What You Need to Know to Prototype With Wood


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Wood is an underrated prototyping material. It is ubiquitous in the building industry, and while it doesn’t show up in consumer goods all that often, it is a great material for building prototypes of all kinds.

Wood. It’s probably not the first material to come to mind when thinking about prototyping your idea. Maybe it should be. A wood prototype can be an effective way to bring an initial vision to life.

It is easy to find, relatively cheap, and can be cut and formed quickly and easily. The tools to cut and shape are inexpensive and accessible to even the most novice of prototypers.

Here’s what you should know about the different types of wood and the techniques to make them into prototypes.

Types of Wood

There are three main categories of wood, softwood, hardwood, and engineered wood.

Softwoods

Softwoods come from needle-bearing trees like pine and are often used for structural shapes like 2 x 4s.

Hardwoods

Hardwoods are processed from deciduous leaf-bearing trees like maple and are often used for furniture or decorative applications.

Engineered Woods

Engineered woods are products like plywood, particleboard, and OSB (oriented strand board). These products are manufactured using wood pieces and other ingredients to yield boards with useful properties like water resistance or directional stiffness. They can also be made into large panels that would be difficult or impossible to find in nature.

What type of wood is best?

For most prototyping applications, softwood or engineered wood will be the right choice. These will be the most common to find in big box stores and come in standard sizes. They tend to be less expensive than hardwoods, and you will rarely need the attractive grain patterns that hardwoods are known for for most prototype applications.

The exception is that some hardwoods like birch are used to make plywood panels that are particularly good for laser cutting.

The natural grain on the pine 2×4 (above) compared to the puzzled tapestry of the OSB (bottom).

Tools for prototyping with wood

Saws

The easiest way to process wood is to cut it with a saw. There are many different types of saws, and all are useful in different situations. For rough and quick prototyping of pieces with a small cross-section, a hand saw and miter box will do just fine. It takes just a minute or so to cut through a 2 x 4 and the miter box allows you to get square and relatively precise angle cuts.

When you need more horsepower, the table saw is the first step up. They are great for ripping long pieces or rough-cutting blanks and work very quickly. Jigsaws are not as powerful but are useful for cutting more intricate shapes. Their thinner blades allow you to maneuver the saw around curves and tight shapes.

No matter what saw you use, note that the shapes you cut from them will not be accurate to 1/1000 of an inch, so you need to design and plan for a wider tolerance than you would for machined metal parts.

Lathe and Mill

Machine tools like mills and lathes are great options to make parts from wood. A classic use case is to turn spindles on a lathe that can be used for decorative railings and balustrades. However, any round shape, small or large can be made on a lathe. Just note that it is ideal to have a lathe that is designed for woodturning as well as a suite of cutting tools.

Similarly, mills can be used to make wood parts too. Endmills make short work of cutting through wood and allow for precise cutting of different shapes and hole locations. Note that since wood is absorbent, you will want to clean and lubricate the mill thoroughly after cutting to avoid starving the machine of lubrication.

CNC (computer-controlled) lathes and mills are also great for cutting wood if you have access to them and can make the work even easier.

Laser Cutters

Laser cutters are my favorite tool to prototype with wood. The laser head is computer-controlled and can cut intricate shapes. Depending on the power of the laser, it can only cut through about ⅛”- ¼” thick pieces of wood, but this is a perfect thickness for making prototypes of consumer goods that are the size of a microwave or smaller. As an added bonus, lasers can also engrave, so you can add some aesthetic flair to the pieces if you so choose.

These US flags were laser engraved and with the stars and stripes in the same machine.

Waterjet

Water and wood do not typically get along very well, but they do when it comes to water jetting.

Water jet machines are a special type of CNC machine that uses high-pressure water and an abrasive to cut through raw material. While they are generally used for metals and plastics, they work great on wood too. Thick pieces of plywood or OSB can be cut into intricate shapes that are designed in CAD, and it only takes a few minutes to rip through them. The wood is in contact with the narrow jet of water for only a small amount of time so there is little risk of deformation or warping. The parts just need to be left to dry for a few hours after they are cut before using them.

This technique allows for wood shapes to be cut quickly with high accuracy.

This US map was cut using a water jet from the lid of a used whiskey barrel. The waterjet blasted through the more than 1 inch thick wood and made the waterjet smell like vanilla and whisky.

Routers

Routers are a great and easy way to create shapes from wood.

Hand operated and table-mounted routers are typically used to put a decorative edge on wood, or to add channels in the surface. They can also be used to cut shapes, but depending on the thickness of wood, you may have to make multiple passes, which makes it difficult to get repeatable accuracy. CNC routers, however, do a much better job as they are computer-controlled and the motors move the router through the wood to create the shapes that you want based on your CAD files.

There are also computer-aided routers that combine the best features of handheld and CNC routers. The Shaper Origin is a handheld router that uses machine vision to make accurate cuts. It uses a series of stickers that look like dominoes to know where it is on the part, and the user traces the shape on the screen on top of the router to make the cut. If you go off track it compensates to keep the cut path accurate and if you go very far off track it retracts the bit to keep from damaging the part. This allows you to cut parts in a remote place without a full shop setup.

The Shaper Origin was used to router out pieces for what was made into a life-size model of the guru of Design Sprint methodology, Jake Knapp

3D Printing

Yes, you can 3D print with wood. There are 3D printer filaments that are made up of PLA plastic mixed with wood fibers. While it is not 100% wood, it gives 3D prints a feel and a smell that reasonably replicates wood. The filament can be a bit temperamental to use as it is a composite material and is more delicate and more prone to breakage than pure plastic filament.

Wood filament comes in different varieties, so you can print in bamboo, walnut, pine, cedar and more to yield parts with different colored wood tones and fragrances.

Want to learn more about how wood prototypes might serve your project? Reach out to our engineering and design team today!

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