Shelter 2.0 Gets a Boost from Vectric

Shelter 2.0, the Open Design transitional housing design created by Bill Young and Robert Bridges, has just made the “release” files available for a new 8’x8′ design that not only reduces the materials needed, but includes a lot of small changes to make them easier to assemble and less hardware-dependent. You may have seen early versions of the 8’x8’ in the wild before, at places like the FabLabDC, the Big Build at the National Building Museum, and MakeLocal at the NY Maker Faire.

The interesting part of this though is how they have been released. One of the hardest parts of sharing designs like Shelter 2.0 is supplying files in enough formats, and with enough information, to be useful to fabricators. All the Shelter 2.0 designs are created and toolpathed in VCarve, so at the San Mateo Maker Faire this past Spring we asked the Vectric team if they had any ideas for sharing our VCarve files with people that might not have a copy of the software. The solution that they came up with was brilliant…to add special tags to Shelter 2.0 files that will allow them to be used in the free trial version of VCarve v9.

With these tagged files we can now include all the machining information to Shelter 2.0 files that we think is important but is not available in other formats. Users will not only be able to do a few modifications to the parts, but most importantly will be able to create toolpaths and run them on their own CNC tools. This will allow fabricators that might not have VCarve, or haven’t updated their copies yet to V9, to be able to use the files just the way we do when we cut them.

You can download the specially tagged files at and find cutting instructions and assembly instructions on Google Docs.

Our special thanks go out to the Vectric team, especially Chris and Steph, for making this happen. And of course to ShopBot for supporting Shelter 2.0 from the beginning.


Make48 to Air Season Two this Spring!

Make48 at the Kansas City Art Institute

The new TV show, Make48 is kind of a combination hybrid of Iron Chef and Shark Tank. You start off with an unveiled topic and some resources and then set the clock ticking. Twelve teams now have 48 hours to: come up with an idea that fits the topic provided; do a patent search to see if their idea has been used already; prototype the idea–with the help of digital fabrication experts and craftsmen and using materials from a $200 shopping spree at Ace Hardware; throw out your idea already prototyped and try again; stay up late and perfect the idea; build a website and marketing materials to promote the idea; and then, finally, sell a finished product in eight minutes to a panel of experienced entrepreneur judges for constructive and de-constructive criticism. If you got through that laundry list of a sentence without taking more than one breath, you can begin to get a sense of what the two days are like.

Now in its second season, the show is hosted by the Kansas City Art Institute, who graciously opened up their campus and MakerSpace to the competition. My son, Bryan, and I were invited as volunteers and “Tool Techs” for the two ShopBot Desktop MAX machines that the school has so that we could help the contestants create their ideas. The teams also had the use of a bank of 12 Ultimaker 3D printers, an Epilog Fusion laser, a makeshift wood and metal shop out in the parking lot, and help from a team of professionals from patent lawyers to GoDaddy website workers. The weekend became a true immersion experience into the world of brainstorming, entrepreneurship, and the design process.

The creative leveraging of digital fabrication tools and great design software is what truly enables the success of product idea development in only 48 hours. It was rapid prototyping on steroids with some teams pulling all nighters to get their products completed. Bryan and I finished cutting Friday night around 2:00 AM. We witnessed each digital fabrication machine used for their strengths. The printers were creating plastic fan turbines of several designs that required internal structure and undercutting that could not be created any other way. The Shopbot Desktop MAX cut materials like MDF, hardwood, and plywood that the printers can’t use, and the laser was burning away on some acrylic with elaborate etched designs. The efficient workflow from idea to CAD to CAM to NC kept all the equipment active for most of the crunch time.   


Pivot plate being milled with the ShopBot MAX.


The twelve teams were very diverse. One was made up of two high school girls and their Dads. Another was a group of inventors that already had successful products on the market. A husband and wife team came up with a very creative sports game, and an entrepreneur from across the pond in England teamed up with a woodworker from the U.S. Most of the groups had viable and interesting products that were well presented to the judges at the end. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal the products or the winners due to property rights and I don’t want to spoil the episodes for you. The three top winning teams receive ongoing assistance to design, patent, and get their products to market, which will later be a part of the final edit.


Bryan and Kyle showing off their skateboard design.


