CNC Router – BUYER’s GUIDE


June 1, 2016 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ CNC Machine


cnc system, stepper motor, linear drives

CNC Router

Note: if you already know cnc router well, you can skip the introduction and jump right to our advice on how to choose a cnc router kit, and our partial list of cnc router manufacturers.

CNC router is a computer numerical controlled cutting machine that cut materials to desired 3D dimensions, shapes, and surface quality. The router machine moves its linear axis and rotational axis per predefined routes to accomplish the cutting of workpiece fixed at its table, thus the name “router”. The cutting operations include milling, engraving, boring, drilling, tapering, sawing; the materials it cuts include wood, metal, plastics, synthetic materials such as printed circuit board.

CNC router is very similar to a CNC milling machine, they share the same concept, the same machine structure, except that CNC router is much lighter, much more oriented to manufacturing smaller workpiece for leisure and lifestyle purpose, while CNC milling machine is more applied in traditional workshop producing industrial components. Another visible difference is that cnc routers are almost all of portal type (double column with crossrail) design, while the majority of cnc mills are single column machines, vertical or horizontal.

Many cnc routers are built in DIY, e.g. consumers buy the machines in parts, assemble them in their garage, write the CNC programs for machining the components of their own design. Due to its light application, light structure, simplified designed, CNC router is very cost effective compared to its industrial peer.

 

MultiCAM1

An overview of CNC router machine for woodworking

 

Table of content
1. What is a cnc router
1.1 Routing process
1.2 Materials to cut
1.3 Purpose of cnc routing
1.4 Construction of a CNC router
1.4.1 Machine bed
1.4.2 Machine column
1.4.3 Machine crossbeam
1.4.4 Machine ram
1.4.5 Machine spindle
1.4.6 CNC router table
1.4.7 CNC computer numerical control
1.4.8 Servo motors, Linear drives
1.4.9 Cutting tools
1.4.10 Tool magazine
1.4.11 Automatic tool changer
1.4.12 Workpiece fixtures
1.4.13 Foundation of CNC router
1.5 Cutters – router tips
1.6 CNC router as a system
2. Types of CNC router
2.1 Wood router vs metal routerg
2.2 Industrial router vs hobby router
2.3 3 axis router vs 5 axis router
2.4 Cutting router vs engraving router
2.5 Bed type router vs floor type router
3. CNC router applications
3.1 Industrial components
3.2 Personal components
3.3 Prototypes
4. Typical industries using CNC routers
4.1 Arts & Crafts
4.2 PCB router
4.3 DIY router
4.4 Wood router
4.5 Stone router
4.6 Die & mould router
5. How to choose a cnc router
5.1 Plan
5.2 Budget
5.3 Quality components
5.4 Experienced builder
5.5 Excellent support
5.6 Active user forums
5.7 Good CNC/CAD/CAM
5.8 Spare parts
5.9 Excellent reviews
6. CNC router manufacturers
7. Make a correction
8. Review a product
9. Additional resource

What is a cnc router

Routing process

 

Maker Faire 2007 - CNC Router (508223728)

CNC routing process with a wood router

The routing refers to the moving of spindle along the machine’s linear axis X, Y, Z. The spindle is spinning with a cutting tool inserted into its taper, providing the rotational cutting force. The workpiece is fixed on the work table. CNC refers to computerized numerical control, it is a control and programming system that drives the motion of the machine’s axis. Driven by the machine’s CNC system, the spindle is moving linearly along 3 axis to specific positions to perform the cutting, making a required shape out of the workpiece.

With special spindle attachment, or milling head, it can also swivel around 2 additional axis, enabling the cnc router to perform 5 axis machining.

Materials to cut

 

Sparks fly at metal tech 150623-F-CB366-093

A cnc router cutting metal component

CNC router typically cut light, soft materials – wood, plastic, composites, aluminum, an industrial cnc router can also cut iron, steel, alloys.

Purpose of cnc routing

The purpose of cnc routing is to cut workpiece to desired dimensions, shapes with desired accuracy and surface quality. Aside from cutting industrial components, often CNC router is used to make engraves on a workpiece for decoration, signage, badges, souvenirs.

