CNC Mill vs. Router: The Differences Explained

If you work in or around the computer-controlled machining community, you’ve heard the terms CNC mill and CNC router tossed around quite a bit. Occasionally they might even be used interchangeably.

However, despite their similarities as CNC machines that remove material, they are two separate machine tools with crucial differences, making each appropriate for dissimilar types of work. But before we delve into their contrasts, let’s look at what these machines have in common.

How Do CNC Mills and CNC Routers Compare?

Any comparisons of the two machines begin with their names: they are both computer numerical control (CNC), meaning you benefit from computer-controlled technology. CNC cutting eliminates human error from the machining process, and each part will come off the machine dimensionally correct and within tolerances. Each machine requires a skilled programmer and an operator, preferably qualified, to set up and change parts.

Both machines will provide consistently accurate results typically missing from manual machines, and the machining will be completed in a fraction of the time.

Next, we’ll check out the details of each machine, and a clearer picture of their differences should start to emerge.

diagram of milling machine parts

What is a CNC Milling Machine?

CNC milling is a manufacturing process using a cutting tool mounted on a rotating spindle to remove material from a metal block or other material. The workpiece is clamped to a worktable, and this table moves or rotates on various planes so the tool can work at the desired angles. CNC milling machines can have five or more axes of motion to machine complex shapes, eliminating the need to move the workpiece to another machine for secondary operations.

The axis movements of a CNC milling machine are based on an X-Y-Z coordinate measuring system. A CNC mill’s workpiece moves along three axes: X-axis is left-to-right, Y-axis is front-to-back, and Z-axis moves up and down. More clearance along the Z-axis allows milling cutters to make thicker cuts since milling machines cut material using high torque instead of rotational speed.

Machinists call on the CNC mill for heavy-duty jobs that require cutting tougher materials like stainless steel and hard metals like titanium. These stronger metals need a machine designed to handle their unique properties and provide the complex designs, high precision, and accuracy required in the parts they machine.

However, these technologically-advanced machines aren’t strictly for industrial use, such as aerospace components. A broad range of materials is within a CNC mill’s capabilities, including wood, aluminum, copper, acrylic, bronze, PVC, nylon, and plywood. Other areas of creativity include furniture, instruments, sculptures, and various DIY entry-level projects.

diagram of a CNC router machine

What is a CNC Router?

Like a CNC mill, a router cuts out complex shapes controlled by CAM software and a standard programming language called G-code. However, CNC routers typically work with soft materials like wood, plastic, and aluminum. They are limited to working with thin materials (plywood boards or sheet materials) because the cutting tool has restricted motion along its Z-axis.

Most CNC routers have a gantry-style construction on which the spindle travels along the X and Y axes, and the workpiece is placed on a stationary table. Routers have high-speed spindles allowing them to cut through softer materials at much higher speeds and feed rates, but they have less torque since they use rotational speed to drive the force to the cutting tool. CNC routers have shorter machining cycles and are ideal for operations requiring multiple pieces.

CNC Router vs CNC Mill

In a nutshell, CNC routing is most often used for woodworking and CNC mills for metalworking. Gantry-style CNC routers are usually less robust than their CNC mill counterparts because the mills are almost always made of heavy-duty cast iron or steel construction. In contrast, the routers might have an aluminum, plastic, or plywood framework. Here are some other key differences:


Because of how they are designed, CNC milling machines will always be the better choice for machining industrial-grade hard materials, while CNC routers will work well on wood, acrylic, and soft metals. CNC mills have a smaller footprint, but their weight is concentrated in a smaller area. This mass gives the CNC mill rigidity, helping to smother vibrations when machining harder materials.

Work Envelope

Another difference between the two machines pertains to their work area. Since CNC routers are machining wood, MDF, plywood, and aluminum sheets, they need a large cutting area. On the other hand, CNC mills are designed with less cutting area than CNC routers because they will be cutting thicker and heavier metal parts, and the smaller travel helps them maintain rigidity.


