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Is CNC Milling Wood a Good Idea?

CNC milling machines have become an integral tool in the world of manufacturing and production because of their precision, speed, and versatility. These machine tools typically mill and drill various metals, including steel, cast iron, aluminum, and alloys. However, an interesting question arises: is it appropriate to use a metalworking CNC milling machine for wood cutting?

The answer to this question is more complex than it may initially seem. There is a common misconception that the function of a machine is strictly defined by its name or traditional use. However, that is not always the case. Although primarily used for metalworking, CNC milling machines might be an alternative for machining other materials, including wood, depending on specific conditions and circumstances.

Learn more about important considerations when contemplating using a metalworking CNC machine for woodworking. To provide a well-rounded perspective on the topic, we will discuss various factors such as the type of wood, the machine’s capabilities, the kind of cutter, and safety precautions.

What are the advantages of CNC technology for woodworking?

The traditional CNC wood cutting machine, typically a CNC router, is a crucial tool in modern carpentry and woodwork. This marvel of technology has revolutionized woodwork, bringing precision, repeatability, and efficiency to a level unreachable by human hands alone.

The wood CNC machine for routing is a computer-controlled machine tool that cuts wood, acrylics, aluminum, MDF, and PVC. These machines have a dedicated router and a movable table to position the workpiece. CAD (Computer Aided Design) files are imported and turned into CNC programs which then control the router.

CNC Technology Increases Precision

One of the advantages of a CNC router over manual work is precision. The CNC router can replicate intricate designs and patterns with an accuracy of up to one-thousandth of an inch, allowing for the production of complex and detailed workpieces that would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve manually.

CNC Technology Makes Repeatability Possible

Another significant advantage is repeatability. Once the operator programs a design into the machine, the CNC router can produce countless duplicates with exact precision, something unattainable by the human hand. This consistency makes it ideal for mass production and creating high-quality parts.

CNC Technology Increases Efficiency

Improved efficiency is also a significant benefit of the CNC router machine. These machines can run continuously and require less human intervention, so they significantly reduce the time to machine a workpiece. Also, using high-speed multiple tools in one job without manually changing them further improves productivity.

Despite these advantages, it’s worth noting that the successful operation of a CNC router requires a certain degree of technical knowledge and skill. Operators must understand CAD design, tool path planning, and machine control software to leverage the machine’s capabilities fully.

The traditional CNC woodworking machine, a CNC router, has transformed the woodworking industry. By offering improved precision, repeatability, and efficiency, these machines allow for the production of intricate designs on a mass scale, thereby harnessing modern technology’s full potential for woodworking.

What are the main differences between a CNC milling machine and a CNC wood router?

CNC milling machines and wood routers are computer-controlled machines used for various cutting operations in many industries. However, these tools are designed for different applications and significantly differ in their capabilities, precision, and cost.

Manufacturers primarily use a CNC milling machine in metalworking and heavy industry. This machine can handle materials like steel, brass, and titanium using cutting tools such as endmills and face mills to machine them. The CNC mill operates in multiple axes (usually 3 or 5), allowing for intricate designs and precise cuts. Milling machines can handle the intense heat generated when cutting hard materials, and they are famous for their robust and durable nature, offering reliable precision even after years of heavy use. However, this high precision and durability come at a cost, making CNC milling machines more expensive than CNC routers.

On the other hand, a CNC wood router, as the name suggests, is typically used for cutting softer materials like wood, plastic, foam, and occasionally soft metals like aluminum. Endmills and router bits are the cutting tools of choice and are available in many designs. They are usually 3-axis CNC machines moving along the X, Y, and Z axes, but they lack the precision and durability for heavy-duty metal work. These routers are less expensive and often more portable than milling machines, making them popular in woodworking, sign-making, and other similar wood-carving tasks.

The choice between a CNC milling machine and a CNC wood router depends mainly on the nature of the work. If you are working with hard metals and require high precision and durability, a CNC milling machine is the way to go. But a CNC wood router with a gantry design will serve you better if you’re working with softer materials and need speed and efficiency. Despite their differences, both machines are integral parts of modern manufacturing, enabling the production of complex and high-quality components.

Is it acceptable to use a CNC mill for woodworking projects?

Using CNC machines in woodworking has revolutionized the industry by enhancing intricate design precision, efficiency, and reproducibility. The two most common CNC machines used for this purpose are milling machines and routers. However, the question often crops up: is it acceptable to use a CNC milling machine instead of a CNC router for wood machining?

