The increased availability of CNC routers has changed the way that many industries and hobbyists bring their designs to life. For people new to this technology, it’s natural to ask the question, what is a CNC router? In this article, we will take a look at CNC routers to help new and prospective users to understand how they work.
A Computer Numerical Controlled or CNC router is a machine that uses a built-in computer to control a rotating cutter that operates at high speeds. This cutter can cut and shape the materials in a very precise and efficient manner.
The materials that a CNC router can cut include carbon fiber, aluminum, wood, plastics, and more. These machines are most commonly used for 2D cutting into the surface of flat materials.
The tool’s paths are pre-programmed using vector drawings, and the controller moves the cutting blades in the X and Y axis. But, a CNC router has a programmable Z axis which makes the creation of 3D profiles possible.
CNC routers can vary a great deal in their configuration and build volume. They may even have multiple axes to program, and various tools can be swapped for specific tasks. At the heart of the machine is the computer control which moves, spins, and rotates the connected tools following a CAM program.
These programs can be manual creations or the process can be automated with software to simplify the process. The digital CAD file is converted into instructions that the CNC router can follow to complete the projects.
To answer this question, it’s useful to consider other types of routing that may be more familiar. Routing is commonly used for production in a number of areas, including woodwork, thermoforming, moldings, signage, and many more. This is a cost effective technique because precise and repeatable cuts can be made regularly.
CNC routers can be compatible with certain hard materials, such as wood, metal, acrylics, plastics, foam, glass, and even stone. The capabilities of the machine will be determined by the design, components, and build quality. Some have dust collection systems to keep the work areas clean and waste removal efficient.
A CNC router can reduce the production times and the manufacturing errors with near-identical objects that can be repeated easily. Some technical assistance is required because tools and components may wear over time. But, the precision and speed of the production have made CNC routers cost-efficient for businesses and hobbyists alike.
Earlier CNC router models were large machines that took up a considerable chunk of real estate in the workshop. But, the latest machines are available in a wide variety of sizes, and there are even capable desktop variants too. The software has also improved over the years, and it can now be operated with CAD and CAM programs.
There are certain programs that are designed for specific tasks, including model making, design code generation, and more. CNC routers are a useful machine for designers, tinkerers, manufacturers, and anyone that wants to take their projects to the next level. If you can operate a CNC router proficiently, you can carve wood and other materials to an exceptionally high standard.
There are four key advantages:
1. Flawless Accuracy
It is controlled by a computer; and can produce identical pieces at a standard that even a skilled craftsman could not replicate. One-off pieces are easy to produce the programmed coordinates in the X, Y, and Z axis. The waste is reduced, and this improved accuracy saves money.
2. Intricate Designs
CNC routers can create intricate designs that a manual machine and skilled operator would struggle to make. A CNC router and miller can create cutouts for furniture that would have been made entirely by hand and reserved for premium grade customers in the past. These designs are now available for everyone, and they are easy to replicate.
3. Fast Training
Learning to master a manual woodworking machine can take many years. But a CNC machine is easy to learn, and most operators can master the intricacies in a few weeks. Because the computer does the heavy work, the operator oversees the work, changes tools as required, and carries out light servicing tasks.
4. Resale Value
CNC machines tend to hold their value if they are well maintained, and this is especially true if you have a larger industrial grade model.
So, when you want to upgrade, it’s pretty easy to liquidate the machine because the market for used machinery is very active.
There are three key disadvantages:
1. Costly Errors are Possible
A company that allows a CNC machine to execute instructions when the operator is using a different machine is asking for trouble. If there is an error that is not identified, there could be a large run of pieces that are not suitable.
2. Repair Costs
CNC machines have two parts that are expensive to repair: the computer and the cutter heads. All CNC operators should be properly trained to carry out light maintenance tasks, as maintenance is necessary. If a CNC machine fails, it can be expensive to fix, and preventative maintenance is a bargain in comparison.
3. Expensive to Purchase
The purchasing prices of CNC machines have decreased over the years. But, an industrial grade CNC router is likely to be a significant investment. A quality used machine is an option with an upgrade when volume makes it a necessity. Hobbyists have a better time because the desktop models are more affordable than ever.
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What can I make and sell with a CNC router?
It’s natural to wonder what you can make and sell with these machines. There are many options to explore as you become more proficient, but here are ten ideas to get you started:
- Wooden serving trays.
- Wall decals.
- Wooden bowls.
- Wooden serving utensils.
- Cutting boards.
- Chopping blocks.
- Knife racks.
- Wooden mounts.
- Grips and many more.
What types of wood can I use a CNC router to make something?
The hardwood types that seem to work best with CNC routers include Ash, Cherry, Maple, and Walnut. Softwoods are trickier because they are prone to splitting, but Cedar and Cypress yield good results. To get the best out of work, it’s important to set the proper speed, choose the correct bit and choose the optimal feed. The full details for these settings should be detailed in the owner’s manual.
What’s the difference between a CNC router and CNC engraver?
CNC routers can cut and engrave thicker and harder materials because they have more powerful spindle motors than CNC engravers.
Which is better: a CNC router or laser cutter?
Laser engraving can create intricate details, but discoloration can occur, and you will be limited to using thin materials. A CNC router allows you to cut into thick materials to precise depths, and you can even form 3D objects without discoloration.
How deep can a CNC cut?
The maximum cutting depth of the CNC router has no upper limit because you can make step down cuts as required.
How thick of wood can a router cut?
Deep cuts of 1” or more can be made into wood with no burning, splitting, or warping if the proper settings are used. Hard and soft woods can be processed in this way, but some can deliver better results than others, as discussed earlier.
We hope that we have answered the question: what is a CNC router? To your satisfaction. At first glance, a CNC router or miller can seem daunting, but the learning curve for these machines is shallower than many people expect. Gaining proficiency and mastery will allow you to tackle more challenging projects to grow your hobby or business.
I’m Thomas Steven with more than 12 years of experience in woodworking. It has always been my passion to become a successful woodworker. I have completed hundreds of successful projects. This blog is a way of sharing my woodworking experiences and what tools get the best results. I write about woodworking while being an associate with Amazon and I earn a little commission from every qualifying purchase.