CNC machines and CAD/CAM software have taken hold in the manufacturing sector over the last few decades. For many people, metalworking CNC milling machines and lathes are the first to come to mind whenever the topic of CNC machining comes up. That’s not surprising since these machine tools run at breakneck speeds and feeds, putting on quite a show in the process.
However, CNC woodworking machines and CNC carving have also become popular among small businesses, DIY hobbyists, and beginners, creating a demand for machines such as the CNC router machine that cuts wood and acrylic, MDF, PVC, PCB, and even soft metals. And the CNC wood router is not alone as a wood CNC machine since CNC turners (lathes) can produce round workpieces, and laser engravers do double-duty as CNC engraving machines and wood carving machines.
Whether you are in the market for a high-quality 3-axis CNC router or an entry-level model for simple woodworking projects, you should know what to look for.
What materials can I use on a woodworking machine?
Woodworking CNC machines are versatile, but some equate them to the milling machine, which needs to be more accurate. Although CNC routers have several features in common with the mill, they cannot handle the range of materials as CNC milling machines.
The most popular materials for cutting and engraving on a CNC router include:
- Wood, MDF, PVC, and plywood
- Acrylic, Plexiglas, and other plastics
- Aluminum, brass, and softer metals
The top-rated CNC routers can cut all types of hard and soft wood, acrylic or Plexiglas, and most softer metals. Remember, using a CNC router for cutting and engraving aluminum, brass, and various other metals depends on the motor power or spindle of the CNC router and the metal’s thickness. Keep in mind those potentially limiting factors as you shop.
1. Substantial Work Area
If your woodworking projects involve large workpieces, you should consider the work area, sometimes called the cutting area or “envelope.’ On a CNC router, the work area is the travel limits in the X, Y, and Z axes. Deciding how you plan to use your machine determines your required work area.
For example, a desktop CNC router with a 24” x 24” work area means you have that amount in which to work. However, even though the 24” in the X-axis (width) is limited because of the gantry supports, the Y-axis capacity is effectively limitless. Almost every machine allows for external support or a table extension for long workpieces.
Of course, if your goal is sign-making from 4 ft. x 8 ft. plywood pieces, you’ll need to look at models that can accommodate those workpieces. Standard larger table sizes include the 4’ x 8’ and 5’ x 10’.
2. Excellent Control Software
All CNC machines require software to control the process of transforming a drawing into motor movement. That process involves four steps: First, a designer creates a drawing or 3D model. Next, a toolpath must be prepared using computer-aided manufacturing (CAM). Then, you can simulate to confirm the cutting path. Finally, the control software informs the CNC machine what to do with G-code.
Having the right software is essential and requires research. Some companies have machine-specific design and toolpath software and include them with the machine. Although others do not include software, many will recommend a brand for designing projects and creating CNC toolpaths. Check before buying to know if the software will add an extra expense.
3. A Dedicated Spindle Rather than a Detached Manual Router
A CNC machine employs two methods to spin the router bits: an integrated spindle or an attached router. Here’s how they differ:
- Typically less noise than a router.
- Torque is consistent throughout the speed range.
- Produces less runout for greater accuracy.
- Spindles usually have infinitely adjustable speed ranges of 0–24,000 rpm.
A machine with a spindle almost always turns on automatically when the toolpath begins and turns off when that toolpath ends. You don’t want to have to remember to turn it on manually. Also, the best water-cooled systems have pumps that automatically turn on and off with the spindle. Look for automatic spindles and pump starts on your CNC machine.
- Less expensive than a spindle
- Although the torque can vary through the speed range, you can compensate by making shallower cuts, slowing productivity.
- Some CNC machines use a compact router (1-1⁄4 hp or less). However, midsize routers include electronic feedback to maintain spindle speed and collets that accept 1/2” diameter shank bits, which are less prone to breakage.
If saving money is essential to you, a router-powered CNC machine will do, but if possible, choose a dedicated spindle for higher accuracy and longer life.
4. Ball Screw Drive System
You’ll choose from three drive systems: screw drive, belt drive, and rack drive. Here’s what they each offer:
- Screw drives: These drives include lead screws and ball screws. Both types transfer the rotary motion of a motor to the linear motion required to move each axis. Screw systems work like threaded rods and nuts, with the nut being captured in a housing on the machine. As the screw turns, the captured nut moves the spindle or gantry. Lead screws create more friction and are less accurate than ball screws, while ball screws can carry a heavier load.
- Belt drive: Cogs on the pulleys prevent belt slippage, but dust build-up in the cogs interferes with belt engagement. Belts work effectively and move the bit position faster than screw systems, but they also don’t handle heavy loads. Belts can also stretch, affecting their accuracy, but they can be tightened or replaced when that happens.
- Rack drive: Ideal for more demanding projects, the rack drive is accurate, faster, more efficient, and lasts longer. It is also more expensive.
All of these systems work relatively well, but a ball screw system is best given a choice.
5. Servo Motor System
You will likely choose between a servo or stepper motor to drive the axes. Although servo motors are considerably more expensive, they also have more advantages: Servo motors operate on a closed-loop system, meaning they send a signal to the motor to move and then confirm that they have made the correct move. Servos run faster and generally have more consistent torque across the speed range of the CNC machine. They are also better for high-speed use and cut more precisely than steppers. For this and other reasons, servo motors are preferred for more extensive or commercial applications.