CNC routers use router bits in woodworking to cut, shape, and engrave, while CNC mills mainly use end mills (shaped somewhat like a drill bit) for high-precision cutting, contouring, slotting, and profiling. Router bits and end mills have various numbers of flutes that can be straight or spiral patterned, and the flutes can be ground at specific angles. Both types come in different sizes and shapes, usually carbide or high-speed steel.

Because of the Z-axis limitations on the CNC router, router bits will be significantly shorter than end mills used for milling operations.


You will find significant differences in the materials that each machine can handle. CNC mills are built to handle virtually any material. Although it might not be practical or advisable to machine a specific material on a mill, they can run it nonetheless.

On the other hand, CNC routers are designed to cut soft materials, like wood, foam, plastic, and aluminum, and they will cut them faster than the mill as long as they are not too thick. Thicker and tougher materials—for example, stainless steel, cast iron, carbon steel, and titanium—are meant to be machined on a CNC mill or CNC lathe, if appropriate.


A CNC router’s revolutions per minute (RPM) are significantly higher than a milling machine, meaning the router can be run at a higher feed rate, offering minimum cutting times. However, that higher production comes with a huge caveat: routers cannot handle the hard materials nor take the same deep cuts as a machining center, so they will be confined to working on softer materials and sheet materials.


Even the best CNC routers cannot match the accuracy of CNC milling machines, so mills are best for parts requiring high precision and close tolerances. The router’s stationary table design causes some of its lower precision capabilities. Still, it’s mostly the CNC mill’s rigidity and limited range of motion that allows them to cut more accurately. Also, the mill’s tooltip configuration enables them to machine complex shapes.


Another difference between the machines is their price. Although you can buy a desktop router for a few hundred dollars, full-sized industrial CNC routers start at approximately $15,000 and can go up past $100,000.

An American-made versatile Bridgeport-type CNC vertical knee mill from a reputable manufacturer like California-based CNC Masters starts at under $13,000, while some sizeable 5-axis machining centers cost $350,000 and up.

Do You Need a CNC Router and a CNC Mill in Your Shop?

CNC mills and routers are valuable machine tools but will only add value to your operation if you have the type of work to support them. For instance, if you are in a metalworking shop doing either short-run jobbing or production work, you can find excellent CNC milling machines to care for your needs.

Add a CNC router to your shop if you’ve decided to expand into sign-making, kitchen cabinet production, or wood carving. Remember that CNC mills are much more versatile, with few limitations on material type, thickness, and operations.

Take a careful look at your anticipated applications. You’ll likely discover that the CNC mill can handle all your requirements accurately and efficiently!


Talk to the CNC experts at CNC Masters. We have CNC machines to fit your shop and your budget, and our professional staff is here to answer your questions and help you determine which machine tool will benefit your unique business the most.

Please fill out our convenient contact form, email us directly at, or call us at 626-962-9300.

About Peter Jacobs

Peter Jacobs is the Senior Director of Marketing at CNC Masters, a leading supplier of CNC mills, milling machines, and CNC lathes. He is actively involved in manufacturing processes and regularly contributes his insights for various blogs in CNC machining, 3D printing, rapid tooling, injection molding, metal casting, and manufacturing in general. You can connect with him on his LinkedIn.

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MX Software – Easy to Use, Easy to Learn – Included with your machine purchase
The MX software is designed to work seamlessly with your CNC Masters machine. It is made to work with Windows PC – desktop, laptop, or an all in one – on standard USB. Use it on Windows 8 or 10 64-bit operating systems.
No internal conversion printer/serial port to USB software or additional conversion hardware is used with the MX.

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2. Clutter Free Interface
The MX is engineered for the CNC MASTERS machine so you do not have to fiddle with a detailed complicated configuration that can be overwhelming. Just load in the MX and start machining!2. Clutter Free Interface
The MX is engineered for the CNC MASTERS machine so you do not have to fiddle with a detailed complicated configuration that can be overwhelming. Just load in the MX and start machining!

