Aug 14

A New Tool in Contemporary Woodworking

Burning Man Temple

Temple of Joy by David Best (2002)

Wood has long been a medium for three-dimensional artists. Woodcarving and sculpture has a long and venerable tradition, probably dating to prehistoric times.  Until the invention of the wood router in the early twentieth century, the tools of the trade were blades, chisels  and mallets.

The wood router was invented in the early twentieth century. It allowed industrial workers to quickly carve out the grooves for cabinets, doors and spindles. These industrial routers traditionally used a jig to keep the carving in a standard, pre-set shape. In 1957 MIT invented the computer controlled numerical (CNC) mills that were run by punch-card computer programs. These mills take dimensional directions from the X, Y and Z axes to carve and created objects. The first uses of the CNC routers were all industrial. With the advent of the personal computer, CAD programs like Autocad ran these routers.

After many decades of  industrial use, the CNC routers got cheaper and the technology got better and pretty soon individual inventors were making their own CNC routers. It did not take long for modern artists to discover and finance their own CNC routers for large and small wood projects.

The most popular CNC router among contemporary artists is called the ShopBot, a brand name.

It was invented in 1996 by a boat builder and by 2007 had been widely adopted as a tool by both  hobbyist wood workers and artists. Today there are Shopbots that cost under $4500.

The work of Curious Customs

Elaborate temple designed with CNC routers invented in 1996 by a boat builder and by 2007 had been widely adopted as a tool by hobbyist wood workers and artists. Today there are Shopbots that cost under $4500.

So what have artists been making with these computer controlled wood working routers? Temples! The power of the wood router was first popularized by sculptor, David Best whose elaborate temple structures were created at Burning Man. These same elaborate structures were burned at the end of the event. Best used recycled wood sheets  (from making toys and other punch-outs) and a computer controlled router to carve out the elaborate pieces. His first work at Burning Man was The Temple of Mind in 2000. These temples were made from exquisitely carved, bone-like pieces of wood. They appear delicate and incredibly intricate. The design and construction takes months and each piece must be numbered and categorized so volunteers can construct the pieces later.

In 2009 I had the pleasure of assisting with the Burning Man temple designed by Marilee Ratliff and Dave Umlas of Austin, Texas. This lotus-shaped temple also used a robotic Shopbot running day and night to produce all the panels and pieces. Other artistic contributors submitted Adobe Illustrator designs for the lower panels so it was a collaborative work and a labor of love. This immaculate temple was then burned as planned on the last day of the festival. But artists Ratliff and Umlas have stuck with it. They now run a business called Curious Customs that specializes in artisan CNC routed wood designs. Curious Customs (curiouscustoms.com) funds their larger projects with grants and by selling laser routed lamps with intricate designs.

3D stars

Ilya Pieper next to her art.

This year in 2013, the Burning Man cafe centerpiece is a complex three-dimensional star inspired by sacred geometry. It was also created by artists in Austin, Texas, thanks to the opening of the Tech Shop. The Tech Shop is a membership-based facility with state of the art laser cutters, Shopbots and other high tech equipment. There are Tech Shops in four American cities: Austin, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and San Jose. There are none in Canada…yet! These facilities are bringing expensive, artistic technologies closer to artists through collaborative financing. This is a trend that I think will continue into the future, giving artists the ability to create awe-inspiring, fine tooled wood sculptures that were inaccessible to them just five years ago.

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