machine slots and timely thoughts

Qil Jones

Lately I’ve been thinking about the differences between the tools I can use and the tools my CNC milling machines can use. For starters, they can create slots in metal that I can’t because of how they carve it using another rapidly spinning piece of metal (called an end mill, which looks like a drill bit).

[Image of assorted end mill types: Ball end, square end and taper]
[Image of an end mill in my Nomad 883 Pro CNC Mill]

I use square end mills in my work. When they cut individual lines all the way through the thickness of a given sheet metal, the result is a slot with two precisely rounded off ends, whose roundness come from the cutting diameter of the end mill itself. A detail that resolves line (and direction) in a way that I can’t readily do own my own. I should also note here that from my understanding, "slotting" is a tricky thing to do on CNC milling machines, as slots have the maximum possible tooling engagement - that is to say, the tool and machine are at the highest level of stress due to the forces that come into play while slotting. Because of this, I run my machines at slow and safe speeds to reduce both tool wear and noise. (Which some might say negates the classically understood benefit of machines doing things quickly for us. I see it differently.)

[Diagram of an end mill creating a slot]

When I cut through sheet metal with a jeweler’s saw, there is no rounded end to those lines, because a jeweler’s saw blade is a very thin and rectangular piece of cutting metal that cuts by sawing (an up and down/back and forth motion) through metal, as opposed to spinning (or "milling") through it. 

[Diagram of jeweler's saw blade]

This means that the cuts I can make by hand are square at the end. Now, for reference, the smallest diameter end mill I can work with at this point is 1/32” or 0.79mm. The thinnest saw blade I can work with by hand is 0.16mm thick. That's a big difference in terms of how small of an incision I can make into metal using either of those tools. Some might say this numerical difference indicates that I have the greater capacity for precision because I can cut smaller lines by hand, but it’s really a matter of context. My machines can create lines for as long as I have end mills and electricity. I will definitely tire after cutting by hand for so long, and that fatigue on the hand adds up over time. So I would say that this means my machines have a greater capacity for exploring how many consistently rounded slots can be carved out of a piece of metal. For me, that leads to wondering about how much I can structurally alter sheet metal with waves of repeated machine cuts.


[Image of my new limited-release MS-5 ear cuff]

The MS-5 ear cuff (MS for Machine Slotted, 5 for how many slots there are) represents my first intentional venture into exploring that kind of slotting. I imagine that my next pieces following this line of thinking will have increasing numbers of slot-shapes that impart different types of flexibility to the metal. Of course, in the process of making this cuff, I also enjoy the handwork that I put into it: the flame coloring of the metal, the hammer texturing, and the polishing. Ultimately it reminds me of how I started with jewelry four years ago, with an aesthetic of alien artifactuality in mind. More than anything, though, it makes me question what it would look like for me to give my machines more time to make intricate things --- slowly.

As I mentioned before, typically it's perceived that machines save us time in our work, and that's why they're valuable. I know that's why I first got a CNC mill - I thought, hey, that'll save me some time when it comes to jewelry-making! But what if we didn't solely base the value of machines in our perception of time? What things could we create alongside them, then? My machines give me more time to do the things I love; I think I need to honor them in our shared work by giving them time, like I now have, to labor slowly on things that only they can handle (such as slotting). Because now just might be the time we need to consider how we will share chronoliberation with machinery. S'lot to think about! 



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