A CNC router is an automatic machine tool with a computer-controlled system. Used for milling, drilling, engraving, cutting, milling, drilling, and, of course, routing, a CNC router is ideal for lighter materials, including wood, foam, plastics, acrylic, glass, copper, brass, aluminum, PVC, and MDF. Similar to a milling machine, it can produce precise and complex shapes with various router bits moving along three axes—X (front to back), Y (left to right), and Z-axis (up and down).
CNC routers come in all sizes with various capabilities, from the heavy-duty industrial CNC router to the entry-level benchtop models designed for small businesses, hobbyists, and DIY enthusiasts. Some high-end machine tools will come with an automatic tool changer (ATC), while others may have a 4th-axis rotary feature (sometimes referred to as a lathe router machine). You can do simple sign making or complex 3D carving depending on the model you choose and how much you can afford.
To start, let’s take a look at the parts that make up a typical CNC router.
Essential CNC Router Parts To Know
Chances are you’ll be looking at several machines on your buyer journey. Here is a breakdown of the components used by most CNC routers, so you can know the parts that really matter for your next machine:
- The computer system interprets CAD/CAM software and sends instructions (G-code) for motion control. It controls the tool path, speeds, feeds, and tool changers if that feature is available.
- The spindle holds the cutting tool and spins it on an axis to remove material. Torque, speed, horsepower, and the bearing system are crucial considerations in the spindle, while dirt and heat are their main enemy.
- End Mills (bits) – You’ll need to invest in the right bits for whatever project you’re taking on. Most machinists will have multiple bits that fit a range of projects and materials
- CNC motors generally use either stepper motors or servo motors. The stepper motors are smaller, less expensive, and more accurate, while servo motors offer more advanced, high-precision, and high-speed features.
- The CNC router table holds the workpiece using a vacuum, clamps, or adhesives. The table tops come in various materials, including steel, aluminum, and disposable “spoil boards,” and have T-slots for clamping or perforations for vacuum holding.
- The gantry straddles the table and keeps the spindle movements steady by minimizing vibrations. The cutting tools are typically attached to the gantry on CNC routers with tool changers.
- The linear rail system guides the movement path along the axes while supporting a secondary load and machine components. Depending on the size or complexity of the CNC, the rail may use ball screws or rack and pinion
What to Consider When Buying a CNC Router
Whether you’re looking for tips on choosing a CNC router to add to your business or home workshop, there are specific things you’ll need to keep in mind as you research. Here are the most relevant considerations:
Your drive system moves your CNC router’s axes. It’s comprised of the motor, ball screw, lead screw, or rack and pinions, working together to transfer controlled linear motion. CNC machines offer a choice of three types of drive systems:
- Rack and Pinions work best on longer axes and are less costly. The meshing of the two gear-like components moves the machine tool.
- Lead Screws are typically more accurate than the rack and pinion but don’t work as well as ball screws. They do work well for vertical applications (Z-axis).
- Ball screws are the most expensive of the drive systems but will machine your parts with greater accuracy and efficiency.
You will find two main motor systems in most CNC router machines: the stepper motor system or the servo motor system.
- Stepper motor systems are sometimes referred to as open-loop control motors. Stepper motors rotate (step) from one position to another, are less expensive, and are better for low-to-medium-speed applications.
- Servo motor systems are often called closed-loop systems, are more expensive than steppers, but work well in high-speed, high-torque applications
CNC Router’s Weight
Heavier machines generally provide heavy-duty performance, less vibration, and accurate machining. However, think about a desktop CNC router if you plan to transport your CNC machine frequently. Keep in mind that lightweight benchtop models have a smaller working area that restricts the type of work you can do.
Determine the electrical capabilities of your shop since some routers are designed to work only with specific voltages. Make sure you have three-phase power, or you’ll need to install it if you buy a more sophisticated model. If you want a desktop model, it most likely will come with single-phase power and work in your home shop.
Consider the software requirements of the CNC router. You might want to choose a software package specific to your business, such as software for cabinet making or engraving.
Your budget is a critical factor when searching for a CNC router. Depending on whether you want the machine tool for a small business, large shop, or to pursue a hobby, prices will vary substantially. Also, include the cost of accessories, such as collets and router bits, in your estimation.
There are dozens of companies to choose from when buying a CNC router machine. While the considerations above are most important, many amateur hobbyists or home machinists start their journey on Amazon.
If you’re buying a new router, check to see what accessories it comes with and which ones you’ll need to buy. Accessories like automatic tools changers, end mills, dust collection units, vacuum systems, computers, and software upgrades may not be included with your CNC router machine and can add additional costs new buyers should be aware of.
Before you spend tens of thousands on a machine, consider your likeliest uses. If you’re a machinist, the smaller less heavy-duty CNC routers likely won’t hold up to the everyday demands of a shop. If you’re interested in starting a woodworking business, do you need to upgrade to a machine with more power than smaller desktop routers? For the skilled amateur, you might consider building your own router or buying a cheap used one to see how you like it.
