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Using CNC to Make Your Art

The pre worked granite upon my arrival in Changsha, China Symposiumby Michael Binkley

For 34 years, I was a sculptor who worked exclusively as a direct subtractive carver, meaning I did not create a model of my composition and then copy it to stone. I’ve been inspired by the shape of a stone, its colours and patterning to create a sculpture. Each of my sculptures has been one-of-a-kind and I’ve developed a reputation with my collectors that only my hands have touched each sculpture and worked it from start to finish.

Most of us in the NWSSA work this way, but it is not how the sculptors credited with stone creations have worked in the past.

Most sculptors in history, created a maquette of a composition in a malleable material, made any adjustments desired, then either copied it in stone themselves or had it done by a craftsperson. Many sculptors in history who have been credited with carving their stone works have never even picked up a chisel. The final stone version of their creations was carved by a craftsperson, while the artist directed like a symphony conductor. These craftspeople have been trained to use mechanical devises to exactly copy from an artist’s maquette to stone. This has been the backbone of the sculpture industry in Italy for hundreds of years. So the craftsperson, or artigiano in Italian, has been essentially a human robot who copies the artist’s idea from one media to another.

An interesting aspect to this is that most craftspeople cannot create an original sculpture themselves. I experienced this firsthand on my first sojourn to carve in Italy at Studio SEM in Pietrasanta. On the second day of my life-size female nude carve, Davide tapped me on the shoulder and asked where my model was. I told him it was in my head, that I was working from my imagination. Tilting his head like a dog hearing a high whistle told me he was confounded that this crazy Canadian would jeopardize a large block of marble without knowing exactly where the tip of her nose, her elbows, her knees and toes were. His job was to copy artist’s maquettes into marble, but he was not able to imagine an original composition.

But that is how I’ve always worked - until 2014 when I was invited to participate and represent Canada at the inaugural Changsha International Sculpture Symposium in China.

Changsha China MaquetteBy force, I had to work the old-fashioned way. I was instructed to send a maquette of my sculpture concept to Changsha two months in advance so that the organizers could pre-work my granite sculpture in order to ease my workload once I arrived. Not having too much experience making models, I created mine at 1/4 scale from high density modelling foam and reinforced it with a layer of aerosol applied plastic. Fearing plagiarism, I sent my model 80% complete.

When I arrived in China, I was greeted with a 12 foot tall granite sculpture EXACTLY as my model. You could even see my thumb strokes that I had left on the maquette! I could not get a definitive answer as to whether my piece was worked to this point my machine or by humans. I believe they thought my model was a completed version, but over the 45 days of the Symposium, I had the great pleasure of carving the fun part of the sculpture - the last 20%. I thought, “This is a little bit of alright….”

Concurrently, I met the talented sculptor, Cicero D’Avila, who represented Brazil. Cicero was deep into designing his sculptures virtually on the computer, using a program called ZBrush. He was then sending the virtual file to a CNC robot to have the sculpture either carved in marble, or to make molds for bronze casting.

These two aspects of the Symposium got me thinking differently about my approach to stone carving. I was fascinated and wanted to learn more.

I had been introduced to ZBrush by Larry Sinitsin about 10 years ago, but he was having great difficulty getting his virtual files translated so his CNC machine could read them to carve. That dissuaded me from the process then, but now the technology has advanced to solve this problem. So this year, I bought ZBrush (and a new computer, as my old one was too slow to run the program - sheesh!) and I’ve been teaching myself how to use it. ZBrush is only one of many 3D sculpting programs available. There are no standalone brick and mortar classes available locally to teach me, but thankfully there’s lots of online support. I have to admit, the learning curve is steep, but I am amazed at what this program can do.
My interest in this 3D virtual sculpting is many-faceted, and I’m interested to see how it will change my workflow. Already I am spending studio time at the computer, designing sculptures in a clean, quiet environment. I don’t have to don grubby work clothes and personal safety protection and go into my dusty studio to realize a sculpture!

