Cabinet Software and Drafting Software

A young shop owner wonders how to step up from a cabinet software package to a full-fledged drafting program, mostly in order to be able to modify architects' drawings. A long, informative discussion ensues about the relationship between drafting programs and cabinetmaking CNC software, and the relationship of both to an evolving business. October 16, 2012

I currently use eCabinets on a Thermwood CNC and I love the machine. If anyone can point out the flaws in my thinking below it would be great. I don't have enough experience to do it myself and your opinions could possibly save me a lot of time and money in doing so.

I bought it used but Thermwood customer service has treated me like one of their own. Also, in my opinion eCabs is an awesome program and if I were selling mostly to showroom clients with whom I had direct contact I would have no use for another program.

That said, I am in a weird niche. I deal directly with contractors who themselves usually answer to architects who make random visits to the jobsites and report to the customers (who I sometimes never meet). Since I have no interaction with the customer, the cabinets are designed by the architect via elevations in the blueprints.

The architects never have an issue with allowing me access to their dxf files. Since I am a transplant to the cabinet industry from a separate field I am savvy to a separate CAD program that I can open the dxf files in, scale them to accommodate jobsite dimensions, and re-submit to the architect for my shop drawings.

I then have to draw the cabinets in eCabs to send to the CNC. My thoughts are that I could purchase AutoCAD and Microvellum which would streamline the process. I have read about all of the nightmares regarding Microvellum in the Knowledge Base but I have also seen a lot of posts which make eCabs out to be a difficult/long learning curve software which I disagree with.

I have already purchased AutoCAD, and although I haven't yet tried to draw anything I am hoping that my experience with a separate CAD software will help. Also, it seems that one of the biggest concerns that people have with AutoCAD is that "you are drawing cabinets one line at a time." I have read that AutoCAD will perform as parametric software. Is that one of the advantages of Microvellum in that the AutoCAD/Microvellum handshake happens early in the process after which Microvellum is a parametric program? Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Forum Responses
(CAD Forum)
From contributor X:
You’re not wrong, but you’re not fully right either. AutoCAD and Microvellum are tools, and in the right hands and with enough time invested can be useful. AutoCAD is of course, in general, the industry standard. If folks are drawing cabinets one line at a time they simply have not learned how to fully use AutoCAD. It is more powerful than that, and even if not easily parametric there are ways to save tons of time by reuse of objects, dynamic blocks, etc. It does have parametrics, but only in 2D, so it depends on how you want to use the tool.

Microvellum is a wholly separate beast. Yes, it can be very good, but it is more suited to a very established construction library and is more suited to building boxes than custom work. Yes it can be bent to peoples will, but you need a talented operator and you need to invest a decent amount of time and training to make it work.

A tip on Microvellum is to make sure the person doing it has a very good grasp of how AutoCAD works, how spreadsheets work, and the basics of databases. The learning curve is steep and those as a foundation should shorten that curve for you. I would go to a shop that uses each and see how they really use them. A salesman can show you anything, but real world is always a whole different story.

From contributor S:
Contributor X is spot on. I would add that MV is best suited to AutoCAD pros who are getting onto the cabinet industry. If you are managing a business and working in the shop and selling jobs you will not have time to use MV to its full potential. Why exactly do you want to switch from eCabinets? I used eCabs for a few years, but out grew it and use Cabinet Vision now. I considered MV, but it looks way too difficult to make custom cabinetry using it. As my shop gets busier with architectural work I am considering MV again. I really like the open database system of CV. I just hired a CAD designer to handle the non-cabinet work, so I think I will not need MV.

From contributor K:
You say that you "then have to draw the cabinets in eCabs" to send them to the machine. Don't you have a library built up where you can just make a few clicks to change the cabinet size and hit the CNC button? Maybe you need to work on your library of seed cabs. It sounds like you already have the ability to deal with their drawings and get the job approved.

From contributor Z:
I second Contributor K. This is how we handle commercial projects. I have different libraries set up for clients that I can pull cabinets out of, re-size, and send to the machine. In certain circumstances, I might have to take a couple of cabinets that need modifications into the editor.

