Making Stuff …

Those that know me will tell you that I can’t help much with creating fancy 3d files or things like lithophanes to cut on your ShopBot, but I have made a heck of a lot of “stuff”…things that have a somewhat practical use like boats and furniture and clocks and such. It seems like a lot of beginning ShopBotters have trouble getting started on these kinds of projects and although I don’t claim to know all the tricks, here are some things that I’ve observed that may help you get started.


  • Find software that will do MOST of what you want to do and stick with it until you’re absolutely sure that it has a fatal flaw that can’t be overcome. If you already know how to use CorelDraw for instance (or AutoCAD for DOS or TurboCAD4 or whatever you’re comfortable with) there’s probably a workaround for the things that it can’t directly do. If you’re just starting out and don’t have a favorite yet, start with something simple until you find out what you REALLY need…Part Wizard is a good choice.
  • There’s nothing that kills productivity more than switching between 3 or 4 pieces of software…avoid it at all costs. The exception is specialty software that only does one thing but that’s the one thing that you need to do…boat design software for instance. If you need it it’s worth the trouble to learn it, even if it only does one step.
  • If you find software that works for you, think VERY seriously before you decide to upgrade to the latest and greatest version. Most software companies upgrade by piling on new features…just make sure they’ve added things that you need without removing features that you use and are comfortable with.
  • Don’t get too wrapped up making “pretty” drawing and presentations in the beginning…leave the photo-realistic renderings ’til you’re more sure of things. They can eat up a tremendous amount of time for something that could change twenty more times. And shy away from 3d modeling software until you can come up with a reason that you need it…it’s slow to learn and slow to use.
  • If you’re using a CAD program, remember that the grid can be a powerful helper…use it if it’s available to help you line things up. And learn about and use Snap modes to connect things together accurately. If you’re drawing lines freehand with a mouse it may LOOK like the ends join, but if you’re not using some kind of Snap I’ll bet they aren’t and will cause problems down the line. If you zoom WAY in I’ll bet you’ll be surprised.
  • Sometimes less is more. If your design has curves for instance, try to use the fewest number of control points possible. Take it from an old boatbuilder who’s reputation hinged on always having “fair” curves…adding extra points to a curve to try to force it into a shape that it doesn’t want to take will only make it un-fair.


  • Try not to show anyone your first draft as a “virtual” design on the computer. There’s something about seeing something on a computer screen that makes people get wrapped up in the details and technique instead of the big picture. Wait until you can show them a real prototype…you’ll get much better feedback. If you have to show someone a preliminary design for feedback it’s better to show them a pencil sketch on a napkin than a CAD drawing…they won’t get hung up in the presentation details with a rough sketch like they do with something on the computer.
  • A pad of graph paper and a pencil works great for preliminary work. You don’t always need to use a computer, especially in the early stages of a design, and it’s easy to end up making changes because of software limitations and not design decisions
  • Get familiar with the ShopBot language and some of it’s features…quite often it’s much quicker to create a file in the ShopBot Editor or NotePad with a handful of commands than it is to draw it and create a toolpath.
  • Start simple. Don’t over-design things in the beginning but instead start with the simplest possible version and add features if they’re needed, not just because you can. Don’t feel like you have to cover every square inch with features.
  • Don’t forget the purpose of the things you’re making. You might design the coolest looking chair shaped like a flying 3d oyster and it may well be a piece of Art, but if it’s not comfortable to sit on it’s a bad chair.
  • To quote Salvador Dali: “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” Keep your eyes open for neat ideas and details, especially on the web. You can learn a lot about the design process by looking at someone else’s work and trying to figure out why they made the design decisions that they did. You always want to make your designs original but everyone can use inspiration.
  • Don’t be afraid to start a design over if it isn’t working and don’t get too stuck on the importance of any one feature…sometimes it’s just not meant to be. But don’t be too quick to discard things either…it might be better than you think.
  • Always keep the cutting process in the back of your mind while you’re designing. It’s awfully easy to add a feature to your design that will make it awfully hard to cut. Any feature that makes you flip the piece over or stand it on edge to cut will end up being a pain at cutting time…just make sure there’s enough value-added in that feature.
  • If your design has lots of different elements, think about splitting it up so each one is a separate file. That makes it easier to re-arrange and re-design, and you’ll be surprised how often you’ll be able to use one of the elements in something completely different.
  • Just because the desk you measured was EXACTLY 24.865″ tall doesn’t mean that it won’t work if it’s 24″ tall or 25″. The reason your mom’s Chocolate Chip cookie recipe says to use a cup of flour is not because it needs exactly that much flour…it’s just because that’s the closest convenient amount. Same way with making stuff…most of the time you can change a measurement to suit your material or design and it’ll work out just fine.
  • Unless you’re cutting out valves for artificial hearts, don’t feel like you need micro precision either. Many times you’ll be cutting a material who’s dimensions vary widely from sheet to sheet and which change with temperature and humidity fluctuations, using cutters that might not be exactly the size they’re supposed to be. Don’t design to micro tolerance unless you have the right material, cutter, and a WELL tuned up tool. You might even want to put a little “slop” in your design to make things easier to assemble.
  • Be aware of your material sizes when you design and try to work within them so that you minimize the waste. Leaving less waste not only means more money in your pocket but also is “greener”…better for the environment.
  • Don’t forget that you can’t put a square peg in a round hole. If your design has a tab that fits in a slot for instance, make sure that you think about how you’re going to deal with the radius that your cutter will leave on the corner of all inside cuts. It doesn’t really matter how you deal with it… make the slot longer, roundover the edge of the tab, make the slot “dogbone” shape, square up the corners  by hand, or any other way that you like…just make sure that you deal with it


  • Be willing to mess up on the first one of anything. Don’t feel like a design has to be perfect before you can put the bit to the material to cut a prototype. Your first idea might not be exactly what you imagine the final design being like, but sometimes cutting it is the only way to tell what you need to do to make it better.
  • Stock up on cheap materials and use them for prototyping. Also try not to throw away scrap…you’ll probably find a use for it.
  • Sometimes it helps to make just a piece of a project to see how it works in “real life”. Often you can’t tell what something will really be like until you’ve held it in your hands and spun it around a couple of times. If it’s too big or elaborate to make it full sized, make a model of it using as many of the same techniques as you can.

Hopefully some of this will be helpful to you but I’m sure that not all will be…everyone works in different ways. The key is to just keep trying things and be willing to make mistakes and learn from each one. The neat thing is that there may be only one right way to make a sign for someone’s business but there’s a gazillion ways to make a chair or a desk…there’s plenty of room for creativity.

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