Using a CNC Router to Make Art

Gabriel Fink
8 min readNov 3, 2020


Gabriel Fink — University of Minnesota

Part 1 — Brainstorming and Ideation

This is the second project I am doing for ARTS 3890 and I am going to be submitting files for the CNC router. I am interested in trying a variety of things with this project since the CNC router can create precise profiles and pockets. I want to use wood for this project because I want to possibly paint, stain, or use resin on my final products for a polished finish. I do not have any experience making files for a CNC router so I am trying to keep my designs simple.

Idea One — Ornate Frame

For this project I would design an ornate frame for a specific paper shape that would be sunk into the wooden board. I would also design a pattern or even a continuation of my central image onto the picture frame. I think as frame like this would look great if it was stained and varnished. Or I could even stress the board and then stain it for a unique look.

My sketch for Idea 1

My inspiration for this idea was not any image in particular but seeing some picture frames people made using a CNC router helped lead me to this idea.

Example picture frame

The main difference between my example image and my idea is that I would have a piece of paper cut to the size of the recess on my board. I would try to keep this project relatively small to keep the scope of my project simple.

Idea 2 — Small Drink Table

I wanted to design my second idea to have some actual utility so I thought a small table would be nice to have while sitting on a couch. I would want to carve simple designs into this table and fill them with colored resin. But, first I would stain the table. I think a few circular pockets on the surface of the table would be nice for a drink or small objects. I would use a single piece of wood for the tabletop and all of the legs.

Idea 2 sketch

I was inspired by the myriad of CNC router made furniture I saw while brainstorming for ideas for this project. I think this idea is probably the most ambitious of my three.

Example of a table made using a CNC router

Idea 3 — Coasters

My third idea is also along the lines of utility. For this project I would make a few small coasters with the profiles of mushrooms carved into the using the CNC router. I would then paint the profiles and seal them with clear resin to protect the paint. I would also glue felt to the bottoms of the coasters so that they would not scratch a table. While this would be a small project, I think it might end up being more difficult than I think because of my lack of experience. I could also put small drawings on paper in the center of them like my first idea, and then cover them with clear vinyl for protection.

My sketch for Idea 3

I was inspired by the intricately carved projects people make on CNC routers for this project. I think it would be fun to learn how to do that sort of work.

Example of carving

I definitely do not expect to achieve the level of detail picture in my example image for this project, which is why I have two options for this idea.

Initial File Work

I decided to go with my idea for a small table for this project because I wanted to combine my idea for the coasters using paper and acrylic with the table. I decided to keep the table design simple because of my lack of woodworking skills. For the table I will have four circular 5/8" deep pockets cut near the four corners of the table for coasters. I will also need 1/16" thick clear acrylic for the pockets. I will then insert paper cutouts into each pocket and cover them with the acrylic. The table will be made form 3/4" thick cedar ply wood. The tabletop itself will be 24"x36" with 18" high legs. The entire table will be cut out of a single piece of plywood so I have doubled the number of leg cutouts to create thicker table legs.

My table design

After I get my parts, I will use iron on cedar edge banding to cover the exposed plywood layering on the table. I will use 380 grit sandpaper on any surfaces that will be visible after assembly. After, I will prime the wood for staining with a coat of stain primer. Then, I plan on using a few coats of walnut gel stain on the surface. I will then finish the surface of my table with spray on lacquer for a nice shiny finish. After the wood finishing work is done, I will insert my paper drawings into the coaster slots and cover them with my clear acrylic and seal them in with caulk or possibly silicon to ensure that they stay dry and sealed.

For now, I need to focus on getting laser cut paper for my drawings while I gather the materials for finishing and staining. A great YouTube channel that helped me learn about staining and finishing was Steve Ramsey — Woodworking for Mere Mortals.

Final Assembly

Assembling my table after getting my parts was an interesting and educational experience in woodworking. When I got my table parts, the plywood was a bit rough around the edges. A sand with 80 grit then 120 grit sandpaper on the edges of the legs and tabletop helped with that. After sanding down the edges, it was time to apply the birch iron-on edge banding I purchased. It was a bit tough getting the curve of the table legs, but it worked out once I turned the iron up to a higher heat.

Applying edge banding

After apply the edge banding, I sanded the edges of the legs and tabletop again with 120 grit sandpaper to blend it into the plywood. I went over all of the edges with 400 grit sand paper to make them extra smooth.

Sanded edge with edge banding

Then, I used 400 grit sandpaper on all the surfaces of my tabletop and legs to prep them for staining. I ended up not needing wood conditioner since I bought a gel stain, which (subject to much online debate) did not need it. Using a microfiber cloth I applied my stain to all the surfaces.

Stained legs
Stained back of tabletop
Stained front of tabletop

I was quite happy with how the stain turned out on the light birch wood since I was planning on using rich colors for the cupholder insert illustrations. After staining the wood I used a satin polyurethane spray-on finish. However, I realized after testing on one of the legs that it was too cold too use the spray in the only well ventilated area I have available to me. So unfortunately, I will have to wait until the weather warms up to do the finish on this table. I was happy with the stain so I decided to assemble the table.

To assemble the table, I used a quick set epoxy resin to glue the legs together while set in a vice grip. I used the same epoxy to affix the legs to the bottom of the table.

Legs curing onto table

After the epoxy cured, I was ready to put the inserts into my table. I got four clear acrylic circles laser-cut to fit into the pockets of my table. I also had a bunch of paper circles laser-cut too so I could possibly swap out designs down the road. For now, as an homage to koa wood stain I used, I went for a tropical/Hawaiian theme for my drawings. Apologies for the poor quality photos, Medium does not display my images properly for some reason.

Not sure why these keep getting squished

Inserting my images was just popping them into their pockets, no adhesive was needed since they fit snugly. Same with the acrylic inserts, which I might seal sometime down the line to prevent any liquid from seeping into the miniscule sliver of space between the insert and the pocket wall. Here are some finished photos of my table.

I am a fan of the stain
Closeup of the grain
Better shot of one of the corners
More corner shots
My favorite insert

This was a fun project and I learned a lot about woodworking and staining. I would definitely make my own piece of furniture again.



Gabriel Fink