From wooden axes to CNC machining in over 4000 years of history

Analysis of the history and evolution of information technology in the woodworking trades

The definition of a trade

In this analysis, we will use the term “trade” to refer to a commonly recognized set of knowledge to accomplish a defined task.

Specifically, we will deal with trades that focus on the production or manufacturing of goods.

The major milestones in the evolution of technology

The evolution of manual tools

Up until 1775 there was a slow evolution towards machines, mainly lathes, using man power.

The mechanical tool or machine tool

In 1776 Watt built the steam engine.

technical drawing showing the processes and pieces of a steam engine

Many machine tools were invented at the end of the 18th century, but it was during the 19th century, and especially after 1830, that their use spread and transformed into industrial machinery.

Thanks to the machine tool, the industry progressed in the 19th century. It was able to transformed iron: it precisely cut, filed, and pierced the iron to make all kinds of parts: screws, gear wheels, rods and cylinders.

At the beginning of the 19th century, English engineers took a giant technical leap forward. Screw and bolt threading lathes, mortising lathes and notching machines, begin to be mass produced. In 1803, the British Navy installed the first assembly line in Portsmouth: 45 specialized machines capable of manufacturing 130,000 pulleys a year for sailing vessels. In the same time period, an American named Whitney invented a tool capable of producing identical rifle parts.

The invention of electricity meant that the steam engine gradually became replaced by the electric motor. With this change, each machine was now capable of having its own engine.

In woodworking

  • 1776 James Watt invents the steam engine
  • 1790 Samuel Bentham, a British engineer, invents the rotary-cutting tool
  • 1799 Marc Isambard Brunel, a French expatriate in New York, invents a method of manufacturing “mechanized pulley blocks”
  • 1800 Circular veneer cutting saws and planing machines are beginning to be used in Britain
  • 1808 William Newberry invents the bandsaw
  • 1840 John Dresser files his patent for the first lathe-type veneer cutting machine
  • 1846 The first cylinder planing machine
  • 1860 The use of circular saws becomes widespread in the US
  • 1866 The first double end tenoner is patented by H.B. Smith Machine Co.
  • 1875 The first veneer slicer is put into service
  • 1890 The first silicon carbide abrasives appear
  • 1896 The first electric sawmill is commissioned in the U.S.
  • 1900 Invention of the triple-drum cylinder sander
  • 1908 Use of ball bearings in woodworking machines
  • 1909 Use of high-speed steel knives used for cutting tools
  • 1919 Three-phase engines come into use
  • 1924 Masonite (hardboard) invention by William Mason
  • 1930 Veneers and industrial production of manufactured panels take off
  • 1949 Invention by Sherril and Pendergast of the wide belt sander
  • 1966 Introduction of routing and shaping machines controlled by magnetic strips
1890s image of wood furniture factory showing machinery and workers

The electronic/mechanical tool

The 1970s

The use of computer-based technology for machine tools gave rise to computer controlled machines and led to a profound upheaval in the woodworking trade.

A computer controlled machine tool is able to operate on its own and calculate with perfect precision the movements of its parts, part holders or tool holders, thanks to a computer system that keeps in its memory the precise description of the different operations to be performed.

photo of large computerized numerical control (CNC) machine from the 1970s

The instructions for the computer program are written on a magnetic strip in coded form, which can then be read by the computerized numerical control (CNC) machine. The machine must have a magnetic strip reader or, alternatively, it is stored in the memory bank of the microcomputer that directly controls the machine.

The technician only needs to occasionally intervene to program the machine and monitor its proper operation.

Machine programs are manually written line by line by the operator.

These techniques are expensive and highly technical. They are generally only used for mass manufacturing industries.

The 1980s

The invention of the microcomputer encourages widespread use of computer-based tools in companies. The first general drawing software begins to be used for the creation of blueprints.

CNC machines are still manually programmed. The cost of software and machines continues to decrease.

