Best known for his coppiced work, Sebastian Cox explains why he’s warming to digital technology
It’s 50 odd years since Bob Dylan was famously heckled for introducing an electric guitar into his live sets to audiences he’d built on folk music. Recently, I’ve had friends playfully prodding this ‘going electric’ reference at me after they’ve heard about our most recent purchase, our CNC router.
To explain to the uninitiated, a Computer Numerically Controlled router is a motor with a rotating cutter, mounted on a beam system that can move in three axes – up and down (Z), side to side (Y), and front to back (X). You input your drawing from CAD software and after a bit of setting up and translating of code, you’re cutting shapes, profiles and pockets into the wood you fix down on the bed of the machine. With one of these, hands are almost completely removed from shaping wood.
‘Going digital’ in crafted furniture has been at the core of Gareth Neal’s boundary pushing practice for some time. As a student I remember being blown away by his ‘George’ range, and I became excited by the possibilities of using manufacturing equipment in crafted objects. I introduced this thinking to my own MA work, using woodworking machinery on green (unseasoned) wood. I also had the privilege of working alongside Gareth in 2014 during
‘The Wish List’ project where he made his VE-SEL pieces. I snapped a telling photograph of Gareth watching Benchmark’s CNC cut the first version of these oak vases: in the picture Gareth is intensely staring at the machine, contorted and tense at the risk of failure during the CNC run. This is when I realised how similar this kind of emotion can be to the risk of your plane catching the grain wrongly and tearing the surface of your workpiece. If craft is the amount you feel while you make, Gareth’s most crafted pieces would probably be his first VE-SELs, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this confirms digital manufacture not as a threat to crafted objects but just another tool in the maker’s box.
Our budget-end machine was designed to cut sheet materials, yet we are a zero MDF business, so on paper this is something that shouldn’t fit in to our practice. However, its limitations mean we’ve had to think creatively about how we’re going to use it. In musical terms, we’d be learning to write songs on a three-string guitar rather than a six, but limitations often trigger discoveries. First and foremost, we’re using it as a tool of experimentation that allows us to create more detailed and complex work. I’ve got many ideas of shaping objects from green wood on our CNC, combining digital manufacture with axes and froes to widen the footprint of the bridge between ancient and present tools. In most cases, we’ll be using it to either add digital detail or to move the most time-intensive parts of a project away from cutting joints – which rarely get seen and can be accurately done by our CNC – to hand-applied surface texture which is visible and tactual.
Aside from new experimental work, it has already paid for itself by saving time on existing projects. Its speed and accuracy also vastly increases our capacity – we could confidently undertake a 50-bedroom hotel contract now, as long as it fitted our stipulation of having to be made in solid British wood. We can also start to look at making more affordable products – certainly chairs, which are expensive to produce, are back on the menu at a realistic price.
Given the huge change our CNC is bringing to our practice and the increasing affordability of these kinds of machines in a number of lines of manufacturing, I sense that they could have broad implications for craft. If more makers are able to supplement their process with digital technology, their goods can potentially be priced more keenly and reach wider audiences.
However, I sense there is a line here. Talking to Sean Sutcliffe of ‘powerhouse of craft’ Benchmark, I heed his warning not to let the CNC do all of the jobs in the workshop, lest you lose the balance between a workshop and a factory. Benchmark has a huge workforce of makers and yet only one CNC machine. This is a conscious choice to keep the company creating interesting objects, and not becoming a slave to mass production from their own machines. This level of consideration is important: perhaps the craft lies as much in deciding when to use it as much as how.
Have I sold out? I don’t think so. I’m just using a new tool, and if you’re a maker, you should consider ‘going digital’ too. But tread the line carefully, as Sean recommends, and let it increase the creative output of your practice, not become the centre of it.
Sebastian Cox is a furniture designer