Affordable CNC Reshapes Small Milling Shop.

Gene Marshall has always had a fantasy. As co-owner with his brother, Chip, of Marshall's Millwork ( in Point Pleasant N.J., he was frustrated with the direction his business was going. Production had stagnated, overhead costs were growing, and there was no solution in sight.

I used to wish that I had little carving-elves that would come in and do the [initial cuts] overnight," said Gene. "Then I could do the detail and finish work during the day."

It seemed like a perfect solution! Those little elves could meet production deadlines, decrease overhead costs, and allow for the revolution of Marshall Millwork's business plan. There was only one problem -- outside of medieval literature and Christmas stories, elves are painfully absent.

So the Marshall brothers began to explore the idea of computer automation. They wanted to increase the precision of their work, but wanted a tool that was both affordable and could manufacture repeatable products. Computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines were the perfect fit for this type of work, but at nearly $25,000 per machine the Marshall's couldn't afford the untested investment. That is when Chip discovered ShopBots.

ShopBots, designed and manufactured by ShopBot Tools, Inc. ( of Durham, N.C., are CNC machines that use basic PC computers, and simple software to design, cut, and shape wood, foam, stone, or metal products. The advantage of a ShopBot is that it offers an extremely high degree of precision crafting at a fraction of the cost of leading CNC competitors.

"After much consideration, I purchased a ShopBot thinking it would at least work on projects and leave me to get some paperwork done," Chip said.

The machine delivered, and it delivered with a precision and durability that neither Chip nor Gene expected. Two years, two machines, and a new business plan later, the Marshall brothers are completely in-love with this tool!

"We couldn't be happier with the response," said Gene.

Soon the CNC technology had opened up a new line of products for Marshall's Millwork.

"I became interested in the finer works and carvings -- it again seemed [to be] a natural progression [for our company]," Chip said. "Our carvings have subsequently become renown in our small neck of the woods. The ShopBot cuts them, we detail and finish. The machine will do any type of wood a customer could want. Although we prefer domestic hardwoods, we'll do any type of wood they ask for."

Realizing the potential of what they had, the Marshall brothers decided to rewrite their business plan around the CNC technology. Now custom millwork, cabinets, and 3D carvings were simply starters; thanks to their CNC, novelty items, trinkets, toys, and precision signing were added to their list of products.

"There's no greater feeling in the business world than to arrive at work knowing that your manufacturing company [ran] for hours on end, flawlessly! The worst catastrophe I've had with my ShopBot is a broken router bit," said Chip. CNC technology provided the potential to make Marshall's Millwork a business success never before imagined by the two ambitious entrepreneurs.

A simple testimony to the success of the Marshall's business can be found in their company sign. After purchasing their CNC tool, they designed and cut two company signs to mount on the sides of their company truck, left. It seemed like a basic business-sense idea. Little did they know the moneymaker they had produced.

"It's been amazing," Gene said, "I can't go to Home Depot to get supplies without handing out dozens of business cards. People see [the sign] and immediately asked who carved it. I just smile and say, 'I did' and then hand them a business card."

At a recent woodworking and plastics show, the brothers were showing off a number of their carving creations. Among the chief attractions were designs they had taken from plastic toys, belt buckles, trinkets; scanned into ShopBot computer software; and fashioned into woodcarvings.

"Look at this," said Gene as he showed the crowd a small 1x1" plastic toy crab. "I picked this up at a flea market. I think I paid 25 cents for it. I took it home, scanned it into the ShopBot software, reformatted the computer file and made this..." Gene held up an 8x8" wooden crab cut from mahogany, intricately detailed and with a glossy finished, left. "I sold this to a seafood restaurant for $50. You do the math."

Chip and Gene have not stopped exploring the potential of their CNC machine. They have already increased their market beyond Point. Pleasant and into the rest of the state. Now this once struggling local business is poised to expand its markets along the entire eastern seaboard. Their ShopBot has been there every step of the way.

After all... it's the next best thing to those elusive little carving-elves.

About Marshall's Millwork Marshall's Millwork, based in Point Pleasant, N.J., is a millwork and wood-products shop that specializes in custom nautical carvings, doorways, cabinetry, posts, and railings as well as unique 3-D signs and carved posts. For more information and a sampling of their products, visit their website: