cnc plasma table

Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose The Best CNC Plasma Table

You already have a few CNC machines in your metalworking shop, and now you want to venture beyond the milling machine, lathes, and routers and purchase a CNC plasma cutting system. It’s a relatively significant decision since a CNC plasma cutter requires a substantial up-front investment.

You might be convinced that a plasma cutter will pay off over time by saving you money on outsourcing your profile metal cutting work with the speed and efficiency of a plasma system. However, it can be intimidating for any first-time buyer to consider the many factors in selecting a suitable plasma cutter for your business or home workshop. Remember, purchasing a plasma cutter is a lot like buying a welder: you choose one according to your work.

This guide will introduce you to the CNC plasma cutting table and some of the primary factors you should consider before purchasing one. But first, here is some background on the plasma cutter table.

What Is a CNC Plasma Table?

The CNC plasma cutting table is one of the most efficient and versatile tools for steel plates and pipe cutting, even on thicker materials. The tables come in various sizes, so you’ll need to base your table purchase on the manufacturing and construction applications you plan to do. CNC plasma cutting tables have moving parts, including a gantry for traversing the X and Y-axis and a plasma torch carriage for the Z-axis (up and down).

Plasma cutting machines are computer automated, allowing for the highest quality cuts, meaning the design software for your CNC plasma cutting table is another critical component. To ensure accuracy, CAD (computer-assisted drawing) enables designers to draw the part digitally before taking the initial cut.

CNC plasma tables typically come with tech support, a toll-free number for assistance, and a one or two-year warranty on labor and parts.

What Is The Difference Between a Plasma Table and a Plasma Cutter?

A plasma torch is a device that cuts through electrically conductive materials by using an accelerated jet of hot plasma directed at the material. The plasma table carries this plasma cutter, which has a flat surface of steel slats spaced approximately 2” to 4” apart. The slats support the workpiece and absorb the heat from the thermal cutting process.

The plasma torch is suspended directly above, rides on a bridge, officially called a gantry, and moves as CAD/CAM software directs. As opposed to hand-held plasma cutters, CNC plasma cutting tables slice through metals at speeds up to 500 inches per minute, resulting in high-quality cuts in a fraction of the time.

The plasma torch and power supply provide the cutting capacity and quality, while the machine’s design is responsible for accurate parts. As such, a combination of a durable machine design and power source will produce the ideal results.

What Features Should I Look For in a CNC Plasma Table?

CNC plasma cutters vaporize metals into a powder form and remove them from the cut zone using a high stream of air or gasses. They all require a plasma gas and an assist gas to work correctly, and the machines vary in size, price, and functionality.

As you shop for a CNC plasma cutting machine, look for the following features:

1. User-Friendly CNC Control

Most entry-level machines are operated from a personal computer instead of a sophisticated control unit. A computer might not be sufficient in a high-production environment but typically is adequate for a small shop. This method helps control the costs for hobbyists, the one-person shop, and smaller fab shops without high production demands. If you require extra features, look for a CNC plasma table with an onboard diagnosis system for trouble-free maintenance.

2. Affordability

Many brands can deliver excellent motion control and precision, but they exceed the budgets of small shops, hobbyists, and beginners. However, a few brands offer industrial capabilities at an entry-level CNC plasma table price. Also, look for companies that offer flexible payment options and financing so you don’t struggle with a substantial lump-sum payment. You can save money upfront by delaying expensive add-ons for a later date.

You can save on driver motors, gearing, and electronics on plasma cutters not purchased for heavy use. Many entry-level plasma cutters come with stepper motors instead of servo drives, offering significant savings and equal reliability.

Remember, heavy-duty machines withstand the stress of constant use and provide a wider cut thickness, better cut quality, and faster cutting speeds. However, the mechanical components of a light-duty plasma cutter, sometimes called a DIY CNC plasma cutter, will be lighter, smaller, and have a lower price tag, which is ideal if you anticipate using something other than the machine for round-the-clock production.

3. CAD/CAM Software

CAD (computer-aided drawing) lets you draw your part digitally and input it into the CAM (computer-aided machining) software.

The CAM software applies correct tolerances, kerf width, lead-ins, and lead-outs using post-processing. The CAM file is entered into the CNC control, which converts it into signals that control the cutting process.

Some entry-level plasma cutters include combined CAD/CAM software, making the transfer from drawing to cutting the part quick and simple. It allows smaller shops to draw and trim pieces on the shop floor while they are at the machine.