Here is a photo of the youngest ToolTech, Bryan (17) and the youngest team member, Kyle (11) from San Diego who both teamed up to design a skateboard with pivoting wheels to double as a rolling school backpack, an idea that they abandoned early on day two. Another product that I liked was a floating pool hockey game with a never ending supply of water to shoot your opponent’s puck into the goal (SEE VIDEO 2). This game was in violation of two different patents that when combined together shut down another great idea.

For more information, and to find out how to be a contestant on the next season, go to their website. There is also a complete listing of viewing times and public TV stations that are currently running season one.

~ Reported by Chris Burns

Neathawk Designs – “If You Think It, We Can Create It!”

One of the many signs created by Neathawk Designs

When the recession of 2008 hit, housing and land developers found themselves hit particularly hard. Lindsay Neathawk was a graphic designer for a land developer, and soon was impacted by the recession as well come 2010—and found herself looking for a job. Instead of standing still and waiting for a job to come to her, she decided to invest in her first CNC tool (a CNC Shark) and began a sign making business in her garage. Neathawk Designs was born.

Because she was using her CNC tool for hours on end, and milling PVC over long periods of time, she kept breaking her machine. She found she outgrew the tool quickly, it only took about 2 months. But she continued on with the tool and used it for about a year before determining she needed a tool that was bigger and a bit more robust. In 2011, after much research she chose ShopBot’s Full Size PRSstandard. As a part of being able to get up and running on the machine in a timely manner, she and her husband attended one of ShopBot’s Basic Training sessions on-site at the ShopBot facility.

Once they returned home to Williamstown, MA in The Berkshires, Lindsay started working with the VCarve software and building sign files. That didn’t last too long, though. Three months after using VCarve, she decided to switch to Aspire. Lindsay told us, “I was so excited about doing 3D work, that I had to move from VCarve to Aspire to achieve the results I wanted.” Her first 3D project was a sign design for a dentist that included 3D teeth.

The signs that jump started using Aspire for projects.

While Neathawk Designs gets the majority of their work via word-of-mouth, referrals, or repeat business, sometimes a project comes up because of who you know, not just what you know. In 2012, Lindsay’s husband, Ryan, was speaking with one of their neighbors, Dr. Donald H. Sanders, an archaeologist. He had moved into the realm of digital media and had developed software that takes digital photos shot with a smartphone and converts them into 3D computer models, which can then be used for interactive archaeological visualizations. At the time, he was working with Harvard University’s Semitic Museum on a reproduction of a ceramic lion that had been destroyed 3,000 years earlier in the ancient city of Nuzi, in ancient Mitanni, (now northeastern Iraq). Apparently Ryan had the utmost confidence in his wife’s ability with her CNC tool, and suggested that they work together on a physical reproduction of the piece. While she hadn’t done this kind of project before, Lindsay forged ahead. She cut a prototype from foam on her ShopBot and when the people at the Harvard Semitic Museum were shown the result, they were blown away. She was then asked by the museum to create a full-sized version, using the same technique, for display in the museum alongside the remaining fragments of the original.

The Nuzi Lion

In subsequent years, Lindsay and Ryan determined that they wanted to expand their shop. First came the addition of a couple of pieces of equipment that gave them the ability to offer their clients more. Their sign business continued to thrive. They then realized that their garage just wasn’t enough space for the business and moved into a larger, much more spacious facility. More room to move, more room for equipment, and as it turns out, more room for larger projects.

In the meantime, Learning Sites, Inc., the company founded and run by Dr. Sanders, had begun work on another project. The spoils panel from the Arch of Titus in Rome was being studied and re-colorized as a part of an exhibition “The Arch of Titus – from Jerusalem to Rome, and Back” for the Yeshiva University Museum. After exploring several options, the museum decided that having a full-scale replica of the important Roman sculpture would be the most beneficial way to display it in the exhibition. To enhance the experience, a digital replica and colorization that Learning Sites had developed would be projected over it. Learning Sites contacted their friends at Neathawk Designs again, hoping they could help as they had with the Nuzi lion. Lindsay accepted the challenge of recreating the Roman relief panel and got to work on the project that was going to consume her life for almost two months.