I have mentioned the first benefit above: to have an assistant do much of the preliminary boring grunt work of any given carve. Whether it is a small, medium or large sculpture, after almost 40 years, I find the most satisfying part of a sculpture creation is the last 20%. With ZBrush, I can create a sculpture in virtual 3D and check it by having it 3D printed in plastic for a nominal fee. If it looks good, I can then rework the 3D file to add 20% and then send the virtual file and the new plastic model to a stone carving facility to have it translated (copied) into stone. Whether that facility employs humans, as has been the norm in Italy for centuries, or CNC robots, I feel the result is the same. When the 80% carved stone is delivered to my studio, I can then complete the sculpture, working in my own hand and style to ensure the “Binkley touch.” I believe this will enable me to increase my production capacity.Maquette made on 3D Printer using Digistal Design

I also think there is a benefit to creating multiple versions of a sculpture. I have a notion to create a large original version of a sculpture, perhaps in fine Italian marble and then offer a limited edition series of smaller ones in either marble or another medium. The large original could fetch a handsome dollar, while the limited edition smaller pieces would fetch a lower price. This is akin to the painter offering gicleé prints of an original painting. This way, one composition could realize multiple incomes streams.

Similarly, I can create a 3D virtual composition and adjust it to create a series based on a theme. I’ve already explored this with my “Rubenesque” figures of generously proportioned nudes in humorous situations. I could expand this idea using ZBrush as a faster method.

I do concede that one major drawback to this methodology is the design of a sculpture relies on a monochromatic stone. This is a predominant reason why so many artists in history have worked in Carrara marble, or grey granite or limestone. The material is almost unimportant compared to the composition. This is in contrast to us who like to be inspired by the colour patterns and raw shape of a stone to guide us to a composition.

I was asked to make a presentation at Suttle Lake this past August on my ZBrush work so far, along with Carl Nelson’s presentation on CNC machines. These generated an interesting discussion amongst the attendees. Does the idea of 3D virtual sculpting appeal to you?

CNC in 2017

In my first year of architectural school, I had the chance to take 2 semesters of sculpture before the architectural curriculum consumed me. That was where I was introduced to Ben Goo, with his abstract marble work, and a bunch of young, talented, and aspiring sculptors whose names I do not remember. What I do remember is that every sculptor had their own process for getting to their final sculpture, and from that experience, I learned there is no right way, only the artist’s process for making their art.

CNC DIAGRAMFast forward 30 years after decades of doing computer work and a decade of public service. I picked up stone carving, and whether it be direct carving, working from a maquette, or foraging in the rivers, mountains, or stone yards for stones that speak to me with their shape, color and hardness, each approach has a process that leads to a successful piece.

In the last decade, as I have learned these processes, there are lessons worth summarizing: some tools are better than others when getting a job done quickly, no amount of technical skill or tooling, will make up for a poor composition, and the last half inch to quarter inch of stone (some say the last 10-20% of the work) is where an artist’s style/signature can be found.

I’m always interested in finding tools that make the process go quickly and can help with composition. I am very interested in finding technology to get the first 70-80% of the carving done more quickly, possibly even opening up new design and composition possibilities.

January of 2015 I visited Patrick Doratti and worked with him and his robot arm to test cutting olivine and peridotite. In the summer of 2016 at Suttle Lake, Peter Andrusko presented his work, some of which used a CNC. For several reasons, I was inspired in the fall of 2016 to explore his approach, and I put together a combination of CAD/CAM software and a CNC to do design, rough out, and carving.

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It all started with a post requesting rational power tool information in one place, then a name "grindopedia", and then substantial follow-up from a vibrant community with a good spirit. From "grindopedia" you can find out about:  Blades and Diamonds, Glazed Diamonds, Grinders, Polishing, Air Hammers, Sanding Mandrels, Safety Check List, Breathing Protection...

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Working Wet

Pat's WorkspaceThe Wet Carving Box
How to Carve in Small Places

For over a decade, I’ve worked year round in my basement wet carving stone.  I have constructed a small work place to eliminate the dust, contain the water, and work in the comfort of a controlled environment. This presentation is an introduction to what I have done to arrange my space, photos of work spaces by others, and the wet tools that I use. If available, I use wet tools that are designed for wet use. Skill saws, and die grinders have yet to be made with water feeds. On all of my tools I use controlled application of water to the abrasive blades and wheels to both control dust and prolong the life of the abrasive tool.