Software is affordable for small to medium enterprises (SMEs), but the cost and complexity of setting up computer- controlled machines means they are reserved for large companies only.

The 1990s

Computerized numerical control machines are starting to read computer-generated drawings. The first specialized software “trades” appear in other industries.

Image of point-to-point CNC machine

The 2000s

Falling prices and the exponential increase in the power of computers transforms them into a common consumer product.

The widespread use of the internet allows for instant and very low cost information sharing. Specialized software for designing wood products appears.

It is now possible for a small business to design a product on the computer and control a CNC machine from their computer.

The investment cost is affordable and profitable but still remain high for small businesses.


Software and machinery prices become accessible to small and medium sized woodworking businesses.

Modern day part by part CNC machine

The effects of technological advancements on trades

We can see that over the years and centuries, tradesmen have invented techniques to facilitate their work. It is a natural process that is at the very root of all technological advancements and even all manufacturing activity.

This process creates a dynamic evolution that gradually changes the way a craftsman works and eventually defines the craft that they do.

The definition of a trade can be broken-down into three phases:

  1. The invention of a technique
  2. The spread of the technique
  3. The integration and acceptance of the technique as being part of the trade knowledge

It is important to point out that a modification in the technological context of a trade, by the invention of a new technique or tool, transforms the know-how necessary to exercise it.

Technological advancement automatically creates a two-step evolution.

1. The need to acquire new knowledge

For example, the widespread use of machine tools in carpentry workshops means that skilled woodworkers need to be trained in their use.

2. Forgetting old techniques

For example, the generalized use of the joint planer means that the hand-held planer is no longer used. It is in this way that any innovation inevitably creates a change/evolution in the trade.

This trade skills evolution has been unfolding since the origins of humanity.

It should be noted that technological change complicates each profession. As a result, a trade becomes more and more complex and eventually ends up dividing into several different trades.

In the woodworking trades, the technological advancement of the carpenter’s trade, a unique trade in and of itself, can be divided into cabinet maker, chair maker, barrel maker, wheelwright, etc.

For millennia, this evolution had been extremely slow, but the speed of technological evolution is potentially exponential.

This is due to two things:

1. Each new technique is based on previous techniques

For example: it is quicker to make a wooden plank if you already have a hammer and cutting tools.

Or, you can create a more powerful and faster computer if you use the preceding versions to develop them.

It is in this way that the acceleration of innovations and changes is growing faster and faster.

2. The evolution of a profession is part of a global technological environment

The global technological environment is defined by two elements:

  • The evolution of other trades
  • The speed at which information is shared

One can imagine an isolated workshop that will technologically progresses over many generations.

The evolution of this workshop will be accelerated if it receives information from other workshops and takes advantage of their technical innovations.

In this current global technological environment, information sharing technologies themselves are evolving exponentially and creating an ever-faster information exchange dynamic for all businesses and trades.

The modern situation

For the past several decades, the exponential curve in the speed of the evolution of techniques is accelerating faster and faster.

Evolutions that took place over many centuries in the Middle Ages, or decades in the 19th century, are now happening each year and sometimes even each month.

It is a similar cycle of transformation for trades, from an invention to widespread use and finally integration taking several centuries in the Middle Ages, and now only decades in the 20th century.

Today this cycle can occur in one year.

Technical innovations have become an economic necessity from year to year. Transmission by modern means of information sharing is almost instantaneous, and the integration of new technologies into trades is becoming mandatory and an important part of the profession itself.

Hence the notion of on-going skills training.

One can ask themselves whether the human being is made to live at this speed? But that is for another debate. The ensuing result for the evolution of the trades, on the other hand, is obvious.

This rapid transformation adds even more information into the definition of a trade and quickly leads to the break-up or specialization of the trade into “sub-trades” which quickly in turn become trades in and of themselves.

On top of that, knowledge becomes quickly obsolete, and trades are changing in their very definition.

Technological change and its consequences are a natural and unavoidable phenomenon, and, as with any change, this does not always go smoothly. Any dynamic system by its very nature resists change.