On the other hand, stepper motors operate on an open-loop system, meaning the software sends a signal to the motor to move, and it assumes the motor did what it was instructed. Steppers are more affordable and ideal for basic plane engraving, and they tend to be easier to use and quite reliable, making them acceptable for the average woodworking project.
6. Fourth Axis
The best CNC machines offer a 4th axis, called the A-axis, that goes well beyond the parts you can produce on a 3-axis model. The fourth axis is a rotary axis. The machines that have them have a simultaneous 4-axis operation, providing an opportunity to manufacture parts with round and rectangular shapes on the same workpiece without removing and re-positioning the part. Although the 4th axis is a fantastic feature, it adds to the price of the CNC machine, which hobbyists and those involved in simple sign-making might deem extravagant.
7. A Table Type for Your Applications
Typically, you will choose from three CNC router tables: the aluminum T-slot, the full vacuum, and the T-slot vacuum table. Which is the best for you? Here’s how to choose:
Aluminum T-slot table
With this type of table, you use clamps to fasten the workpiece, preventing it from moving during machining with router bits. The aluminum is easy to maintain, durable, anti-corrosive, and wear-resistant. It’s the ideal choice for irregular-shaped materials that do not lend themselves to vacuum holding.
Full CNC vacuum table
The CNC vacuum table provides a convenient method of work holding without clamps or other objects above the workpiece getting in the way. The table is connected with a vacuum pump through pipelines under the working table and multiple adsorption holes through the table. The CNC router operator merely places the board on the table, opens the vacuum valve, and the workpiece is firmly held by the negative pressure generated by a vacuum pump. The vacuum table eliminates the extra steps of clamping and unclamping the workpieces, making it an excellent choice in high-production environments.
T-slot and vacuum table combined
The T-slot and vacuum table combines both holding methods. Designed for irregular workpieces, the table can be divided into several sections for optimum vacuum adsorption, with the T-slots added for clamping atypical workpieces.
8. Dust Collection System
CNC routers are productive machines, and that’s a good thing, and they also produce plenty of dust, which isn’t a good thing.
Dust will be everywhere in a woodworking facility; even if it’s only your workshop or garage, it will accumulate inside your machinery, on workbenches, on the floor, and where you eat your lunch.
Some machines include dust collection systems with the machine, but if they don’t, count on buying one separately. They are simple systems made up of a dust collector, hose, and a dust shoe that attaches to the spindle or the router and encloses the cutting area around the router bit. It also seals the vacuum of the dust collector, so it’s more effective.
If your projects are small and so is your budget, you could use a shop vac. However, a dust collection system is less expensive and more effective in the long run.
9. Easy-to-Assemble CNC Router Kits
The most popular and highly-rated CNC small business router kits are also the easiest to assemble, or better yet, require no assembly at all.
10. Other Essential Features
Here are some other features to check for before buying. For instance, the Genmitsu CNC 3018-PRO Router Kit with GRBL Control comes with an offline controller that can be upgraded to a laser engraver. It includes a power supply, emergency stop, limit switches, and a CNC operating system. Go to Amazon for more details.
11. Affordable Cost
Although many factors affect the CNC router price, the primary elements include the working area, Z-axis travel, machine size and weight, spindle speed and power, traveling speed, and power supply. CNC router kits have many options, such as the spindle, motor, driver, guide rail, control system, table, lubrication system, and dust collection system.
How much does a CNC wood working machine cost?
Your first move is to ascertain whether you need an option before you buy it since many CNC router machines cost thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars. Here’s a rundown of price ranges and what determines their costs:
Desktop CNC Router ($1,000 to $5,000)
These machines have a small working area and footprint, keeping the price relatively low. Small businesses, such as sign makers and those engaged in small-volume production, and hobbyists with home workshops choose this machine for their CNC router projects. Even with their small size, these “mini-routers” have found a place in the craft and advertising industries.
Standard CNC Router ($5,000-$30,000)
These prices vary because of the features each CNC router machine includes. In this group of machines, you would find machines with three or four axes, a single spindle, a T-slot and vacuum combination table, a driver, a motor, and perhaps software. Remember that the more your machine can do, the higher the price will be. Rather than those with small businesses working from home, enterprises with medium production volume would select CNC machines in this price range.
Multi-Process CNC Router ($30,000-$100,000)
Although these machines are similar to the standard CNC router machine, they are heavier and made with reinforced steel frames. The CNC router kits tend to be more complex, and they could have up to five axes, multiple spindles, and automatic tool changers. Many models within this price range have imported drives, motors, controllers, and cooling systems, and they can take on the most complicated projects.
Industrial CNC Router (over $100,000)
These CNC routers might cost over $100,000, but they are the biggest and the best of the best, with two separate spindles and two moving tables, automatic tool changers, and high-power components. Although these machines are beyond the price range of many small to mid-size businesses, high-tech industries, such as automotive and aerospace, will purchase these top-of-the-line models.
Routers, lathes, mills, and more can all be used for woodworking. Whether you are in the market for a high-quality 3-axis CNC router or an entry-level lathe, the features above are important to look for.