CNC routers have found their way into the world of woodworking and machining and are now a handy tool for artisans. They help create accurate cuts on different materials, making them super flexible and efficient machines. They’re not just for woodworking – they’re used in many different industries, too.
If you’re thinking about adding a small CNC router to your workshop, this guide will give you useful advice on picking the right one for your needs. We’ll also give you a quick intro to the machine if you need background information.
What is a CNC Router?
A CNC router is a computer-controlled cutting machine used for cutting, carving, engraving, and shaping various materials, including wood, plastics, metals, composites, and more. CNC stands for “Computer Numerical Control,” meaning a computer program or software directs the router’s movements and operations.
A CNC router is used for tasks like milling, drilling, engraving, cutting, and, of course, routing. It shines with lighter materials: wood, foam, plastics, acrylic, glass, and even metals like copper, brass, aluminum, PVC, and MDF. It’s a bit like a milling machine but can create intricate shapes as the cutting tool moves in three directions – front to back (X-axis), left to right (Y-axis), and up and down (Z-axis).
A CNC router works great for cutting through non-metallic materials like MDF, plywood, acrylic, polyurethane foam, and polyethylene sheets. It can also tackle softer metals like brass, aluminum, and sometimes steel. Cutting super hard materials like steel isn’t a CNC router’s strong suit, mainly because of its construction. But it’s quite the artist when it comes to engraving lettering onto tougher materials like granite.
CNC routers come in all shapes and sizes, from heavy-duty industrial giants to smaller models that fit on your workbench, perfect for small businesses, hobbyists, and people who love to DIY. Some high-end ones have nifty features like an automatic tool changer (ATC) or a 4th-axis rotary thing (also known as a lathe router). Depending on your choice and budget, you can do everything from simple sign-making to complex 3D carving.
How Does CNC Routers Work?
A CNC router does its thing by moving a tool to particular spots in its work area. This tool can be a router or a high-speed spindle with a cutting edge that takes away material where needed. Depending on the material and the job at hand, you can switch out different cutting tools. Some machines let you do this manually, but fancier ones come with an Automatic Tool Changer (ATC) that swaps tools for you.
CNC routers come in various sizes and setups. They can have one or more axes to work with and can change tools to perform different tasks. The magic here is the computer control, which moves, rotates, and spins the tools based on a CAM program. You can whip up this program manually for simpler jobs or use software to automatically create one. This software turns a digital CAD file into a set of instructions for the machine to follow.
Gone are the days of giant, space-hogging CNC routers. Modern machines come in different sizes, including desktop versions that can fit right on your table and still deliver fantastic results. The software has also improved, so even hobbyists can operate simpler machines with the help of CAD/CAM programs. There are special programs for various purposes, helping you create models and generate design codes. This means CNC routers are handy for tinkerers, furniture makers, and even designers, even if you’re not a pro woodworker.
Benefits of a CNC Router
Using a CNC router is a smart move when you need precise cuts on a regular basis. It’s a go-to method for woodworking, thermoforming, signage, moldings, and more. These machines, depending on their setup, can handle a variety of hard materials, from wood and metal to stone, plastics, foam, acrylics, and glass. Some even come with nifty dust collection systems to keep things tidy while they work.
If you’re a seasoned machinist, you understand the importance of having a top-notch CNC router machine. But if you’re venturing into the world of DIY home projects or contemplating launching your own machining or woodworking business, here are some compelling reasons to consider getting your very own CNC router machine:
- Precision: CNC routers are computer-controlled machines that excel in creating intricate designs with remarkable accuracy. This level of precision is challenging to achieve with manual hand tools or non-CNC equipment, making CNC routers ideal for crafting complex shapes and patterns.
- Productivity: CNC routers operate continuously and automatically, outpacing the speed and efficiency of hand tools. This increased efficiency enables businesses to produce more items at a faster rate, resulting in higher profits.
- Versatility: CNC routers can tackle a variety of materials, including wood, plastic, metal, and foam. This versatility allows you to craft custom designs for a wide range of industries, from furniture and signs to automobiles and aircraft. You can easily program a CNC router to create new designs or modify existing ones to meet different needs.
- Light and Portable: Unlike those hefty tabletop CNC machines built into workbenches, a CNC router is typically handheld. That means it’s smaller and lighter. It’s a great fit for hobbyists and small businesses that don’t need heavy-duty cutting, drilling, and milling (though there are bigger CNC routers if you do).
- User-Friendly: A CNC router is simpler and more straightforward than the fancier CNC machines. Just one trained technician can handle it, which is perfect for small businesses with a handful of workers and certified CNC operators.
