Elderwood Academy Elevates the Culture of Gaming



Hex Chests from the first Kickstarter campaign in 2014

Spellbooks from their second Kickstarter campaign in 2015

Spellbooks from their second Kickstarter campaign in 2015


Elderwood Academy, like many young entrepreneurial companies, has its roots in the makerspace movement. When Quentin Weir and Dan Reiss fulfilled the orders for their first successful Kickstarter campaign, the two CNC machines required– a ShopBot PRS 4×8 and Epilogue Laser– were easily accessible at their local makerspace. And when they launched their second successful Kickstarter campaign, they decided it was time to invest in their own CNC systems.

But let’s back up a bit. What is Elderwood Academy and how were they able to launch two successful Kickstarter campaigns in 2 years, the second of which received $280,000 from an initial request of $5000?


Quentin and Dan use CNC and traditional methods to create their products: An old foil embosser was purchased to give the Spellbooks that extra touch of personalization.

Quentin and Dan met through the ‘gaming world,’ role-playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), and board games. At the time, Dan was in medical school at the University of Michigan and Quentin, who had majored in biomedical engineering, was working at UMTRI (University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute) where he prototyped and built research equipment. Dan asked Quentin to prototype a project he was working on, so Quentin showed him Maker Works, a makerspace in Ann Arbor, MI, which had all the equipment needed including a ShopBot PRS 4’x8’. Dan was blown away by how financially accessible CNC equipment suddenly became. Quentin reflects, “Pairing shop skills with my engineering degree set me up to where I am right now… and my experience with mentoring FIRST Robotics. I learned the CNC at Maker Works.” It was then that Dan showed Quentin his “Hex Chest” idea, a decorative container for carrying gaming dice, which became their first product successfully funded on Kickstarter. Using a PRS 4’x8’ Standard and an Epilogue Laser, they tapped into a niche market that sought individuality. Both tools easily met this demand for customization. They got featured a few times, which boosted their audience.

Creating two new dust feet allowed for interchangeability not only between their PRS and PRT but also for their various products.

“Pretty much all sports have something. If you want to buy $200 basketball shoes, you can do that,” says Quentin. But the world of gaming is different. As Quentin explains it, a lot of gamers are used to carrying their items around in bags or Tupperware containers. This includes dice, playing cards, a pen for tallying points, a miniature that represents one’s character, and coins—a lot of small pieces. Quentin and Dan understand this culture’s obsession with uniqueness: gamers thrive on their ability to create their own character and nuanced worlds. Elderwood Academy complements this need for self-expression by creating functional objects that bring a level of professionalism to the gaming world.

After launching a second Kickstarter to create Spellbooks, they purchased their own CNC machines. “We didn’t bother looking at other CNC routers. We knew ShopBot could handle the volume while allowing for the customization we required,” says Quentin. They already knew VCarve Pro and how to modify the SB3 software to suit their needs. It gained them another employee that could work 24/7—though it wasn’t a smooth transition.



They are currently updating their dust collection system, so ignore the wood chips!

Quentin and Dan purchased a used PRT 4’x4’ from University of Michigan’s Property Disposition that came with no background history. Its controller ended up having a failed repair, and it was missing the proximity switches and dust collection. Quentin struggled to fix it until he realized it was just a ‘big robot.’ Drawing on his FIRST Robotics experience he got it moving, but not before purchasing a new ShopBot PRS 4’x4’, too.

“We launched the second campaign before we nailed down our production process. I was still in the prototyping phase. We learned our lesson,” Quentin states. With so many customizable features, they had to figure out a solution. Quentin set up a server that stores all the variations in cutting files, which means there are a lot of files. Just look at their website and see all of the options to choose from! If small edits are made to fine tune a file, it automatically gets re-uploaded into a software program he wrote located on the computer running both ShopBots. Their machinist can walk up to the computer, select the features for a customer’s order, and the program opens the correct SB3 files.

Two of the many options available for the inside pocket


Previously working at the makerspace, they also had trouble with ‘missing comm errors’ because of static, and kept throwing out half-completed projects. One solution was to take advantage of SB3’s editing capabilities: They wrote their own header and set up the code so each project gets fully pocketed/cut before moving on to the next one on the jig setup. They can machine 40 complete Hex Chests in about 5 hours while completing other tasks. Because the final steps in making a Spellbook involves hands-assembly, their 2 ShopBots and Trotec laser enable them to deliver a fully personalized product for a fair price in the volume they need.


Currently Dan commutes back and forth between Ann Arbor and San Francisco, where he is an internal medicine resident at San Francisco State University, and Quentin divides his time between Elderwood Academy and a board game company he co-owns with another colleague.