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3. Features Tour and Tutorials Included
The Features Tour will give you a quick run-down on all the features the MX can do for you. The Tutorials are easy to follow even for the first time CNC machinist.
Feel free to download the MX on any of your computers. We recommend downloading the MX along with your CAD and CAM software there at the comfort of your office computer to generate your tool path programs. You don’t need to be hooked up to the machine either to test your program in simulation mode.

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4. Navigate and Edit Your Program through the MX interface with Ease
With a few clicks of the mouse or using touch screen technology, you can easily navigate through the MX interface importing saved programs into the Editor from the File drop down menu. Using standard windows features to edit your program you can then lock the Editor Screen to avoid accidental editing, and if you need to insert a line in the middle of a program, just click on [ReNum] to re-number your tool path list.
You can create a program or import CAM generated G-code tool paths into the Editor
The X Y and Z W arrow jog buttons are displayed from the point of view of the cutter to avoid confusion when the table and saddle are moving. You can also adjust your spindle speed and coolant control while jogging each axis.

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5. Feed Hold – Pause in the Middle of your Program
Feed Hold lets you pause in the middle of a program. From there you can step through your program one line at time while opting to shut the spindle off and then resume your program.
You can also write PAUSE in the middle of your program and jog each axis independently while your program is in pause mode.

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6. Hot Keys
Hot Keys is an alternative method to easily control your machine using your hard or touch screen keyboard. One can press P to pause a program, press S to turn Spindle On, G to run a program, Space Bar to Stop, J to record your individual movements one line at a time to create a program in teach mode.

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7. Pick Menu – for conversational mode programming
Write FANUC style G-codes directly into the Editor or select commands off the [Pick] menu and write your tool path program in conversational mode such as what is written in the Editor box. You can even mix between conversation commands and G-codes in the same program.

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8. Pick Menu List of Options
Use commands such as MOVE, SPINDLE ON/OFF, COOLANT ON/OFF, PAUSE, DELAY, GO HOME…. to write your tool path programs in conversational mode.

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9. Draw the Tool Path to verify it before pressing Go
Hit Draw to view your tool path program drawing, check out its run time, or even simulate the tool path in 3D mode. This can be helpful to quickly verify your program before running it. You can also slow down or speed up the drawing or simulation process.
You can also hit Go within the Draw Window itself to verify the cutter’s position on the machine. The current tool path will be highlighted and simultaneously draw out the next path so you can verify what the cutter will be doing next on the program.

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10. Run each tool path independently to study its movement
1. Run the machine on Trace mode. You can run each tool path independently, one line at a time to study the tool path movement on the machine to verify the position of the application and if any fixture/vise is in the way of the cutter’s path.

2. You can also verify your program by clicking on the Trace and Draw buttons together. This will allow you to view each tool path independently one line at a time in the Draw Window.

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11. Counters display in Inches or Millimeters – Continuous Feed
1. When running a program, the counters will display a “real-time” readout while the machine is in CNC operation without counting ahead of the movement.
2. The current tool path is highlighted while the machine is in operation without causing slight interruptions/pauses as the software feeds the tool path to the machine. The MX internally interprets a program ten lines ahead to allow for “continuous machining” avoiding slight interruptions as the machine waits for its next tool path command.
3. “Run Time” tells you how long it takes to run your tool path program.

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12. Use the “Go From Line” command to start in the middle of your program
If you ever need to begin your program from somewhere in the middle of it, use [Go From Line] which you can find under Tools. The Help guide will walk you through how to position the cutter without losing its position on the machine.

