Are we really cheaters?

Bill Young
Nov 1 · 3 min read

I’ve been to a couple of events recently where using a ShopBot in the process of making things was called “cheating”, making me and all that used them cheaters. We’ve all heard it before…that using a CNC machine made the thing that was created somehow less than if it had been “hand made”.

It’s not a new conversation to me I’m afraid, and something my friend Stuart Kent and I have talked about quite a bit. So this seems like a good time to put down some thoughts while it’s fresh in my mind…not in any way as a justification for having a partly digital workflow but as a reminder that in most cases it’s not necessarily the process that’s the most important part, but the thing that‘s created when you’re done.


  • Much of the work in creating something is hard, dirty, boring, and sometimes pretty much awful! Ask a person that makes chairs for a living how much they like removing the first 90% of the wood while shaping a seat. If they’re honest that will say removing wood with a chainsaw disc on an angle grinder is not their favorite part of the job, or something they can easily train someone to do. If they can get a “robot” to get it close, they are free to do the final shaping by hand if they want, or let the robot do it all if they love turning on a lathe but hate shaping seats!
Accurate and repeatable
  • Automation and robots let you do things that you are unlikely be able to do otherwise, or at least not do them with any kind of efficiency. Traditional repetitive jobs that require consistency and accuracy are perfect for automation, along with new digital techniques that just wouldn’t be practical any other way.
How would you like to be the poor guy at the bottom!
  • It’s really a matter of degree. At what point do you say that technology stops being good? Is a hand saw good but a table saw is bad? Is an ax OK to use to cut down the tree to get your lumber, but a chainsaw not? Maybe a pit saw should be the only way to turn a log into lumber…I’m sure the person at the bottom in the pit doesn’t see the romance in it! Is using your hands to move a block of wood through a pin router, guided by a template, any different than having a ShopBot move the cutter through the same block of wood while being controlled by a digital template?
A pin router
  • Are “analog” skills the only ones that are valued? Do all dovetails have to be cut with a saw and chisel…is using a Leigh dovetail jig and a router cheating? Ask the person that’s cut a whole row of dovetails by hand only to find out that the last one isn’t quite right. Is designing an interesting way to connect panels on a computer any less of a skill than laying it out by hand?
Beartails…tenons shaped like bears

I get it…for some it’s a Zen thing and they just love the process of things like hand planing wide boards (and the constant sharpening and adjusting and fiddling that’s required). If that’s the part you enjoy, more power to you and by all means that’s the way you should work. But if your motivation is to have a chair (or cabinet or boat or whatever) when you’re done, especially if that’s your business, you’ll want to use whatever tools you can to make that possible. If using a chopsaw isn’t cheating, then how can using a ShopBot be?

I’m a boat carpenter turned CNC evangelist and co-founder of http://www.Shelter20.com and http://www.100kGarages.com, Mostly I turn plywood into dust and noise.

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