Quentin articulates that the “value a D&D player gets from their own Spellbook… it adds to the charm of the game.” Though not a gamer, having held one of the books in my hands, there’s a conscious craftsmanship to them, from the wood selection to the gold clasp to the foil embossing. It speaks to the success Elderwood Academy has achieved in bringing a heightened professionalism to the gaming community.


All the pieces organized and ready for the final hand assembly

They have two hand assembly stations and have hired several employees.




Popular startup Keyboardio chooses ShopBot Desktop for prototyping

Kaia and Jesse

Keyboardio is a startup founded by Jesse Vincent and Kaia Dekker. “We’ve spent the last couple of years designing and prototyping a unique keyboard for uncompromising typists,” said Jesse. “Keyboardio has an advanced ergonomic layout, premium mechanical keyswitches that are a joy to type on, custom-sculpted keycaps that guide your fingers into the right place, and a pleasing maple hardwood enclosure.”

Jesse also noted that Keyboardio Model 01 features ultra-customizable open firmware, making it unlike anything else on the market today. Kaia said, “When we think of our inspiration to create Keyboardio we had in mind serving the needs of people who ‘live and die’ by their keyboards: programmers, journalists, and writers.”

keyboard front

Keyboardio began as a hobby project in the summer of 2012.

Jesse gave a bit of background: A SaaS startup he had been working on was failing. He was pretty burned out and decided to take a bit of time off to play around and figure out “the next thing.” While he was experimenting with new software startup ideas, Jesse procrastinated by trying to build himself a keyboard.

“When we started out building our first keyboard, it was very much a hobby project. After the second or third prototype, we started having trouble using our keyboards in public–people kept interrupting us to ask where they could buy the keyboards we were using.”

Kaia and Jesse, who are married as well as business partners, first encountered folks from ShopBot at the Bay Area Maker Faire two years ago. There they saw the ShopBot Desktop tool in action. It wasn’t long after that they decided to purchase a Desktop for their prototyping work.

Jesse explained their reasoning for purchasing a ShopBot Desktop. “We were having to spend about $1000 in Shenzhen each time we wanted bespoke milling of a prototype base, with a turnaround of about two weeks. We needed a better solution.” Kaia said, “Using our Shopbot, we can do a similar prototype project in a day.  The tool quickly paid for itself.”

Jesse noted that a 3D printer was an early prototyping tool for them, but it had serious problems, including a heating plate that caught fire. “After visiting with Shopbot, we became convinced that CNC was the way to go. The Desktop enables production quality work.”

Asked why they decided to choose ShopBot for CNC, Jesse answered, “We chose Shopbot for its access to customer service; the ability to quickly get someone on the phone who was knowledgeable and helpful.”

Jesse shared some thoughts about the Desktop, now that they’ve been using it for a while. “It’s in a sweet spot of being both a very usable at-home tool and a real production tool. The tool provides good value for the money.”  Jesse said that he considers himself a junior machinist, still learning, but the curve has not been too steep.

For their prototyping process, they were initially using Partworks 3D, but have switched to Fusion 360. “Autodesk has been a great supporter of the project,” noted Jesse. “We’re now at a point where we can cut a prototype in about an hour instead of five hours.” In addition to support they’ve received from Autodesk, they sought crowdfunding via Kickstarter, which was a hugely successful campaign. Their many fans (in the 1000’s) are eagerly awaiting their Keyboardio keyboards from a first large production run.

keyboard w hands

The Production Journey
Jesse said, “When looking for a manufacturer to perform the custom milling of the maple enclosure, we requested bids from companies in the U.S. and Canada, but the best bid from North America was four times the cost of having the work performed in China. This is due to the labor cost, as well as the fact that there are many Chinese manufacturers who already have the infrastructure in place for large scale CNC production.”

They’d been told by several keyboard manufacturers that using wood was not feasible. But it was key to their concept for Keyboardio, and the two are on the verge of beginning production, using ethically sourced maple from Canada, shipping it to China for milling. The journey to secure manufacturing partners hasn’t been a cakewalk, as Jesse freely admits. In fact he writes about these adventures on the Keyboardio blog — it makes for an interesting read.

Lessons learned so far?
Kaia: “It has been fascinating to see how many disciplines come into play in a very interconnected way…industrial design, electrical engineering. It’s been a great experience.”

Jesse: “Going into this, we had the desire to make this product, but not all the skill sets. Certainly by working with a Shopbot tool we’ve been enabled to just jump in and start making, going from CAD to CAM quite easily… trying, failing, redesigning, making a new iteration. It’s a great process.”

