Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 156, August 2018Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
The Down to Earth Woodworker
By Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

This Month's Column:

• New Experiences with 3D Printing
Rising Prices… A Good Thing?
Do Real Woodworkers Use Screws And Nails?

New Experiences with 3D Printing

New experiences at my age are somewhat rare, but I had one the other day that I think has implications for our lives in general and woodworking in specific. It's not exactly the replicator from Star Trek where members of the ship's crew could order "Tea, Earl Gray" as John Luc Picard was known to do, or a banana split, or an exotic Klingon dish and the machine, using derivations of their transporter technology, would replicate whatever you asked for… but it is probably as close as we will get in my lifetime, and it's pretty doggone exciting… it is 3D printing.

Without getting into too much detail, I roast my own coffee and recently ordered my "dream" coffee roaster. It will be delivered soon. To vent the roasting fumes to the outside, I need a specially-shaped fitting to connect between the roaster and a steel vent pipe. The maker of the roaster supplies a 3D drawing of the part, but does not supply the part itself. You have to order it from a 3D printing service. There are several online 3D printing services, and it appears they are all quite good from reviews and from the "user-friendliness" of their websites. I chose one company, more or less at random, and created a user profile with just my name and email address. That's when the fun began.

Figure 1 - This is a screen grab of the 3D image of the exhaust
adapter I had "printed" on a 3D printer

I was prompted to upload the 3D file, and the upload took only about 3 seconds. Five seconds later, my "part" appeared on screen. I could spin it, look at it from any angle, enlarge it or reduce it in size. I was then given a choice of materials, colors, and finishes for the part. With each selection, the price for the part changed, either up or down, and when done, I was able to click "add to cart," put in my credit card information, and within a couple of days, my part was shipped. And it was exactly "right."

Figure 2 - This is the actual exhaust adapter... amazing technology!

I realize, of course, that there are currently some limitations, but with every passing day those limitations are dropping away. There aren't any 3D printing places locally, but they will come. Base material choices are presently somewhat limited, but that, too, will change. Recently a group of scientists used 3D printing technology and stem cell material to create replacement corneas for people needing transplants. A local agriculture tractor manufacturer recently delivered their first 3D printed parts to a farmer. Soon, I suspect, almost anything you need can be "printed" and delivered. As this technology rapidly expands, the prices for the 3D printing equipment is coming down, and more companies, and yes, even individuals, will be able to afford the printing equipment. 3D printing is going to change everything.

For us woodworkers, to whom building something with our hands, our tools, and natural wood will always have allure, 3D printing will still bring huge changes. Imagine that instead of searching for hours to find the hinges, knobs, or handles that are perfect for a specific project, you can simply find or design the perfect hardware, upload the image to a 3D printer, and the items will be printed (created).

When designing something with a specific purpose, more function than form, like the Under The Table Saw Infeed Outfeed Table I recently built (click here to watch the video series), I did a fair bit of what I call "aisle engineering" --- standing in the hardware aisle of the big box store trying to figure out how to put together a collection of bits and pieces to make the mechanism to raise and lower the top of the table. A time-consuming and at times frustrating exercise. Imagine dreaming up exactly what is needed, drawing it up, and submitting it to a 3D printing firm and getting exactly what you need within a few days.

Even more exciting is the potential for finally realizing what business "futurists" have called "mass customization." That is a manufacturing process whereby important aspects of a design can be customized for the user, while maintaining the economies of scale of mass production. Consider buying a tool that is essentially the same as every other tool, but the hand grip has been customized for the perfect fit for your hands or perhaps even optimized for left or right-handed use. With 3D printing, this becomes ever-closer to reality.

Need a sharpening stone to exactly fit a curved blade? A 3D rendering of the blade may be all that is necessary to order a stone made-to-order for a perfect fit. Decorative inlays to replicate any imaginable shape or material will be possible. I'm not a turner, would be lost standing in front of a lathe… but sometimes I wish I could make a finial, a tapered round leg, or something else that requires woodturning skills. With 3D printing I could make a three-dimensional drawing and electronically submit it to get multiple perfectly matched parts.

It may also soon be possible to design and order custom jigs for whatever crazy project we dream up. Hacking together a jig from scraps could be a thing of the past. There have been occasions when I am trying to clamp a glue-up, and in my imagination can see the perfect clamp for the job, but unfortunately no one makes it, and probably no one would want to because it would be so specific and therefore offer limited sales opportunities. But with 3D printing I could design the perfect specialty clamp and "print" just how many I need.

Of course, all this 3D printing could be taken to an extreme, and we could, in the future, print or order complete "kits" of pre-made parts and simply assemble a piece of furniture. That's treading dangerously close to an IKEA-like endgame, and while some may do this, real woodworkers won't. But we will, like we have all done through the years, gradually blend the old and the new, the hand-made and the machine-made, to turn out more and better work. This is exciting.

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Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life). Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson@downtoearthwoodworking.com

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