CNC Machines – Real Woodworking or Cheater Cheater Pumpkin Eater

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Those evil CNC machines!

There’s been a debate brewing for several years now among hobbyist woodworkers: Can CNC machines be used in “real” woodworking? Let’s explore this! For those residing under rocks, a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine is a computer-controlled, motorized, multi-axis assembly with a cutting tool of some sort mounted to it. In the context of woodworking, the term generally refers to an X,Y,Z table outfitted with rails, a gantry that spans the rails and a router (or similar) motor. A collet on the motor’s shaft holds a rotary cutting bit, which cuts or carves out whatever the computer programs tell it to. In a nutshell: it’s a woodworking robot.

As a hobbyist who’s active in the online woodworking community and a local woodworking club, I’ve encountered those musing over this deep philosophical conundrum, often in a scoffing tone. Some love the idea; some despise it. Few seemed to occupy the middle ground, until the past year or so. Let’s consider some of the positive aspects of CNC and whether it can serve a legitimate role in the home workshop. But first, let me very briefly discuss CNC’s most notable attribute: a very high level of precision. CNC machines are capable of very high precision. Whew, that was easy! Let’s continue.

CNC Machines – Real Woodworking or Really Cheating?

Perhaps it’s neither; or both at once. It strikes me as odd for someone to have an antagonistic attitude towards the use of a creative tool (similar divides also exist concerning both pocket hole screws and biscuits and whether they are “real” joinery or not). But some do feel that using a CNC machine as a woodworking tool is essentially cheating. I’ve heard a number of arguments against the technology and they usually boil down to a fear that it will cheapen the art of handmade woodworking. I find that to be a weak argument; at least on the surface. So here’s my weakest, most basic rebuttal: Something manufactured by machine isn’t handmade work. It’s like comparing an original painting to a print. A million prints of a painting doesn’t make the real painting any less genuine. In fact, they may actually make the real painting even more special, more desirable, more valuable.

Perhaps the issue isn’t quite that simple though. I can’t ignore the fact that a glut of machine made products does indeed dominate the market, reducing the need and desire for handmade items. So it’s easy to see why those who create handmade crafts might feel threatened by the adoption of wage-less robotic workers, tirelessly churning out perfect copies. But the industrial moguls and their factories aren’t going anywhere, whether we approve or not. There will always be trinkets available at the big box stores for less money than we can even make them for. That’s a battle we’ll never win.

You down with CNC? Yeah You Know Me!

Seminoles plaque
This CNC project was given as a Christmas gift.

Narrowing our scope to only the home workshop, does CNC really cheapen handmade products? I see the issue as having three main facets: moral, economic and aesthetic appeal, all three of which are subjective. Some people try to pass off items they made via CNC as “handmade”. Other times, they may employ ambiguity and only clarify when directly asked. But, the fact that people can misrepresent their work is only a valid case against lying: not against CNC technology. Of course it’s best to be truthful about the items you make, whether you’re selling them or not; your credibility is at stake. And never enter CNC work into a contest unless you’re sure the rules allow it. But then there are also times when making the distinction may be of no real value, concern or obligation.

If one makes a jewelry box and uses a CNC machine to create an inlay on the lid, is this person doing “real” woodworking? Sure, I’ll grant that they are. Did they do a “real” inlay? Yes, of course. Did using CNC take less skill than using a router and template? Now we’re getting into a gray area. BOTH methods may – in reality – require the same level of competence, albeit, completely different skill sets. With either method, the craftsman is performing a single operation out of the many required to complete the overall project. Does the chosen tool make it any less valid?

The end result is sometimes more important than the method. Consider, for example, signs and plaques. Woodworkers often find themselves making signs. Those signs may be for paying clients who don’t care about hand made; they just need a sign and want to pay your lowest price. For them, it’s a utility item and not an art piece.

As for aesthetics, people buy what they like, usually with little regard to the method of construction. That said, there will always be a market for actual handmade items.

Make your own templates: As easy as CNC and 1,2,3

One thing I find CNC machines particularly valuable for is creating templates. If I’m trying to batch out dozens of a particular part, I often use a template. The template may be a photocopy of my pattern that I spray glue onto the workpiece. Other times, I’ll create a hard template out of tempered hardboard, card stock or acrylic sheet plastic. The template is used like a stencil. Trace the template and your workpiece is laid out and ready to be cut. A CNC machine makes templates easily and super accurately. Some people buy router templates (often at high prices) for making serving trays and other projects. Why buy stencils and templates when you can make your own (and size them to suit your needs)? Surely one isn’t going to argue that using CNC in this way is “cheating”.

