Boat Project’s Savior: The Shaper Origin

Three months have passed without an update, but it has felt like an eternity. Why, you may ask? Because my beloved SF TechShop, where the first six weeks of wood cutting (and year of scale prototyping) took place, abruptly and without warning shut their doors on November 15th, 2017…

Glorious headlines from 11/15/2017. No warning.

I could write an entire post on the Maker drama that ensued here, but instead leave that to the wonderful gossip machine that is the internet. Suffice to say, I was suddenly without means of cutting the remaining 50% of my boat:

Boat 1, the day TechShop closed. One will immediately notice it is entirely missing a hull. Floatation questionable.

I went from making amazing progress to a complete standstill, and the next few weeks were rough. I couldn’t justify buying my own CNC rig, nor would I have anywhere to store one if I did. My warehouse space was barely large enough for the boat!

I visited two indy makers spaces in the weeks that followed. They were nice enough places, if a little condescending towards TechShop refugees. But most didn’t have the hardware I needed anyway. It was starting to look bleak.

The Shaper Origin: Savior of the Boat Project

Then randomly one night, I remembered a tool I has seen a promo video for several years earlier. It was a cool idea: An augmented reality, handheld CNC which used a heads-up display to visualize the part you were cutting, as you cut it, and had some pretty advanced mechatronics that allowed precise carving of your pieces, compensating for the imperfect human trying to drive it. It has a super simple interface for uploading existing parts, or designing parts on the device, making it incredibly easy to go from concept to cutting.

I looked them up and sure enough they were just bringing their product to market, and were based in SF just a few blocks from my apartment! The company is Shaper, and I obviously needed to meet these people, immediately. After a few conversations with a very cool team of engineers and testers, I got my hands on one of their prototypes, and put it to work.

So easy, any moron can use it.

In a Silicon Valley known for impressively futuristic hardware, this tool does not disappoint. It was so easy to use… which is a hard statement to fully impress upon anyone who hasn’t struggled with large CNC machines before. They are terrifying, prone to dangerous mistakes catastrophic to parts (and the machine), they are way too large, and very loud. And expensive. Even worse, the software controlling them doesn’t seem to have evolved beyond 1995. The Origin, by comparison, was intuitive, fun, durable, and idiot-proof. I often forget just how powerful a device I’m holding in my hands while I use it. It feels like a video game. It feels like the future.

There was initially concern about the machining tolerances, and how they’d stack up to the $25k CNC TechShop rig. The Origin (about $2k) was precise to ~1/50th inch, as far as I could tell. Waaaay more than enough for my purposes. The pieces cut fit like a glove with my existing CNC parts.

A Shaper Origin cut rib reinforcement, sitting perfectly in place with existing rib and floor board.

I was back in business! This was awesome. I no longer needed to lug my wood back and forth between the warehouse and the TechShop. No more fighting for router time. No more banging my head against painful software.

I could cut everything in the warehouse. Hell, I could cut everything in my kitchen if I wanted to. But without a doubt, the best part of the product is how adaptable (dare I say agile) the design and woodworking process becomes.

For example, the rib reinforcement shown above were parts I decided to add on the fly, upon realizing the ribs weren’t sturdy enough as cut. Previously a difficult iteration, this sort of on-the-fly modification became routine with Origin; I’d have an idea, code it up, upload the part to the tool, and a few minutes later have it physically in my hand. Think about how insanely enabling this is! I was off and running, making up for lost time.

Stern board and hull plank, showing the tell-tale strip tape of the Origin.

The setup process is interesting, and involves placing strips of tape on your wood sheets, which the tool uses to track position as it cuts. Pretty soon I had finished the rib reinforcements, and moved on to building out the stern and hull planks.

Getting the hull planks to interface nicely with each other involved sanding down 2-inch overlapping sections of each plank into nice scarf joints. It was a lot of manual labor with an orbit sander (probably not the best approach), but made it much easier to glue the parts together smoothly and without abrupt intersections.

Proof of concept scarf joint I made prior to working with the actual hull parts.

Once I was confident the hull planks would slide nicely into place, the next step was to invite some more coworkers by with the lure of food and beer to help be my extra hands for the day:

Port side secured!

At the end of the day, we had assembled what was for the first time honestly starting to look like a boat. I was sorta shocked, looking at it.

Holy moly! A friggin boat (frame)!

Looking back now, I can’t even imaging trying to finish this project at TechShop. Every few months it seems like I look back in amazement at how I thought the boat would come together. What a weird and convoluted journey this is turning out to be.

With the hull assembled, it was time to fiberglass before adding the remaining parts. Fiberglassing adds significant strength to the boat, enabling the thin sheet construction I’m attempting. It also seals the hull, both in terms of preventing water from coming aboard, as well as protecting wood from the brutal outside world of salt, sun, rocks, beer, and fish guts.

I’ll save the full story for next time, but suffice it to say, fiberglassing is not for wimps. It absolutely kicked my ass.