Construction of a CNC router

CNC router is a machine, it is typically structured like a portal, the portal is moving to manufacture the workpiece. Although some versions are simplified, generally the machine is structured as follows.

 

cnc router parts

CNC router in assembly – bed, table, portal, spindle, air duct, workpiece

Machine bed

Some cnc routers don’t have a bed, these are usually light machines such as desktop or benchtop cnc router and they just lay the work table directly on the ground. Heavier machines do have bed structure with a work table laid on it, it provides a rigid base for the table and the entire machine to operate on. The bed is usually made of welded steel structure.

Machine column

The columns are the 2 “pillars” standing on each side of the machine bed, they are driven by CNC and servomotors to move along the machine bed (X axis). Together with the crossbeam below, they are making the portal structure of the machine. They are typically made of steel.

Machine crossbeam

The crossbeam is the long steel beam that connects the 2 columns, together they make the portal structure, most of cnc router’s crossbeams are fixed, they are not movable along the columns.

Machine ram

The ram is the housing the spindle nested in, sliding in & out. The ram provides CNC programmable motions in 2 directions: 1) cross the machine table (Y axis); 2) up & down vertically to the table (Z axis).

Router spindle

 

y axis, z axis ball screws of cnc router

Crossbeam (Y axis ball screw), ram (Z axis ball screw), spindle of a cnc router, cutting metal component

The spindle is spinning with certain speed and torque, providing the force to drive cutters to perform cutting, either milling, drilling, boring, or tapping. It is usually driven by a AC or DC motor. The bigger the cnc router is, the more powerful its spindle is.

Work table

The work table is a steel table with T slot, the workpiece is placed and fixed on the table so the machine can cut it. The fixation is normally done by mechanical or hydraulic clamps, clamping the workpiece with the help of T slots. The table size and the working space need to be equal or slightly larger than the workpiece size/dimensions.

CNC computer numerical control

 

cnc system, stepper motor, linear drives

CNC, electric box, servomotor, linear drive of router machine

A CNC is essentially a computer that controls the motions of the machine’s axis and the motions of other device, such as an automatic tool changer. It contains the computer hardware, the disk media, the special electric circuit board to control and program the motion of machine. A CNC is the “brain” of a cnc router, it is also responsible for synchronizing the motions of multiple axis. The scenario is something like – while X axis progress 1mm, Y axis progress 0.5mm, and Z axis progress 0.25mm, such coordination is programmed and controlled by the CNC system. Heavier or complex cnc router is equipped with standalone electric cabinet for all the circuit board, wires, connectors, amplifiers etc.

Servo motors, Linear drives

A computer (CNC) can not drive the machines alone, it needs device to read its digital instructions and implement the motions, that device is the servomotor. The servomotor is a programmable motor that make the accurate rotation (angular motion) per the CNC’s instructions. Another type of programmable motor is called stepper motor, it rotates a small angle each step, say 3 degrees each step, therefore providing a accurate motion. A linear drive is for transforming the servomotor’s angular motion to linear motion, so the machine can progress or regress linearly as a result of motor rotations.

Cutting tools

The cutting tools are the tools that do the cutting on the workpiece. They can be face mills, end mills, drills, borers, taps, engravers, they are inserted into the spindle, rotate with it, progress into the workpiece to remove its materials. A cutting tool normally consist of tool holder – the part goes into the spindle, tool body, tool tips – the sharp tips that do the actual cutting. In some cases, such as a drill, the tool body and tool tips are one piece. A cnc router can equip multiple cutting tools to perform different cutting tasks.

Tool magazine

A cnc router usually comes with multiple tools – multiple mills, multiple drills, multiple borers, they can be placed in a tool rack, and manually or automatically interchanged between the rack and router’s spindle.

Automatic tool changer

A cnc router usually moves its machine ram/spindle to load/unload the tools it needs during machining, a dedicated automatic tool changer is rarely seen but it is certainly possible to equip one. However, due to its light duty and light cutting, driving the machine ram/spindle to pick up tools from tool magazine seems to be a smarter choice.