4. Torch Height Control

Some plasma tables do not offer torch height control, reducing the overall cost of the plasma cutting system. However, height control is essential to edge angularity and the table’s longevity, and a plasma torch with torch height control (THC) will raise or lower it depending on how close it is to the metal.

5. Table Size

Tables range from 2’ x 2’ up to 5’ x 10’ and everything in between. Hobbyists and small fabrication shops can choose a smaller table and get started for around $1,000. Still, if you have industrial requirements, your CNC plasma cutter could cost $50,000 with a correspondingly larger table.

6. Output Power

As mentioned, the output power of a CNC plasma cutter determines what it can cut. For example, getting 12 amps of output power from a 120V machine means you can cut most 1/8” thick metal, while 60 amps from a 230V machine can cut most metals that are 7/8” thick. Some inverter-based plasma cutters provide high cutting output power but weigh far less than regular cutting machines offering that same cutting capacity.

7. A Fume Control System

All plasma cutters produce hazardous fumes and smoke, so you should seriously consider a method for extracting them. There are two primary ways to do this, and the water table is the more common since it’s found predominantly on entry-level CNC plasma cutters. The design is more straightforward, and the ongoing costs are reasonable. However, when you retire the machine, the water must be disposed of by regulations.

The downdraft fume extraction tables with large-capacity filter units are more efficient for production machines. A fan or blower pulls the smoke below the cutting bed slats in the downdraft system. The fume extraction filter removes fume and dust via ductwork built into the cutting table. This method is a safer, more ecological, albeit more expensive, method of extracting dust and fumes.

What Can I Make With a CNC Plasma Table?

CNC plasma tables are found in fabrication shops, automotive repair shops, industrial structural steel facilities, and construction companies. Some of their applications include:

  • Cutting large beams on the construction site
  • Scrapping operations at salvage dealers
  • Metal sheets at fabrication shops
  • Cutting into safes and vaults after customers are locked out
  • Creating works of art
  • Bevel cuts, precise holes, and unique shapes in industrial parts and components

Who Makes The Best CNC Plasma Tables?

There are several excellent brands of CNC plasma cutters from which to choose: the following three should be part of your shopping list:

1. STV Motorsports CNC Plasma Table Spar (X4400-4×4)

The STV Motorsports CNC plasma table is among the top-rated plasma cutters based on its versatility, reliability, and accuracy. It includes a water table to reduce the chances of the metal warping capture dust particles that could be hazardous to the operator. 

Other features include:

  • Cutting speed of up to 600 inches per minute 
  • Handle up to three-quarters of an inch thick steel plate
  • Replaceable table slats 
  • Dry or water pan options
  • Automatic torch height control 

2. STV Motorsports SparX510 5×10 CNC Plasma Cutting Table

Like the STV Motorsport X4400-4×4, the SparX510 has an advanced cable management system, a water table, and an automated torch height control system. It also has stepper motors known for their accuracy and speed. The plasma cutter is designed to handle 3/4″ thick steel, copper, or aluminum plates, although it sacrifices cut rate on the thickest material.

Other features of this STV model:

  • Study and durable parts made in the USA
  • Lifetime technical customer support
  • Cutting speed of up to 600 inches per minute 
  • Z-axis maximum 6” travel depth
  • Highly accurate with a deviation of 0.002 inches per 12 inches 
  • Replaceable table surfaces 
  • Selectable input power of 110V and 220V

3. 5×10 Hypertherm Plasma Cutter Table for Sheet Metal & Tube

The 5×10 Hypertherm plasma cutter table with CNC controller is designed to cut sheet metals and metal pipes with a 4th rotary axis. Here are some of its other features:

  • Model: STP1530R
  • Table Size 1500x3000mm (5×10)
  • Max Cutting Thickness: 40mm
  • Pipe Cutting Size Diameter from 200mm to 600mm, Length up to 3000mm or 6000mm
  • Plasma Cutting Speed 0-6500mm/min
  • Stepper Motor
  • Machine Frame: Welded Structure
  • Machine Structure: Rack and Pinion Drive

Final Thoughts

CNC plasma tables provide precision, efficiency, and versatility to hobbyists, fabrication shops, and large industrial manufacturers, helping them to achieve impressive results. Anyone looking to purchase one should consider the above features and their situation (budget and work type) and buy a machine that meets their needs. If nothing seems to fit, numerous other CNC machines will!

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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