CNC Milling Machines are Great for Versatility

A CNC milling machine excels in handling a diverse range of tasks. Its robust construction and powerful spindle mean it can cut through various materials, including metals, that are typically more challenging for a router. A CNC milling machine may be the preferred option for versatility across material types.

When it comes to working specifically with wood, CNC routers are typically the go-to choice, renowned for their high-speed operation and ability to deliver detailed, intricate cuts. They usually handle less dense materials, like wood, plastic, or foam, and their larger size allows for processing of large wood panels.

CNC Milling Machines Excel with Hardwoods and Deeper Cuts

However, this does not exclude using a CNC milling machine for woodworking tasks. Milling machines can offer excellent results, especially when dealing with hardwoods or when more substantial, deeper cuts are needed. They may lack the speed of routers when dealing with wood, but they compensate with superior precision and control, which can be crucial for some woodworking projects.

Moreover, the tool choice depends significantly on the project’s specific needs. A CNC router would be more efficient for large-volume, high-speed wood carving. However, a CNC milling machine can be a viable alternative for high precision, control, and rigidity tasks.

Although CNC routers are more commonly associated with woodworking, using CNC milling machines is acceptable and advisable in specific scenarios. They offer an alternate solution when working with hardwoods, executing deep cuts, or when the project requires high precision and control. As with all equipment choices, understanding the capabilities and limitations of the machine and aligning them with the project’s requirements will always yield the best results.

What are the pros and cons of using a CNC milling machine for woodworking?

Pros of CNC milling machine for woodworking:

  • Greater versatility: CNC milling machines can handle more tasks than a CNC router. They can take deeper cuts (Z-axis) with long-fluted carbide end mills instead of router bits.
  • Higher precision: Milling machines generally offer superior accuracy, which can be critical for detailed woodworking tasks.
  • Robustness: Milling machines are built to handle more rigid materials like stainless steel and Titanium and may be more durable over time.
  • Most CNC milling machine tools come with automatic tool changers (ATC), for increased productivity, while only the best CNC routers have them.

Cons of CNC mills for wood crafts:

  • Cost: CNC milling machines are typically more expensive than CNC routers.
  • Space requirement: Milling machines are generally larger and require more space, yet they have a smaller table size. (CNC router’s working table can easily handle 4′ x 8′ plywood sheets)
  • Learning curve: Operating a CNC milling machine can be more complex and require more training.
  • Most CNC milling machines do not have dust collection, which can be a safety issue for DIY operators, hobbyists, or small businesses working in confined spaces.

Should you consider a CNC mill or a CNC router for your future CNC carving and woodworking plans?

CNC Milling and Routing are two cutting-edge technologies that have revolutionized woodworking, offering a multitude of advantages for future CNC carving and woodworking plans.

Consider a CNC Mill for Consistent Design and Quality

CNC Mills offer the capacity to carve intricate and precise patterns out of a variety of woods, which is virtually impossible to achieve manually. The power and precision of a CNC mill result in flawless craftsmanship, which enhances the aesthetic appeal of the end product. CNC mills also allow for mass production of identical pieces, ensuring consistency in design and quality. In addition, CNC mills are computer-controlled, which leads to considerable time savings and cuts down on the risk of human error.

Consider a CNC Drill for Versatility

CNC Routers, on the other hand, provide the benefit of versatility. They can carve, drill, and cut a variety of materials including wood, plastic, and metals, making them an invaluable tool for any woodworking plan. They excel at producing decorative carvings and complex three-dimensional cuts. The precision of a CNC router is exceptional, all but eliminating the possibility of waste due to mistakes. Speed is another notable advantage, as CNC routers can complete complex designs in a fraction of the time it would take a manual operator.

Choose the CNC Machine to Fit Your Woodworking Needs

CNC milling provides a high level of precision and creativity in woodworking. The amount of achievable detail and the ability to reproduce designs with near-perfect accuracy make this modern technology a valuable asset in commercial and hobbyist woodworking scenarios.

Moreover, while the initial investment in CNC technology may seem significant, these machines often lead to long-term financial savings. They require less manpower, complete work quickly, and reduce the incidence of wasted materials due to their precision.

For the future of CNC carving and woodworking plans, these technologies promise efficiency, precision, versatility, and consistency in mass production. Models like the CNC Baron offer the benefits of an advanced CNC machine with affordability that makes it accessible to practically anyone. Whichever the choice, remember that user support and community are invaluable resources for the learning journey. Need guidance? The experts at CNC Masters are here to help!

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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