Another thing that some woodworkers purchase for their projects are embossed wooden appliques, or “embossed moldings”, as our sponsor Rockler Woodworking and Hardware calls them. I’ve seen these things used on all kinds of projects, such as fireplace mantels, headboards, architectural trimwork, clocks, picture frames and much more. Personally, I don’t like them for the same reasoning many people apply to CNC: it’s not “real” woodworking to glue on a fake carving that you bought. But that’s just me; many people like them just fine. I wouldn’t feel bad about it though if I made the same things on my CNC. And if I were to, I could scale and customize them as I see fit. Honestly though, I make toy cars using factory produced wooden wheels, so I don’t even always follow my own rule. Where to draw the line? I’ve even seen people who are against CNC machines in the home workshop use these things, which boggles my mind. If CNC is cheating, these are definitely cheating! But really – outside of contests – is it even possible to cheat when making a project? What does that even mean?

The Lowdown on the Hoedown

The brains of the operation
The brain of the machine lives in the black box on top of this power supply.

The many answers to whether CNC work can be considered real woodworking or not fall along a gradient. There’s no clear cut delineation to tell us what percentage of CNC work demotes a project from hand made to machine manufactured status. I will, however, boldly dare to assert that a project made exclusively by CNC is not real woodworking, even by liberal standards.

Clearly, the argument is far from settled. But, one should have pause before dismissing CNC as the evil antithesis of woodworking. Just because using it – in and of itself – isn’t necessarily “doing woodworking” doesn’t mean it can’t be a perfectly valid addition to the shop and an honest way of performing a step or two during the build process. Rebellious arguments were also raised by some craftsmen at the end of the 19th century, when power tools were invented. Eventually, most realized that more efficient, more accurate tools are a good thing and they became staples in nearly every modern workshop. CNC machines appear to be on that same path. Embrace your power tools – but not while they’re running – and they will imbue your shop with functionality, versatility and awesomeness. You do want your shop to be awesome… Right?

What do you think? Can CNC machines be a part of “real” woodworking? Weigh in on the topic in the comments below.

And, if you’d like to get started with CNC, our sponsor Rockler Woodworking and hardware has options starting at $1600, and is also another great resource:

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About Steve

Steve made his first woodworking project at age 9 (in 1982) and whittled his first wooden chain at 18. He was also a consumer electronics repair tech and shop owner for a little over 20 years, until his impending obsolescence became impossible to ignore. Since then, Steve has focused passionately on manipulating his wood... in his workshop. Don't judge him.

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31 thoughts on “CNC Machines – Real Woodworking or Cheater Cheater Pumpkin Eater”

  1. Are CNC machines real woodworking?
    Is using power tools real woodworking?
    Is using off the shelf hand tools real woodworking?
    Is using handmade wrought iron or bronze hand tools real woodworking?
    Maybe scratching the wood with stones is real woodworking?

    The answer is simple: progress, deal with it.

    • I have to be honest, I find CNC woodworking boring and impersonal. I do not consider it true woodworking. Its not the power tools part of it, its the precision. It’s also not “in your hands”. It wouldn’t matter if it is metal, foam, or wood, it’s just not the same. It takes skill out of woodworking. That is not to say there isn’t a place for it.
      To better explain this, I look at “drones” (quadcopters) differently than R/C planes that you find at an R/C club. Anyone can fly these new drones, but hand the R/C planes transmitter to any “drone” operator and see how quickly they crash it.

      • If you were to control the thrust of every single propeller on a quadrotor you would also crash it quite fast. Thanks to the progress we’ve got accelerometers and gyroscopes to do that for us. Current fighter jets (not tomention flying wing bombers like B-2) use fly by wire and helluva lot of computer assist to move the control surfaces yet we still call it piloting a plane. It’s not that only old WW1 rod and wire controlled planes are called real planes.
        Same with woodworking, if it’s working with the wood, it is what it is.

    • If money changes hands, cnc is real wood working.
      I talked to an older lady who was an artist with thread and paint.
      She put her art work on dovetail jointed boxes made by another.
      I asked her if she would ever use CNC for box making and she poo poo’d the idea vigorously.
      I didn’t have the heart to tell her…..

