Should you buy a CNC router? Can you build one at home?
A woodworking router is a versatile enough tool, capable of performing dozens of building functions in a workshop. Now imagine a computer controlling its every precise movement down to a micro inch, on complete automation. If the router was a flexible tool before, now the possibilities are endless.
This is what a CNC router is. It is a computer controlled router that cuts, carves and engraves all on its own once the proper instructions are fed into its interface. In this post we explore the working of a CNC router and how you can possibly even build one in your workshop using some basic components.
What is CNC woodworking?
CNC woodworking is an automated form of woodworking, where a machine cuts, shapes and engraves wood without any human interference, after the initial setup. The full form of CNC is “computer numeric control”. Don't fret over how complicated that sounds, it basically means a machine controlled by a computer.
The most common kind of a woodworking CNC machine is a CNC router. There are other kinds as well such as CNC drills and CNC lathes. The difference is that these machines are specifically designed for a specific purpose whereas the CNC router is as versatile as a router can be, and arguably faster and more accurate than a regular router.
It can cut, shape and engrave at high speeds with absolute accuracy and do the task repeatedly with consistent results. Lets learn a little more about the CNC woodworking router.
What is a CNC router?
A CNC router is a regular router connected to a computer controlled system. It is positioned over a flat bed or a table and is capable of moving over it according to the instructions that are given to it. A CNC router gets its instructions from a computer that can be attached to it.
However, there are many models that can perform many woodworking tasks from their own interface and program. These do not need to be connected to a computer unless you need specific tasks done with require external data to be given to the machine.
A regular CNC router can move along 3 axis, the X, Y and the Z axis, which means that it can move sideways, backwards and forwards as well as up and down. Using these movements, a CNC router can cut, shape and engrave wood. Then there are also 5 axis routers that are capable of performing very complex woodworking tasks.
Example of jobs that a 5 axis CNC router can handle includes: Turning round, square and 8 sided spindles, making a tapered leg with a rope twist, adding inlay, joinery and carving, cutting identical pieces repeatedly with precision and creating all kinds of joints like lap joints, rabbit joints, dovetails, mortise and tenon and sliding dovetails.
Do you need a CNC router in your wood shop?
The list of tasks that can be performed by a 5 axis CNC router is endless and limited only by your imagination. This is perhaps one of the strongest argument in favour of getting a CNC router for your wood-shop.
Even if you are a hobbyist, the amount of money you will have to spend on getting other machine tools needed to perform the same jobs, will probably be lower than what it costs to get a CNC router.
It is an estimate that an average person spends about $6000 in outfitting their wood shop, and we are talking about the hobbyists here. Some spend more and some spend less, but that’s the statistical average figure. A CNC router can be had for 1/5th of that much money.
However, there is a strong argument against it also by woodworkers who do not consider CNC woodworking “real” woodworking. There is a middle ground somewhere here for you. Another reason is that you need to get familiar with working with CAD (Computer Aided Design) softwares that help you draw on the computer what you need the machine to do, like cutting shapes, patterns etc.
The good news about that is that you can download ready made templates by the thousands. Although that might mean spending some more money, once you have the templates in place, you can make quick work of dishing the project out by the dozen.
A CNC machine can be a great addition to your other woodworking tools. The decision really depends on your need and goal. A CNC machine can definitely enhance your woodworking a lot. And if you are in it for making money, it can take your woodworking income to another level.
You can create pieces of work that would otherwise take much longer to build, a lot more work and many more power tools. So not only can you create beautiful woodwork you can save on time and costs as well. The benefit of cost reduction can be passed down to the buyer as well as yourself, meaning a better price for them and more profit for you.
And since one of the primary obstacles in getting this tool used to be it's high cost, that is no longer the main deterrent. You can get a 5 axis router for $3000, and you can build one for yourself for less than $1000.
Can you operate a CNC router without programming knowledge?
The CNC router takes its commands from a computer and a programming language like G Code. But the new models of CNC routers do not require you to learn the language to operate them. You can perform a lot functions using the build-in functions of the machine. For example, the software that comes with the CNC router only requires you to answer a few questions to do tasks like cutting, engraving, making joints etc.
Drawings can be imported, you can make them using a CAM/CAD program. There are many vector designs available online that you can use. The software that comes with the CNC router allows you to use these drawings, but automatically converting them into a series for instructions for the router.
The result is that you can do some very complex and beautiful wood work designs using your CNC router.
Besides, learning a little bit of the G Code is not difficult and rewarding. With simple commands you can create or modify a project quiet easily.
There are many CAD/CAM software that are used to draw shapes for CNC like ArtCam, Aspire, AlphaCAM and basic G Code. Almost all of them come with training material as well as online tutorials to help you learn to use the software. Once you learn to use a software like this you will be able to cut your own intricate 3D shapes and ornate carvings.
All this should not intimidate you against using a CNC router. It is a learning curve like learning to use any other tool. You will be able to start with simple projects quiet easily. As you get more proficient you can start making more complicated projects. It is very rewarding to explore the full capabilities of your CNC router.
The learning process with both the software and the machine will let you unlock great creativity. You can create magnificent pieces of wood art and craft with your router. The beauty of this tool is that once you create a wood craft, no matter how intricate and complicated, you can then create it again and again on automation. This machine will cut and shape exactly every single time.
Doesn't It Cost A Lot?
One of the biggest deterrents for a wood worker to get a CNC router was the high cost. The machines ran into tens of thousands of dollars. Not anymore. You get portable CNC woodworking routers for $3000 or thereabouts.
Another option that has come around is to build your own CNC router. Many wood workers are doing this and cutting down on the cost for this kind of automation. The parts needed to make a CNC router are easily available and the assembly doesn’t take long.
Make Your Own CNC Router At Home
You can make your own CNC woodworking router at home, at a fraction of what it costs to buy one. Many woodworkers have done this using a clear, simple and step-by-step guide. If that is the route you want to take, do ahead and have a look at this guide. It to shows you how to build one easily and cost effectively.