Here’s a bit more background about Jesse and Kaia:

Jesse Vincent

Jesse’s spent most of his career working on open-source software. In 1996, he created Request Tracker (RT), an issue tracking system that’s used by everyone from tiny nonprofits to Fortune 50 corporations and Federal agencies. He’s the original author of K-9 Mail, an open-source email client for Android with a couple million active users. Jesse was the project leader for the Perl programming language for the 5.12 and 5.14 releases.

Kaia Dekker

After graduating from MIT with a BS in Physics, Kaia worked as an investment banker, helping startups get themselves bought by giant megacorps. From there, she went into strategy consulting, helping some of those same megacorps maximize shareholder value. Figuring that the next step was to go to work for a megacorp, Kaia went back to school, picking up an MBA from the Tuck School of Business in scenic Hanover, NH. Upon further reflection, she’s decided it’d be more fun to just build Keyboardio into a megacorp.


To learn more about Keyboardio, visit their website, and their Kickstarter page. Find out more about the ShopBot Desktop here.

Shelter 2.0 – An Open Design Project

I’ve been making things with ShopBots and sharing designs for ShopBot projects since the early days, almost 20 years ago. There have been boats, furniture, and design tools like Open Source Joinery, but the thing I’m most proud of is a side project, Shelter 2.0, that I work on with my friend and collaborator Robert Bridges. Robert and I have known each other for years and have collaborated on all kind of design and fabrication projects. This slideshow shows some of the things we’ve worked on together:

One trait Robert and I share is a pretty strong drive to help folks, and the Shelter 2.0 project grew out of that desire. It evolved from a design Robert entered in a contest hosted by the Guggenheim Museum and SketchUp that was inspired by a barreled ceiling that we had worked on.


We were both impressed with the inherent strength and aesthetic appeal of that rounded shape, and since with a CNC machine it’s just as easy to cut a curve as a straight line, Robert designed a structure that used the same curved form.

shelter contest entry

Robert didn’t win the contest, but we both liked the concept well enough that we decided to build one next to my shop to see what the space was really like. We were pretty pleased with this first prototype and decided that we would share the files as an Open Design project, so that others can build the same–or similar–structures. Though originally conceived as an option for transitional housing in emergency situations, the Shelter 2.0 design has as been used as housing for the homeless, as team-building projects in schools, and as a possible option in refugee housing. So far we know of 30 or more that have been built, and every week or so we see pictures of ones that we didn’t know about.


We’ve learned a lot over the years about sharing projects, and our designs have evolved as we have. Here are a couple of principles that have guided the modifications and changes we’ve made:

  • Make it easy to duplicate. Not only with documentation, but also with design details. No matter how precise your tools are, it’s hard to design for and cut something out of an imprecise material. Rather than having to constantly modify files and models, we’ve worked on construction methods that are as close as we can get to being material agnostic.
  • Share in helpful formats. We share in several formats so that folks can use them no matter what software they use. Our go-to design and toolpathing software is VCarve Pro so we include files in that format, but also include .dxf files which is a pretty universal format for CAD software. We like to supply documentation using Google docs or other web-based formats.
  • Make sure it serves the need. Keeping costs down can certainly be important, but not at the expense of solving the problem at hand. After 5 years, there are still people living in tents after the Earthquake in Haiti, and the average length of stay  in the larger refugee camps is 17 years. People need more than just a cheap and temporary “shelter”—it might be their home for quite a while.
  • Encourage others to explore options in housing—building design shouldn’t be limited to architects! We feel like this design has a lot of things going for it, but it’s not by any means the only solution, or the best solution in every case. We hope though that by promoting it and keeping the conversation going that we’ll encourage others to come up with innovative solutions to all kinds of problems and needs.
  • Explore options in design, materials, and construction. Although much of what we do these days involves digital tools, we both have a pretty strong foundation of analog skills… me as a boat carpenter and Robert as a carpenter and contractor. In many cases cutting everything with CNC machines makes a lot of sense, but we’ve also explored creating precise CNC-cut templates that can be duplicated on-site with traditional hand and power tools. This combination of digital and analog skills shows a lot of promise for areas that have limited infrastructure and skills, but lots of excess labor.

Recently we were invited to give a presentation about the Shelter 2.0 project at the DC FabLab, to share these ideas with community leaders interested in exploring solutions to DC’s housing problems. Many thanks to Phyllis and Alex for helping us spread the word about Shelter 2.0!

Shelter talk

You can read more about the Shelter 2.0 project on our website and find files on Github at https://github.com/wlyoung/Shelter20 (files for a new 8’x8′ version will be uploaded soon, so stay tuned). We encourage you to look around for similar projects that you might want to get involved with, and we’re particularly excited about a new project, globalhumanitarianlab.org, that was founded by our friend David Ott from the International Red Cross.