  2. After reading all of the comments in the article, and the posts here, i am firmly convinced that the cnc machine is no more, and no less than any other tool in the shop. Sure it involves a different set of skills to use, but what new tool does not? Upon the subject of lathes, most lathes nowadays have electric motors on them to do the hard work of actually spinning the blank. Yet how many of us have retained the skill sets needed to operate a roman bow lathe, a pole lathe, or even a treadle lathe? Those took some real walk and chew gum at the same time skills. To say anything done on cnc machines is pretty, precise, and soulless, could be said about the use of any machine assisted items made in the shop. How many prefer to round over a corner with their router rather than with a scraper, and sandpaper (sandpaper, there’s one for the scraper purists)? How many prefer to use a dremmel tool, rather than gouges for carving? How many of us would like to go back to the days of sawing by hand, all of the parts we need (with varying accuracy), giving up our table saws? The list goes on. to call an item soulless because of the way the item is made, is a non-starter, As both items start in the creative mind of the woodworker, not the computer which carries out the instructions, nor the hand tools used. Without the imagination of the woodworker, all of our tools, whether hand, or powered (cnc included), would be just so many interesting paperweights. Now i may work with computers, and was trained as a programmer, and that makes working with a cnc machine that much less mysterious to me, than to others who are not. does that make me any less of a woodworker in all the other areas? It does not. As to the title of handmade, Does the batch of turned spindles, made on a lathe with a duplicator, any less handmade than the original that it copies from? The processes are essentially the same, the idea for something comes from the brain, then put to either paper, or code by the woodworker as a design, then taken to the shop to be made, with the aid of the necessary tools. Which brings me to the summation, that a cnc machine is no more, no less a tool than our table saws, lathes, drill presses, etc.

    • I guess we’re in fundamental disagreement. Calling a fully automated machine “just another tool” is a reach. If you are in the business of mass producing items, it may be an essential tool, but I think we’re discussing something different here.

      I once considered taking the Adobe ACE test for Photoshop and Illustrator, so I am not unfamiliar with computers or the arguments for and against them. I have been through countless discussions of whether digital photography is “real” photography or not. I create, manipulate and print my scroll saw patterns in Photoshop, and then save them for perfect copies any time I want one. If I hand-drew or hand-copied them, I would put that on a sign and brag about it, but I am honest and tell people that most of my patterns come from other artists, and I use the computer to be sure that I am getting it right. It is still me doing the cutting, and people say that’s important to them.

      I take pride in cutting the piece by hand, because the little flaws that appear from time to time are valued by customers who appreciate that you put time and effort into it and did not just push a button. Just the term “handcrafted” on an item can draw more interest than hundreds of identical pieces on a rack. I don’t think what powers my saw, whether a foot treadle or an electric motor, is as important as the fact that I alone guide the piece through the blade.

      Handcrafted items will always be worth more than the same thing mass produced. When it is not, I will stop selling it and just make things for relatives and my own pleasure.

      • You take pride in cutting a piece by hand. Therein lies the central catalyst of the debate: ego.
        The fact that anyone would get defensive (technically you are the moment you criticize an alternative to your own methods) about someone else using a tool that makes it ‘easier’ cuts to the real issue.

        Here’s the thing: chances are the person using the CNC machine isn’t claiming to be a woodworker. They may be creating a piece, maybe even considered an artful piece out of wood, but they know they need the CNC machine to do it.

        There it is, so any other woodworker’s pride, honour, reputation, hours of invested practice, need not be in question.

        The CNC machine simply offers some people the means to create something that they do not possess the talent or patience to create without. It is an enabler, not a challenger.

        I guarantee you the CNC machine makes it possible to entertain design possibilities that you simply will dismiss as too time consuming to be worth while.

        It is Paul Bunyan vs. the invention of the chainsaw.

        If anything it expands the interest in woodworking in general.

        To say it is fully automated is to compare Uber to driverless taxis. We’re not quite there yet.

        The idea starts between the ears, not between the fingers.

  3. I’m a computer guy who has done CNC work with metal as a machinist on and off for years. I’ve also been a woodworker and I see these things as completely different. CNC is wonderful for producing exact replicas time after time or very high precision parts for exacting applications. I use CNC every time to produce metal panels and precision metal parts. I can see using it in a production environment where I would have to make reliable, repeatable copies of something as well. However, woodworking for me has always been an hand driven art. I do a little bit of guitar making. A handmade guitar is a unique, one of a kind object wherein a lot of personal energy goes into the individual item. A Chinese CNC shop can turn out the same guitar in a couple hours that might take me 6 months of hand work, even using power tools. I think there is a place for it to be sure, but it sure isn’t handcrafted even if the digital template used was creatively inspired and designed. Handcrafted items are a one of a kind. CNC by definition can produce endless copies. The difference between a live performance and an MP3 that can be copied endlessly.

