2 Sided Machining a Native American Flute

Our lofty goal was to have a precision blank that could be made on our CNC machine that could then be personalized on the lathe or however the student saw fit.  The problem with the blanks available is that they are fairly expensive, not customizable and the precision I was most interested in is the hole placement.  Blanks available are not already drilled for holes.  We were not aiming for a finished flute, but I wanted a proof of concept that the Slow air chamber and flute parts work, so we designed a working prototype that is actually a finished flute.  It would be easier to test a finished product.  The first test worked perfectly and the sound quality is superb, but it is royally out of tune and we are working as a class to devise a plan to create a prototype that we can move and individually tune specific holes.  With this prototype we will be able to plan each individual note and customize each student’s flute to the desired key and scale desired.

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CNC Star Wars carving the Millennium Falcon

This entire project was designed to test our ability to accurately machine 2 sides of a part.  Accurately aligning the second side to match up to the first side boggled my mind and I tended to steer students away from this.  We settled on the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars.  It has good detail on 2 sides, but we wouldn’t be able to get the detail on the edge of it.  Since most of  the detail is on the top and bottom, this seemed acceptable.  We had to make a new CNC table that easily and accurately aligns to the actual bed of the machine and has a home that can be aligned to without thought.  Here is a link to the details of the table we made.

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From Solidworks to Vectric Aspire to CNC

We have known about designing boxes and cabinets in Solidworks and then cut the parts out on the CNC for some time, but we hadn’t made it happen yet.   I love this system because it takes the best of both softwares and helps create awesome work.  Solidworks handles the Assemblies so well and Vectric Aspire handles the vectors and post-processing for CNC so well.   Continue reading

Depth of a V-Carve in Aspire

The V-Carve will likely be your first CNC created file.  The software does a great deal of the work and creates beautiful carves from fairly complicated designs.  Once your design is in vector form, you are ready to create a V-Carve toolpath.  It is important to understand what the software is doing for you and how it decides the depths of cut that were made.  In the simplest mathematical terms:

The depth of cut is a function of the distance between vectors and angle of chosen V-Bit.

Lets break that down a bit…

This design is what I am bringing into aspire.  This could be a font, design, scan, shapes, etc.

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Prepping your Vectric Aspire files for the CNC plasma

We are using Vectric Aspire for creation of vector designs and altering the vectors for quality cuts on the Torchmate.  You will be exporting a .dxf file from Aspire once done.  You will be using the torchmate software for post-processing and operating the CNC plasma

Once you have your design ready in Aspire, you need to change your vectors so that they cut right on the Plasma

Here are the issues and how you need to deal with them.

Issue #1.  The CNC plasma will cut directly on your vector lines and there is a thickness (kerf) to the cut.  The kerf thickness does vary, but we have been happy with planning for a 1/16in (.0625in) kerf.  However, you can access the real chart here.  This requires you to design things slightly larger than you need.  The offset tool in aspire has worked wonders to solve this.  We have been offsetting at about .035in depending on the requirements of the part.  For outside cuts you will need to offset to the outside.  For inside cuts you will need to offset to the inside.  We have created modeling of what the cut looks like by making a profile toolpath with a 1/16in endmill in the toolpaths tab. Another way to deal with this is to Vector design it purposefully large and grind/mill it to correct tolerances.

Screenshot 2015-04-27 10.46.06

Issue #2.  This issue is not for all cuts, but something to keep in mind.  The CNC plasma takes it’s time around corners which introduced heat to the corners of your cut.  This can be a problem if sharp precise corners are needed.  This can be solved with the Plasma loops tool.  I show the class the need for a square and this is what the toolpaths vectors look like.  As you can see the square was offset first, then the plasma loops were added.

Screenshot 2015-04-27 10.52.59

Issue #3. The plasma does not start and stop cleanly.  This means that you want the plasma to start before your part and end after your part.  These are called lead-ins.  For the above design I simply cut one of the plasma loops.  For inside circles, and any complicated designs, individual lead-ins must be added with the node editing tool.  I will create another post on dealing with just this issue as it is slightly more work.  One great feature of Aspire is the green node.  This indicates where the CNC will start cutting.  You can easily change the starting node by right clicking on desired starting node and selecting, “Make this the start node.”

Screenshot 2015-04-27 10.58.09

After this, the vector is ready for exporting as a .dxf

Screenshot 2015-04-27 10.59.44

Review of Vectric Aspire (Updated)

We have been using Vectric software for four years now. We are lucky enough to use their flagship software Aspire. Aspire has become the cornerstone of our program as we use it to operate 7 different machines in the class. It has limitations, but they are beyond our equipment.