The final piece is 1.5’ deep x 12.5’ wide x 6.5’ tall. Quite a bit larger than the bed of her 4’ x 8’ ShopBot PRSstandard, but that didn’t stop her from figuring out a way to make it happen. She divided the full-sized piece into four smaller panels, then used Aspire to create slices of each panel, with the slices building one on top of the other to complete the final surface. Each panel is made up of nine slices which means there were 36 slices in total. Once the software work was done, it was time to put her ShopBot to work. In the beginning, Lindsay sometimes had her ShopBot running for 24 hours straight! After 49 days straight, averaging 10-12 work hours a day, the piece was finished. To meet the deadline, she had promised that she wouldn’t work on any other projects until the Arch of Titus panel was complete. By the time she completed it, she had 25 sign projects waiting for her attention.

When it comes to Neathawk Designs’ typical work, Lindsay’s background in graphic design and marketing have been a huge help. She still views what she does as graphic design and marketing, just in a different medium. Potential clients come in and discuss their needs with her and often think they then need to employ the services of a designer, thinking that Lindsay only does the physical fabrication of the signs. They are often pleasantly surprised to learn that Neathawk designs and makes the signs, which makes it much easier on them. She also likes to get the client involved in the design process from the very beginning. As she puts it: “They’re the ones marrying the project, so they should be involved in developing it.”

While Neathawk Designs is Lindsay’s full-time job, her husband Ryan participates in the business as well. He not only contributes ideas (which are often a helpful different perspective), he does some of the fabrication work as well, particularly in metals. One of his more recent contributions was building a plasma cutter from scratch. Although he has a full-time job as a general contractor, he’d like to eventually stop doing that and do work for Neathawk Designs full-time. They’re not quite there yet, but it’s not too far out of reach.


Yeshiva University created a video documenting the process and installation of the spoils panel of the Arch of Titus replica. You can view it by using the link below:

Video courtesy of Yeshiva University



Robota Soars the Skies with ShopBot

Robota’s Eclipse taking flight

While working for a military systems manufacturer, Antonio Liska developed a sensibility regarding unmanned aircraft (UAVs). He was of the mind that unmanned aerial systems could be utilized beyond military applications—functionality that extended into more commercial applications and where they could serve far more altruistic purposes.

When military contracts started drying up in 2009, Antonio decided it was time to develop his own pursuits in the realm of UAVs—and started his own business, Robota. He began with autopilot development and used it with ready-to-fly airplane kits. This is where a Handibot® Smart Power Tool entered the picture. Antonio purchased a Handibot and used it to modify the fuselage of each airplane. He created a jig so that he could move the Handibot along the length of them and make changes better suited to Robota’s needs. But unfortunately, the model of the airplane they were using was discontinued.

It was at this point that Robota began designing and producing their own aircraft. This was also when they made the determination that they were in need of a larger CNC tool so that they had the ability to prototype, build, and customize the components needed to create their UAV, the Eclipse. Because Antonio had been happy with the work he had been able to do utilizing the Handibot, he decided to purchase another CNC made by ShopBot – the ShopBot Desktop.

Robota’s Eclipse UAV

The materials they use their ShopBot for vary—from wood to plastics to aluminum to fiberglass. This also includes using it to create the molds for the foam bodies of the aircraft, motor mounts cut from nylon, and trimming out parts after being thermoformed. “Whatever we can put on the ShopBot,” Liska says, “we do.” And just because they now have a ShopBot Desktop, that doesn’t mean that the Handibot sits by idly. The portability of the Handibot allows them to place it on top of larger pieces sitting in a jig (like a wing) and carve/engrave directly onto the already fabricated piece.

Antonio Liska and Robota’s ShopBot Desktop

Antonio Liska cuts molds for a UAV with the ShopBot Desktop

Plastic mold for UAV being fabricated on the ShopBot Desktop

Aluminum being milled on the ShopBot Desktop

Manufacturing Technician, Antonio Medellin, uses the Handibot Smart Power Tool to cut into the edge of the wing of a UAV

Robota’s UAVs are not hobby drones, they’re intended for use in mapping and survey applications, particularly for large areas. It enables survey professionals, engineering companies, and construction companies to get survey grade precision for imaging (down to a few centimeters accuracy on a map) in large areas without having to walk it in its entirety. This not only saves time, but also keeps people from having to manually survey potentially dangerous terrain. For example, they have customers in Houston currently utilizing Robota drones to assess the storm damage caused by Hurricane Harvey.