- Affordable: While it’s not the cheapest tool in your workshop, a CNC router is reasonably priced, considering what it can do. It’s more budget-friendly than a CNC mill. The cost varies depending on features like having a fourth axis or a combination table with extra bells and whistles. If you go all out with the latest and greatest features, you might hit a price over $100,000. But for most small businesses or workshops, you won’t need to take out a big loan or put down valuable assets to afford a CNC router.
- Tailored to You: When you buy from authorized suppliers, you can put together a CNC router kit that fits your needs. No need to pay for features you won’t use. It’s a way to save some money and get a machine that’s just right for you.
Parts of a CNC Router
A CNC router consists of several essential parts and components that work together to enable precise cutting, carving, and shaping of materials. Here are the main components of a typical CNC router:
Computer System: This interprets CAD/CAM software and sends out instructions (G-code) for motion control. It manages tool paths, speeds, feeds, and tool changes if available.
- Spindle: This holds the cutting tool and spins it to remove material. It’s a bridge-like structure that moves along the X-axis. It supports the spindle or cutting tool and enables horizontal movement. Things like torque, speed, horsepower, and bearing systems are crucial considerations, while dirt and heat are their arch-enemies.
- CNC Motors: Motors come in two different kinds: stepper or servo. Stepper motors are smaller, more affordable, and quite precise. Servo motors, on the other hand, offer advanced features, precision, and speed.
- CNC Router Table: This is the flat surface where the material to be worked on is placed. It can be a vacuum table, a T-slot table, or a custom fixture designed for specific tasks. Some beds have holes and attachment points for clamps to secure the material during cutting.
- Ball Screws or Lead Screws: These components transfer the rotational motion of the motors into linear motion, allowing for precise positioning of the cutting tool.
- End Mills (Bits): You’ll need the right bits for your specific project. Most people keep a variety of bits on hand for different materials and tasks.
- Gantry: This straddles the table and keeps the spindle steady, minimizing vibrations. On CNC routers with tool changers, you’ll often find the cutting tools attached to the gantry.
- Linear Rail System: It guides the machine’s movement along the axes, providing support for other parts. Depending on the CNC’s size or complexity, it may use ball screws or rack and pinion.
CNC routers come with various features and extras, depending on the brand. Some of these are real selling points for certain manufacturers. As you shop for a machine, you might run into features like:
- Fourth Axis: It’s a rotary-type axis for added flexibility.
- T-Slot Table: It lets you attach objects with clamps.
- Automated Tooling: This feature allows for tool changes when you’re using more than one cutting tool.
- Vacuum Systems: A vacuum holds things firmly in place while on the work table.
- Tool Changer (Optional): Some CNC routers have automatic tool changers that allow for the use of multiple tools without manually changing them. This is especially useful in applications that require different cutting tools.
- Knife Systems: A CNC router can include a turning knife, a drag knife cutter, or a tangential knife cutter for cutting thin and medium-thick materials.
- Laser Engraver: It’s an additional cutting feature for more precise cutting.
- Dust Collection System: CNC routers generate a significant amount of dust and debris, so a dust collection system is often used to keep the work area clean during operation.
- Mist Spray Coolant System: It helps cool the air around the machine and reduces heat.
- Safety Features: Safety components such as emergency stop buttons, safety interlocks, and protective enclosures are important to ensure the safe operation of the CNC router.
These are just some key things to consider when choosing a CNC router. The actual importance of each part might vary depending on your shop’s work and the materials you handle.
What Industries Make Use of CNC Routers?
CNC routers are used in a wide range of industries, such as:
- Furniture making: CNC routers are the go-to tools for manufacturing a wide range of furniture-related pieces made of wood or plastic.
- Molding: CNC routers are used to craft wooden patterns, which are subsequently used for creating sand molds in metal casting. Wooden patterns are a cost-effective and quick-to-produce solution thanks to CNC routing.
- Packaging: CNC routers are adept at precisely cutting foam to craft custom enclosures for delicate or valuable products.
- Advertising: CNC routers are well-suited for engraving custom lettering on signs and various promotional materials. These signs can be fashioned from wood or plastic.
And that’s not all! CNC routers also find their way into rapid prototyping, handicrafts, and the production of parts for the medical, aerospace, military, and transportation industries.
Factors to Consider When Buying a CNC Router
Whether you’re eyeing a CNC router for your business or home workshop, there are some key factors to consider while you do your homework. Here are the things to consider:
The drive system is what makes your CNC router move along its axes (x, y, and z). You’ve got three options:
- Rack and Pinions: This system involves a circular gear rolling along a linear gear. It’s great if you’re working on long materials since the machine can move back and forth on a lengthy gear.
- Lead Screws: This system features a screw and a nut. It’s excellent for milling and drilling tasks, providing solid accuracy.