The faster the changes are, the stronger the resistance. Strong resistance to change creates an evolutionary curve through successive jumps.

Historically, from the point of view of a trade, this creates a cycle of evolution with the following phases:

A period of stability in the definition of the profession, characterized by:

  • a precise definition of the trade
  • a social recognition of the value of the profession and its practitioners
  • harmony between the supply of the trade and the economic needs of the society

Technological innovation and its period of integration, characterized by:

  • a rejection or mistrust of new technologies
  • a struggle between the proponents of “progress” and the traditionalists
  • a growing gap between the supply of the trade and the economic needs of the society

Integration of new techniques, characterized by:

  • the creation of specialisations in a trade and possibly new trades linked to these new techniques
  • a gradual implementation phase as supply catches up with the needs of the society

Return to a period of stability in the definition of the profession

  • once the new techniques are integrated into the definition of a trade, a period of stability is restored

The effects of speed

The rapid acceleration of these cycles today tends to compress and even erase these steps. The speed of technical developments increasingly shortens the cycle times.

On-going skills training is the very expression of this acceleration of technological change.

Digital shock

Introduction to digital supply chain theory

The great revolution in today’s manual production trades is in the democratization of computer information technologies.

In the woodworking trades, it is now possible to use computer-based tools for all aspects of a project, from design to manufacturing.

Computer-based tools are gradually becoming a core part of any goods manufacturing business.

In skilled manual trades, modern information and computer controlled production techniques create greater resistance to change because these technologies challenge the founding values of certain manual trades.

Traditional know-how linked to manual techniques is gradually being replaced by technological and intellectual know-how.

Over the past two hundred years, manual trades have had to evolve from “knowing how to use hand-held tools” to “knowing how to use machine tools” to now “knowing how to use software and CNC machines”.

The digital revolution

It is easy to predict that computer-based tools will gradually dominate all other manufacturing tools in the near future.

The digital revolution has been underway for many years but today these tools are reaching a certain maturity and are becoming increasingly essential for all trades involved in the production of goods.

A big challenge for these trades currently is: how to evolve without denying who you are?

The following questions are being asked:

  • What is left as a place for traditional trades and know-how?
  • How do our current businesses adapt to computerized tools?
  • What specializations will appear?
  • What new trades will follow?

Any radical change poses the fundamental question:

Where is my professional identity?

We are talking here about both individual and collective identity.

These two identities inevitably mutually interact.

The question of identity is too broad to explore here, but in an ever-changing world, it is very important to know how to remain yourself while at the same time allowing yourself to be transformed.

It is increasingly important to know who we are and what our core values are, both individually and collectively.
If you are a woodworking professional, here are a few questions you can ask yourself…

  • Do I recognize myself in the previous discussion?
  • What are the points that I think are interesting?
  • What are the points that seem relevant?
  • What are the points that I feel are less relevant?
  • For myself, what are the fundamental values of my job?
  • For the people in my business, what are our core values?

Businesses and technology

Classification of business types and needs

Given the evolution of today’s computer-based technologies, here is a possible classification of woodworking and furniture production companies today with their likely functional and digital evolution.

Artisan designer and installer (craftsman)


Small company specializing in the installation of industrial or semi-industrial products.

Customers are mainly individuals.

Services offered

  • Advice
  • Custom product design
  • Site management
  • Installation

Mode of operation

  • Customer contact
  • Design, advice, management
  • Outsourcing manufacturing to CNC equipped companies
  • Installation

Digital equipment

  • Design and management software

Manufacturing craftsman


Small generalist company.

Clients are individuals and professionals.

Services offered

  • Advice
  • Custom product design
  • Custom manufacturing
  • Outsourcing
  • Installation

Mode of operation

  • Customer contact
  • Design, advice, management
  • Internal and outsourcing manufacturing mix
  • Installation

Digital equipment

  • Design and management software
  • Small CNC machining centre

Small to medium sized CNC service providers


Companies specializing in CNC machining, working for smaller artisanal companies.

