Behind the Build: Vacuum Table

CNC & Machining Workshop
Behind the Build: Vacuum Table
Ready for leather: My custom built vacuum table.

I have one of the coolest bosses in the world. I love to make things and he pretty much lets me make whatever I want then pays me to do it. He also has a hobby; he likes to work with leather.

So when he got his hands on a leather cutting drag knife (ED: Donek Tool’s Drag Knife) for our lab’s Shopbot he asked if I could build him a vacuum table to hold sheets of leather securely on the machine I was happy to comply. I started with some research on various vacuum work holding solutions, for high precision metal work they used tables with groves cut into to accommodate rubber gasket rings and required an expensive ultra-high vacuum pump. It was way overkill and too expensive. Then I looked at what they use on CNC routers, specialized porous material for the table surface and a very large and powerful workshop vacuum system. Again, overly complex and way too expensive.

The search for a solution

Frustrated that I wasn’t finding a good solution I decided to look on the website were the drag knife was first acquired, There I found some videos of the drag knife being used on a Shopbot and upon closer inspection of the videos, I saw that they were using what looked like a simple wood box with a perforated top surface, hooked up to what sounded like a standard shop vacuum cleaner. That I could work with. Easy construction and an affordable vacuum system we already had in the lab.

I started off by carefully measuring the Shopbot and I quickly realized that with a suitable air box on top of the Shopbot standard table surface it would use up way too much of the machine’s limited z-axis movement. I opted to remove the extruded aluminum table and have the air-box sit lower inside the frame of the Shopbot, giving me an acceptable amount of movement in the z-axis. This also freed up the some of the original mounting points and made mounting the table to the frame simple.

Next I had to figure out how to attach the vacuum cleaner hose to the air box. Because of Shopbot’s gantry style design, I couldn’t have the hose protruding from the sides or the back. Even mounting it underneath would interfere with the x and y-axis movements, so my only option was to have the hose attach to the air box from the front. Again, because I didn’t want to interfere with the machine’s z-axis, I designed a manifold that hangs over the edge of the Shopbot’s frame. This allowed me to mount the hose on the bottom of the manifold where it was completely out of the way of all the machine’s functions.

The build begins

With that the design was finished and now I could start building. I started out by making the walls of the box. I set up the table saw to the specified height and just cut a bunch of strips of wood. This ensured that all the sides would be the exact same height and not warp the table surface. I marked out all the screw holes as per my design and carefully pre-drilled and countersunk every hole. I didn’t want the wood to split or bulge, and I wanted all the screw heads to sit flush without deforming the surface of the wood.

A detail shot of my vacuum table surface.

In addition to screwing the parts together I applied a small amount of wood glue to each joint to help ensure an airtight seal. Next, I constructed the hose adapter and manifold by again pre-drilling and countersinking all screw holes. I had to hand-fit the manifold to the walls of the box to ensure a flush and snug fit, a bit of filing and sanding and it was perfect.

Next came the top and bottom surfaces of the box. I glued the bottom surface, but not the top because I knew I might have to replace it one day. Once the top was on I counterbored the holes for the mounting bolts and drilled a hole all the way through the air box for each mounting bolt. After that I actually mounted the air box in the Shopbot.

Now, I could have drilled all the holes in the top by hand, but that would have been extremely tedious, so I opted to have the Shopbot do the annoying work. I laid out all the holes in the CAM program and let the machine go to work. Half an hour later all the holes were drilled perfectly and cleanly. With that the vacuum table was done, now to test it.

This vacuum really sucks

First I just found a small piece of scrap wood and laid it on top of the table with the vacuum hooked up and on. This had no effect. That wood moved all over. Next, I added some additional pieces of wood and managed to cover every hole on the table. The vacuum started to bog down, but held steady at a lower rpm. When I attempted to move the scrap wood it would not budge no matter how hard I shoved it. I would call that a success. On to the leather.

My boss found me a piece of leather that was slightly larger then the table and we laid it over all the holes.  Sure enough, the vacuum bogged down and when we tried to shift the leather it wouldn’t budge. However, when we lifted up on the edges we found it could rather easily be pried off the table.

With that I would say the vacuum table is a complete success. Now on to the next project!

8 thoughts on “Behind the Build: Vacuum Table

  1. Sean Martin says:

    Glad to see you guys are having success with the Donek Tools Drag Knife and that our vacuum table tutorial was helpful in your project.

    1. Dan Spangler says:

      Actually, I made this table before you released that video, the video in the article I was referring too was one of your earlier ones demonstrating just the drag knife and you happened to be using your vacuum table setup. I still need to add ribs to the inside of the box as the 3/4″ thick top surface sags a bit when you turn on the shopvac. Your drag knives are awesome by the way, it has been real handy to have around the lab.

    2. Jason Babler says:

      Hey Sean! Next up is going to be a video on how well the Donek knife works!

      1. Sean Martin says:

        That sounds great Jason.

  2. Tommy Phillips says:

    Just how hard is this on a garden variety shop vacuum? Will it put enough extra stress on the motor or bearings to significantly reduce the life of the tool?

    1. Sean Martin says:

      Tommy, you can see the video we posted on this project 6 weeks ago here:
      We’ve seen life of simple shopvacs from 8 months to 6 years. I think the quality has dropped over the years. There a slightly more robust vacuum motors available. If you visit our web site: (we are the Drag Knife manufacturer mentioned in the article) you’ll find our contact information and I can find links to those motors for you.

  3. Jason Holt says:

    Beautiful work, Dan. I really like the vacuum port on the front. Also note that you can suck right through a piece of MDF. It works better if you seal the sides and mill off the skin from the top and bottom of the sheet. With holes you have to be much more careful to keep them all covered, whereas the MDF limits the flow rate, so that you get higher static vacuum inside the box, which translates to higher static vacuum to your workpiece.

    The MDF also doubles as a sacrificial table for when you cut through the workpiece. Once it gets too scarred up, you just plane down the whole table. The shopbot guys have plans up on their site.

    They’ll also sell you huge vacuum pumps, but Rob Bell uses a Fein and says it does just fine (but that cheaper ones are more apt to burn out).

  4. Joel says:

    Some thin low density fiber (LDF) board actually works well without the perforated holes.

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Dan Spangler

Dan Spangler is a freelance maker with a passion for fabricating speed, high voltage, and the things that go boom.

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