Intermediate Digital Design and Fabrication at Port Townsend



This year Port Townsend is offering an intermediate CNC course called Intermediate Digital Design and Fabrication beginning July 18th. I am Andy Pitts, and I am teaching the course and thought you might like a bit more insight into my plans.

My philosophy goes along the lines of teaching people to fish so they can eat for their entire lives, so I want to stress how to use the software and machine (strategy and technique) and use small projects only to demonstrate. I’m sensitive to the fact that most students (and myself) might be flying in and any projects must be easily transportable, as well. I also want to provide some flexibility so each student can pursue avenues of the most interest when it comes to actually making projects.

Here’s some on the course specifics:

First, I want to make sure everyone has a firm grasp of 2D and 2-1/2D work in Aspire, but then quickly move into 3D modeling and spend some time getting you comfortable with the tools in Aspire. Using a standard wedge hold-down jig, we will model on small wooden blocks. I want you to learn to import models and make your own relief models, VCarve onto a model, let a model into a dish (with the multiply command), and cut parts of a model to make new components as a way to make a new model from an existing one. Again, the project part of all this is simply to demo the techniques and experiment. The take-away parts will be small and easy to fit into a suitcase.

Once 3D work is in hand, I want to talk about and do two-sided work in 3D models. Some students may already have some grasp of two-sided work from the beginner course, but I want to work on the modeling aspect of it. For this we will probably use slightly larger stock and perhaps make a two-sided dish, but for practical purposes each student can design something unique if desired. There are always options of importing a two-sided model and working out how to actually cut it, but more useful I think is learning how to make the two-sided model itself and then cut it. As you are well aware, there is real challenge in the Aspire work and the strategy of toolpathing, so we will spend time really understanding what is going on with two sided work on a 3-axis machine.

I would like to spend some time working with the tiling function of Aspire, making tiled toolpaths so a small machine can cut on stock larger than the spoil board or assemble a large piece from smaller parts. Due to time and material size constraints, I don’t think we will actually cut large pieces (who could ship a large piece home?), as the real excitement is in figuring out the tool pathing and how to index the work for continuity in the finished piece.

An interesting twist on 2D work is inlays. Getting a good fit can be challenging. There are two techniques I’ve found useful, and learning to make a cutting board size object with an inlay will demonstrate the concept(s) and give you a take-away that is easy to pack in a suitcase.

Part of the beauty of CNC is carving into unusual surfaces to get interesting effects. Laminating material before carving it is one of those. A project some students may want to explore involves this, much like how I carved the holly crab onto the walnut box top by first laminating the holly and walnut (here’s a video). Another technique is to first veneer stock, then cut through the veneer to get an interesting effect. Depending on veneer thicknesses and the number of layers veneered, one could really design some interesting pieces, and some students may want to pursue this.

There are other techniques I want to touch on, such as digital probing, using the indexer head, and using vacuum to secure work to the table, but these may have to be extra-curricular, after hours discussions due to time constraints. My goal is to make myself very accessible so you can glean as much as possible from me while at PT.

Hope to see you in July!

Get more information on this training, at the Port Townsend Website.
Contact Andy Pitts directly for additional information or visit his website:

Camp ShopBot San Diego: April 9 at The Old Globe Theatre’s Technical Shop

Attendees of Camp ShopBot San Diego.

Attendees of Camp ShopBot San Diego.

When planning camps, ShopBot tries to collaborate with hosts whose spaces offer curiosity and interest beyond just their ShopBot tool. This April, the San Diego Camp ShopBot location hit all the proximity switches on queue: The Old Globe Theatre’s Technical Shop situated east of downtown San Diego. Having outgrown the theatre’s available build space, the technical production shop expanded into a huge warehouse a few years back. Gillian Kelleher, their Master Carpenter, reached out to us about hosting a camp after attending one in 2014.

Camp attendees heard presentations on best practices in 3D carving, calculating feeds and speeds, finding hidden gems in the SB3 software, uses for the Donek Drag Knife, and more. Gillian Kelleher, our host, talked about their design to construction process and gave us a tour of the painting department, which had very tall tree trunks laid out, and the expansive props department that housed items from every era and other strange vestiges salvaged from past shows.

Though camps are typically presentation-based, this particular camp had several other components that made it a little different than the usual. For example, ShopBot’s Sallye Coyle had the opportunity to demonstrate a tool tune-up by reseating the pinion gear into the rack on one of the X motors on the theatre’s PRSalpha. With a lot of attendees that are active in San Diego’s various maker scenes, there were some discussions and conversations about makerspaces and the maker movement.

