A New Set of Chisels

J.R. Beall is not your ordinary machinist. He doesn’t buy a CNC machine to do a particular job, or produce a specific part. Rather, he buys the machine as a tool, and designs things utilizing the machine’s capabilities. But, J & J Beall, Inc., of Newark, Ohio, is not your ordinary machine shop, either. It’s not filled with chips of steel and aluminum, or barrels of coolant. Rather, it’s filled with chips of wood and sawdust, and racks of lumber. Which is understandable, since J & J Beall, Inc., is a woodworking shop, and J.R. Beall does his machining out of wood.

“I’m a craftsman,” Beall said. “The machine is just a set of chisels to me. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to carve with those chisels, but once I’ve got the machine, I can familiarize myself with it and do all sorts of things. Basically, I’m a woodworker, but I’m also a mechanic and designer. I always buy a machine first, then figure out what I’m going to do with it later. It’s a different approach, but I’m able to make products that nobody else is able to make,” Beall said.

One of Beall’s sets of “chisels” is a Haas VF-0 vertical machining centre with 20" x 16" x 20" (xyz) travels. “I believe in using whatever technology is available to do whatever can be done,” Beall said. “The Haas gives me an enormous advantage over other woodworkers. I can do things those other guys can’t even dream of doing.”

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Now, wood is not a material usually associated with a CNC machining centre. But, according to Beall, it’s actually harder to work with wood than metal. “There are a lot of difficulties in working with wood,” he said. “Wood changes its shape constantly due to moisture variations. And it’s more abrasive, because it sucks all kinds of abrasives up from the soil into its cell structure. It’s full of grit, so bits and tools don’t last as long. Some woods will just destroy a tool immediately; high-speed steels have a very short life.”

But using tantung bits and the right speeds and feeds, Beall explained, it’s possible to get incredible results. “You can’t imagine what a beautiful job you get in wood with a flycutter, if you run it at the right speed and feed it slow. It’s a perfect finish right off the machine,” he said. “There’s no sanding; all I do is buff it.

“I use a flycutter that’s maybe 3 or 4 inches in diameter, and run it at 5,000 or 6,000 rpm, so there’s lots of surface speed. It works really nicely. Of course, you have to use the right kind of woods,” he said. “I use ebony, and exotics like rosewood, boxwood and bubinga.”

Some of the things Beall makes with his Haas are fancy, multi-faceted, fluted bowls, and geometric carvings out of blocks of wood. Using circular interpolation along the z axis, he makes swooping cuts to create circular patterns, and even leaf designs.

He has even machined an entire chess set out of wood, with each ten-sided piece meticulously machined using a cutter only 0.030" high. Some pieces, like the Queen, feature spiral twists created by using a Haas 4th-axis rotary table. “The small cutter and 4th axis allow me to create real fancy complex shapes,” Beall said.

But all this fancy stuff is just what Beall does to show off. The rest of the time he’s busy manufacturing products and inventing things. “From time to time I make something like those bowls just to show people it can be done. But I’m an inventor,” he said. “I have a bunch of patents for woodworking tools.”

One of Beall’s patented products is a wood threading tool. Now, when most people think of wood threading they probably think of broom handles, but that’s as far as they go. But wood threading has been around for hundreds of years, Beall states. In fact, he’s written a book on it. “For someone who’s interested, and has some creativity, there’s a variety of projects that use wooden threads. In fact, I put furniture together that way.”

According to Beall, threading devices previously available just weren’t suitable for production threading. “They used a little fixed bit that you cranked around a dowel to cut the thread. But the bit would get dull quickly, almost immediately in fact.” So he decided to design his own threading tool. “The tool I make uses a router and a carbide bit,” he said. “You can thread with it for weeks and months on end without it getting dull. You can really do production threading.”

One of the key components of Beall’s wood threader is a plastic insert that guides the dowel during threading. This insert has an internal thread 1 inch in diameter with a #6 thread pitch. (Beall offers kits in 1"-6, 3/4"-6, 5/8"-7, and 1/2"-8.) “Each thread size uses a Delrin insert with very course internal threads,” he said. “Tapping this insert would be difficult because of its coarseness, and because the beginning thread must be precisely oriented.” Beall explained. “The thread is much coarser than you can buy a tap for, so we would have had to get special taps made.”

Rather than invest in custom taps, Beall looked to injection molding to produce the threaded inserts, but the molds were very expensive – $25,000 to $75,000. “You’d pay as much for a set of molds, as you would for a CNC machine,” he said. Despite the cost, however, Beall had a set of molds made and began producing the inserts out of ABS. Unfortunately, injection molding couldn’t hold the tolerance he needed for the part, so he sought a better method. Beall found he could achieve the accuracy he needed by machining the inserts out of Delrin on his Haas VF-0 vertical machining centre. “Using helical interpolation and a single-point cutter we can do the internal threading very accurately, and we can use the same cutter for all of our threading kits. The Haas produces a lot nicer part, and I’m able to bring the process in-house where I have control of it,” Beall said. “The machine has paid for itself, easily, several times over.”

Through the use of a Haas VF-0 vertical machining centre, J.R. Beall is able to maintain the accuracy he needs to meet the demand for his patented wood threader. As an added benefit, he’s able to create some impressive works of art and have a little fun in the process.