Sculpture design and fabrication has gone digital and now sculptors have to make a high-tech decision: carving a sculpture with a CNC router or staying with traditional hand tools.
While the best choice ultimately varies from sculpture to sculpture, understanding the pros and cons of CNC sculpting is the key to optimizing budget, time, materials and results.
What is CNC Sculpting?
“CNC sculptures” are sculptures fabricated using CNC equipment in which carving tools are controlled by a computer instead of by hand. While hand tools are sometimes used for the final touches of a CNC sculpture, using machine-assisted tools in place of hand-sculpting has five distinct advantages.
In most cases, CNC sculpting improves:
- Ease of use
- Custom capabilities
1. CNC Sculpting is Fast
CNC sculpting is about 25-50% faster than hand carving in most instances. For example, a 12’-tall sculpture might take two weeks or longer to carve by hand but only one week or less using CNC equipment (with far greater creative control over the final outcome).
While it can be done with a large team, the labor required to hand-carve most sculptures faster than a CNC machine simply isn’t cost-effective.
CNC carving is especially beneficial for projects involving:
- Extra dense materials (for example, marble carving)
- Making multiple copies of a sculpture
- Detailed surface reproduction
In general, the level of exterior detail determines how long it takes to design and fabricate a sculpture. However, sculptures that appear simple on the outside may still require extensive internal carving to house structural components. This internal detail is also completed much faster with CNC services than hand-carving.
Speed and accuracy are just two of the many reasons artists are turning to CNC for sculptures.
2. CNC Sculpting is More Accurate Than Hand Carving
Carving an entire sculpture by hand leaves a lot of room for error.
A maquette may be flawless, but there’s no guarantee that the end product will perfectly replicate the original. With hand-carving, mistakes and irregularities must be identified and physically corrected at the right time to avoid costly delays or quality issues later in the process.
CNC sculpting eliminates this worry because most changes are made to digital models before production even begins.
Digital prototypes are viewed, edited and approved with ease, setting precise expectations for the final result. For CNC studios with full in-house capabilities, this step is essential to a streamlined process.
With digital fabrication, after carving and assembly, the final object will look exactly like what was on the screen.
For larger sculptures, sometimes it’s easiest to carve separate pieces and then put them together by hand.
Alternatively, when the entire process is performed by hand, mistakes can leave pieces ill-fitting or completely incongruent. CNC guarantees each piece will fit together exactly as intended for a seamless display.
CNC allows large sculptures to be built with smaller components that are perfectly aligned.
3. CNC Sculptures Reduce Overall Costs
CNC involves far less labor than hand tools because an automated machine is doing all of the work in less time with a higher degree of accuracy.
Since hand-carving has more room for error than CNC sculpting, there is more of a need to stop the project and conduct quality checks with greater frequency.
Completely hand-carving sculptures is becoming outdated because there are . . .
- Fewer ways to plan ahead
- More measuring and remeasuring
- More specialists required
This adds unnecessary risk and complexity to projects. Every mistake made by hand is a potential delay that can add material, labor, or shipping costs.
A studio with a full suite of CNC machines can work with nearly any material. The ability to substitute metals, stones, plastics, and other materials can provide a host of valuable benefits.
Because CNC sculpting is machine-accurate and wastes very little material, it is especially advantageous when working with marble, exotic wood, and similar items.
4. CNC Services Make Sculpture Fabrication Easier Than Hand Carving
Carving details into wood, stone, metal, and certain plastics by hand takes a long time even for the most experienced sculptors.
Artists are also limited by how much of the material they can remove with handheld tools. The denser the material, the longer to remove and shape by hand, and the more specialized tools required.
CNC equipment is machine-driven, giving much-needed power to carve through the hardest of materials quickly and easily.
After digitally sculpting the object, a positive part or negative mold is machine-carved directly into the material – regardless of density – so it is ready with minimal prep time for the next step, which might be . . .
- Vacuum forming
- Scratch-resistant hard coating
- Additional finishing options
In general, even a small 3-axis CNC router can complete more projects faster than a team of sculptors by hand because a router doesn’t take breaks. The program runs continuously until finished.
5. CNC Services Allow for Greater Levels of Customization
Digital modeling lets an artist customize a sculpture without the need to create a new maquette for every variation.
The studio simply edits a Computer-Assisted Design (CAD) file and can help artists easily explore and visualize different colors, finishes, materials, and other details for their project.
Last-minute changes no longer result in additional labor, costly delays or wasted materials.
When is CNC Machining Right for Your Sculpture?
CNC sculpting has become the preferred way for many sculptors to create. Speed, ease of use, accuracy, affordability, and customization are the five main advantages of using CNC services to create sculptures for:
Finding an experienced design and fabrication studio with full-service capabilities is the key.
A trusted partner with in-house sculpture fabrication services will control the entire process, from solid programming with well-maintained machines to high-quality finishing – and all the necessary CNC guidance to optimize the success of your project along the way.