There were also some impressive Show and Tell examples, including highly detailed garden railroad kits and custom pieces made by Sue and Ross Piper for their business, Rainbow Ridge Kits. Tim and Lalane Haenisch service the military community with custom boxes and plaques for heirloom and commemorative military objects in their spare time, though they told us that they’re in need of more hours in the day for their expanding hobby.

Sample of work created by Sue and Ross Piper of Rainbow Ridge Kits shown at Camp ShopBot San Diego.

Tim Haenisch discusses his work at Camp ShopBot San Diego.

Sample of work created by Tim Haenisch shown at Camp ShopBot San Diego.

Sample of work created by Tim and Lalane Haenisch shown at Camp ShopBot San Diego.

Our furthest-distance-traveled award went to Brady Fulton who flew in from Phoenix, AZ and is Shop Fabricator for ADAPT at Southwest Human Development. He presented a model of individual designed seating they create for kids with disabilities age birth to 5 years. ADAPT recently had a custom ShopBot built, which included a tangential cutting knife and spindle. Our youngest-ShopBot-attendee award went to Marissa Gilbert who attended with her dad, Gene, and used FabMo installed on Sallye’s phone to move the Handibot around.

Brady Fulton, Shop Fabricator for ADAPT at Southwest Human Development, presents a work sample at Camp ShopBot San Diego.

Marissa Gilbert running a Handibot, with the help of Sallye Coyle, with her father Gene looking on.

Thank you to our host, Gillian, for the great space and warm hospitality, and to all 35+ attendees for your questions, knowledge and enthusiasm.

Digital Fabrication in Education Workshop

Do you have digital fabrication equipment such as a ShopBot CNC machine, laser cutter, and/or a 3D printer, and an interest in education? Do you want to know more about the software and machines available to you? Are you a facilitator of a digital fab lab or makerspace who would like to join a support network of other educators to discuss project-based learning, lesson plans and how to address standards? Then this hands-on workshop is for you! ShopBot’s Sallye Coyle will be facilitating a multi-day “Digital Fabrication in Education” workshop at ShopBot headquarters in Durham, NC.

This 2 1/2 day workshop will begin with ShopBot CNC machines. Using VCarve Pro CAD/CAM software, we will design and prepare files for machining on a ShopBot. The sessions will then move to cross-platform training—demonstrating how designs originally intended for one digital fabrication tool can be prepared for use on another platform (example: CNC to laser or vinyl cutter, 3D printer to CNC machine). Topics will include design flow, 2D vs. 3D Computer Aided Design (CAD) and Machining (CAM) software, and how to evaluate which digital fabrication process is best for a desired outcome. The final half day will return to ShopBot tools, providing more advanced information for those charged with installing, maintaining, or getting the most out of their CNC machine.

While you do not have to have CNC or CAD/CAM experience, familiarity with some aspect of digital fabrication would be helpful. There will be opportunities for show and tell, and at least one round table discussion, so you should come prepared with questions and/or examples of how to use digital fabrication in education. Working in collaboration with your fellow attendees, you should leave the workshop with hands-on projects and ideas to address topics related to STEM, CTE, the Arts, Common Core, and/or Next Generation Science Standards.


July 14-16, 2016

  • On-site at the ShopBot facility in Durham, NC
  • 9-5 Thursday and Friday, 9-1 Saturday (Optional evening hours July 14 to work on your own digital fabrication project.)
  • 2.5 days (2 CEU credits)
  • $400 per computer seat (we can have up to 2 people per computer)

See our website for information about Durham hotels, restaurants, and area activities.

About the workshop leader: Sallye Coyle is experiencing how rapid advances in computers, software, and technology have changed the way education is served by digital fabrication spaces. She has traveled extensively in the US and the world, working with schools, FabLabs, TechShops, and makerspaces to “train the trainers” in how to use the digital fabrication technology, as well as how to build, maintain, and use ShopBot tools.

Special guests: We are working on making a suite of other digital fabrication tools (and their handlers) available on-site for the workshop. These tools include: a vinyl cutter, laser cutter, and a Dremel 3D printer.


Would you like more information about the workshop? Fill out this online form.

Learn about other trainings offered by ShopBot at our website.

ShopBot a key sponsor of CTE Makeover Challenge

The Handibot® Smart Power Tool, Adventure Edition. ShopBot is donating two of the tools to the CTE Makeover Challenge

The Handibot® Smart Power Tool, Adventure Edition. ShopBot is donating two of the tools to the CTE Makeover Challenge, as well as introductory training.