Customers are mostly other companies.

Services offered

  • Professional Advice
  • Custom product design
  • Custom manufacturing
  • Outsourcing
  • Installation
  • Wood panel sales
  • Project plan processing
  • Design department
  • Logistics and delivery

Mode of operations

  • The client sends the blueprints or computer files for their project
  • The company processes and delivers the panels

Digital equipment

  • Design and management software
  • Digital saws
  • Machining (processing centre)/veneering

Industrial companies


Companies specializing in the mass production of standardized products.

Mode of operations

  • Product creation by design department
  • Product launch and production
  • Large scale distribution

Digital equipment

  • Dedicated digital software and machines

Introducing today’s IT tools

General CAD software

These types of software are mainly intended for 2D and 3D drawings of any object and shape.

Their capabilities are extensive and range from specialized 2D software for layouts, such as DraftSight, up to 2D/3D software like SolidWorks.


  • Modelling geometric shapes.
  • 2D layouts.


  • It is possible to draw and create a model for any type of project or object. You can draw a piece of furniture as well as a house or a wooden toy.
  • These are general use software where the fundamental basic knowledge for use is often included as part of the basic teaching of a manufacturing trade.


  • Only produces the drawing. All other manufacturing and management information is not typically provided.
  • Creating drawings for woodwork projects often takes a long time.

Imaging software

These types of software specialize in the production of realistic, sometimes photorealistic, images for the commercial presentation of products and projects.

Professional parametric software (trade specific)

These specialized “trade” software solutions are designed to produce all of the documents needed for a type of goods manufacturing.

Among the many different softwares available for the woodworking trades, we can mention:

  • CAD WORKS: wood construction
  • SEMA: wood construction, staircases
  • COMPASS: staircases
  • STAIRDESIGNER: staircases
  • TOPSOLID WOOD: furniture
  • CABINETVISION: furniture
  • POLYBOARD: furniture
Kitchen project designed in Polyboard


  • Specialized in producing documents for a specific trade.


  • Produces all of the documents needed for production.
  • Projects are created much faster than with a general software.
  • Changes and updates are faster, and data remains consistent across all documents.
  • Processing and manufacturing can be much faster than when using general software.


  • Specialized in the manufacturing of a single product type, other products or variations cannot easily be processed.

CAM software

Software for piloting CNC machines. They read the geometric files of a drawing software and turn them into the required machine code files.

Essential to add machining details if using a general drawing software. Alternatively the process can be largely automated when integrated with a trade software such as Polyboard.

CNC machines for small and medium sized businesses

These are machines that can be automatically controlled by a numeric file.

The file can be created in several ways:

  • By manually typing the codes on a keyboard
  • By a CAD drawing software
  • By a professional parametric software

In woodworking workshops, these CNC machines are essentially one of three kinds:

1. Digital saws

These machines enable the cutting of parts from panel or sheet materials.

2. Cabinetry and joinery machining centres

Used to machine parts made from panel materials or solid wood. There are two types of machining centre:

Part by part machining (also called point to point)

This method requires you to cut the parts first with a saw then machine each part in turn on the CNC. It is best for bulk manufacture where you are machining multiple identical parts.

Stage 1

Design software > cutting list of all parts > cutting optimisation software > CNC (or manual) saw to cut the parts

Stage 2

Design software > machining file of each part > each part machined in turn on CNC

part by part CNC machine

Nested machining

The parts are cut and machined in a single operation. This option is best for custom projects.

Design software > part by part machining files > nesting software > nested machine file of each panel > cutting and machining with CNC machine in a single operation

image of CNC nesting machine

3. Machining centres for timber construction

These machines are used to cut structural parts like beams, roofing elements and wall panels.

More information

Please click the links below:

How to integrate Polyboard with your CNC machine

How to combine StairDesigner with your CNC machine

Nesting vs part by part CNC machines

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