Choosing CAD/CAM for Complex Carved Custom Furniture

What programs could handle the drawing and machine control requirements for reproducing an intricate, highly decorated, hand-carved piece of custom furniture? April 19, 2011

We want to produce French Provencal style armoires and furniture pieces like the one pictured. We hand carved this piece in-house and used traditional machines (shapers, etc.) for the joinery. We are now moving to CNC production and have ordered a 4 axis CNC router (std 3 axis with a side mounted rotary lathe axis).

Excluding the carving ornament, what CAD/CAM software would do this the most easily? We want parametrics so we can resize cabinets. We want ease of doing the complex curves of the doors, crown, skirts, feet. We want true 4 axis control so that we can produce the corner posts/feet in the round. We'd like to be able to easily import an STL 3d scan of our hand carving (we recently bought a NextEngine scanner).

We have a tight budget and want to spend the least money and time to get the job done.
We've focused our options on three packages:

1. MasterCam for everything
2. AlphaCam for everything
3. SolidWorks for the main CAD design, Rhino3D for the special freeform shapes like the scrolled feet, Visualmill/RhinoCam for the CAM.

Which do you recommend? Other options?

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Forum Responses
(CAD Forum)
From contributor R:

I would suggest the Solidworks/Rhino/RhinoCam package. VisualMill is the Cam part of RhinoCam, and handles STL files better, in my opinion, than MC or AC. Rhino is the tool of choice for organic modeling and machining, and VisualMill will import Rhino curves as carving regions, which you will need when you want to make some changes, and need to make adjustments in carving areas and machining strategies. I have used all these programs, as well as the NextEngine scanner, and done a lot of carving applications.

I hate to say it, but the NextEngine scanner may be the weak link in your plans. I think that any of the other programs listed could be used, and sometimes it is just a matter of what you learn on, and get comfortable with. That said, Rhino is cheaper than any of the other programs mentioned, and just as powerful and useful in its own way. If you can learn to model with it, you will eliminate the hassle of scanning and trying to use STL files, which can be frustrating. Keep in mind that whatever programs or techniques you use, you will still need to clean up all the carvings by hand to achieve the look you want.

From contributor J:
The only systems that really handle things like this are Catia, Unigraphics, Pro-manufacturing, and TopSolid. Of these, the only one that has dedicated functions for the wood products industries is TopSolid.

Solidworks with something else can be a powerful system, however you must pay two maintenance fees, learn two interfaces, and inevitably you will have some degree of disconnect between the two. Manufacturing systems like the ones I mentioned will allow for all of these things, including drafting and parametric design, but most importantly for wood products will allow you to have association between your model and the machining. This means when you make a change to your model you don't always have to re-create your machining files. Much of the machining can also be set up automatically. When you export from Solidworks to a system like Mastercam/Alphacam you have essentially a dumb file that has no logic, so Mastercam/Alphacam has to do a feature recognition to guess how things need to be machined based on some criteria that you give it. When you work in a singular system, the guessing is diminished substantially and a link exists between model and machine.

No matter which one of these systems you might choose, you will find that they are not easy to learn, no matter what anyone tells you. Moreover, what you wish to accomplish with importing .STL files is very taxing on any modeling program. Also, it should be noted that machining .STL files can provide many challenges. Be careful in your assumptions about the capabilities of all of these systems. Just because we can produce airplanes with these systems does not mean it's easy to produce furniture. Everything you are asking for can be done, but it will not be easy or cheap. I have much experience with this type of process and have learned many hard lessons. The cost of the software is easily eclipsed by the investment in time that you must make to truly harness their power.

From contributor P:
It appears you should concentrate on the CNC and work backwards. Maybe Artcam and whatever works with Artcam.

From contributor D:
That picture is a hand carved cabinet. You are asking what CAD package can draw that first. For all practical purposes, none. You will not get that look from a CAD package, in a reasonable amount of time. You can just carve it by hand much faster then you can even draw it in anything on the same level.

Similar is different. CAD yes, CNC yes, but not on that level. In some ways better, in some ways worse. You can 3D scan a hand carved cabinet and then import the point cloud, use a product such as Paraform to create NURB faces, slice up/cut up that for CNC carving. In effect, reproducing the original. The machine time would be very high. Again, more expensive than having a carver just do it. These are the realities.

