CarveWright CNC Carving MachineComments (0)
This article is from Issue 16 of Woodcraft Magazine.
This little machine still has its new-kid-on-the-block quirks, but its cost-to-capability ratio is quite impressive.
By Ralph Bagnall
I’ve been working with Computerized woodworking machines (known generically as CNCs) since the mid-1980s. I’ve programmed, run, sold and serviced them. So earlier this year, I was very interested to learn of LHR Technologies’ CarveWright CNC Carving Machine. What amazed me most was the price tag. At around $2,000, it seemed too good to be true. Coincidentally, just as Sears began carrying the CarveWright CompuCarve, my employer was in need of a large number of carved appliqués for a major kitchen build. We decided to take a chance and try this new technology out.
So you might be wondering, is it as cool as it looks? You bet! But it is not without issues. Many people like to be first to have the new-model car as soon as it comes out. Others never buy the new model that first year, preferring to wait until all the bugs have been worked out. For woodworkers, new tools are no different, and CompuCarve is as new a tool as you can get.
This is a pretty sophisticated machine doing a very complex task. LHR has taken a really big leap forward, combining a compact machine with powerful software at a low price. Unfortunately, this leap tends toward making the machine prone to problems.
The carvings produced by the machine are quite good, and the software is frankly amazing. The machine itself is problematic. Don’t get me wrong: it can do what we want it to do now, and we are happy to have it in our shop, but this is a very new approach and all the bugs are not yet worked out. As of this writing, we’ve had the machine two months, and it is only now becoming reliable enough to schedule work around. So far, I have spent more time fixing this machine than running programs on it. Let’s look at how it all works, then I’ll outline the issues I’ve had with it.
Using this machine involves three aspects: the software used to tell the machine what to carve, the machine itself and LHR’s support services.
Your first experience is with Project Designer, the software that directs the machine. You can download a working demo to try out for 30 days at carvewright.com. Over the years I’ve used nearly a dozen different systems for programming CNC machines, and I can tell you this software is a winner for what it is designed to do. You specify the size board you plan to carve on and the software shows you a 3D rendering of the board. Next, drag and drop preprogrammed carvings from the built-in library onto the board. These library carvings can be sized, stretched, combined and blended together to create a wide range of custom designs. The library also contains different types of lettering.
Once the carving is laid out, saving it automatically creates the program for the machine. Typically, the machine uses a “pencil point” router bit to make passes back and forth across the width of the board, following the contours of the desired carving, just like industrial-level machines I’ve worked with in the past. The CompuCarve can work with parts up to 14½" wide, and since the board runs through the machine, the only real limit to the length is the rolling resistance to feeding large parts through. By carefully setting up roller stands on both ends, very long pieces can be carved. There is also the option to cut the carving out, allowing for fretwork or making appliqués.
Project Designer also allows for drawing directly on the board and programming cuts for the drawings. This is different from the carvings in that it is more like traditional router cuts. Parts can be cut out of a board, and by using different bit profiles, some shaping can be done, but nothing as intricate as the library carvings. LHR offers an optional scanning probe for copying existing carvings. It is inserted in the machine in place of the bit to trace and record the contours of an object. In fact, according to LHR’s Chris Lovchick, that’s exactly how the existing library was created. A forum at CarveWright’s Web site allows users to share files they have scanned.
Perhaps the most interesting way to create unique carvings is to import images into the library from graphics and digital images. I’ve found that it works best with high-resolution graphics and photographs. Good contrast also produces a better result. I have a picture of a gecko on a white wall that I imported. The software reads the shades of the photo and assigns corresponding depths of cut based on the shading. The resulting carving was quite nice.
The machine itself is laid out well, compact and easy to use, and comes with everything you need to get started right out of the box, including a carving bit and cutting bit. An included memory card is loaded with the programs from your computer, then inserted into the machine. The keypad interface on the machine is pretty clear and easy to use. There are a number of options available directly off the keypad, such as jointing the workpiece, cutting it to size and even cutting miters and bevels.