From the original questioner:
I shouldn't have said "draw." I have a couple of good seed cabinet libraries, one frameless, and one inset. They were expensive. After shop drawings are approved I have to at best resize the seed cabinets and at other times reconfigure them to the point that sometimes it makes more sense to start from scratch. The architects are notorious for things like different stile/rail widths within the same cabinet (sometimes four or five different widths), changing drawer heights from one elevation to another, etc.

I don't think that it's the time that it takes me to translate the CAD drawings into eCabs but more so the potential for error in doing so. If the nesting were to be generated directly from the shop drawings themselves (as I assume would be the case in Microvellum) then this potential for error in translation would not exist, but I may well be making assumptions about Microvellum that aren't true.

From the original questioner:
Contributor X - I build a lot of boxes and they are of a custom size and configuration but boxes nonetheless. Also, is it fair to say that any cabinet company using a CNC will need to acquire eCabs, Cabinet Vision, routerCAD, Cabinetware, Microvellum, or some other parametric program? Further, aren't all of these programs relatively weak in custom work? Again, I may be wrong about that.

Aside from eCabs my only knowledge of any of the aforementioned programs has come from what I have read of them on WOODWEB; but if it is true that they are all weak to a similar degree in custom work and if it is true that a company cutting a lot of boxes will need one of the above programs, then it seems like their utility in custom work is a non-factor. I don't do a lot of the sort of work that you are referencing, but I guess if I did a topsolid program would it be needed in addition to the parametric program?

From the original questioner:
Contributor S - I am no AutoCAD pro. I have never drawn a line in AutoCAD. It seems like, as far as the drawings go, I would only need to be able to edit the drawings supplied by the architect. This usually involves changing the sizes to account for the difference in plan dimensions and jobsite dimensions. I could always purchase the program and use it only for mock trials while keeping my current system in place for the actual work.

As for why I want to switch from eCabs - there are several reasons. For one, I am in my twenties and assuming that I stay in this industry until I retire it would be nice to know that if I were to purchase a separate or second CNC at some point that I could consider machines in addition to Thermwood.

Also, I have not outgrown the software, but I’m having to make concessions and accommodations. For one, in modifying a cabinet, eCabs uses an order of operations that is not logical to me. For example, if I want to change a dado setting on a cabinet, I open, make the change in the assembly editor, and save the change. However, if I want to change the shelf material, I have to open the cabinet, delete the shelf, change the shelf material, and then re-install the shelf. The same goes for global settings.

Also, my current shop is only 2500 sf, and as a result I was lean way before I knew what lean was. I have to process in small batches out of necessity. I have read on WOODWEB that other software packages allow you to nest so that you get a complete cabinet every X number of sheets. To do the same, I have to nest a job six or seven cabinets at a time, and I have to use my own judgment as to which cabinets go together most efficiently. I assume (I haven't asked a salesman) that a Microvellum or a Cabinetvision would perform a "nest within a nest" (it performs a macro-nest by sorting cabinets in such a way that they machine efficiently). I waste a lot of plywood by my method. I also risk duplicating or omitting a cabinet by accident by manually breaking a large job down into small batches.

I think though that the line drawing editor is the biggest issue. ECabs draws awesome color perspectives, but all of the kitchen centers around me supply their potential clients with the same cheesy 3D perspectives that they print out of their 20-20 software and I would like to do something different.

Another consideration is that it seems that each week I find a new use for Excel, and I am trying to learn about databases and Visual Basic and it seems that this would come in handy if I were to purchase Microvellum.

Aren't you a young guy yourself? When you consider your software, such as you did with regard to the additional architectural work that you are taking on, shouldn't you instead ask "what is ultimately the best software package for my business in 5, 10, 15 years?" It seems to me that the more established a company, the more drastic a change in software, so I want to get this one right at the outset.

From contributor G:
"I would only need to be able to edit the drawings supplied by the architect." That is a bad assumption, like most assumptions. I'm not even sure you can be proficient with autoCAD as a part time user, but autoCAD is at the core of MV, so any time you spend on autoCAD will not be wasted. Excel is the same. In your situation you need to use your time judiciously and prioritize or you are going to end up chasing your tail. I think you should keep using eCabinets, and start playing with autoCAD.

