Specializing in Artistic Wood Carvings and Projects

Exquisite Wood Creations

Exquisite Wood Creations

Using a CNC ; What it Takes to Make Stuff

(Click here for the of the creation of an actual project)

“If I had a CNC like you, I would make …..” usually followed by “and sell it.” And then there is “I ought to buy one of those …” If I’ve heard it once, well, you know the rest.

It seems simple enough, but what is the reality? First comes the purchase of a CNC machine and the other basics to get started. Here is a chart with conservative price estimates:

ItemPrice Range (2023)
CNC machine$1,000 and up. Recommend no less than $3500
Router/Spindle$100-$500. Recommend about $300 for water cooled
Bits$10-$500. Initial investment probably about $150
Dust collection$60-$1000. A simple shop -vac can suffice if one can tolerate the noise
CNC AccessoriesDepends what you want /need. There will always be more.
GarageStart and you will no longer have this for anything else
WorkpiecesPriced accordingly
CNC Requirements

I found Carbide 3D’s Shapeoko to be an excellent value CNC for getting started. A good one runs $3500-$4000.

The router/spindle is what actually does the cutting. It is moved back and forth, side to side and up and down by the machine to perform the cuts. A simple 1 HP palm router is usually enough to get started. Eventually the noise will become intolerable for the person stuck in the room (garage) with the CNC as well as any inhabitants of the house. A water-cooled spindle will resolve at least the router noise and will probably be a necessary upgrade.

Since the bit noise will probably still be too much for any extended use, you will eventually want to build an enclosure for the whole machine.

CNC in Enclosure with Desk. Notice the surrounding clutter.

Alas, it’s still too noisy. That shop-vac has to go. Some kind of dust collection is necessary to clean up the mess from cutting but this thing is very noisy. It doesn’t pick up enough of that dust anyway. Mine ended up being replaced by a good dust collector. Jet makes a decent semi-quiet one.

Bits, which the router/spindle uses to make the cuts are consumable items and need replaced as they wear out and become dull. More money.

Accessories and add-ons will make the CNC always seem to be a work in progress. Want to add a laser, add another $500-$750. How about a device to “zero” the machine (to tell it where the workpiece is located), $20-$100. And then there is this other neat addition that allows one to change bits without re-zeroing the machine, $150. You may not need these now, but their value will soon become apparent.

Finally, there is software and a dedicated computer. Software is necesssary to design anything you want to make. No, those countless 3D files downloaded from the internet will not simply cut on a CNC. If that is what you want, get a 3D printer.

Many of the machine such as the Shapeoko or the X-Carve or The Next Wave Shark include software. The Shapeoko and X-Carve have their own software which is free for anyone, but limited. The Shark includes some version of Vectric’s VCarve software depending on which model you purchase. To buy VCarve, the Pro version starts around $600 and if you don’t have it, you will quickly want it. Trust me on this one. I’ve used Shapeoko’s Carbide Create, X-Carve’s Easel as well as a number of other “free” options (yes, Fusion 360 as well). The time saved by good software recoups the investment. There is also a more full featured upgrade from Vectric’s V-Carve called Aspire, which can be purchased for the difference in price or just purchased separately. It’s probably best to wait on this upgrade until you find it necessary or useful.

Now that you’ve acquired the physical necessities comes the real investment. Time.

If you are really good with computers and/or have some experience with design and/or CAD/CAM programs. You will have a minimum of a week or two just to familiarize yourself with whatever software you want to use. Try to go the cheap route and use the free software, as I did, and you can add whatever time you spend (waste) with each of these.

If you are not comfortable with computers, it will take much longer and may be the end of your CNC experience.

If you decide to use a Vectric program, there are tons of free training videos. Spend at least a day to watch them all. It doesn’t hurt to browse through them before any purchase to see the benefits and to decide which software to buy or avoid.

Once the software is learned, there is still the matter of using the machine itself. Plan on spending at least a week getting accustomed to the machine and it’s operation and quirks. A CNC is a very hands-on piece of equipment. Many of them require extensive assembly and maintenance. That’s OK. If you can’t assemble it, you won’t be able to maintain, fix it or upgrade it either.

Do NOT start with expensive materials. Many of the first pieces will be destroyed. Try to push that router faster than the bit can cut and the machine will miss steps and ruin the piece. Fail to adequately secure that workpiece and it will move. The machine does not care. It keeps moving as if nothing happened. Yet another workpiece ruined. Be prepared to make many mistakes early on. It’s all part of the process.

Workpiece holding is one of the most difficult tasks to master. Invest in quality devices to hold the workpiece in place. Personally, I find the clamps pictured below to be the most useful ones:

Workpiece Clamps

Workpiece Clamps

They can be secured into inserts or T-tracks. In addition to these clamps, I always drill holes through the workpiece (outside the final cut area) extending into a waste board and then put dowel pieces in to keep the workpiece from moving side to side. A waste board is necessary under a workpiece. You will most likely need to cut deeper than the actual workpiece. A junk board will protect that nice table from being destroyed. Double sided tape is helpful for holding the waste board in place. These trashed workpieces and waste boards will add even more to your investment both in time and money.

So, going back to the initial comments about getting a CNC, making stuff and starting to sell it. A conservative estimate of MY financial investment would be somewhere around :

  • $3500 for the machine, accessories and bits. (this was from 2018 so figure about $5000 now)
  • $500 for trim router and eventually a water-cooled spindle
  • $1800 for software (initially $600 with a $1200 upgrade)
  • $1400 for a quiet Fein shop-vac to replace my old noisy one and eventually a good dust collector to replace this
  • $250 for enclosure materials. Hinges, acrylic windows, wood, screws, drawer slides, etc)
  • $550 for a dedicated computer and monitor. Get a touch screen so you can quickly hit the stop button when something goes wrong. A notebook would be fine but should be strong enough to run design software.

Throw in some workpieces and it gets close to $8,500. If you’re a wood worker, you may have a planer which will save on the cost of lumber. If not, add $300-$700 for a planer. Miter and table saws are nice too : +$1000. In 2023 money expect to eventually drop from $10,000 to $15,000.

As for the time, for me, I was turning out items within a week two, but putting out really good stuff took about a year. Figure in a year of time.

Summing it all up, yes, you can get a CNC and make stuff and perhaps even sell it. You may even eventually make some money at it. Just expect to invest $10,000, your garage, and a year of your life just to get going.

If you are still interested, be sure to check out the creation of a typical carving for the actual process involved.

I am not affiliated with nor do I receive compensation for any products mentioned in this article.

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