Because they not only create their own software, but also the majority of the hardware components, they are consistently making updates and improvements as they work. Their ShopBot Desktop assists in this. Liska told us, “One of the reasons we have a ShopBot is because we can make changes quickly. We have the tools to make modification to our tools, so that as things change, we can respond pretty quickly.” While they use VCarve for some of their basic 2D work, they use Fusion 360 for the 3D parts. They find that Fusion is the better solution for the CAM (computer aided machining) of what they do with their tools.

Although there is still a lot of education needed regarding the difference between hobby drones vs. work-based/utilitarian drones, Robota continues their quest in providing real-world solutions for the survey and construction professionals that use UAVs to get their own jobs done with accuracy and efficiency.

To learn more about Robota, see their video:



Handibot at the Pilchuck Glass School

Iceberg glass vase in progress – on pipe after being rolled onto textured plate.

In August 2017, Brian Gillespie and Tara Broyhill were artists in residence at the Pilchuck Glass School. During session 6, “Exploration”, they explored how generative design and digital fabrication can inform the form and texture of glass in new ways. It was with this in mind that they packed a Handibot® Smart Power Tool into their car, drove a couple of hours north of Seattle, and went to “summer camp for grown-ups.”

To read more about Brian and Tara’s exploration, as well as see more photos, visit the Handibot blog.

The Evolution of an Idea

When ShopBot began preparing for this year’s World Maker Faire in New York, we determined that we wanted to showcase how ShopBot CNC tools integrate into a small scale manufacturing process. Then it was time to get the creative juices flowing. In this case, it was the highly caffeinated creativity of Bill Young. Enter the initial idea: A lightweight food tray that one could place food on, contains an opening to hold a beverage, and can be held in one hand while using the other hand to eat and drink–and that could be made for the cost of a hot dog at a food truck event.

Bill cut a prototype, complete with a logo V-Carved into the surface, on his full-size ShopBot out of plywood and brought it to the ShopBot offices to show it off. The intent of the tray is to use it when people are eating outside in an environment with limited (or no) seating and table space. For example–if you were to visit a food truck or were having a picnic, you’d have an easier time with all of your food and drink with the tray instead of trying to juggle it with both hands, and figure out some awkward way to hold something while you took a sip from your cup or took a fork full of food.

Bill Young’s initial tray design.

After a couple of us at ShopBot had an opportunity to hold the trays and get a sense of the comfort factor in holding it, there were some suggested changes and adjustments to experiment with on the next iteration of the tray. Should we make adjustments to the spot for the beverage? Do we need to add a support of some kind to keep the drink from falling through the hole if it’s of a smaller size? Should we add legs of some kind so that if one is sitting on he ground, they can put it down without it laying flat on the ground? What about a lighter weight material that is moisture resistant? Is the hole for your thumb to hold onto it in the right place and is it the right size?

Enter again, the creative mind of Bill Young and a new version of the tray. This time cut from sheets of expanded PVC, a material that is still reasonably lightweight, but also has durability. This latest version also had a removable support system/legs. Some more of us at ShopBot played around with the trays and looked at solving the securing of a drink if it’s smaller than the provided beverage hole. The use of a ponytail holder around a can of soda to stop slippage was experimented with (being that a lot of women/girls often have at least one of them on them or in their bag). What if we inserted a stretchable mesh or fabric to act as a sling for the drink? What if the legs of the tray folded up to make the tray flat again when not using them? While the group continued to brainstorm on this and other potential revisions to the design of the tray, we sought out some information from sources that could give us some genuine usability feedback: food truck owners.

Durham, being a particularly foodie town, has a wealth of resources when it comes to opinions on food related items. We took a few of the initial prototypes to someone that owns a high-end food truck that’s hired for special/private events such as wedding receptions, anniversary parties, corporate events, or graduation parties. Being an avid woodworker himself, he had an instant appreciation for the tray and its elegant simplicity. He also gave us a different perspective on uses of the tray. Being that there is limited space in the food truck, the trays would need to stack flat or up on a shelf so that they could easily be used, wiped clean, and stored again. He really liked the stand or “legs” but wanted something that was all one unit so he didn’t have to store pieces in different places on the truck and/or give instructions to customers on how to set it up. Being able to customize the trays for a special event, for a keepsake for the guests, is a win all day long. Being able to pre-produce trays that can then can be customized by VCarve engraving in small batches would give him a lot of flexibility.