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13. Exact Motion Distance without over-stepping on an axis while jogging
Use “Relative ON” to enter a specific coordinate to jog any of your axes to an exact location without having to write a program. It’s like using “power feed” but easier. You can jog an exact distance on any of the axes without needing to keep the key pressed down and mistakenly over-step the movement releasing your finger too slowly off the jog button.
Let’s say you need to drill a hole exactly 0.525” using the Z. So you enter 0.525 in the Z box. Next, adjust the JOG FEED RATE slider for the desired feed rate. Then “click once” on the +Z or -Z button to activate the travel. In this case you click once the -Z button first to drill the hole exactly 0.525”. Then click once on the +Z button to drive the axis back up 0.525”.

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14. Teach Mode – Jog Input
You can create a tool path program by storing each point-to-point movement by simply jogging an axis one at a time. Click on either of the Jog Input buttons to store each movement on the Editor Screen. You can then add Spindle ON, feed commands, and press GO to run the new program as needed. This is a great feature to help you learn to create a program by the movements you make on the machine without necessarily writing out an entire program first.

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15. Override on the fly to adjust the Jog Feed to Rapid or the Spindle Speed during the middle of a program
1. Jog Feed and Rapid with Override: You can adjust feeds using the slider from slow minimum 0.1″ per minute to a rapid of 100″ per minute of travel. You can even micro-step your jog as low as 0.01”/min. The [-][+] buttons allow you to fine tune feeds in 5% increments while the program is in motion.
2. Spindle Speed with Override: You can adjust speeds using the slider from a slow minimum RPM to the max RPM according to the machine setup. The [-][+] buttons allow you to fine tune feeds in 5% increments while the program is in motion.

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16. Adjust Counters using Pre-Set if you cannot begin the program from 0.00
In a situation where you cannot begin your cutter at it’s 0.00 location, you can “Pre-Set” directly into the counters by typing in your beginning coordinate. You can press Go from here to run your program. You can also “zero all” or “zero” your counters independently. With one click of the [Return to 0.0] button, all axes will travel back to its respective 0.0 on the machine.

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17. Set and Save your 0.00 position for future runs
Set and save your 0.00 position on the machine. These coordinates will be recorded as the first line of the program in the Editor Screen. Should you desire to return to this program at a later date, you only have to click on the Set Zero Return button. This will command the machine to automatically jog each axis to its saved “set” 0.00 position according to the recorded coordinates at the first line of the program.

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18. Create a “Home” position to clear your application and run multiple times
Let’s say you need to machine one application times 100 pieces. This usually requires a jig to retain that physical 0.00 position. But in this case, you want the program to end with a clearance of the axes to easily switch out the next piece of stock and start again. With Save Home, you have the ability to save this offset (home) position while still retaining your Set Zero position where the machine will mill your part out. Pressing [Save Home] will record this new position under the Set Zero line in your program.
Pressing [Go Home] will jog your axes back to your “saved home” position where you originally pressed the Save Home command. You can also input GO_HOME from the Pick Menu as its own tool path in your program. At the completion of your program the axes will end at your Home position. Replace your part, then press [Return to 0.0] button to allow the axes to return to its zero position, and press Go to start your next run.

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19. Disable the axis motors to manually hand crank each axis into place
Easily de-energize the axis motors by clicking [Disable Motors] to crank each axis by hand, and then press [Reset Control] to re-energize the axis motors.

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20. Change up to 30 tools with compensation, and store your tool offsets for other programs
The MX supports…

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21. Use the optional ATC rack up to 8 tools for milling, drilling, and rigid tapping applications
The CNC Masters Automatic Tool Changer Rack and Tools (US Patent 9,827,640B2) can be added to any CNC Masters Milling Machine built with the rigid tapping encoder option. The tutorial will guide you through the set-up procedure using the ATC tools.

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22. Use the optional Rigid Tapping Wizard without the need for tapping head attachments
When you order your CNC Masters machine, have it built with the optional rigid tapping encoder. You can take any drill cycle program and replace the top line with a tapping code created by the wizard to tap your series of holes up to 1/2” in diameter.