ShopBot Tools is proud and excited to be a leading sponsor of the CTE (Career & Technical Education) Makeover Challenge, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Education.What’s the big idea? Schools can enter their design for a school-based makerspace, and the winning schools will win resources to make those makerspaces for real! You need to enter by April 1, 2016 — so if you’re an educator or know an educator, help spread the word NOW.

Here are some details from the CTE Makeover Challenge site:

“The U.S. Department of Education (ED) invites schools to enter the CTE Makeover Challenge by submitting a design for a CTE makerspace.”

“A makerspace is an environment or facility that provides resources, materials, and equipment for students to conceive, create, and collaborate through making….Through making, educators enable students to immerse themselves in problem-solving and the continuous refinement of their projects while learning essential 21st-century career skills, such as critical thinking, planning, and communication.”

All eligible schools will gain access to the CTE Makeover Bootcamp, a 6-week program that provides resources and expertise in makerspace design and planning. $200,000 in cash and other prizes will be distributed to a maximum of 10 honorees to turn their vision for a makerspace into a reality. Honorees will produce and submit a video tour of their constructed makerspaces and compile an online portfolio of materials for use in the CTE Makerspace Showcase, which will take place at the World Maker Faire in New York City in October 2016.”

What ShopBot is doing to help.

ShopBot Tools is getting involved in a big way. We’re helping the winning schools by donating Handibot® Smart Power Tools, our portable CNC tool. We’re donating our time by offering training classes, webinars and blogs to help teachers and students set up and get the most from their digital fabrication tools; and we’re even providing credit toward purchase of a ShopBot CNC tool.

Sallye Coyle, ShopBot’s Director of Community Outreach, explained ShopBot’s decision to support the CTE Makeover Challenge. “We think it’s great that the CTE Makeover Challenge has been designed with workforce preparedness in mind,” said Sallye. “The skills that students acquire working in makerspaces translate directly into the real world of technology-based product development and manufacturing. It’s become clear that there are job opportunities in US-based firms, but properly trained people are in short supply. These makerspaces are helping prepare high school and college graduates to find work in 2016.”

ShopBot Tools are used in countless schools, makerspaces, FabLabs, and other community-based learning environments in the U.S. and around the world. We’re thrilled that this Makeover Challenge is underway. It’s yet another initiative that will help the next generation be prepared for the future of work that involves understanding and using emerging technology.

CTE pic




ShopBot helps Florida schools establish sorely needed STEM education

Middle schooler helps assemble a ShopBot

Middle schooler helps assemble a ShopBot

There has certainly been a lot of press ink, as well as talk coming from the business and political establishment, about the need for more STEM education in the U.S. to better educate our young people to compete for jobs. Nowhere is the talk turning into action more than in Polk County, Florida, where multiple schools (some revamped, some new, at both the middle and elementary school level) have been reimagined — and now funded — to put STEM and STEAM education into practice. STEAM adds the “A” for Arts in addition to curricula in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. ShopBot Tools is one of a number of digital manufacturing companies that are involved in creating FabLabs at the schools and training the teachers to become familiar with their use.

Why now and why Polk County? The business community is demanding it!

The local business community in the County has clearly expressed the need for increased student performance to help feed the local economy by providing well-prepared workers. Polk Vision, a civic initiative with professional staff, has held exhaustive public meetings to develop a
communitywide plan for increasing the local quality of life. Education is a top strategy, with
objectives to increase the high school graduation rate, college-educated workforce, and overall

A bit of history explains why.

Polk County has a history of cattle ranching, citrus production phosphate strip mining and
tourism. Times have changed. Legoland, offering mechanical and mathematical
engineering activities for local students through construction and robotics, has replaced Southern belles at the former site of Cypress Gardens. CSX, a railroad transport company, has a new terminal and logistics center (rail to truck) under construction in Winter Haven, Polk‘s second-largest city. Polk has the state‘s largest concentration of rail lines, serving Tampa and Orlando, with warehousing and distribution centers along Interstate-4 that use sophisticated, electronic controls for inventory and shipping. The Publix Supermarkets headquarters in Polk‘s largest city, Lakeland, provides IT and marketing research services throughout the chain. These industries require graduates with strong background in STEM.

The EduSTEM project in which ShopBot and other digital fabrication manufacturers are playing a part, consists of four schools, one revised magnet and three new projects, that will create an opportunity for students in rural and severely under-employed areas of this vast county (Polk County consists of 2,010 square miles) to have meaningful and rigorous academic experiences. Many of the families of students identified in this project will have the opportunity to be the first in their families to attend college.