From contributor M:
"If the nesting were to be generated directly from the shop drawings themselves (as I assume would be the case in Microvellum)." I think you missed a step here. It sounds like you're assuming that you can import the architect's DXF file into MV and press "nest". I don't use MV, but I don't think it works that way.

My business is very similar to yours in that I work mostly through interior designers who pass along DXF files and make a hundred little changes like you describe. It's a bit of a no man's land. I worked with a pirated version of CV for a while, but found I was spending more time recreating the cabinetry in CV rather than just using AutoCAD to modify the designer's original DXF file. Plus, I had a couple translation errors that cost huge amounts of money.

My conclusion is that any of the programs (CV, MV, etc.) are only worth using if you're a large shop or a small shop working directly with end customers. If you're a small shop not working with end clients, there is too much overhead in using those programs to make them efficient. I primarily use AutoCAD and MasterCAM.

From contributor C:
To the original questioner: You have a system that works, stick with it. Or, stick by a business-specific software and move on. I jumped on the CV Ultimate train this year and I have not been sorry, except I should have done it ten years ago. Run the math on MV and get some real number's on time it takes to get it running, crunch the money, and make a decision. Lots and lots of people told me they had very powerful software on a shelf and kept using and upgrading CV.

From contributor F:
ECabinets is a very capable program. I can tell by your posts that one of the problems is you haven't learned it well enough. You will encounter the same problems using AutoCAD if you don't become truly proficient with the software. You don't have to delete a shelf to change material. Open the cabinet in the Shelf Partition Editor, click the shelves you want to change to select them, right click, choose construction settings and change your material. The shelves you selected will change. You can also change shelf material in multiple cabinets in a batch or room layout using the filter and change sheet stock feature. The mail problem with any cabinet design and manufacturing software package is the fact that the user doesn't invest the time to truly learn how to use it.

From the original questioner:
To contributor K: I agree with everything you said and thank you for the advice on shelf material. You are correct that I have not spent a lot of time with the software, only the minimum needed to run the machine. Becoming proficient with any software is an enormous time investment, and it is one that I have no qualms in making, but I don't want to climb a tall ladder that is leaning against the wrong building.

Again, I have nothing but positives to say about Thermwood and eCabinets. Out of all the major software companies, and I have had multiple conversations with each, Thermwood has been the most helpful, the quickest to respond, etc. What is remarkable about this is that my calls to the Thermwood corporation have been with questions about a software that I did not buy from them to run a CNC that I did not buy from them directly, whereas my calls to the other software companies have been with inquiries about their product (a potential sale for them), and yet they still lack the follow up and support that Thermwood has given for free. I don't know how they (Thermwood) do it.

To that end, when I do buy new, it will be a Thermwood so long as the machine aligns with my strategy. I don't know fully what that strategy is yet. Back to the analogy of the ladder and the building - it seems to me that my business is unique in the fact that I do not need presentation drawings, but submittal drawings, and these submittal drawings are mostly done by the architect. For minor changes I am having to go through needless steps because eCabs (or cabinet vision, or cabinet ware, et al) will not import the architects work and export the amended drawings.

This may seem minor, but over the course of many years and jobs, not so much. Also, I think that I like to one day crossover into commercial, which at least shares some similarities with what I am doing now with my dealings with architects and submittals at a minimum, and it seems that the bulk of the commercial guys that I see posting here are using Microvellum.

There must be some reason for this and I assume that the connection to AutoCAD is one of them because they, like me, could save time and eliminate mistakes by working with the original document submitted to them by the architect/contractor.

From contributor G:
Importing dxf - I do that occasionally but it is an insignificant consideration. Until you have a full time engineer forget about MV. For custom work CV is weak.

"I don't know fully what that strategy is yet." That is the real thing you need to look at, anything invested until you answer that is a waste of time. I recommend you do some looking before you decide anything. You need more information about different paradigms. I recommend you join an organization like the CMA, AWI, WI and find out the different possibilities.

