Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab
Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab

Final Project: Cutting Board

Over the course of the semester, the most important thing I learned, in my opinion, how to better pick up new skills, and evaluate the feasibility of my projects. This class pushed me outside areas I had worked in before, primarily with the papercraft, sewing, and sticker projects. In the past, when I learned new things for a project I was doing, I often live-tested my new knowledge directly on the piece I wanted to make, often with poor results. This class, however, forced me to experiment on test pieces first, before moving onto the main project, and this practice was essential, I believe, in the success of many of my projects. To make a project that requires me to learn something new, then, requires me to set the project aside for a while, and focus on the skill.

The end result of this is that I am more cautious when starting out a project, making sure I have all the required expertise before beginning. Small, throwaway test pieces help me gain skill, and enable me to move forward more confidently once the project actually starts. Somewhat paradoxically, caution has helped me gain confidence in trying new and ambitious projects that I might otherwise have failed on for lack of expertise.

This caution served me extremely well in my final project, a cutting board. The basic idea was to make a large (it ended up being 14”x20”x1.5”) cutting board with a juice groove, handles, and a laser etched monogram. This also meant that the wood cost a fair amount, so starting over would have been quite costly.  I had the wood cut and planed at the CU woodshop and the Architecture wood shop, so the pieces fit nicely, and the basic shape of my cutting board came together quite quickly.

Because the wood was rather expensive (and the wood shop is far), I made no cuts onto the board without testing them on a scrap piece first. This served me quite well, as rounding over the corners of my scrap piece on the routing table took quite a few tries. But because I spent quite a bit of time on the scrap piece, the edges turned out quite well.

Unfortunately, even my practice cuts didn’t prevent me from screwing up the juice groove. The first three sides went quite well, but something happened when I went to cut the fourth side of the groove. The router dropped in its casing, causing the bit to go in too deep. This behavior continued as I attempted to even out the depth. I would set the depth in one part of the groove, only to find the bit had dropped when I reached a deeper part of the groove, often worsening my problem.

               As can be seen from the image above, the result was not pretty. Eventually, I decided I could not fix the groove as it was, and took the board back to the wood shop to be planed down. Since I didn’t want to risk the board getting any thinner than it already was, I was forced to abandon the juice groove in the final project.

               After the groove, thankfully, the project went smoothly. After experimenting with several different bits and bit depths, I was able to route handles I was happy with. I sketched roughly two pages worth of logos, before finally settling on the one seen on the final project. After sanding, laser etching, and finishing, the end result is as seen below-

Note- the board is technically upside down in the above photo.

The color of the wood is washed out in the image, but overall, I’m extremely happy with how the project turned out.

               I had four major learning goals for this project, and I feel that I fulfilled them all to a satisfactory degree. I am extremely proud of how my project turned out, and I feel I learned quite a lot while making it.

               My first goal was to learn basic woodworking skills and tools. I hoped to get a working knowledge of the woodworking tools that the Fab Lab had to offer, and to learn about the properties of different woods, wood grains, and wood finishes. In the course of this project, I learned to use a planer, palm router, routing table, spindle sander, and, for some fun after finishing the cutting board, a lathe. In the course of researching, I learned what makes a wood good for different applications (tight grains are preferable for uses where the wood comes into contact with water often), and quite a bit about how to deal with wood’s peculiarities, like that one should never gluing two pieces of wood with their grain perpendicular. This surprised me, as I hadn’t even considered that grain direction could have an influence on the strength of a glue joint. One extremely useful thing I learned was that if two pieces of wood have a small gap between them, filler putty can be made out of sawdust from that piece and wood glue, and used to fill the gap in a way that is almost indistinguishable from the wood itself.

               My second goal was to work on a project where the majority of time was spent refining the project, rather than strictly making it. I chose this goal, because I realized that most of my projects for the class thus far had, to a lesser or greater extent, lacked polished. I had focused on getting a functional and decent-looking end product, but had neglected the refinement that would have made the project truly stand out.

               This board was perfect for this goal. The basic shape was defined within the first 3 hours of working on it, and it was all small refinement from there. Small changes were made to the shape, rounding the corners, flattening the sides, adding small cuts for handles or (an attempted) juice groove. I also spent quite a long time sanding down the piece to remove any blemishes that I could. The logo, while not strictly necessary, helped personalize the board, make it truly mine.