We also shared the trays and stands with a friend of ShopBot who has a local industrial kitchen, along with numerous resources for food truck businesses, where food trucks use the kitchen to prepare their foods and that also contains a large event space. His reaction and ideas for the trays expanded further than what we’d discussed with others. To him, this was a great solution for being at the beach and needing a tray for snacks and drinks. He saw it as more of a “traveling” food tray that you’d keep in your car or with a lawn chair. That way it could be used at any event where a person would be hanging out for a while and need a place to set your food and drink down without it sitting directly on the ground. He also raised the concerns for making sure the tray wasn’t too heavy once loaded up with food and drink and wondered how a child or an older person might handle the tray, or how a disabled person might assemble and use it.

We returned from our local visits and feedback with a few new design challenges: could we add legs or a stand that would be out of the same material that would act as one unit and fold flat when not in use, use the ShopBot to manufacture the additional parts, and attempt to keep costs of production in check?

This is where ShopBot’s Brian Owen entered the arena and started working on an idea for the tray making use of foldable legs—so that a person can use the tray laying flat or open up the legs and use that added height when needed. He began experimenting with a system for the legs that didn’t consume a lot of additional material and could be assembled with additional parts that didn’t require specialty parts. What he came up with? A structure that involved some extra cuts into the tray (which, with a CNC, is a pretty easy task once built into the cut file), some small legs for the support structure, and rubber bands. Yes, rubber bands.

Not only did Brian’s adjustments work as legs to hold the tray, but with some additional minor adjustments, it also acted as a support underneath the tray for the drink in the beverage hole. We now had a product that incorporated the changes that made our food tray more multifunctional. Our next step was to see how well the tray functioned in an environment it was intended to be used in. This is where the employees at ShopBot got to be our beta testers—but also got fed a good meal and enjoyed being outside in the fresh air one late summer afternoon.

Using the CNC to cut all the parts for this tray was a huge success. It gave our design team a few restrictions that turned out to be key elements in the overall product design.


We’ve learned a lot along the way in the evolution of this project and it’s still evolving! Brian Owen has tweaked the design files to allow for faster and easier assembly, Bill Young continues to make tray variations, one dubbed the “winer” for a wine and cheese party (smaller tray, slot for wine glass stem), and we discovered that doing the VCarve engraving with a masking material applied first makes painting and finishing work much cleaner! With our project spec changes midway through this project, our cost per item did increase due to additional material used, cut time, labor, assembly, and overhead. So while we were looking to keep our cost per tray around that of a hot dog at a food truck event, we found it came in more around the cost of a cheeseburger, fries, and drink. Bill still hasn’t given up on the vision of the minimum viable product, “cost of a hot dog” version. We’ll be testing some of that one out at the Maker Dinner during the New York Maker Faire—everyone needs a place to hold their cup of beer while eating their plate of paella!

Stop by our booth at World Maker Faire in New York September 23-24. We’ll be showing the full production process in action.

Collaborations and Workshops, Bringing Fab Labs Together in Santiago, Chile

Fab13, the 13th International Fab Lab Meeting, was hosted in Santiago, Chile from July 31 to August 6, 2017. This year’s “Fabricating Society” theme was in action throughout the event. There were six strategic categories: city, housing, innovation and entrepreneurship, environment and energy, education, and decentralization–and each had clearly defined projects.

I was able to tag along with Sallye Coyle on this adventure and had the opportunity to participate in the conference, symposium, and the festival. We also visited a couple of University Fab Labs in Santiago that have ShopBot tools, did some ShopBot training, and did a tool tune-up at the Center for Innovation at Pontifical Universidad Catolica De Chile.

During the conference, presentations and smaller working breakout sessions happened daily, where attendees were active participants and took on specific roles/tasks to help move the six defined initiatives forward. Discussions included: Prototyping a Sustainable Future, Making New Economies, Decentralization– Mobile Fab Labs & Emergency Solutions, Foundations and Regional Networks, Fab City Working Groups, How to Make Spaces and Things: A Pedagogical Approach, and so many more.