    • You make some great points. I like your comparison between a live performance and an MP3. There is a definite difference in the intrinsic value of each. One actually took “hands on” work to produce and the other was mechanically reproduced.

  4. Woodworking is the knowledge of working with the material (wood).There is no skills involved feeding the planer or making mortises with a festool domino or rounding over a table leg with a round over bit on a router etc… Woodworking is getting things done in wood and if it’s business doing it fast and accurate means more money

  5. While I can certainly agree their is a similarity to the debate of power tools vs hand tools, I feel that CNC Machines detract from the purity of woodworking for a couple reasons.

    The CNC Machines that are becoming increasingly popular and more affordable by woodworking hobbyists today are simply scaled-down versions of the larger industrial machines, which are used for mass-producing any department store quality product. Regardless of the material those manufacturers use – solid wood, MDF, particle, composite – the results are reliably repeated with high precision. A hobbyist CNC Machine is no different because it follows a digital pattern to create pitch-perfect copies. Sanding that CNC-generated piece down and slapping a finish on it doesn’t suddenly convert it into a hand-made item.

    As one poster asked, what is the actual definition of “woodworking?” For me, the difference lies clearly between a mass-produced replica that is manufactured, and a unique, hand-made piece of art, which includes flaws. If the goal is to create copies for profit, then it’s no longer woodworking – it’s an automated process that strives for perfection. I don’t fault my fellow man for wanting to achieve high-quality results because we all want to improve.

    I also don’t deny that CNC Machines will allow countless more individuals entertain the hobby. Much like new generations today that don’t know a time without the internet, those hobbyists that enter into the hobby using primarily CNC Machines will lack true woodworking skills (e.g. hand-cut dovetails, jointing with hand-planes). Woodworking, like other trades (i.e. plumber, electrician), requires skills that must be learned the hard way thru practice and perseverance. However, CNC results are repeatable by virtually anybody. Should those people be considered woodworkers because they can punch some keys on a computer and stick a board into a machine? The company that prints hundreds of prints of a famous artwork, such as The Starry Night by Van Gogh, does not automatically become an “artist” because they produce “artwork.” They are a profit-centered manufacturing business.

    Art inspires imagination. CNC Machines inspire duplication. In short, my opinion as a 38-year old woodworking hobbyist is that CNC Machines are blasphemy to the woodworking craft.

    • My take is this, unless we’re going to go back to what Roy Underhill teaches and shows on the Woodright shop then we’ll never be true craftsman in the truest sense of the term. Say that a CNC machine lessens the appreciation for the quality of the work completed is like what many old schoolers said at the turn of the last century when the industrial revolution happened upon all the craftsman trades. We must still check our work, understand the importance of knowing what the wood will allow and will not, and it is only because of the demands from our customers for quicker delivery of the goods that CNC and/ or power tools are needed to begin with. I love this form of crafting a wonderful idea into reality and nothing takes the craftsmanship out of it because a craftsman must always be involved in order for our customers to obtain quality goods and service.

    • ” Much like new generations today that don’t know a time without the internet, those hobbyists that enter into the hobby using primarily CNC Machines will lack true woodworking skills”

      While I feel that CNC can be a legitimate tool in a legitimate woodworking shop. I must agree with this point that you make. When someone knows ONLY CNC woodworking, it really makes it difficult for me to view their skill set as that of a “true woodworker”. I appreciate your input.

      • Who doesn’t admire the craftsman of 200 years ago or more who created fabulous furniture with only basic hand tools? Some of what was done in the days of Paul Revere still stand today as the epitome of craftsmanship. Many cannot be duplicated even using modern production methods and machines.

        Which may be why the Antiques Road Show e.g. usually puts more value on an original Duncan Phyfe than a table from Ikea…

  6. I’m pretty sure the same debate exist once with power tool, does using a router is cheating ? An orbital sander then ?

    If you think using a CNC is cheating it’s because you never tried one, working by hand you have full control over the process, with a CNC when you run your program it’s pretty muck down good or bad.

    Doing something with a CNC required for me a lot more planing than doing it by hand, somehow if your goal is not volume it will even take longer to have it done properly than doing it with regular power tool.

    And in both case you’ll have some finishing to do, quite a lot when it come out of a cnc for sure.

