Lessening the learning curve
Taking the leap into CNC machining can be a bit unnerving because, unlike other shop machines, digital fabrication requires an entirely new skill set. Yes, there’s a learning curve with equipment such as edge banders or shapers, but those are intuitive and familiar, so they can usually be mastered in a morning. A new CNC requires learning how to draw in CAD, and then programming and sending files to the controller in CAM. It requires a mindset that transitions from craftsman to computer programmer. Anxiety about technology is one big reason that many smaller shop owners are reluctant to buy a CNC.
They don’t need to be worried because things have changed a lot over the past few years. The way that most software works is now quite familiar because of our phones and laptops. And help is widespread. In addition to instructions from CNC manufacturers, a quick online search can address almost any situation with any machine. Most CNC machines also have dedicated user groups who will talk a new owner through setup challenges. CNCs are often tied into libraries of drawings, where the woodworker just drags a picture of a cabinet into the screen, changes the dimensions if necessary, and then slides it into the right spot in a plan view of the kitchen, bath or closet. There’s not nearly as much to learn as there used to be.
Mighty mini machines
Beyond the learning curve, choosing a CNC router for a smaller woodshop involves decisions about the price, how far it can travel in X, Y and Z, the spindle size and power, gantry travel speeds, the machine’s physical footprint in the woodshop, and the quality of service and support. Many CNCs only operate on Windows-based computers (not Mac), which can be an issue as most designers and artists use Macs.
So, with those parameters in mind, let’s look at a few machine options.
The X-Carve from Inventables (inventables.com) does a lot more than the name might suggest. This budget-minded machine (starting at $2,047) can work on panels up to 37” wide, which covers most cabinets and even full-sized entry doors. The actual work area is 29-1/2” wide and 4-1/2” tall, and it’s open-ended so length is unlimited. Using Easel software, the X-Carve requires no prior CNC knowledge. It lets the operator sketch and upload original ideas or browse from a library of over three million carving designs. The machine comes with a three-year subscription to Easel CAD/CAM software and a 1.25-hp Makita spindle. The company says the latest model of this CNC is three times faster, more rigid, and more accurate than the original X-Carve, and there’s a U.S.-based customer service team plus an online users’ community. Inventables also offers a 4’ x 4’ model of its larger X-Carve Pro CNC.
Axiom Precision (axiomprecision.com) offers three series of CNC machines for smaller woodshops. The Iconic line (starting at $4,999) has a 1-hp spindle, an interlocking aluminum table, precision ball screws and 2’ x 2’, 2’ x 3’ and 2’ x 4’ table size options. It comes with a DSP pendant controller and lots of optional accessories. Iconic CNCs are supported by a comprehensive manual and video library that’s intended to dramatically shorten a new user’s learning curve. Axiom’s Pro V5 series has a 3-hp electro-spindle, while the company’s Elite series uses a 3-hp ER-20 spindle with a liquid cooling system, a choice of 2’ x 4’ or 4’ x 4’ tables, a full 8” of Z, and cutting speeds up to 320 inches per minute. The hand-held controller is fourth-axis ready, and there is no need to attach the router to a computer because files can be transferred using a USB storage device.
For shops looking at higher volume production, Castaly (castaly-cncmachine.com) offers a basic CNC (starting at $16,620) that can be ordered with table sizes from 4’ x 4’ to 7’ x 14’, with an option for a rotary axis for turning round parts. The basic spindle is an air-cooled, 6-hp unit with speeds from 6,000 to 18,000 rpm. It has a four-vacuum table that is 51” x 51” with 7-3/4” of Z travel.
Two CNCs from Thermwood (thermwood.com) offer small shops a way around the learning curve. They replace programing with a system called Cut Ready, which is an artificial intelligence (AI) engine in the control module. The woodworker punches in some very basic data (length, width, height), and the AI creates a program to make it. These are not pre-programmed libraries, and the system is easy enough that virtually anyone can work it with little or no training.
Legacy Woodworking Machinery (lwmcnc.com) offers two versions of its Maverick CNC with 3’ x 5’ beds. The basic machine has a turning center for parts such as spindles and balusters, a joinery center for making mortises and dovetails at commercial speeds, and an optional vacuum system for holding sheet stock. The Pro model of the Maverick 3’ x 5’ adds a new Delta controller, higher cutting speeds and better cut quality.
There’s an entire family of American-made CNCs available from ShopBot Tools (shopbottools.com). Some are task-specific such as doing 5-axis or turning jobs, but the Desktop Max and Max ATC machines are ideal for cabinet and furniture work in smaller shops. The Desktop Max has a 36” x 24” work area with two bed options, and it runs on household power. The Max ATC has the same work area but adds a six-position automatic tool-changer.