The impromptu discussions and collaborations that extended beyond the scheduled events provided a great deal to think about. Groups from the US, Brazil, Israel, Peru, and Africa, to name a few, were working together to discuss moving forward on the six initiatives–as well as other ideas–well into the evenings throughout Santiago. We talked with the FabLat group at length about their project installed during Fab13 and about their plans for another collaborative project at Fab14. See the video about their project.

(Translated Video description below)

PABELLÓN LAT. is a project that was born as an initiative of the Latin American network of digital manufacturing laboratories. Its objective was to integrate Latin American countries and create a team committed to the development of the region and improving living conditions in Latin America.

The pavilion was placed in the context of the world congress of Fab13 digital manufacturing laboratories “fabricating society” in Santiago, Chile in August 2017.

To achieve this objective, the REGIONAL INTEGRATION LAT PAVILION was visualized by using wooden components cut by computerized numerical control (CNC) machines in a shape simulating atoms. When connected, the atomic shapes generate a larger molecular structure. Each of the atoms represents one of the countries that contributed to the project, which, when united with the each other, represent the Latin American network as a single molecule. In the process, the identity of the Latin American network has also been developed, which is applied to show the link between the 12 countries that have joined the project.

The manufacture of the pavilion was contributed to by several countries Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay, and others. The pieces were transported to the event to be assembled in Chile along with locally made pieces, resulting in an assembled structure with materials from different countries in a united effort.

LAT PAVILION became the materialization of a collaborative and distributed effort among 12 countries of the region that united their ancestral identity with modern technology—and an incredible human team with a view to generating projects of high impact in the region.

Sallye and I brought along a Handibot® Smart Power Tool to show during the Humanitarian Lab Brainstorming and Strategizing Session. We shipped the Handibot in a plywood crate and brought along a zip tie connected plywood box (both designed by our very own Bill Young) to demonstrate how tools and other supplies might be transported for the Humanitarian Lab effort globally.


Handbot in tow, we talked digital fab, ShopBot, and Handibot throughout the week. The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, PA invited us to help with cutting parts for their workshop: The Sphero Robotic Rescue Mission, A Making + Coding Engineering Challenge; teaching leaders from other Fab Labs workshop ideas to take back and integrate into their programming. 

We held a raffle for one lucky winner to take the Handibot home. The winner, Dominique Torrin from New Caledonia in the South Pacific, now has the very first digital fab tool for his brand new lab. Can’t wait to see what fun things this group makes! Congratulations!


Of course, we had to take a couple days to check out the sites in Chile while we were there. We went from the middle of summer in North Carolina (90-102°F) to Chile’s winter (40-60°F). One highlight was getting to visit two of Pablo Naruda’s three homes. He’s known as “the Poet” in Chile and beyond, and we learned about his impact on the people and politics of Chile. Whether we were pausing for a bite at a street cafe in Santiago, climbing the steep steps in Valparaiso, or admiring the majestic snow capped mountains; we found Chile to be a vibrant country with a thriving culture that respects the past and visibly looks towards improving the future.

We are looking forward to participating at Fab14 which is scheduled to take place in July 2018 in Toulouse, France. The Fab Lab Festival will be held in different cities throughout France. The Fab City Summit in Paris will be held the following week. Take a look at this video for more information


Getting to know the amazing people involved in Fab Labs across the globe is an ongoing and incredibly inspirational.

ShopBot Joins the 2017 National Scout Jamboree’s Makerspace

One of the many campsite areas from the 2017 National Scout Jamboree

The 2017 National Scout Jamboree at the Bechtel Summit Reserve in West Virginia was a huge event for makers and an opportunity for 40,000 scouts and scouters to learn how much fun a Makerspace can be. The National Jamboree set up a large area full of tents called STEM Quest with opportunities for scouts to earn merit badges and discover multiple technologies. One of these tents was a MakerSpace tent set up by Cognizant that included many activities, such as drone flying, robot programing, sewing, silk screening, soldering, and CNC machining, to name a few. ShopBot sent a couple of guys to help introduce the scouts to CNC with two Handibot® Smart Power Tools and a ShopBot Desktop.