What is a CNC Router Used For?
Like CNC milling, CNC routing offers versatility and repeatability, meaning you can use them for numerous applications. CNC routers are used for furniture crafting, prototyping, parts creation, and other common tasks. Here are a few of them:
Cabinets and Components
CNC routers are ideal for CNC woodworking projects making them the perfect choice for cabinet doors, drawer fronts, and boxes. Although the possible designs are infinite, each component must be uniform from piece to piece, and CNC machining ensures they are.
The furniture industry has the potential for mass-producing wooden products, and because of that, the CNC router machine is the perfect fit for creating intricate designs quickly and accurately.
No more hand-carved prototypes or waiting for custom-milled parts from a vendor since CNC routers have arrived on the scene. Making design changes are as easy as editing a program, so you can quickly have a working prototype for testing and analysis.
CNC routers provide the details and accuracy you require with engraved items. Many CNC routers even include a laser engraving kit to make the engraving process much faster.
Making signs is time-consuming, so businesses are turning to the CNC router machine for these custom products. Many companies are creating their logos in formats that can be converted to a CNC router’s format.
Musical instruments are now being created on CNC routers with impressive results. The inlays, fretwork, and body and neck carvings are all produced with precision and speed.
Other applications include mold making, handicrafts, and medical, aerospace, military, and transportation parts.
The great thing about a CNC router machine is you can use it out-of-the-box for projects that you can sell.
Should I Build or Buy a CNC Router?
If you didn’t realize it, you could make your own CNC router with the help of kits, plans, and tutorials. The machines can be fabricated from materials ranging from particle board to metal. Because they have relatively loose tolerances compared to a milling machine or lathe, it’s possible to turn building one into a DIY project.
However, the question of whether you can build a CNC router or whether you should build it is one we get asked a lot at CNC Masters. Here are the factors you should consider:
The advantages of building a CNC router include:
- You can choose a CNC router kit that meets your requirements without buying features you don’t need.
- You will save money.
- You should get a strong sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
The disadvantages of building a CNC are:
- You will invest a lot of time and effort in selecting, purchasing, and assembling the CNC kits you will need.
- Assembling the CNC router kits or CNC router components requires technical knowledge and skills.
- The DIY CNC router might only be available in a small size with basic functions that do not meet your needs.
Is it cheaper to build or buy a CNC router?
It is cheaper to build your own CNC router. You can find DIY kits at popular online stores. As mentioned above, building a CNC router will take significant time and knowledge of CNC routers, and it’s important to choose a router kit that will meet your needs.
Buying a complete CNC router has these advantages:
- A machine that gives you an opportunity for heavy-duty, long-term, and high-intensity work.
- A CNC machine tool manufacturer to answer all your questions.
- A warranty to protect your investment.
- Perhaps made in the USA with after-sales service to solve any problems.
Buying a complete CNC router has disadvantages, too:
- It will likely cost more than buying a CNC router kit.
- You’ll pay additional freight and customs fees if you buy from a foreign CNC machine tool manufacturer.
- You will have to spend time finding a reliable CNC machine tool manufacturer.
The Benefits of Owning a CNC Router
If you’re a skilled machinist, you know very well the necessity of owning a great CNC router machine. However, if you’re looking to take your DIY home projects to the next level and maybe even start your own machining or woodworking business, here are some of the best reasons we know to buy your own CNC router machine:
Precision: CNC routers are machines controlled by computers that can make detailed designs with great accuracy. This is hard to do with manual hand tools or non-CNC machines, so CNC routers are perfect for creating complicated shapes and patterns.
Productivity: CNC routers work both non-stop and automatically, so they’re faster and more efficient than hand tools. This helps businesses make more products faster, leading to higher profits.
Versatility: CNC routers can work with many materials, like wood, plastic, metal, and foam. You can make custom designs for different industries, like furniture, signs, cars, and airplanes. A CNC router can be programmed to make new designs or change existing ones with ease.
How Much Does a CNC Router Cost?
Great question, and another one we get asked all the time. Most CNC wood routers cost tens of thousands of dollars upfront. But remember, the long-term savings a high-quality machine will provide.
- The most basic three-axis models sell for between $5,000 and $10,000.
- Mid-range machines are likely to cost anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000.
- The best CNC routers, such as 4-axis and 5-axis CNC routers often cost $50,000 and above.
Is a router the same thing as a milling machine?
No. A router is not the same as a milling machine. 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 is a complete guide to mills vs routers.
Check Out the Lineup of CNC Masters Desktop Milling Machines
Like its woodworking counterpart, the desktop CNC router, our high-quality CNC milling machines combine numerous features in one package. You’ll find a variable spindle speed, user-friendly software, a robust power supply, and a rugged cast iron frame. You’ll have the best features of a full-size industrial milling machine in a smaller footprint, better suited for a small business or workshop.
Although desktop milling machines often have a reduced cutting area, they can still work with various metals and other materials. Many small shops and home workshops buy a desktop milling machine for its reliability, versatility, and excellent quality.