- Ball Screws: These are the priciest of the bunch. They consist of a screw, metal balls, and a nut. The screw doesn’t directly touch the nut; it rides on ball bearings, which reduces wear and tear compared to lead screws. Plus, it gives you more precise and efficient cuts.
When it comes to motor systems in CNC routers, you’ve got two main choices: stepper motors and servo motors.
- Stepper Motor Systems: Sometimes called open-loop control motors, these motors step from one position to another. They’re cost-effective and work well for tasks that don’t require super high speeds, making them suitable for low to medium-speed applications.
- Servo Motor Systems: These are often referred to as closed-loop systems. They’re pricier than stepper motors but shine in high-speed, high-torque jobs.
The weight of your CNC router impacts its performance. Heavier machines tend to deliver sturdier, more vibration-free, and more accurate machining. But if you’re planning to move your CNC machine often, think about a desktop CNC router. Keep in mind that lighter benchtop models have smaller work areas, so they’re better for specific types of work.
Speaking of size, your CNC router’s table size is crucial. It should fit your workshop space, of course. But more importantly, it should comfortably accommodate the materials you’re working with. If your table is too short, you’ll struggle to make the cuts you need. The wrong table size can slow you down or affect the quality of your work.
The typical size for a CNC tabletop is 8×4 feet, but there’s also a smaller benchtop at 2×3 feet. For a full-sized table machine, you’re looking at a starting size of 6×12 feet. When choosing the size, think about your available floor space, ensuring you have room on all sides for safe material handling. Also, consider the size of the materials or parts you plan to work with.
It’s important to figure out the electrical setup in your shop. Some routers are designed for specific voltages, so check if your shop can accommodate these requirements. For instance, some models need three-phase power, which you may need to install if your shop doesn’t already have it. If you’re leaning towards a desktop model, it likely runs on single-phase power, suitable for home workshops.
Take a look at the software requirements for the CNC router. Depending on your business, you might want specialized software, like cabinet-making or engraving software. Make sure your chosen machine is compatible with the software you plan to use.
Your budget plays a significant role in your CNC router selection. Prices can vary widely based on whether you’re buying for a small business, a large shop, or a hobby. Don’t forget to factor in the cost of accessories such as collets and router bits.
There are plenty of companies selling CNC router machines. While the other considerations are crucial, many hobbyists and home machinists start their journey with options available on platforms like Amazon.
If you’re getting a new router, check which accessories come with it and which ones you’ll need to purchase separately. Things like automatic tool changers, end mills, dust collection units, vacuum systems, computers, and software upgrades might not be included, so be prepared for potential additional costs.
Consider Your Needs
Before you make a substantial investment, think about your intended uses. If you’re a professional machinist, smaller, less heavy-duty CNC routers might not cut it for your daily shop demands. If you’re venturing into woodworking, consider whether you need a more powerful machine than a smaller desktop router. If you’re an amateur, you might want to experiment with a DIY router or a budget-friendly used one to see how it suits you.
Spindle or Router: How to Decide?
In the world of CNC cutting machines, you’ll find options with either spindles or routers. To make the right choice, it’s essential to grasp their key distinctions. While spindles and routers can both cut a wide range of materials, spindles shine when it comes to handling hard materials.
Compared to routers, spindle machines typically boast superior bearings and more power. This translates to greater precision and longevity. However, it’s worth noting that spindle-based CNC machines tend to come with a higher price tag than routers.
CNC routers excel at swift intermittent cuts at high speeds. They’re the go-to choice for woodwork, thanks to their ability to reach high speeds rapidly. On the other hand, if you attempt to cut aluminum with a router, the results may not meet expectations. Routers usually have a minimum speed that’s too high for cutting aluminum, leading to tool wear and subpar surface quality.
When it comes to working with wood, both routers and spindles deliver accurate results. However, DIY router kits come with a much more budget-friendly price tag. So, routers are the preferred option when your CNC cutter won’t be running all day long when you’re dealing with aluminum and when noise isn’t a concern.
How Much Does a CNC Router Cost?
The upfront cost of most CNC wood routers ranges in the tens of thousands of dollars. However, it’s important to consider the long-term savings that a high-quality machine can offer.
- Basic three-axis models typically range from $5,000 to $10,000.
- Mid-range machines can be expected to cost between $25,000 and $50,000.
- The best CNC routers, including 4-axis and 5-axis models, often command prices of $50,000 and above.
CNC routers are nifty tools that have become indispensable in a wide array of industries, from woodworking to advertising, molding, and packaging. Whether you’re a skilled machinist looking for a tool that will offer enhanced precision, an entrepreneur looking to boost productivity, or a hobbyist seeking to expand your creative horizons – CNC routers offer a promising solution. Before buying, remember the factors to consider listed in this guide so you can buy wisely.