Throughout the 10 days of the jamboree, and with the help of several adult scout volunteers, almost 2000 scouts took the opportunity to make badges on the two Handibots that were brought to the event and using the FabMo app, Badger. There were also multiple opportunities to teach some of the scouts how to make a project that was a little more involved. Most of these scouts chose to make a name badge that they could wear on their uniform after the jamboree. The training to make these badges involved VCarve Pro for converting a raster image to lines and arcs, toolpathing, how to set up the tool and then cut. This was an amazing experience, it was a ton of fun to teach these scouts about CNC and see the smiles on their faces when they finished making something on their own, for the first time in most cases, on a CNC machine.

~ Reported by Gordon Bergfors

Prototyping and Production Across Platforms: Laser and CNC at Digital Fabrication for Educators, July 2017

Slide together steps prototyped and produced during July’s Digital Fab for Educators.


Traveling to Durham, NC from Baltimore, MD with his wife and elderly dog gave one of the July 2017 Digital Fabrication for Educators Workshop attendees, Frank, an idea of what to create during the workshop at ShopBot. The old girl (canine) had a difficult time getting into the back seat of the car, and helping her by lifting her hind end into the car seemed to cause her pain. So Frank decided to design and fabricate a set of slotted stairs that he could assemble without hardware.

Frank used SketchUp to design the steps. Since SketchUp is a 3D rendering CAD program, he could view the design from several orientations, as well as change the thickness of all linked components (like the slots) in one fell swoop. Plus, it is easy to import a SketchUp file (.skp) into VCarve Pro for machining in 1/2” plywood. Once he had all of the parts, Frank scaled them down so that he could use the Epilog laser to cut a prototype in cardboard. He then exported the vectors from VCarve Pro in .eps format to bring them into Corel Draw for “printing” on the laser cutter.


Cardboard model of car steps.


Frank talking to the class about his cardboard prototype cut on the laser cutter. Thank you to Epilog laser for loaning ShopBot a laser for the workshop.


Once he was convinced that the design would be stable and easy to assemble, Frank set about prepping it for machining on a ShopBot. The first step was to test that the slots were the correct size for the half inch sheets of plywood that were available in the shop. Sallye (the workshop instructor) helped him to create a test piece that could be fitted onto the edge of the plywood to determine what size to make the slots so that the pieces fit together easily and without too much slope.


Start with a larger rectangle that defines the total size of the test piece. For the slot sizes, create a series of rectangles of different heights that extend beyond the test piece. (See below for why the width of the slot test pieces extend beyond the test piece.) Toolpath the slot test rectangles as a pocket that goes about halfway through the test piece. Use “profile” to the outside to cut out the test piece. Remember to use the same bit and cut direction for the test cut that will be used for cutting out the final parts.


Clicking the solid box in the lower right corner of the toolpath screen will show what the bit will actually machine away. Note that the radius on the inside corners of the slots. By having the slot test rectangles extend beyond the actual cut out, the rounded inside corners will be cut off when the test piece is cut out, so the slots will fit on edge of the board.


A simulation of the resulting test piece. Mark the slot sizes with a permanent marker, and indicate which bit (size and geometry such as up or down spiral) and cut direction (climb or conventional) was used for future use.


The half inch Baltic birch available was actually a 1/2” inch thick, so the slot size did not have to be adjusted in the original CAD drawing. Frank used VCarve Pro to add dogbones to each of the inside corners to allow for a square edge to fit into it. Then, he laid out all the parts on the 4 x 8 sheets of plywood and set the toolpaths to machine with a 1/4” down spiral bit.


The closest that the spinning bit can get into an inside corner is the radius of the bit. Adding a dogbone to each inside corner creates space for a square corner to fit into the slot. Look under the “Fillets” icon to find the dogbone feature.


Watching ShopBot’s production tool with Automatic Tool Changer (ATC), vacuum hold down system, and dust collection cut out the parts is a group activity.


The actual machining on ShopBot’s production tool with Automatic Tool Changer and vacuum hold down system took a matter of minutes. After a little sanding, a group took the steps out to his car for a test run (as seen in the photo at the start of this blog post). Frank found he could assemble his steps in a minute and a half. The half inch plywood flexed a bit more than he would like for his 50 lb. dog, but another attendee, Kirsten, suggested that he use plastic drink cups as supports to increase the structural integrity of the wider steps. We can’t wait to hear (and see) how his pup likes her new stairway.

Below are more pictures of the projects completed and the friendships made during the 3 day workshop.