What’s been happening…

Sallye Coyle, ShopBot’s Outreach Liaison to Education, recently visited Polk County to help with installation and education about ShopBot Tools to teachers and other staff.  She wrote, “Charter schools in Polk Co, Florida have added two new FabLabs at the middle school level. In a flurry of activity, a team from TIES (www.TIESTeach.org) arrived to build the ShopBot gantry tool, unpack boxes, set up the Epilog laser cutter, Ultimaker 3D printer, and Roland vinyl cutter and mill, and sort the electronics station. Teacher training which began last spring and summer at the FabLab installed at Lawton Chiles Middle School, continued this winter. Week 1 was spent at Jewett School of the Arts, where teacher Ashley Corwith took ownership of her FabLab in an art classroom of the school. Week 2 took place at Dundee Ridge, a middle school in rural setting surrounded by orange groves.”

Teacher screwing down spoilboard

Teacher screwing down spoilboard on ShopBot full-size CNC tool

ShopBot lessons with Sallye Coyle

ShopBot lessons with Sallye Coyle

Teachers learning software

Teachers learning software

Sallye explained, “Teachers from the middle schools and elementary schools, as well as folks from the Central Office contributed to the set ups and took part in trainings. A surprise visitor was the Handibot® Smart Power Tool and crate that was ordered for possible use in elementary schools. It came in handy to mill 3D molds in machineable wax for a lesson in molding and casting. The staff loved that the Handibot tool could be run on the ground or a low table, putting it at a level that elementary kids could appreciate.”

Mijana Lockard is the STEM Coordinator for the schools. She noted that “The kids absolutely love this technology. They are the ‘digital natives’ and have no problem jumping right in and using the equipment. If anything, the challenges to implementation relate to making school administrators appreciate the value of FabLabs beyond being the ‘cute shop elective’ — instead seeing that integrating technological education with traditional subject matter is crucial to education today. And some of the teachers need to be brought along so that they become comfortable using the technology themselves, in preparation to teach their students.”

Teachers being introduced to the Handibot® Smart Power Tool

Teachers being introduced to the Handibot® Smart Power Tool

Teachers use Handibot Smart Power Tool to mill 3D molds in machineable wax for a lesson in molding and casting

Teachers use Handibot Smart Power Tool to mill 3D molds in machineable wax for a lesson in molding and casting

The Handibot tool at work

The Handibot tool at work

Wax molds cut by the Handibot tool

Wax molds cut by the Handibot tool

Mijana said, “It’s so exciting and heartening to see the children’s reaction to using the equipment. Learning by making in the FabLab is helping them become independent thinkers and problem solvers. They’re not afraid to try and fail, and try again. It really builds confidence.”







3rd Annual Northern Florida Camp ShopBot 2016

production area_sm

For the 3rd year in a row, the School of Theatre’s Technical Production department at FSU in Tallahassee hosted a Camp ShopBot. Their building is located off campus in a converted middle school, which also houses the Art department and Interior Design department’s Digital Fabrication studio. Thea Eck, from ShopBot, spent a day visiting with Professor Marlo Ransdell, from the Interior Design Department, as well as doing an afternoon VCarve training with the Technical Production department’s graduate students.

scale models_sm

In Professor Marlo Randsdell’s digital design class, there is one main objective: design a chair using a 4×8 sheet of plywood and CNC joints, nesting the parts so very little scrap is left. But let’s just say it isn’t really about making a chair. Students create maquettes of their designs and spend a month investigating CNC joints and refining offsets. Iterative design creates better products and digital design tools can assist. Professor Ransdell says that major leaps usually occur between the 1st and 2nd iteration, and then smaller changes between the 2nd to 4th  or 5th iteration. Her undergrad students’ final projects are cut out using a laser cutter and her graduate students use the PRS alpha.

Box of CNC joints_sm         Chair blank_sm


Saturday’s Camp brought in local users as well as those who drove 3 and 4 hours. Sallye Coyle and Thea Eck lead presentations on importing vectors, bitmaps and 3d files into VCarve 8.0, understanding chipload calculations, troubleshooting mechanical problems, what’s new in VCarve 8.0, an overview of Fusion 360, and more. The Handibot’s rotary indexer attachment was shown, and Sallye tackled how to set up a design in Vectric’s software in relationship to your machine’s setup, not just for the Handibot.