               Overall, I believe I met my goal. Out of the approximately 25 hours this project took, the vast majority were spent refining the board, adding small quality-of-life features, and giving it a (metaphorical) mirror shine. This led to what I believe is my best-looking project yet. The only gripe I have with it is that the handles are about 1/3 of an inch off center. However, this can only be seen if looking intently at the back of the board (see the photo above). By the time I noticed, I was already applying finish, and decided that it was an allowable error. Nothing is perfect, after all, and this error is almost unnoticeable.

               My third goal was to temper my enthusiasm, and force myself to fully consider different designs for the cutting board and logo. I have an extremely bad habit of picking up my first idea and running with it, only to realize that more thought beforehand would have led to a better outcome. Once I had chosen my wood types (which was mostly done for practical reasons, as these types woods worked for cutting boards), I made roughly 20 mock-up designs, which can be seen below. Ironically, my final design was not one of them. I had intended to do the “cherry base, 1 in stripe” design, but with a maple base instead. James made the excellent suggestion, however, to move the center walnut stripe to the top, and I think it really improved the project.

I went through a similar process with the logo. I considered various combinations of my initials, in various styles and various combinations, before finally settling on the hexagonal design. Even this design went through several iterations. I experimented with flat lines, rather than diagonal, and made a design with twice as many lines as the final design, which I scrapped due to it being too busy.

               I believe this process really helped me achieve a better final project. Both of the designs I ended up using were far from my first idea, and the mix of logo styles really helped me decide what sort of logo I wanted. The board designs, meanwhile, made sure I considered a plethora of different designs, in order to make one I was happy with.

               My fourth and final goal was to explore the woodworking spaces on campus, and determine how feasible further woodworking projects and education would be. In addition to the Fab Lab, the most promising shop I found was the Art+Design building’s wood shop, which grants access for the semester for $145. Furthermore, while I may not be able to afford membership to the CU wood shop Dream Shop, they hold classes in everything from bowl turning to longcase clock making. I fully intend to take advantage of both of these opportunities next semester. In addition, I’ve learned that several of the Fab Lab employees are very knowledgeable about woodworking, and excellent resources for future projects. James’s help was indispensable for this project, and his patience in the face of my extreme caution/paranoia was laudable.

               Coming into this course, I considered myself a maker. Coming out, I still do, and for largely the same reasons, but the word has taken on connotations, positive and negative, it didn’t have before. Coming in, my idea of what a maker is was rather simplistic- someone who likes to make things. And I still consider this the defining aspect of a maker, the desire and enjoyment of personal or professional projects that involve making something. This course introduced me to the educational and community aspects of being a maker, as well as the issues the maker identity has with elitism, implicit or not.

               This course helped me realize some of the problems with the maker movement, and the maker identity as a whole. My involvement in the maker movement was enabled in a very large way by my upper-middle class upbringing. My high school had a 3d printer, back before they were affordable. I had free time and spending money to put towards projects. I had easy computer access, to help me reach Instructables and YouTube for tutorials. And I had parents with time to invest in taking me to Home Depot or RadioShack for parts. The Maker movement currently is, and will remain without intervention, a primarily male, middle-to-upper class movement, because it requires fairly significant investments money and time, and largely idolizes male-dominated fields like tech. This causes even more problems when some in the movement begin to believe that being a maker confers superiority.

               There isn’t an easy solution to this issue. Celebrating traditionally female-dominated crafts like sewing and clothing is a start, as is increasing investment and outreach in low-income areas. But I’m not sure if the maker movement can ever completely solve this, as the problems of gender and class that underlie it run deep within society. Ultimately, I have tempered my identification with the maker movement, and removed any judgement I may have had about those who don’t participate.

               On a more positive note, to me, the maker identity is more than just an isolated character trait. It is a sense of being part of a wider community, and one dedicated to sharing knowledge and enabling the learning of skills.  I had no idea that the Fab Lab was part of a global network, nor of the outreach it did. More personally, I had used Instructables before, but I never documented my projects, nor considered publishing them for others to replicate. Now, however, I believe an important part of being a maker is discussing not just what you made, but how.

               Overall, I’m quite glad I took this course. It pushed me into areas of making I may not have investigated otherwise, challenged how I document and plan my own projects, and helped me inform my idea of what it means to be a maker.