printing in wood to make a glasses frameMost of the stuff that comes out of a 3D printer looks like really low quality plastic toys. We’d call it junk, but that would produce a huge outcry from the hobbyists who love it. Okay, we’re calling it junk anyway.

Another approach to making stuff is to use a milling machine to cut things out of wood and metal. This raises the possibility of making things that are actually useful. The prices are close to what you would pay for so-called 3D printers.

You can get free software from Easel.com that can control a small desktop milling machine like the new “Shapeoko.” This takes a design made by you with the software and feeds into the machine to carve out objects in wood, plastic, or metal. The software is still in the testing phase but if you go to their site you can sign up for early access. Other 3D design software should work as well.

The “Shapeoko 2” milling machine costs $299 if you’re handy enough to put things together yourself. If not, it’s $650 for the whole kit from Shapeoko.com.

We go to manufacturing shows once in a while, and this is the first time we’ve seen what is usually expensive equipment being taken down to what could be called home shop level. The technology is called CNC, which stands for “computer numeric control.” Million dollar machines do wonders with this technology. You won’t be able to do that kind of machining at home, but think of it as a beginning.

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