We use the software as intended on our 4 CNC routers. We use the software as a vector designer for our CNC plasma and desktop cutting plotter. On those machines we export the .dxf files for post processing on machine specific software.  We have converted photos and designs into .stl files for our 3D printer.

The ease of post-processing for our CNC routers was the biggest reason for choosing Aspire.  We have grown to use Aspire as a powerful vector tool. We have prepared some vectors in Aspire and exported to Solidworks because Aspire was easier.

There isn’t a day that goes by in our program that doesn’t have dozens of students using Aspire. It is one of the most important tools in our program.

Update 3/20/2107: It’s been a couple years since I posted this and a lot of people are reading this review which is not what I originally had planned, so I thought I would put a little more thought into my review.

I believe that we have now successfully carved between 5000-6000 files.  I have no idea how that ranks up to any professionals or hobbyists, but I imagine it’s in the middle somewhere.  I feel that way about most of what we do.  We probably make a fair bit more than average hobbyist, but measurably less than professionals.

We are finding some things that I would love altered, but overall it’s still the strongest piece of my program.  We are still using Aspire 4.5, but 8.5 hasn’t added enough changes to make the jump yet.  This isn’t a knock on 8.5, but rather a compliment to the strength of 4.5.

Here is what I can say for certain.  I can get 30 new high school students to use this software and successfully carve their own design in about 2 hours.  From introduction to final work coming out of the CNC machine in 2 hours is a solid testament to the small learning curve to the introduction of the software.  Now that being said, I have students that have used and done well with all parts of the software and after 4 years they are still working on learning the details of what is possible.  It is a solid piece of software for the beginner and also for the advanced designer or artist or small scale shop.  I have only a few minor limitations that I have run into.

I still use Solidworks.  It allows for more detailed planning of both parts and assemblies.  I know that Vectric is not trying to replace Solidworks, but with a few modifications, I imagine that we could stop using Solidworks altogether when planning advanced or more detailed CNC parts.

Here are the changes I would make:

1st. Allow use of 3D mice from companies like 3Dconnexion.  I reached out to them and they said it was about a 2-4 day process once Vectric contacts them and decides on this.

2nd. 3D modeling tab next to the modeling tab.  In this tab, you could work with the material similar to a Solidworks model with extrusions, lofts, extruded cuts, etc.  Once you are done modeling, you could cut the part in different ways to find acceptable machining sections for 2 sided or 4 sided or even more planned CNC parts.  Right now, you can only view from 1 side of the material and generally there are more sides than that.  I get that 99% of all the work used only needs that one side and I am not suggesting that this is a huge problem.  It brings in Solidworks parts pretty well, but final carves and cuts have to be imagined and not actually seen in the preview.

3rd. More measuring tools.  Like a smart dimensioning tool.  If you click on the side vector of a square the dimension pops up and you can change that dimension by clicking on that dimension.  This would also allow for smart dimensioning distances, which is one of the most valuable tools in Solidworks that isn’t replicated yet in Aspire.  I like being able to see all of my dimensions in one place and know that if I change them, the vectors snap to my dimensional changes.  This would also allow for dimensions and spaces to be mathematically created by formulas.  Also, I like adding permanent relations in Solidworks.  The alignment tool works really well in Aspire, but this could be taken to another level by adding permanent alignment relations.  Grouping has allowed for some of this, but not enough to be as helpful as Solidworks.  I mostly use Grouping to keep me from screwing something up.  Permanent Relations would allow alterations while keeping certain values fixed.

4th. There are a couple gadgets I could image as very helpful, but that seems like an extremely complex system.  I have no solution for that, but there is room for real growth in that department.

5th. Vector layers at specific depths of material.  Imagine a square on layer 1 at a height of .75 inches and a Circle directly below on another layer of 0.5 inches.  Then you could model between them.  In Solidworks, this is lofting, but could be done in the modeling tab with stunning results.

Things we use very often: Trace Bitmap, align objects, transform objects, offsets, linear and circular arrays, node editing, trim vectors, join open vectors, Draw curve, text, Create component from bitmap, modeling, 2 rail sweep, smoothing tool, drafts to models Toolpaths: Pocket, Profile, V-Carve, rough and finish, texture.

Final Thoughts “so far”:  If you are into wood and CNC there is nothing more you need then this software.  I can get as artsy as I want, but also I can get as technical as I want.  It is extremely user friendly, powerful and also the user forum has strong users always willing to help.


You can get ideas and help on the vectric forum.


These pictures are a couple of screenshots of how we prepared one of our skateboards.

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