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23. Use the optional Digital Probe to scan the profile and/or pockets of your fun/hobby type designs to write your tool path program and machine out a duplicate of your original design To “surface” scan an object, you can program the probe along the X or Y plane. The stylus will travel over the part starting on the left side front corner of the object and work its way to the end of the part on the right side. Depending on how the stylus moves, it will record linear and interpolated movements along the X, Y, and Z planes directly on the MX Editor.
To “pocket” scan an object containing a closed pocket such as circles or squares, the scan will start from the top front, work its way inside of the pocket, and scan the entire perimeter of the pocket.
Under the Setup of the MX software you will find the Probe Tab which will allow you to calibrate and program your probe. Your “Probe Step”, “Feed”, and “Data Filter” can also be changed on the fly while the probe is in the middle of scanning your object.

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24. Use work offsets G54-G59 for nesting applications
The work offsets offer you a way to program up to six different machining locations. It’s like having multiple 0.0 locations for different parts. This is very useful especially when using sub-routines/nesting applications.

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25. Create a Rectangular Pocket / Slot with our selection of Wizards to help you build a tool path program
The Cycle Wizards for the mill or lathe makes it easy to create a simple tool path without needing to use a CAD and CAM software.
On this Wizard, the Rectangular Pocket / Slots, can be used to form a deep rectangular pocket into your material or machine a slot duplicating as many passes needed to its total depth.

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26. Create a Circular Pocket Wizard
Input the total diameter, the step down, and total depth and the code will be generated.

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27. Do Thread Milling using a single point cutter Wizard

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28. Cut a gear out using the Cut Gear Wizard with the optional Fourth Axis

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29. Create a Peck Drilling Program in Circular or Rectangular Patterns
Using the Circular or Rectangular Drilling Wizards, you can program the machine to drill an un-limited series of holes along the X and Y planes. Program it to drill straight through to your total depth, use a high-speed pecking cycle, or deep hole pecking cycle. You can program the cut-in depth and return point for a controlled peck drill application to maximize chip clearance.

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30. The MX interface can easily be interchanged from Mill Mode to Lathe Mode
Use this interface for your CNC Masters Lathe. It contains all the same user-friendly features and functions that comes in Mill Mode. Simply go to the Setup page and change the interface.

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31. Use Tool Change Compensation or the optional Auto Tool Changer Turret if your application requires more than one tool in a single program
You can offset the length and angle of each tool and record it under Tools in your Setup. The program will automatically pause the lathe’s movement and spindle allowing you to change out your tool, or allowing the optional ATC Turret to quickly turn to its next tool and continue machining.
On the MX interface, you also have four Tool Position buttons. Select your desired T position, and the auto tool post will quickly turn and lock itself to that position.

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32. Use the Lathe Wizard Threading Cycle to help you program your lathe’s internal or external threads in inches or metric

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33. Use the Lathe Wizard Turning / Boring Cycle to help you program simple turning and boring cycles without having to go through a CAM or writing a long program with multiple passes

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34. Use the Lathe Wizard Peck Drilling Cycle to help you program your drill applications or for face grooving

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35. Facing / Grooving / Part Off Cycle Wizards – with Constant Surface Speed
These cycles can be used with Constant Surface Speed allowing the spindle speed to increase automatically as the diameter of the part decreases giving your application a consistent workpiece finish. With CSS built into the wizard, there is no need to break down the cycle into multiple paths and multiple spindle speed changes.

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36. This is our list of supported G and M codes which can be found under Tools > G Code/ M Code List in the MX
If you plan to use a third-party CAM software to generate your tool path program, use a generic FANUC post processor and edit it to match our list of codes. As an option, we also sell Visual mill/turn CAM software which comes with a guaranteed post processor for our machines to easily generate your tool path programs based on your CAD drawings.

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37. Our pledge to you…

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