From contributor C:
I think we forgot something. If you are not careful you could be setting yourself up for a fall not having the ability to set-up for presentation drawings and work with clients directly as your business grows.

From contributor F:
I think Contributor G is probably correct in that your direction is very important to your question. You can never go wrong, especially when you are young, learning AutoCAD. It will be of great benefit for your submittal drawings but using AutoCAD alone there is not much useful manufacturing information available. For that you will need a third party application and I think that is where it gets complicated. Your direction will determine if this is the road for you. Most likely if you follow that road you will need a full time CAD person. Can you wear that hat and the hat of owner and salesman? The real problem is that there is no one size fits all solution in the cabinet design and manufacturing software market. They all have their plus and minus sides. ECabinet systems has worked great for me but I don't work with architects or do commercial work.

From contributor S:
Forget about importing client's drawings. There is no practical solution to do that, and knowing what I know about CAD there never will be. ECabs is great, but where it fell short for me was its inability to be expanded. CV is amazing because the database that drives it is an open file (several open files) and you can do incredible things with that. My CV, QuickBooks, and FileMaker databases are all linked together. This only matters if you are willing to invest the time, but for a busy shop the payback is huge.

CV has a great ability to create custom pieces, and unlike most options it can intelligently constrain them. The problem is that you have to draw these custom assemblies in the "CV way". Meaning that you have to create, size, and constrain the parts in a non-graphical environment. The math can get pretty messy as well. The result is a super powerful custom assembly that can be dynamically resized and constrained. Plus, all the costing can be automatic! I have labor values set up for boards and panels so when I make a bed or table CV will tally the labor for the individual parts and hardware automatically (and very accurately).

From contributor D:

In my experience, there is no single software package which is going to meet all of the requirements of a cabinetmaker. There are too many variations in customers’ specifications, which preclude an overall solution. Most packages will cover 90% of needs, but there will always be the bits which require either the use of pencil and paper or input from another source.

Sure, some packages fit a particular scenario fairly well, but then along comes a job which just doesn't fit at all. Flexibility is the key and that comes from the operator, the time spent in learning and exploring as well as a mindset that can look outside the square, not the package itself. An intimate knowledge of your particular software is essential, be it AC, CV MV or Excel. At the end of the day, the biggest limitation is ourselves.

From contributor F:
One thing to note in eCabs - you don't have to delete mid stiles and rails to change size or material. Open the cabinet in the Face Frame Editor, and click on the mid stile or rail (you can select multiple stiles and rails using the CTRL key) you want to change. Right click and choose construction settings. Make any changes you want then click “ok”. The selected stiles and rails will reflect the changes. I would seriously recommend all eCabinets users purchase the Nearly Complete Guide to eCabinet systems book and read it through. You will be surprised all the software can do.

From contributor W:
I am looking at Autocabinets by RouterCAD for the reasons outlined by the Original Questioner. It has the ability to import and export DXF. I understand it is quirky but what cabinet software isn't.

From contributor F:
To contributor W: The question is what can AutoCabinets do with an imported 2D drawing from an architect? Can it extract useful manufacturing information from it or can you only modify drawings?

From contributor W:
You are right, there is not a software program available that can import 2D drawings and output manufacturing information to a CNC. If eCabinets were able to export 2D drawings in a dxf format it would be a completely different program. However as it stands one has to contend with their line drawing editor which is quite limited and can't perform the functions of a 2D CAD program. This is my only complaint with eCabs. For some reason the programmers are afraid that allowing 2D dxf output will give people the ability to extract manufacturing data to export to competitors CNC's.

From contributor C:
I bought Cabinetvision ultimate and added ten hours of training here in my shop, and I had cutlists being printed in an afternoon of the type of work we manufacture. I am not trying to steer you away from routerCAD, but I have heard two sides of importing the dxf's and not just doing your own drawings.

From contributor F:
To contributor W: I don't think the programmers are worried so much about dxf exports. Most likely the hold-up is that changing the Line Drawing Editor is going to be a huge undertaking. I am guessing it will happen in the future but have no idea when. I would hate to lose the Line Drawing Editor's 3D capabilities but I would like an easier/faster way to create elevation and shop drawings. What do you want to accomplish with dxf imports and exports?

