EDW

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So much depends on the knowledge of the builder. There is no substitute for the skill and intuition of SO many of the builders here. It probably totals hundreds of years.

All the set up and programming would be key. It reminds me of those times when people screw things up and then blame "computer error" as if the computer made a decision on its own
 

Pete Howlett

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It was a long steep learning curve Bob. Until my business partner got sick we were on track to provide a 'quick start' course for luthiers here in the UK supplying machines and training. I think that is what is lacking. Most people look at the big manufacturers and their enormously expensive machines. It really doesn't have to be so. 2K for a decent sized machine for ukulele makers is all that is needed, a computer and $150 worth of software plus some guidance.... 5 days plus support was my model.

On most of my courses students now do their own headstock logo and fingerboards on the CNC and it is amazing to me how quickly and naturally they take to this technology. The secret for me is learning how to teach students how to use Vectric software to exploit its intuitive interface and to understand how to 'set out' and plan operations. It really is the best software for mumpties like me.

Here is a tip though, and that is what no-one tells you. There is no YouTubers specialising in CNC content telling you why they and nearly everyone else uses 1/4" cutters for nearly all their 2D cuts and a 1/8th" ball nose for shaped surfaces. I can tell you but you'll have to pm me Bob or if you are not Bob (who I am indebted to for many reasons and whom I owe big time) you will have to come on a course and learn the Pete Howlett 'correct cutter' rules for effective CNC router cutting ukulele parts and basic inlay.
 
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Matt Clara

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I don't mean to start an argument here, but am curious about how ukulele builders feel about using CNC ( maybe CAD/CAM/CNC is better- I don't know that much about the nuts and bolt of these things). I do not use it myself, but I'm thinking about it. I can see how it might be useful for a large production shop. For the smaller shop maybe not so much. I also see the utility of producing parts that are reproducible and of extremely fine tolerances. For instance, I have struggled over the years making the perfect neck block with the perfect radius at a perfect 90 degrees. Inevitably the blocks turn out as small works of art taking way too much time to produce. I could definitely see using CNC tools to get the perfect neck and tail blocks over and over. All this takes valuable time and time is money in a lutherie shop. It is your labor you getting paid for in the end. Also your craftmanship.

Where I begin to have a problem with it is with inlay. To me inlay is an art in itself and not just shell or wood and just flipping a switch seems... I don't know, cheating perhaps? It always looks too perfect to me and inlay done with CNC is always too much inlay to my eye. Over the top inlay? Or maybe using CNC is also an artform.

I know a number of posters here use it to produce their ukuleles and this thread is not meant to denigrate them. They produce some absolutely gorgeous instruments that sound great. Maybe it is just another tool to use in the shop just like bandsaws and routers?
I use one to cut my saddles and my fretboards, and for what little inlay work I've done so far, too. Sure inlay is an art, most of the art is in the design, though. Anyone with the skill to cut small pieces accurately isn't necessarily going to be good at inlay. And using a cnc router isn't easy, either, but it's repeatable. It's like when I learned to print black and white photos. I had my own dark room for a number of years (and I'm a photographer by trade, like, it's on my business card and everything), and while I got decent at the dark room, what it lacked was repeatability. I could spend hours trying to get a print just right, and once I'm done if I want another one, I can just put the hours in again and hope I pull it off as well a second time. But by the time I got okay in the darkroom, I was already more than okay in Photoshop, and what I do in photoshop is repeatable. I can even do it in layers, where if I don't like an edit I made two weeks ago, I can just remove that layer. And all of that is just as much an art as learning to cut little pieces accurately with a jeweler's saw.
 

Pete Howlett

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The 21st century client wants 21st century accuracy/repeatability. I can see no reason to hand build something that is a 'precision' part.... and there are many luthiers already using quasi forms of these modern tools. How many here use a laser cut fret template on a bench saw or a dovetail jig with a router? I've done timing tests for all operations and unless you are building complex carve tops and backs and going through the pointless task of carving a neck, the amount of 'work' the CNC does in the small workshop setting is less than 15% of the overall time spent making. I wish some of you could visit my workshop and see how seamlessly integrated into the tasks of building this technology can be. Used appropriately it engages; it does not disengage you from the creativity of making.
 

Red Cliff

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The 21st century client wants 21st century accuracy/repeatability. I can see no reason to hand build something that is a 'precision' part.... and there are many luthiers already using quasi forms of these modern tools. How many here use a laser cut fret template on a bench saw or a dovetail jig with a router? I've done timing tests for all operations and unless you are building complex carve tops and backs and going through the pointless task of carving a neck, the amount of 'work' the CNC does in the small workshop setting is less than 15% of the overall time spent making. I wish some of you could visit my workshop and see how seamlessly integrated into the tasks of building this technology can be. Used appropriately it engages; it does not disengage you from the creativity of making.
I think Pete is right with this observation of the 21st century client. I think over the last 50 years or so customers have been exposed (notice I didn't say chosen) to increased mechanisation and mass production in all areas of life. Small local producers of all kinds have been driven out of business by big business. The offer and appeal (e.g. supermarkets) was of greater choice, but the result is that every shop you go in is pretty much the same. People value time, reliability, consistency, neatness etc almost at the expense of performance.