Setting up and using the machine could not be easier. Raise the head of the machine, set the board in place, and crank the head firmly down onto the board. The crank system has a built-in clutch to ensure the proper tension and prevent over-tightening. Select the program from the keyboard and press enter. The machine measures the board; it will request instructions if the board size differs from the program. When ready, it asks what tool to use and waits for it to be loaded. The machine measures the tool length automatically, then touches the tool to the top of the board to find the working surface. These are features that many industrial CNCs don’t offer, features that vastly simplify the operation.
Once everything is verified and set up, the machine automatically begins milling. This is great fun to watch. The cutting head moves back and forth across the part, changing height as it moves, creating the contours. While the head moves rapidly, the whole process takes some time. Each pass is quite closely spaced. If the program calls for cutting the part out, the machine pauses and asks for a bit change, then cuts the part. The software automatically leaves small tabs behind which hold the part in place.
Fresh out of the machine, the carving tends to be a bit fuzzy. There also might be fine lines between the passes. This is very minor. A few seconds with a flap sander and it’s ready to apply finish. The manual advises using a brass wire wheel in a handheld rotary tool, which also gives good results.
The machine we own has had a pretty large number of problems from the beginning. First, it would not properly measure the cutting bit. A loose wire guide was found to be interfering with the head movement. Then, our initial test runs showed that the depth of cut was inconsistent, randomly cutting too deep, then not deep enough. We contacted CarveWright and they arranged for shipping to their factory for service. Two weeks later, we got the machine back, but the problem soon reappeared. CarveWright then sent us the entire Z-axis module, which I had to replace. That solved the depth problems, but I was also having problems with the machine stalling when homing (finding the head position during startup) and properly detecting the edges of the board. CarveWright sent us a new, more sensitive board sensor as soon as they got some in, and the most recent software upgrades have simplified the homing operation, which fixed the stalling issue. Once all of this was solved, the head jammed during a program run. It took me two hours and the complete disassembly of the cutting head to find that a loose screw was binding between the head and the casting it rides on.
SOME PRETTY ADVANCED FEATURES are part of the CarveWright package. Crank the head down firmly onto the board (left) and the machine automatically measures the board, measures the tool length (center) and finds the working surface (right).
When you talk with CarveWright’s technical support staff, they are very knowledgeable and helpful. They have been willing to send out whatever parts need to be replaced, even a non-warranted feed belt that tore. Their biggest failure is the limited availability of technicians for phone support. This is a pretty small company that is selling their product through Sears, which has really overwhelmed LHR’s support staff. The large number of units Sears has sold for them results in a long wait to speak to a technician. So far, it has typically taken me two business days of leaving messages and e-mails to get a technician on the phone to help me diagnose a problem. LHR has promised additional staff and a toll-free service line to alleviate this problem, but I’ve had many frustrating experiences trying to get my machine working properly. I may well have gotten a “lemon” and I’m sure that not everyone has had so many problems, but reading the user forum on LHR’s Web site, and the difficulty reaching the technicians confirms my suspicion that I’m not alone.
With all that said, we intend to keep the machine, and are currently using it. I’ve hardly scratched the surface exploring the machine’s capabilities, and adding the probe will only offer more options. It is still quirky, and care needs to be taken to ensure that everything runs properly, but there is simply nothing else on the market that can do what this machine does for under $5,000. Regular visits to the forum can keep you up to date on the latest upgrades and fixes.
THE MILLING PROCEEDS SLOWLY in a multitude of closely spaced passes (left). The machine pauses for installation of the cutting bit before cutting a shape out of the board (center). The software automatically leaves behind small tabs to hold a cutout in place.
If you don’t mind tinkering with machines and enjoy being first on the block, you’ll want to give the CompuCarve a try. If you prefer to spend your shop hours making chips, you may want to hold off for six months or so and wait for LHR to work out the bugs.
— Ralph Bagnall is a contributing editor to Woodcraft Magazine.
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