Colin presenting_sm

Colin Campbell, host and director of FSU’s theatre shop, discussed how the departments utilize their PRS Standard and gave a tour. The Technical Production department has a huge space for painting scenery, building props, constructing the backdrops, and staging. The finished set is constructed in the space and then disassembled and trucked over to the main theatres on campus.

show and tell session_sm

During lunch and in-between presentations, attendees took advantage of the down time to really engage with each other. Many conversations revolved around the technical aspects of specific projects, CNC in education, CNC in the workplace , and CNC in production modes. With an assortment of 10-year veterans, new users, and graduate and undergraduate students, the Camp reminded all of us how ShopBots create a lot of excitement but also laughter over common mistakes and “aha” moments within the learning process.

Contributed by Thea Eck

Good enough is good enough (for a while at least!)


Years ago I read an interview with the guy at Hinkley Yachts that does their varnishing. Hinkley is known for their beautiful finishes and he described their process: brush on a coat of varnish and wait for it to dry. Then sand with fine sandpaper to prepare for the next coat. Repeat over and over again to build up a beautiful and durable finish. The interviewer finally asked him when he knew he had applied enough coats and the job was finished. He replied that he was never finished…eventually someone just took it away!

It can be the same way when you’re working on a design for a product. If you wait until you think you’re finished, you’ll never release anything. At some point either someone takes it away from you or you have to say it’s good enough and turn it loose. Of course the degree of “good enough” varies widely depending on the project — an artificial heart has a much higher level of “good enough” than a pair of sawhorses! 

Anyone that works in a shop knows that you can never have enough sawhorses, and everyone has their favorite style and design. For years I banged them together from 2×6’s and plywood scrap, but they were heavy and kind of a pain to build.  So one of my first ShopBot projects (almost 20 years ago now!) was to try to improve on the sawhorses that I’d been building.

There are very few rules for sawhorses. They have to be stable and strong, but that still leaves a lot of  design flexibility. I hoped to get a pair of sawhorses out of a single sheet of plywood, and had found that sawhorses much more than 24″ wide were pretty awkward to deal with in a small shop. I wanted to be able to share the design so that any ShopBot owner would be able to make some, which meant they needed to be cut with a single bit and no flips. Most importantly they had to be stupidly strong — having flimsy sawhorses is worse than having no sawhorses at all! So 3/4″ plywood was my material of choice. I knew I wouldn’t have a final version that I would be completely satisfied with on my first try, but I needed something functional. Little did I know how long I would be designing sawhorse variations!

My first version used a “snaploc” joint that I had been experimenting with in a couple of projects, that used the natural springiness of plywood to create a flexible hook to hold parts together. Since I had a fancy new ShopBot I thought everything I designed needed to be clever, so I decided that my sawhorses should fold and use the snaploc joint as a catch.



A great idea in theory, but in practice it proved to be more clever than practical. The hooks were weak when they were un-supported like that and tended to break, and I really never felt the need to fold them. So much for V.01! My next version was basically the same shape but without the folding capability/liability, they stacked nicely. It used the same snaploc joint and worked fine as a sawhorse–they were really strong–but it seemed like the material could be used a little more efficiently.



A few modified parts, a couple of  rotated pieces, and a sawhorse with a built-in storage compartment was created. I liked it enough to make the files available for download, and a lot of them have been made over the 15 years or so that they’ve been available. (They were originally shared on floppy disks!)



I’ve probably made 20-30 sets of them and they have been my go-to sawhorse for 15+ years, but a couple of things have bothered me. Although the storage compartment is handy for holding tools while you’re working, it’s also an awesome place to lose tools, especially small things like pencils and rulers. And sometimes if there was a void in the plywood in a key spot in the snaps, the hooks could break when you were putting them together. Finally they were also a little sensitive to variations in plywood thickness (and you know how I feel about that!!)

In the last couple of years, my collaborator Robert Bridges and I have been working on a fastening system for our Shelter 2.0 project that we refer to as “telephone connectors” that we use to make designs material-agnostic—not dependent on precisely sizing and modifying designs to compensate for thickness variations.


A couple of months ago I decided it was time for one more sawhorse redesign. I wanted to:

  • Use telephone connectors to make them work better with varying materials.
  • Retain the ability to store tools and supplies, but eliminate the enclosed “hiding place.”
  • Create a design that can easily use slab doors to convert into work tables.
  • Cut efficiently out of one sheet of plywood.






This most recent version is my favorite one so far. They are incredibly strong but can be quickly disassembled to pack flat for shipping to shows and events. They are light and stack to minimize floorspace, and with the addition of two slab doors, quickly convert into a pop-up table or workbench.

Software developers have a saying, “Release early, release often” which is a great philosophy to follow. There are always improvements to be made in any design, but that doesn’t mean that your design isn’t useful in its current state.

Release it when it’s “good enough” but keep experimenting with new ways to make it better!

timberply sawhorse