Tormach describes its 24R model as “a robust CNC router at an entry-level price”. It comes in four different packages ranging from the basic machine at $17,814 to the Pro package at $28,013, which includes a 10-pocket automatic tool-changer. The 24R has an integrated vacuum table and a work envelope that is more than 2’ x 4’. The company’s PathPilot CNC control uses standard machine code (G&M), integrates with most industry-standard CAD/CAM programming software packages, including Aspire and VCarve, and comes loaded with built-in diagnostics and tool path graphics.
Vision Engraving & Routing Systems (visionengravers.com) is another supplier with a wide range of machines for smaller woodshops. The company’s new 1624R model features a Series 5 controller with a V-touch pendant and Vision software. The table is 16” x 24” and has a red laser point for easy setups, and there’s an optional Braille accessory so it’s a good solution for shops that do sign making.
The Grizzly catalog (grizzly.com) now includes half a dozen CNC routers, and two models are well suited to smaller woodshops. The G0894 has a 24” x 36” worktable and a 3-hp spindle, and it starts at $7,575. The larger G0931 boasts a 47” square table and its $10,250 price tag includes a T-slot table. Both machines run on single-phase power.
Mobile and more
The concept of mobile CNCs is gaining traction with innovative tools such as Shaper Origin, Goliath, and Yeti Smartbench.
Shaper’s solution (online at shapertools.com) is a hand-held router where the motor can move around inside the housing and make small corrections as the operator moves it across the work. The company has also developed a Workstation that turns the portable tool into a sophisticated joinery mill. Surprisingly affordable, the Shaper Origin is an excellent entry tool for shops that want to automate some tasks and remain with traditional machines for the big cuts.
The Yeti (yetismartbench.com, starting at $7,940) is a full-sheet CNC that can be transported to the jobsite and set up in minutes. It has an exceptionally intuitive and simple hand-held control panel.
Goliath (us.goliathcnc.com) is a fully autonomous router that can travel across gigantic work areas (think basketball court inlays) and has integrated dust collection.
There are half a dozen different machines in Next Wave CNC’s line of desktop Shark brand CNCs, ranging from the 12” x 18” SD100 to the Shark HD250 with travel capabilities of 25’’ wide by 50’’ long, and 7’’ vertical. That larger machine uses an over-the-counter router such as the Bosch1617, DeWalt DW618, or Porter-Cable 890 as a spindle, and it comes with the latest version of VCarve software.
Lim Tech Industries makes a 5’ x 5’ machine in its Centaurus Series that has many of the design and operating features found on the company’s full-size machines. It has linear tool changing stations rather than an onboard carousel, and it was designed for nested-base manufacturing in cabinetry and closet systems with an in-line 32mm line boring system.
The Stinger I, starting at $7,495, from CAMaster (camaster.com) comes in 2’ x 3’ and a 2’ x 4’ versions. It is rigid and flexible enough for a production environment with a welded steel frame and heavy-duty precision rails and bearings.
A family of six desktop CNCs is available from i2R CNC (i2rcnc.com), running from the 2’ x 2’ B Series with a 110-volt, 1-hp spindle to the 4’ x 4’ Executive with a 3-hp electro-spindle that has an integrated liquid cooling system.
Baleigh Industrial (baileigh.com) offers several desktop CNCs, including the 2’ x 3’ WR-32 CNC router table that’s listed for $11,174. This machine has a 4.75-hp spindle that runs on single-phase, 220-volt power.
Shapeoko from Carbide 3D (carbide3d.com) is an entry-level option for projects up to 33” square.
The Freedom 4×4 CNC router from DMS (dmscncrouters.com) is ideal for small, specialty manufacturing and shops requiring a very small footprint.
Laguna Tools (lagunatools.com) offers a full range of CNC routers, including several models for smaller shops. Among those are the IQ and the IQ Pro, which have 3-hp liquid-cooled spindles, hand-held controllers, and an automatic tool-changer on the Pro model. Prices start at $7,495.
FoxAlien (foxalien.com) has a slew of small machines from China, including the Vasto CNC that’s currently listed at $1,999 and has a working area of 5.75” x 15.75” x 3.7”.
Other sources include OpenBuilds (openbuilds.com), Powermatic (powermatic.com), ShopSabre (shopsabre.com), Stepcraft (stepcraft.us), and YoraHome (yorahome.com).
When it comes to small shop CNCs, as it does with most machines, the least expensive option isn’t always the best value. But there are enough options out there for a woodworker to be able to find the perfect solution for everything from detailed joinery to engraving or even nested cabinet parts. And the quality has improved so much that most machines now are good value for the money.
This article was originally published in the October 2022 issue.