Pat Barton August 2013
For a printable PDF version [CLICK HERE]
Update: Water Recirculating System PDF
Silica Dust PDF

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Grinder Blades and Diamonds

Some thoughts on diamond blades

If you only get one.....

which one will do you the most good?

For the sake of clarity, let's just talk about what you could get that would be most useful with any small electric grinder, rated for 4 1/2" or 5" blades, single speed, for a mix of hard and soft stones.   I will try to offer my reasons for choosing one of the many kinds of diamond blades available, based on what different chores it can do, how versatile it is, and how affordable it is.  

diamondBladesAdjI will talk about the different kinds of diamond blades, what each is best at, etc.  First we must acknowledge that none of them were designed for carving.  We are a tiny fringe market, and we use tools that were made for construction and industry.  Most of the work we do with diamond blades is on the manufacturers' DON'T DO THIS list, which just means we have to be cautious and not push the blades too hard.

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7inch ancient  heavy grinderPart of this material I used in the 20 hour granite course I taught at Pratt. Most of the info is from Tom Urban's workshop at Camp Brotherhod, some from a workshop by Don Ramey that Hank Nelson organized at my place years ago. If you find anything useful, please add it to the article - Kirk


4-5 inch dry-cut diamond blades designed to run at about 10K RPM, which is speed of right angle grinders.  For sufficient power, look for high 6 amp range or greater.  Hitachi and DeWalt models hold up well. For variable speed, recommend Metabo or Makita.  Avoid Bosch or Milwaukee.  Larger blades (7-8 inches) run about 5K RPM, which is speed of 7-inch grinders or worm drive circular saws. Worm drive saws can be set up to run wet, keep blades cooler.

Grinder maintenance:  Blow out grinders 2x daily.  Blow outside, inside, and then blow out while running.

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Building a "Take Apart" Cedar Pedestal


Take apart cedar pedestals are a response to several needs:

  1. Can be outside in the rain and standing in a wet grassy field for a day or two.
  2. Able to take a small amount of abuse and not need to be repainted after every time they are handled.
  3. Takes up minimal storage space - especially if you are an artist with a hatchback or mini van and want to show 4-6 pieces of sculpture, or a non-profit that wants to display 40-60 items.
  4. Easy to assemble and take apart and does not require a lot of skill or tools.

This design has proven itself starting in 2011 and over the course of a one day workshop in October 2013, 8 members build over 17 pedestals. This article tells you about how to build your own. 

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Part of this material I used in the 20 hour granite course I taught at Pratt. Most of the info is from Tom Urban's workshop at Camp Brotherhod, some from a workshop by Don Ramey that Hank Nelson organized at my place years ago. If you find anything useful, please add it to the article - Kirk


Polishing a surface will show up every dip and bump, so if you’re seeking a long, flowing curve or a flat area, locate highs and lows with fingers, mark, and remove with coarse diamond cup wheel before beginning polishing steps.  Sequence begins with fine diamond cup wheel (or 36-60 grit silicon carbide).  Move cup wheel rapidly in small circles so that you don’t burn stone.  Next step is 80 grit silicon carbide cup; again moving it rapidly. 

Tilt wheel so center of cup is off the stone: less chatter that way.  Color of the stone will begin to appear and the grain will “close”. Different granites close at different grits, so you might have to go up to 120 grit.  Removing the diamond scratches and closing the grain is a critical step as light reflecting from deep scratches will show up as a milky area on the polished surface.  Similar problem if you accidentally burn the stone with tool.


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Another use of Grinding Wheels - Hand Shaping

This morning I image of shapers and stone followed up to what I saw Lee Gass doing. He was "sanding" with a piece of a bench grinder wheel. I have a few spares so I smashed one with a sledge hammer and ended up with a whole bunch of useful hand-sanders. Curves, angles. Plus I shaped them further on my angle grinder clamped to my table. They worked better with water.... HAPPY  NEW  YEAR. -- Dirk

On 19-Dec-09, at 2:29 PM, verena schwippert wrote:
..yes Dirk, but only under the sanding of particular type of stone you are working on. What is it ?  Its different for every kind of stone.
...yup it is. -- V

Silicon Carbide Shapers  - Right on, V!  Actually, those small pieces of silicon carbide work well for hardnesses from soft marble to hard granite. With each of those materials, hard rubbing with a piece conforming well to the surface produces

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