I get a lot of comments that a “CNC is cheating” or “CNC isn’t real woodworking” to “making that by hand too hard for you?” or “those who can hand tool, those who can’t CNC.” Seriously. I’ve gotten it all. And the truth is, I really don’t use the CNC that much. Generally, I only use it when there is an intricate pattern that is difficult to cut by hand, or when I think it will somehow speed up the project I am working on. Honestly, I rarely use the CNC because it’s loud. It’s in my videos a lot because people seem to like seeing what it can do.

This has caused a lot of controversies.  So today we’re going to do a challenge.  We’re going to find out what’s better.  The CNC or the old-fashioned way.  And No, I don’t mean I’m not going to use power tools.  Just none that are computer controlled.

Hand Tools vs. the Inexpensive CNC (Shapeoko)

That’s right, I’m going to make this project twice!  Once with regular handheld power tools and once on the CNC.  We’ll see which one is faster, which one does the better job, and which method is the overall winner.

Making a Simple Wooden Party Serving Tray

I’m going to make a party serving tray.  The design I chose is a hexagonal tray with a center circular dish.  This kind of tray has been around since the 1950’s or maybe earlier.  I chose this design for two reasons.  First, because I find this type of serving tray most useful.  Second, it seems like something that in theory would be harder to make giving the CNC an advantage.

Step 1: Making the Serving Tray Blanks

I decided to make my serving trays out of stock hard Maple.  I bought that from Lowes.

Step 2a: Hogging out the Serving Tray Dishes – Hand Tools

After I designed the layout and took the Illustrator file and cut out a template.  I used fabric tape to connect the template to the blank.  Using a guide bearing on my router and 1/2″ slotting bit I hogged out all of the material in each of the dish sections.

Step 4A: Cutting out the Dish – Hand Tools

Using the band saw, I cut out the tray along the template lines and then used the 12″ disc sander to clean up the bandsaw marks.

Step 3B and 4B: Making the Serving Tray – CNC

With the CNC version its pretty simple.  I just attached the blank to the bed of the X-Carve, loaded SVG template, and then clicked the carve button.  All you need to do is sit back and wait…. and wait… and wait…  more on that later.

Step 5: Add Decorative Edging to the Tray

At step 5, things converge back together.  I used the router table to add a decorative round over (1/8″) on all edges of the party serving tray.

Step 6: Finishing the Party Serving Tray (Food Safe)

The final step is to finish the serving tray with a food safe finish.  My favorite food safe finish is General Finish’s Salad Bowl Finish.  It really makes the grain on Maple and Walnut pop!  It’s incredibly easy to apply.  Just wipe it on with a cotton rag or a paper towel.

Time Invested: Hand Tools vs. CNC

First, I should have spend a little more time sanding both ways, but I just got tired of it. I made the first tray, including the bandsaw template in less than two hours start to finish.    So let’s say all in it should have taken me about two and a half hours.

For the CNC version, I spent about 30 minutes drawing the template in Adobe Illustrator.  Another 30 minutes testing various bits, feed rates, and depth of cut on samples before I started.  Then it took the X-Carve SIX AND HALF HOURS just to carve the dishes out.  I didn’t let it finish cutting the tray itself out which would have easily added another hour.  So let’s just call it seven and half hours.  And I still have to sand it, route it, and finish it.  Add another 30 or so minutes.

Results and Finish Quality

I have to say, my handmade version has smoother edges and would require less sanding.  I say would… because the CNC failed numerous times during this test.

First, the CNC homing position was a giant fail, and it started the carve in the wrong place, offsetting the entire bowl and not leaving enough room to finish it.

Third, the DeWalt over heated and the bit fell out of the collet.  Drilling a hole through the blank, the bed of the X-Carve, and finally ruining the project beyond any possibility of recovery.

So you decide.

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