ShopBot Spotlight: The Stars Align for Syzygy Woodworks

syz·y·gy [siz-i-jee]


Astronomy: An alignment of three celestial objects, such as the sun, the earth, and either the moon or a planet.

Any pair of connected or corresponding things.

For most people, the word “syzygy” seems like something out of a foreign language dictionary. Primarily used in astronomy, the term refers to the lining up of multiple objects in space. However, it also can refer to any pair of connected or corresponding things. For Keith Larrett, the word has an even deeper meaning: his wife used it in conversation one of their first dates, and it stuck with him. So much so, in fact, that he took it as the name of his Palm Coast, FL woodworking business, and he’s been producing some amazing built-in cabinetry and CNC furniture projects for both local and out-of-state clients. 

A Built-In Client Base

Prior to going full-time with Syzygy, Keith spent over a decade installing cabinets in the Palm Coast area. In tackling all different kinds of installation situations, he became more and more interested in the design and brainstorming aspect of working with unique spaces rather than just hanging them, and eventually started doing some design on the side. Thankfully, the client base looking for design overlapped with those in need of installation, and after a while he found himself providing both.

As his client base grew from word-of-mouth and referrals, the possibility of full-time custom furniture became more of a possibility. Keith found himself becoming more and more involved with the planning, brainstorming, and design component of CNC furniture installation, which required more onsite measurements and working from pictures to figure out how things would work in unique spaces throughout homes and businesses. Eventually, he realized that with an upgrade in equipment, he’d be able to open up a whole new world of possibilities.

ShopBot and Cabinet Design

When looking for a tool that would allow for Syzygy to work full-time, it was very important that whatever he bought be compatible with eCabinets. Keith had gained some experience with the program over the course of the past several years, but he had some trouble finding a well-built tool that could withstand daily use and make the most out of the software. He was fully new to the idea of a CNC tool, but everyone he had spoken to had mentioned that it was a must for any woodworker’s shop. After asking around, the lone candidate was the ShopBot PRSalpha. He invested in a PRSalpha with 5′ x 8′ table with Automatic Tool Changer and immediately realized its importance to his business. Not only was it compatible with cabinet software, but it could handle sheet goods of every type, from MDF and plywood to plastic and acrylic.

built-in office cnc furniture

One of Syzygy’s most recent installations, a built-in office desk.

“When I first bought my PRSalpha, I thought it would do everything for me,” says Larrett. “But what I’ve learned since is that it’s even more important than that: it doesn’t do the work for me, it allows me to do work that wasn’t possible before, and do it with more speed and precision.”

Unique Process for Unique Projects

When it comes to difficult projects, Keith doesn’t shy away from trying new things: he often goes into a client’s space having little more than a vague idea of what they are looking for. In fact, his first client challenged to create a huge bookcase installation that filled a 20-foot high 4′ x 8′ foyer and had a layer of acrylic that one could actually walk out on! After going over to visit and take measurements, he entered his shop with a rough sketch, dimensions, and a few ideas.

Knowing that he could cut all of the parts and make adjustments on the ShopBot made things a little easier for Keith. He was able to machine the intricate designs needed for all of the detail work, including the Horace Mann quote that appeared on the header into the main home: “A house without books is like a room without windows.”

A job of this scope was something that Keith had never done before, but as he puts it, he “figured it out as he went”, since he was able to carefully engineer the entire installation just as if it was kitchen cabinetry: by making sure everything is properly mounted and built into the space, there’d be no worries that it would be done right. And any prototyping could be done on the ShopBot before it was officially installed.

horace mann quote on doorway

Still, with all of his confidence and experience, it was his brief time as a professional skydiver that came in handy the most once installation was completed.

“I’m not going to lie,” laughs Keith. “That first step out onto the acrylic floor was kind of a ‘leap of faith’. But I’m confident that everything in that room is there to stay.”

syzygy woodworks cnc furniture bookcase

Keith Larrett demonstrates the support of the clear acrylic floor.

Keeping the ShopBot Busy

Thanks to his great work, reputation, and huge fan response on social media, Keith has no problem finding work these days. As if running a full-time furniture business wasn’t enough, however, there are still times when the ShopBot isn’t being used. During these hours, while Keith draws up plans or uses the woodturner, he offers CNC routing services to his local Palm Coast community. This way, as Keith says, “the ShopBot stays as busy as I am”.