Subscribe to Make Magazine Today!

Anyone who’s ever tried woodcarving using a chisel or gouge knows how difficult it can be. It is not trivial to translate an idea — a concept of a shape — from one’s imagination into a physical form. Whether using your hands or a manual tool, manipulating a raw material at will is a demanding task.

FreeD (by Amit Zoran & Joe Paradiso from the Responsive Environments Group at the MIT Media Lab) is a handheld, digitally-controlled milling device. It is guided and monitored by a computer while still preserving the craftsperson’s freedom to sculpt and carve by hand. The computer intervenes only when the milling bit approaches the 3D model, which is planned beforehand. It does so either by slowing down the spindle speed or by drawing back the shaft; the rest of the time FreeD allows the user complete freedom to manipulate and shape the work in any creative way.

With advanced CAD software, free access to tutorials and 3D models, and a vast online community of makers, today we can make, download, or modify a CAD model of almost any desired object. We can then fabricate it directly through a digital process. The idea behind the FreeD is to allow us to engage with the physical material, not just with the CAD environment, freeing us to create our own interpretation of the virtual model. Thus, even though we are working based on a generic design, we can create something that is one of a kind.

In traditional crafts, the craftsperson’s tool techniques and creative decisions immediately influence the final artifact, making the output a reflection of the fabrication process. The same applies to digital fabrication through use of the FreeD. Several users may use the same CAD model, but end up with a different result, reflecting each person’s unique process.

Jie Qi

Jie Qi

I’m a tinkerer and life-long learner currently pursuing my PhD at the MIT Media Lab, in the High Low Tech and Responsive Environments groups. My research is all about combining electronics and programming with arts and crafts to creating expressive, imaginative and personally-meaningful technology.

my website


  • Pingback: Handheld CNC Machine Combines Creativity And CAD (video) » Geeky Gadgets()

  • Pingback: A Handheld CNC Machine Sounds Awesome But Tiring [Video] | PRO-BTC()

  • http://www.trumananderson.com Truman Anderson

    Awesome…I sometime carve Tiki totems with a chainsaw, chisel, gouge, rasp, carving knife…this is something that I believe will eliminate most of those tools for carving wooden objects… Way cool!!

  • Pingback: Handheld CNC Machine Combines Creativity And CAD (video) : Great Gadgets()

  • Thomas W

    The worst of both worlds. The most useless device conceived by man? Probably.

  • Pingback: handheld cnc mill - Practical Machinist - Largest Manufacturing Technology Forum on the Web()

  • Adrian Kelly

    As Thomas said, the worst of both worlds. Horribly innacurate, with the CAD modeling time of CNC, the labor time of hand tools, neither the machine nor the person know where the other is going to go next, and so they can’t compensate for each other. The motor shaft can also only be moved in 1 dimenion, forcing you to use only the tip of the bit, instead of the side which is best. Just look at that rhino, and then this Pink Panther Lady, printed on a $600 RepRap.

    http://blog.reprap.org/2011/12/001-layer-height-on-prusa-mendel.html

  • JohnZapps

    Just because the problem they solved is imaginary doesn’t mean this isn’t potentially very useful. It’s got problems but seems to have loads of potential. All the affordable 3d printers, as well as milling machines, tend to have modest working areas. Think about it.

    Firstly, am I right in thinking this could be done for much less than $600? Secondly, what are the chances of improving tolerances and allowing it to angle/shift the cutting head as well as retract/extend the bit?

    Their “paint by numbers” approach is fun in principle though silly in practice…especially as the real benefit of this form factor -if any- would be the arbitrary work volume. I guess .oo1″ is to much to hope for but the ability to do large pieces without a CNC that’s even bigger seems like a game changer. Especially if decent accuracy and/or additive forming can be added to the mix.

    I suppose the ideal version would be the inverse of a 7+ degree freedom mill that would fit in hand and would always know where it is and how it’s oriented with the ability to retract and extend the bit as well as shift in it’s housing in those 7+ ways to compensate and prevent manual clumsiness. It “just” needs to adjust all that a few times a second.

    “Easy” or am I just being crazy again?

    • JohnZapps

      BTW, I’m mainly thinking in terms of soft plastic and foam but if all the fine control is in the cutting head assembly/s then I don’t see why a relatively cheap robot arm couldn’t be stable enough for tougher work -if obviously not as cheaply as $600.

  • Brandon

    I can appreciate its potential, but so far I am not sold. I think I will just keep my old CNC milling machine

  • Kevin Smith

    Good new technology in precision engineering.

    CNC Machining Services

Related Supplies at Maker Shed