Is it Time to Upgrade to a CNC Router?

CNC Router

Sure, your manual router is pretty cool, but have you ever considered the possibilities that could open up with a computer-controlled router? Imagine a world without slips that aren’t such happy little accidents or where you could just tell the computer how to cut and finish a project and walk away. For some people, that might be bliss itself.

What is a CNC Router?

CNC is short for “computer numerically controlled,” which basically just means that a CNC device follows computerized instructions to produce your desired results. Unlike a manual router that demands that you have some amount of manual manipulation of the tool and the material, you simply lock your wood, plastic or other material in place and tell the machine to work its magic.

Not only is it an automated tool, a CNC router runs on three to five axes, allowing for a variety of decorative and functional cuts to be made with a great deal of precision. It’s a friend to woodworkers, carvers and makers of every variety, but not every project will benefit from the use of a CNC router.

Getting Started with CNC Routers

If you’re intrigued by the idea of carving and finishing wood projects without a lot of manual input, a CNC router might be for you. However, it’s not a simple point and click device, so you’ll have to put some time into learning how to use the device if you want good results. Just like learning to use a manual router, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the quirks and specific limitations of your CNC router.

If possible, it’s a good idea to drop in on a friend or associate who owns a CNC router for a hands-on demonstration. CAD software is often not very intuitive and sometimes even downright frustrating to learn; that frustration multiplies when a $2,000 or higher equipment price tag is added to the equation. An experienced CNC router user can answer questions like:

  • Will a CNC router work for a specific project I have in mind?
  • If you had a chance to make this purchase again, what would you do differently?
  • How do you use your CNC router most often?

Most importantly, you should ask your friend if you can use their CNC router to build something small. It’ll give you a feel for CAD software and how the machine actually functions before you invest in one yourself.

Buying Considerations

Choosing the ideal CNC router is no small feat, but if you have a clear idea of what you want to do with yours, it’ll help you narrow the field. Ask yourself questions like:

  • How large of a cutting surface do I need? When using any kind of CNC machine, it’s a good idea to choose a bed that’s larger than the largest project you’ll want to create. Some models are weaker at the edges, making those distant cuts trickier to get perfect. Adding a two-inch allowance to each side will ensure you’re getting the best performance.
  • Do I need a three or five axis machine? Five axis machines can allow for some fancy undercuts, but for a lot of projects a three axis is more than adequate, especially if you’re treating your CNC router as an extension of your woodshop, not a replacement for it. It’s ok to take a project from the CNC router to a bandsaw, manual router or other tool to add the final touches.
  • Am I willing to invest time to learn CAD software? If you intend to design anything beyond the very basic, your CNC router’s software will be the biggest hurdle. CAD software is incredibly powerful and flexible, but it’s not a tool most people can maximize straight out of the box. You’ll have to spend some time and materials learning how to use your CNC router’s software to really master the art.

Do you already own a CNC router or have your eye on a particular model? What made you choose that router over the others on the market? Tell us in the comments!

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