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CNC Router Helps Violin Teacher
Manufacture Violins in Spare Time

newcomer3.jpg (125111 bytes)A computer numerical control (CNC) router that produces high accuracy wood components with minimal operator attention has helped a violin instructor get into the violin manufacturing business in his spare time. Jesse Newcomer, who runs the Suzuki violin teaching program in Alexandria, Louisiana, and a violin dealership, produces 60 violins per year targeted at high school and college students that sell for between $2500 and $3500 retail. The CNC router produces nearly all of the parts for the violins to very high levels of accuracy in Newcomerís garage, while he is selling, teaching or relaxing and occasionally observing it through a video monitor. 

Jesse Newcomer has been playing violin since he was 5 years old. He earned a Master of Church Music with an emphasis in violin from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He was the first graduate from that institution to receive a music degree with any emphasis besides voice. He served as music director or minister of music at a number of churches in the south. Just prior to opening his violin dealership, he served as orchestra director for a church with a full orchestra that included violins, cello, viola, clarinets, trumpets, trombones and percussions, all played by volunteers. This orchestra performed traditional hymns and anthems, more and more of which are being scored for orchestra, as well as oratorios such as Handelís Messiah.

Opening dealership

Several years ago, Newcomer heard that the Suzuki program in Alexandria was for sale and decided that it would be the perfect opportunity to spend more time on his first love, teaching and playing violin. He purchased the program and also opened a violin dealership and repair shop. Newcomerís friendship with a man in a nearby town that owned a machine shop got him to thinking: why canít I build my own violins? His friend pointed out that CNC machining centers would produce wooden components to a tolerance levels that would make it possible to produce an outstanding violin without necessarily possessing the woodworking skills of a master craftsman. The problem with these machines is that they are so expensive, typically starting at around $50,000 not including CNC programming software, that they would be difficult for someone producing violins to afford.

Then, one day his friend received a brochure for a CNC router that provides the same accuracy and level of automation as conventional CNC machining centers, but it was designed for lighter duty machining such as cutting wood, plastics, nonferrous materials and taking light cuts in nonferrous metals. Newcomer ended up purchasing that machine, the Techno Series III from Techno-Isel, New Hyde Park, New York. The price was less than $19,000 and included CNC programming software. Its working area of 24 inches by 36 inches with a Z-axis height of 6 inches is considerably larger than required for producing violins.

The Techno-Isel router produces all of the parts needed to make a violin in about 100 hours, compared to the 350 to 400 hours that would be required to make the same parts by hand 

Designing jigs

Newcomer was familiar with violin manufacturing, but had never built one completely from scratch before so he enlisted Mark Lisle, a violin maker in Houston, to build a violin for him and worked with him from start to finish on the project. The two worked so well together on this project that they decided to form a violin-producing partnership, Newcomer & Lisle Violins. After this experience, Newcomer had no difficulty in designing the components needed to build the violin using the CNC programming software. Next, he designed the jigs needed to hold the components on the router while they were being machined. Each of the jigs is built from two pieces of wood with the top piece cut out so that it cradles that component that is being machined. The bottom piece, which attaches to the table of the Techno machine, has holes cut in it that are attached to plastic tubes running to a suction pump that holds the piece onto the jig.

Newcomer set the machine up in his garage. His house is connected to his store so he was able to rig video monitors in both places that allow him to observe the machine while he is working or relaxing. Actually, the machine needs little attention. It produces all of the parts needed to make a violin in about 100 hours, compared to the 350 to 400 hours that would be required to make the same parts by hand. In addition, the CNC machine produces the parts to much higher levels of accuracy than can be achieved by hand. The machine's 0.0004 inch resolution and repeatability and 0.003 inch absolute accuracy ensure that each violin component is identical, maintaining the excellent sound that Newcomer and Lisle designed into the instruments.

Excellent accuracy

The Techno machine's accuracy is the result of several features inherent to the table, such as the use of ball screws and servo motors. For example, anti-backlash ball screws permit play-free motion that makes it possible to produce accurate circles and inlays. The ballscrews have excellent power transmission due to the rolling ball contact between the nut and screw. This rolling contact also ensures longer life and greater rigidity during the life of the system because of the reduced wear as compared to ACME screws and nuts, which have a sliding friction contact.

The next issue that Newcomer faced was that he didnít have time to assemble more than an occasional violin. Fortunately, his partner Lisle knew a violin maker in China. This person agreed to assemble the pieces produced by Newcomer. This arrangement made it possible for Newcomer to begin volume production. The table of the Techno machine is large enough to mount all of the jigs needed to produce a violin. So, Newcomer sets the machine up to run unattended while he goes about his business, just keeping an eye out in case the bit needs changing. He typically produces batches of 20 that he can complete in a month without seriously distracting him from his other businesses. The only parts that Newcomer doesnít produce on the Techno machine are the ribs that go inside the case. He makes these on a hand router because they are so geometrically simple.

Reliable operation

In several years of operation, Newcomer has had no problems with the Techno machine. This is partly due to the strength and rigidity of the table, which is constructed from extruded aluminum profiles that provide easy clamping capability. The machine also has four ground and hardened steel shafts and eight recirculating bearings in each axis. This shaft and bearing system produces very smooth play-free motion and an extremely rigid system that produces high-quality cuts.

Newcomer sells the violins through his own shop and also through other violin dealers in the South. The target market is exceptionally talented high school and college students. Newcomer's violins are known for their strong, rich sound and outstanding detail and workmanship. Their characteristics are richness, warmth, softness of timbre, and depth. Newcomer is able to provide these qualities in every instrument its makes because the CNC router that it uses to produce the parts provides much higher accuracy that traditional woodworking methods. At the same time, the fact that the Techno machine is relatively inexpensive and runs virtually unattended makes it possible for Newcomer to provide promising younger players with an outstanding hand-built instrument at a fraction of the cost of comparable quality instruments. All in all, the new machine has proven to be the perfect way to get into a business thatís both fun and profitable without spending an arm and a leg or committing a major amount of time.

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