From contributor L:
When I open a saved cabinet or project in eCabinets and in the main view change the face frame material, it does not change any interior stiles and rails. It will change the four main exterior, but none of the interior, like in a drawer stack. Also, when I add a door and it changes my face frame material, because I forgot to uncheck the match to face frame box, it is frustrating.

To the original questioner: I know my route will more than likely make you feel cheated with your 20/20 dealings, but here goes. I used 20/20 and I like it. It is great for what I do. The cost getting into it is a heck of a lot higher than eCabinets, which is free. I started out using eCabinets and it was the greatest thing in the world, but as a professional product to be displayed to the customer, it is not there. Sure it makes good 3D renderings, which most programs do. But when you need layout information, great blue print type layouts, it does nothing. Sometimes I need those for electricians or plumbers, eCabinets just couldn't do that.

Ok, here are the two routes I would do if I were you: I would either buy a full featured product such as 20/20 and go from there using the Shopware CAD to import your architect’s CAD files, and using 20/20 to output to your router. Most architects don’t draw each cabinet out. They have a library they use and get cabinets from it. Create your own libraries in CAD and give them to your architects or designers. Or you could ask them what they use and then replicate them in eCabs.

From contributor F:
To contributor L: You are not following my instructions. Make the changes to the face frame in the face frame editor not the main editor. You must click on any interior mid stiles or mid rails to select them (a green outline will be around them. If you need to select multiple stiles and rails then hold the CTRL key on the keyboard while left clicking on each part) for them to change material with the outside stiles and rails. If you follow these instructions it will work for you.

As for the Match Door check-box, you need to insure that it is unchecked in your library cabinets. That is just a maintenance problem, not a software problem. With any software you have to realize that you cannot make it work the way you want it to, but instead, must learn the way it works, and use those features to your benefit.

From contributor W:
I am not so concerned with dxf import capabilities in eCabinets. If I want to create a pretty picture for my customers the program allows me to import pictures and wrap them onto objects. What I need however is 2D dxf output so I can create shop drawings showing how my cabinets will fit around electrical and mechanical objects as well as things I create like hood fans, bar fronts, etc. I also provide shop drawings to general contractors and architects to use for site prep.

Complex jobs usually require me to lay out my cabinet work in a CAD program first so I can get my proper cabinet sizes and shapes which I can then create in my cabinet program. Ideally I would then take my cabinets back into my CAD program to make sure they fit (2D dxf export) before I send them to the shop. ECabinets is great for standard, cataloged, cabinet type jobs, however unless it speaks the language of construction, which is CAD, it will always be lacking. This is why large commercial millwork shops use CAD based programs. Simply tweaking the line drawing editor will not do it.

From contributor C:
Many architects will flat out reject your drawings if you do not show you drew and submitted your shop drawings. It's a very common stipulation in most spec books- and a lot have it clearly stated.

From contributor W:
This is why it is important for anyone doing commercial work to have cabinet software that speaks the language of CAD, or at least the ability to export to a CAD program.

From the original questioner:
What do floor plans have to do with any of this? Unless you mean "floor plans" as a generic term which includes elevations, then there is no software which can infer elevations from floor plans. However, it seems that there should be one which can recognize rails, stiles, doors, toekick, etc. and automatically edit similar cabinets in a library to match. Of course, there would have to be a default depth which could be changed manually if other than 24" or whatever you designated as standard.

From contributor F:
I don't see how that would ever work unless you were drawing the elevation yourself to include all the relevant details. You mention using an architect’s drawings in your first post but most architects drawings outside of commercial work are always very generic. There are rarely any of the design details you would need to build from. There is also so much information that is needed, joinery, general construction methods, hardware type and placement along with details on the holes to mount hardware. There is just too much information needed to be able to extract it all from a simple 2D elevation.

It would be more difficult thinking that Auto Cabinets or Router CAD can extract all this information from a 2D floor plan. I would like to see how it is done. I have visited the Router CAD site many times and can't find anything about this. I think it would be popular software if you could import an architect’s drawings, push a button, and it would spit out cabinets your way ready to cut.