CNC milling for sci-fi desert buildings

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This is a simple front for a desert-style sci-fi house. Still, if you think about it, I could never cut out such perfectly shaped details with a hobby knife. So this is a promising start to my CNC milling experiment.

TheGM: What is CNC milling?

A milling machine is a 200-year-old technology that uses rotary blades to cut away material from a block of wood, plastic, or metal. It essentially carves away the material to create whatever it is that you want built.

A computer-numerical control (CNC) milling machine uses a computer to direct the rotary blades, replacing the human directed carving of the past.

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My milling machine is a Shapeoko 3 from Carbide 3D. They sell a newer model now.

So I bought such a machine.

Now, many hobbyists are into laser cutters and 3D printers. That’s great. But I’m an older guy, and I like milling machines. I understand them. So, even though I don’t want to deal with technology in my hobby workshop, a computerized milling machine just seemed less intimidating to me than the more up-to-date technology.

Psychoanalyze me if you wish.

My CNC machine is a Shapeoko 3 from Carbide 3D. I spent about $2,000 for the machine, an assortment of rotary blades, and various accessories. I had to assemble it, but it wasn’t rocket science—no worse than building a piece of IKEA furniture.

What was wonderful was that the software to design a project—and the program that guides the rotary blades to carve out the project—are nearly idiot-proof. (I’m proof of that.)

I spent about two hours watching the tutorials on how to use the design software and another two hours designing my first wall. After that, I was ready to try out my machine and, to my surprise, it cut out the front wall of my building on the first try. 

That was sweet.

(Caveat: I have no idea what I’ll do if a computer error pops up on my laptop. I’m no techie.)

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My first try at milling went well. I had no problems whatsoever and, although I didn’t put a lot of bells and whistles into the building’s design, I think it’ll look good once it’s built, details added, and painted.

But let’s get to the fun part. The Gaffer and I are working on desert terrain, so we’ve  envisioned a 40K backwater city similar to Star Wars‘ Mos Eisley. We may add a bit of 40K gothic to it, but we’re going more steampunk-medieval in flavor.

(After all, the cultures of a galactic empire will vary greatly, and we wanted a very backwater look. The Imperium isn’t’t spending a lot of money on construction on this planet.)

I thought it wise to start with a modest project—after all, I’d never used a CNC milling machine before. So I decided on a simple two-story adobe building, with a minimum of exterior features for my first go.

As I noted, it took about two hours to design the front wall. But, by keeping the design simple, it took less than two hours to design the other three walls of the building. The software, Carbide Create, is that easy to learn.)

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I’m still getting the hang of what depth to use in adding facade details.

To keep things simple, I designed the buildings with three design principles in mind:

• I would use only a single rotary blade for this project. Although you can use multiple blades on the same project (for example, use a smaller V-shaped blade to carve writing in the walls), I didn’t want to start off tackling the slightly extra complications of changing blades. So everything I carved was designed for a .125-inch-wide blade.

• I’d go easy on fancy features. There is a decorate strip of diamonds halfway up the front wall, and the front door has a decorate arch above it. The windows are rounded at top and bottom to provide a sci-fi look, and I added a few rectangular panels in the walls to represent electrical boxes, sensor stations, or access hatches that allow residents to gain access to electronics or hydraulics essential to the building’s operation.

Come to think of it, that doesn’t sound all that simple. But all were designed so my .125″ blade could do the job.

• The building would be a simple rectangular building. Four walls of 5.25″ tall. It would be made of hobby bass wood for ease of sanding, gluing together, and painting.

Anyone who has bought a laser-cut kit knows that a good designer can create design a building with very intricate details using multiple parts. Maybe I’ll get there eventually. But I just wanted to get one building done. So I stuck to four walls—and the KISS principle.

As the photos show, it is a simple building—but remember it’s a template. I will hang wires from one hatch to the another, and I’ll add a number of other details (curtains on the windows, light fixtures on the walls, a control panel at the front door, etc.).

You’ll also note the larger rectangular rings with rounded corners. The inside of these  rings are indented for a reason. I intend to put corrugated plastic within to represent closed shutters. These will represent access panels to the buildings mechanisms and technology.

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The door is designed to slip into a pre-cut opening in the front wall of the building. I left excess wood on the sides of the door so I can apply glue, then affix the door to the rear of the front wall.

Once the building is done, it should still look like a poor man’s home. But it should have just enough details and hints of technology that it will fit well in a Mos Eisley setting.

(No, I’m not going to start playing Star Wars. I’m a 40K guy. I  just like the look of the town.)

I should point out one mistake. You’ll notice the sci-fi-style door I carved. It came out well. It has a proper sci-fi look.  Alas, I didn’t double check my measurements, and the doors are too tall. I’ll have to resize them. Phooey.

All in all, my first foray into CNC milling was outstanding. It worked like a charm. Now I’ll start adding new features to future projects: More complex shapes, more details, more angles. There’s no telling how intricate a building I can design with this technology.

As I work to finish this first building, I’ll share my progress. I’m hoping that a “simple” design doesn’t mean a “boring” building. I’m optimistic.

The Corvus Cluster is a Warhammer 40K blog documenting our gaming adventures in the fantastical sci-fi universe of Games Workshop.


Categories: Terrain

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