    • I agree. A CNC machine doesn’t necessarily churn out a finished project. There’s work to be done before and afterwards. Your comparison to power sanding (and power tools in general) is also on point. Any craftsman can benefit from tools that shorten the time it takes to make things. But some people highly value the more traditional processes. I can see each side of the debate.

    • “I’m pretty sure the same debate exist once with power tool, does using a router is cheating ? An orbital sander then ?”


      I’m also pretty sure about the debate you mention; after all, that’s what people do. However, there are power tools, and then there are CNC tools, where your job consists of loading a computer program, positioning a board on a platform, and turning on the machine. After that you can leave the room, go to a movie, take a nap or whatever you want to do.

      I have nothing against CNC. It is a legitimate means of helping the small businessperson mass produce items for sale while freeing them up to do concurrent tasks. If your goal is cookie-cutter consistency in what you do, CNC is for you. What it is not is “handmade,” as you would have using a multitude of other tools including, but not limited to, power tools like band saws, scroll saws, Dremel-type rotary tools, etc. Those are “hands-on” tools, and are subject to human, not computer control.

      I have great respect for carvers, for example, who use only small knives, chisels, etc. and turn out beautiful work.

      If you do your own patterns and all the original artwork is your own, you at least can make a claim to being a creative. If all you do is take a pre-made pattern and input it to the computer and turn it on, you can say you are producing items for sale, but you cannot claim they are handmade, or even your own work.

      That is what this debate should be about, whether an item is handmade with power tool assistance, or machine made from beginning to end, and which is the more desirable, if either.

      P.S.: Just putting a finish on something does not make it your “handmade” piece any more than buying a table and refinishing it means you build the table.

      • I strongly suspect that CNC – as it becomes more commonplace – will find its niche as a supplementary tool and not a tool that people generally use to make an entire project. After all, hobbyist woodworkers usually are so because they enjoy the art and process of woodworking. Watching a robot do the work for you isn’t going to provide the kind of satisfaction that “actual” woodworking does.

        But, as a supplementary tool, CNC can be (to toss out some alliteration) a welcome wood wonder worker.

  7. I do both. The CNC will be relied on for the bread and butter, which affords me the opportunity to enhance my non-CNC skills, as well as provide the money for lumber and hand tools that can cost more than the CNC machine did to purchase. I don’t claim to carve the work that the CNC does, but I do highlight my handcrafted work that I make otherwise.

    • You are a perfect example of CNC being viewed in “proper” perspective. There can definitely be a legitimate place for it in the home workshop without “cheapening” the work that you produce.

      Thanks for your comment.

  8. I have people tell me all the time that they prefer my scroll-sawn work to machine copies just because it’s hand made. I do craft shows and farmers’ markets, but if I was trying to sell my stuff in high volume, I would need a CNC machine to be able to make enough. I prefer the idea that each handmade item is unique, even if made from the same pattern. Many of my customers seem to agree.

    As for whether it is “cheating,” I would not use that term, but rather “mass production” or something similar. If you make a living doing this, you probably need to make a lot of what ever you make. If you’re doing it for supplemental income, as I do, I would prefer to be called a craftsman rather than a printer.

    • Hey Terry, you perfectly illustrate the overarching point I was going for. That is that actual handmade items will always have that special quality that appeals to many – if not, most – people. CNC makes that characteristic even more special, not less.

      And I like your printer analogy. I think that sums up the anti-CNC sentiment perfectly.

  9. I have heard that this saying is credited to Native Americans, and I feel like it applies to this question as well as traveling. There are many paths to the same destination. Having performed work both by hand completely and using the company’s CNC machine, I have to say that when money is at stake, less time and effort equals more profit. Now if you are doing the work simply for the joy of seeing a project through to completion, then yes you can say that it’s cheating.

    • We appreciate your comment, Robert. I agree for the most part. But I see a little gray area in there. I’d personally suggest that if you are making a project for the joy of it, CNC may very well be on the up and up. Perhaps that’s the method you chose to see the project through to completion, in which case you went according to plan and no cheating happened at all.

      I think part of the issue is that – and this often seems to be the case when the topic arises – the whole concept of “cheating at woodworking” is so vague and nebulous that it lends itself well to knee-jerk, emotional reactions rather than thought out, rational consideration. It’s often hard to define the fringe of what can be considered “woodworking”. Look at the distinction between “woodworker” and “carpenter”: There are times when the difference between the two fields becomes nearly indistinguishable.


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