From contributor E:
Contributors P and D make some valid points. Assuming you wish to have a full model of this furniture, you will either need to scan into 3D the hand carved parts or create them from scratch. This is a very difficult task for most CAD packages. Higher end systems like TopSolid and Catia have some of the most powerful functions for creating complex surfaces (Catia probably the best for surfaces) and also allow to manage the rest of the process, but like contributor P mentioned, Artcam has a very unique system to create organic surface models that can be exported as .stl files into other CAD packages, as Artcam really can't manage the rest of the manufacturing process. If you look around the TopSolid website you will see some similar pieces of furniture. Again, there is no easy answer for this type of furniture.

From contributor O:
Wow... I'd break it down, write a process definition, and select my CAM solution based on the manufacturability of the product. As for the CAD solution, there are several good solutions, including renderings conversion.

From the original questioner:

Appreciate the input! Anybody out there actually producing solid wood furniture with the complexity of this piece?

Solidworks jockeys! How easy would it be to CAD up the basic piece of furniture above with the complex curved door rails and the curved skirts, etc., but minus the actual carving ornament (flowers and leaves)? How long do you estimate it would take you to do it?

TopSolid users! Minus the ornament (leaves and flowers), but including the curved parts like door rails, how long would it take to CAD this using TopSolid?

I like what I saw in the online brochure for TopSolid Wood. Seems like the libraries would be a great way to save time by using previous parts to design new things

From contributor K:
Thermwood was creating some pretty complex carved pieces in their Furniture Network using pretty much the same methods you want to try. The table below was scanned from an original hand carving commissioned from Arno Schadt. I think this was done using a Polhemus scanner and MasterCam software. These carvings were then added to the eCabinet Systems software Furniture Libraries where I could take the original carving and scale it for other projects like the dining table drawing in the second picture. The first picture shows that you can get a pretty high level of detail in your carvings, but machine times would be high. That is one reason I never had the dining table cut.

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From contributor W:
I don't think the curves will be an issue with TopSolid Design (TS). Below are a few images I have worked on in TS. TS is both fun and frustrating to work with because it is such a powerful and deep software. I have been working with TS for around a year. It's been tough because I've been trying to learn two other software packages (information overload).

The reason I went with TS is because it is the only true 3D engineering modeling software that also has a woodworking overlay built into the system. When I say engineering software package, I mean it has built in functionality for sheet metal stamping, mold making, tubing and routing, and of course woodworking, as a furniture designer I need all of those features.

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From contributor M:
Just wanted to chime in about Topsolid. To use contributor J's words, we are in the process of harnessing the power. The more we learn, the more Topsolid amazes us. We wanted a program that would help us do whatever came in the door - casework, fixtures, furniture, millwork, whatever. For creating custom products, if I compare Topsolid to what we were using before, Microvellum, there is no comparison. My business philosophy is to be able to do what others can't. Topsolid will help us achieve that.

From contributor K:
What is your projected selling price for the piece you show on this thread? Are you planning to mass produce pieces like the armoire you pictured, or are you doing one of a kind? It sounds like you have already made the leap to CNC, but how does it help you? For either one off or mass production, you are going to need to sell at a pretty high price point with the level of detail you are showing. Some of the carvings I have looked at in the past, to be able to get fine detail, would eat up 8 hours of machine time. I have no idea what the machine time would be for a piece like you show, but will you be able to sell these at a price point that will let you compete with the offshore companies using multi spindle carvers? How does a small shop on a tight budget compete?

From contributor W:
To the original questioner: you mentioned SolidWorks and MasterCam. You might want to also look at a SolidEdge/AplhaCam combo. SolidEdge is more powerful than SolidWorks and the same price tag, and with the latest release of AlphaCam. If you label your layers correctly in SolidEdge, AlphaCam can take it from screen to machine almost seamlessly.

If it is that important to create the carvings digitally, and you have a skilled carver, you might want to look into ZBrush. With its latest release you can export STL files and have an extreme amount of control on polygon count and file size.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
The packages that have been discussed, so far, are quite good. However, I found the learning curve quite steep. I finally ended up using a CAD/CAM package from Vectric called Aspire. Not only was it less expensive, it is almost intuitive to use. Also, there is a company called VectorArt3D that has most of the artwork ready for production at a very reasonable cost. Both companies have websites and free demos. I went through three very expensive CAD/CAM packages before I found this software. I could have literally saved $1,000ís while making $1,000ís if I had found these two companies first.