I am perfectly happy to use whatever tools and jigs get the job done, however what worries me slightly is that it can become very difficult to know (for the customer) which builder does have the knowledge and experience but chooses things like CNC for valid reasons, and a builder who has next to no hands-on experience but has a computer, a CNC machine and a formula for building a decent uke obtained by dismantling one made by someone else. Particularly when everyone buys on-line.

The way you used to tell the difference was through the high quality and precision craftsmanship (I would love to think customers choose on the sound.....but I just don't believe that of most....). But with CNC that is very difficult.

The way you
 

Pete Howlett

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The good thing about anything digital is 'rubbish in rubbish out'. It's only as good as the person using it. Small workshops will sooner or later all have one or regret not getting one and it will become as essential as a pencil and scale/rule.
 

Pegasus Guitars

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The good thing about anything digital is 'rubbish in rubbish out'. It's only as good as the person using it. Small workshops will sooner or later all have one or regret not getting one and it will become as essential as a pencil and scale/rule.
Luckily I have not run into customers that are influenced by a desire for repeatability. Most of mine want something different and personal. Pete, I totally see your points about how useful the CNC can be in your shop. I think it is very admirable that you have learned to integrate it into your work, whether out of necessity or just interest. That's completely acceptable to me. I guess the bottom line is that some of us just don't care what a CNC can do. Just not our thing.--Bob
 
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ksiegel

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A number of years back, while he was still active on UU, I visited Rick Turner in Santa Cruz and toured his shop. He has a pretty good sized CNC machine, and had different programs for different instruments. They were able to turn out many appropriate parts for many different instruments, from ukuleles to basses that cost close the least expensive price of any automobile I've purchased in the past 25 years... And there is a lot of work done by hand in that shop, as well.

Now, granted Rick had a crew of craftsmen, many of who have gone on to their own businesses, but he was still making the occasional ukulele himself, using CNC, power, and hand tools, and TEACHING new employees how to make instruments. And, while not identical, all were beautiful instruments. The first of his instruments I played, a 5-string tenor at Sylvan Music in Santa Cruz, I didn't care for - I thought it far too guitar-like.
A year later, I played the same instrument, as well as two of Rick's personal instruments (one koa, one cherry), and fell in love with all three. (Mostly the cherry).

As a consumer, I do appreciate an item - especially an instrument - built by hand, with hand tools, that sounds an plays wonderfully. But in the hands of -or under the tutelage of - a master builder, an instrument constructed using CNC and knowledge will usually be a wonderful instrument.

(I own one KoAloha, two Donaldson (one is custom), a Timms, a National Resophonic, a Waverly Street, and a lot of factory-ukuleles. I would like one of Pete's, but we bought a house instead.)


-Kurt​
 

Red Cliff

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This is a thought which came to me after reading this thread. I doubt that some regular UU members in the luthier lounge will relate to it, but it is an idea for general use not just the luthier lounge regulars.

The concept is the cottage industry. If you live in a nice cosy village, or have a group of friends who want to, the increasing ease of access to CNC technology makes the setting up of your own real or virtual village that can fund itself with a cottage industry. It is about creating useful products and musical instruments out of wood that can be sold to support the village lifestyle. It is not necessarily about the products, or the mystical qualities of musical instruments, but you can use that stuff for promotion.

The idea is to set up a village which has a commercial co-operative. Each member acquires an accessible CNC machine and the collective arranges for designs and the software to create the components on the CNC machines. Each member focuses on a group of components on their CNC machine, and the components are collected and assembled by villagers, like an on-going harvest, for sale. So in effect it is a distributed factory where the workers are also owners in the co-operative, and all villagers work together to create useful and saleable products out of wood.

The availability of these lower cost CNC machines makes it possible to question the idea of needing a large factory with big machines and owned by billionaires and manned by humble workers who are paid just enough to effectively subsist. A group of workers can all work together and buy suitable machines and set up workshops logistically or physically close together, and the "factory" could provide a healthy income to suit a lifestyle. As a discussion to explore how it could work, UU luthier lounge members who own CNC machines could discuss working together to create some bread and butter products to sell so they can afford to indulge the more esoteric luthier lifestyles. Instead of being maker hermits and the possibilities of a more tribal village based approach could be explored.

Yes, you could do this with hand tools and jigs, but if the CNC machines are set up well, they can generate parts in volume and accuracy which are beyond the capabilities of most single artisans, without need 30 years of experience, and the idea is to create components which fit together easily to create products to sell to support a lifestyle. Once the income is secured, then the villagers or makers indulge in their chosen woody lifestyle, making fine instruments by hand or creating musical content or whatever. Then the high end hand made products could be used to promote the other products and vice versa, providing a complete range of products in a local area.

A nearby plantation forest owned or controlled by the co-operative would be the source of the raw materials.
Great idea. But 'The Pete Howlett Collective' sound like a really dodgy 70's prog-rock group......