Thanks to a very gracious donor and friend Jason, we have an X-Carve in Uganda. That sentence was incredibly short and simple but the story of our X-Carve is anything but. Here’s a quick video teaser showing our little shop:
For those that aren’t aware, the X-Carve by Inventables is a build-it-yourself, open-source CNC (Computer Numerical Controlled) router which is capable of cutting or carving wood, soft metals, plastic and many other materials all guided by computer software.
Jason purchased the X-Carve (the 1000 mm version with several upgrades including the ACME lead screw, larger Nema 23 motors, limit switches, a tool kit and loads of spare parts and bits) for us and took it to his home away from home, the Columbus Idea Foundry, where he assembled and tested it. This was a significant financial and time investment and all things told took months of hard work on his part. Once built, he labelled all the parts and disassembled it, packing it carefully for the long trip to Uganda. He even put the delicate rails in a Pelican rifle case for good measure. His packing job wasn’t finished as he, his wife Becky and friend John who were coming with him to Uganda also agreed to bring loads of other equipment to help us out in Uganda.
And they set out on their journey to bring is all over here to Uganda.
On their way to Uganda, they had an overnight in Dubai where the next morning they were met with a nasty surprise: Dubais was charging them full price to check in all their luggage despite the fact that they had already paid for the luggage stateside. Left with no choice, they paid the luggage fees again (not knowing at the time that friends in the community would chip in to cover those expenses).
Once they arrived and we unpacked, the building process began. It seemed like a great opportunity for the manager of my hackerspace to learn the ins and outs of the machine since the plan was that it would be in the hackerspace and he would oversee it’s operation. I stopped in from time to time as they built the X-Carve in the garage. In retrospect I should not have allowed my crazy schedule to keep me from sitting in on every step of the build because our manager ended up leaving us (and Uganda) to start a new life in Canada.
That combination of bad decisions and circumstances left us in a really tough spot. We had this amazing machine that cost a significant amount of money, time and effort sitting in our garage and I had no idea how to use it. I put too much faith in my manager and let the craziness of more mundane things keep me from that critical week of the build.
The X-Carve sat for months because I didn’t have the faintest clue how to use it and I had absolutely no woodworking experience which meant I was faced with the very difficult task of learning the technology side of the machine (Arduino, GShield, VCarve software, etc) along with the mechanical side (all the belts, motors, pulleys, etc) in addition to the woodworking and machinists side (routers, buts, feeds and speeds, material properties, etc).
This was certainly not the first daunting challenge in my life, but the reality was that I couldn’t drop everything to “figure this out”. I was also afraid that I would break something that I didn’t have spare parts for. In addition, I was really all alone in this. Jason was available for questions but I couldn’t reasonably expect him to hold my hand when he had already invested months of time in the project and it was honestly my fault that I wasn’t able to drop everything to sit with him when he was here.
I started mentioning the machine to several people in Jinja that I thought might be able to help me figure out the X-Carve. I needed a delicate balance of someone that was moderately “technical” but had a strong grasp of carpentry, wood working, or machining. One person I reached out to was interested but was planning a furlough. Then I realized my friend Tim would be a good fit, but he was finishing up degree courses so he didn’t have the time. Eventually though, Tim got a break from his classes and we rolled up our sleeves and dug in.
Our first stop was to the local plywood manufacturer, Nile Ply, the same folks that helped us when we rebuilt Loko Village all those years ago. Situated on the banks of Lake Victoria in the “Industrial area”, Nile Ply is certainly no Home Depot.
As an aside, it’s staggering how much gorgeous waterfront property in Jinja is occupied by the nastiest, smelliest, dirtiest, waste-belching factories.
Although it’s not much to look at from the outside, inside, I was astonished to see that Nile Ply had cleaned up since I had visited all those years ago. They had new loaders, and the wood was perfectly stacked. Even the floor was relatively clean. This did look a bit like Home Depot.
They showed us the various offerings. I was excited at the variety and the possibilities.
We hired a truck and sent the wood home.
We also stopped at a few places in town to see if we could find scrap hardwood. Tim new a carpenter that might have some stock and we found some interesting pieces.
Finally, after several hours of wood-hunting (things.. take.. a.. long.. time.. in.. Africa….) we headed back to figure out the X-Carve. We set it up, looked for visible damage (there was none) and read step-by-step through the instructions.
Our little leather shop was diversifying, even though the X-Carve took up half of our work table!
The first few days were really funny, and frustrating. We started with the Easel software, which is really a no-brainer and simple to use. The X-Carve, however, was being a bit cantankerous. Our shapes were quite .. odd.
I have to say I was happy the machine worked at all. I had expected that our cat-sized rats would have completely digested the machine as it sat forlorn in our leather shop garage. I’m not exaggerating. We had to do a significant amount of cleaning in the shop, and we found several nests:
Ever seen baby rats? Strange creatures!
But we still had a long road ahead of us. As it turned out, just about every bolt had come loose on the machine, the belts were loose and the v-wheels were all over tight or over loose. There was also a burr on one of the rails that would catch, causing the X-Carve to stall. We filed that, tightened everything properly and finally, FINALLY got a reasonably successful profile cut!
All in all it was a terrific couple of days. I’m so thankful to Tim for the assistance and friendship. He was a huge encouragement and made me realize how much I missed being in “community”.. being around other smart and driven folks who have crazy idea and talents. I’ve spent seven years being “the teacher”, the one people come to to learn things and I’ve had very few opportunities to collaborate and take on complex tasks and challenges. It’s like a part of me has re-awakened, the hacker in me that used to thrive daily on conquering ridiculous problems.
I’m also thankful to Jason, Becky and John who really gave of themselves to make this happen. They, like other donors are more than just providers, they are family, and part of this amazing community that thrives on helping others and are thrilled to help. I certainly couldn’t have done it without them.
Also thanks to Goal Zero for generously powering our shop!
This post took a few weeks to pull together, as things have been really hectic. Look for fun updates about the X-Carve soon!