Programmed Art: How CNC Machines Changed Sculpting

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Posted on March. 27th, 2020, | By WayKen Rapid Manufacturing

Art is so precious because it offers us a unique vision of the world. The artists are said to leave something of themselves in their paintings or sculptures. However, apart from the imagination, a tremendous amount of skill was necessary to chisel what you see from a block of stone. Today, modern technology offers everyone a unique opportunity to become an artist even if they don’t have the skills. Custom manufacturing of art pieces has become an exceedingly popular CNC machining technique.

Why CNC Machining Has Made art Reinvent Itself

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CNC machining, a technology that makes it possible for the cutting tool to move according to a program with ultra-high precision, is usually associated with industrial parts. However, the well-established machining techniques and equipment made CNC machining a lucrative option in other enterprises. 

Throughout its history, the capabilities of art were limited by two things. Human imagination and human skills. CNC machining lifts the second limitation. Its ability to create complex freeform surfaces is extremely useful for sculpting. What was either impossible or took decades to sculpt with manual tools, what had a high failure price, can now be produced by a CNC Machining center in a matter of hours. 

CNC machining enables the artist to recreate his art fast.  Once the NC program is complete, you can create an infinite number of sculptures given you have the blank materials. This opens up some unique opportunities for product manufacturing. CNC machining has made simple everyday objects into works of art. If we compare two cars, one made in the 20th Century and the other -a modern car, we will be astounded how machining technology improved the aesthetics of an automobile. The same things can be said about virtually anything. 

The Materials for CNC Machining of Arts 

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Art objects are made to last. They are often displayed outdoors so they must be corrosion resistant. But the foremost consideration in choosing a sculpture material is its aesthetic quality. Fortunately, CNC machining technology offers a large variety of materials it can handle. The most widespread materials for CNC sculpting are aluminum, copper, bronze, and wood.

Those are extremely easy to cut on a Machine tool and offer good corrosion resistance. A lot of sculptures are conventionally made of marble, granite, and other rocks. Those are much more complex to cut because of their hardness and brittleness. You would require special tools and coolants to prevent the material from chattering. Precious metals like silver and gold are used as well but mostly to produce the jewelry. 

CNC Sculpting Cutting Tools

Cutting tools are determined by two considerations. The surface that you have to produce and the material. Sculptures are often organic objects that have a lot of small features and complex freeform surfaces. The majority of sculptures are not revolution parts so the best sculpting machine tools are 3-axis and 5-axis milling machine tools. They require a number of mills. The best approach is to remove as much material as possible with an end mill.

At this point, you’ll get a stepped structure that is close to the final geometry of your art object. Then, you change to a ball-nose mill or a CNC engraving mill, make your feed and step over the minimum and complete all the small and complex features with a lot of passes. It is important to mill from one side only ( for example the mill enters from the front and exits at the backside of the part) otherwise the surface finish will be much worse. 

There is a specific variety of tools for machining wood. They usually have only two flutes, they are thinner than metal cutting tools but they do their job well with chip removal. High-speed machining metal cutters are useful for steel, copper and aluminum sculptures. They are usually robust, rigid and you can get better precision with them rather than with wood cutting tools. If you want to machine marble or granite, diamond tools are your choice because they can withstand the hardness of rocks. 

How to Turn Your Idea Into an Art Piece Without Machining Skills

We are living in a great time when ideas are more valuable than skills. You don’t have to be a machinist or a master sculptor to make art. You simply need an idea and some investments. Let’s say you already have an idea for a CNC machined sculpture. What should you do to turn it into a physical object? 

First, you’ll need a 3D-model. The more detailed it is better since the end result greatly depends on the model. Now, you can either make a sketch of your design and order the model to be created by a specialist or if you want to make it your profession, I suggest you take up a course in some 3D software. It isn’t hard. Certainly easier than chiseling stone. 

After the model is done, you must manufacture your art piece based on that. CNC machine tools use 3D models for their programs. Learning to the machine is way harder than 3D modeling. However, there are a lot of CNC machine shops that offer their services at a reasonable price.

The Most Widespread Types of Sculptures For CNC Machining

CNC machining has its own limitations naturally and you won’t be able to make all types of art objects with it. Here is a list of the most common artpiece examples that are well suited for CNC machining. 

  • Engravings. The name speaks for itself. Engravings are based on plates whence a pattern or a low-depth carving is created. They are easy to do with CNC machining because the pattern is easy to reach by the tool.
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  • A sliced separate sculpture. A new type of wall art that has become popular recently includes a number of planks situated parallel to each other on the wall. Each plank has a part of the design and together they form a beautiful image. You can do those types of sculptures fast because you can install the planks on the machine tool together and machine them as one. 
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  • Marble conventional statues. Those types of sculptures are the hardest to machine because they usually have a lot of details, some features may be hard to reach and the material is hard to process. However, they are more expensive if you can get their production set up right. 
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  • Art implemented in everyday objects. Doorknobs, spoons, forks, boxes and other objects are often sculpted in the form of an animal or a tree or something else. Those complex artistic forms make them hard to manufacture without CNC machining. 
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