Workpiece fixtures

The fixtures are the clamps, bots, nuts, hydraulic or mechanical, to fix tight the workpiece on the machine table with the help of its slots. One workpiece requires one set of clamps, another type of workpiece will require a new set of fixtures.

Foundation of CNC router

Due to its lightness a typical cnc router will require no foundation, it can be just placed on a solid, flat floor. A small cnc router can be even placed to a tabletop or benchtop.

Cutters

Cutters are the doing the actual cutting for cnc router, it worth a separate paragraph to introduce its types and functions. The family of cutters can be 1) mill cutters, end mills, face mills; 2)engraving cutters; 3)straight up and down cutters for split cutting; 4) drills for drilling holes; 5)saw blades for sawing and grooving; 6) profile cutters for making 3D surface, etc.

CNC router as a system

The machine body, the CNC, the cutting tool set, the fixture, they constitute the entire system of a cnc router.

Further reading:
What is a CNC router and why
CNC router briefly explained
Build a cnc router

Types of CNC router

CNC router comes in many variants and types, some are just small variants, some are big enough to make a significant difference in machine design and its mechanic, mechanical properties.

Wood cnc router vs metal cnc router

A big proportion of cnc routers are for woodworking, either wood cutting, sawing, engraving, or molding. They can be of big size but are relatively cheaper, lighter, relaxed mechanical properties of the machine, and require less expensive tools.

In contrast, meal working cnc router requires more rigid mechanical properties, more stable machines, metal cutting tools, which often result in higher cost to build one. The metals can be as soft as aluminum and as hard as steel alloys.

Other materials sit in the middle of wood and metal, in terms of hardness. For example, cnc router is often used to cut alumimum – a soft metal; to cut plastics, forms; to cut composite materials such as printed circuit board (PCB). However we don’t name our cnc routers particularly after them, instead we generally categorize them as woodworking cnc router, metalworking cnc router.

Industrial cnc router vs hobby cnc router

Many cnc routers are purchased, installed, operated by hobbyists making components for personal projects, such as a wood mold, an engraved glass, a PCB, a metal plates, etc. Beside the DIY (do it yourself) components, many hobbyists also DIY cnc router, e.g. they purchase all necessary parts and build the machine themselves.

Industrial cnc router is for manufacturing metal (mostly) components of industrial systems or devices.

3 axis vs 5 axis

Same as its milling machine peers, cnc router can be equipped with 3 axis, 4 axis, 5 axis simultaneous control by installing the necessary cnc system, linear drives, and angular drive units. 5 axis machining is achieved by synchronize the motions of X, Y, Z axis and 2 rotational axis of the swiveling head.

Cutting router vs engraving router

Many cnc routers are making a mold, a picture, an art design, an image, on a workpiece by engraving, the engraved products become a piece of art, a piece of design, a piece of decoration, a piece of souvenir for personal use. The materials to be engraved can be wood, glass, aluminum, steel, bronze/cooper, silver or even gold.

Cutting refers to more conventional metalworking or woodworking process a cnc router performs. It cuts, saws, mills, drills, bores a workpiece of various materials.

Bed type router vs floor type router

A bed type refers to a router machine with a steel/iron base for its table to sit on, a floor type refers to a router machine without a separate base, instead, its table is laid directly on a flat floor, or tabletop. Usually heavier routers are table type which provides more rigidness and anti dumping effect.

CNC router applications

Industrial components

CNC routers are just a mini cnc milling machines when making industrial components, such as a small motor housing, a small gearbox housing, a small water pump.

Personal components

CNC routers are mostly used to make personal objects – a 3D engrave, an art piece, a model, a piece of decoration etc.

Prototypes

People need to make prototypes to verify the design and test manufacturing process. CNC routers are very suitable for prototyping precise components of small size, of various materials.

Typical industries using CNC routers machines

Arts & Crafts

 

cnc router making a snowflake

A cnc router making a snowflake with laser cutter, vinyl cutter, together with a embroidery machine

CNC routers are often used to make pieces of arts or crafts by engraving. Typical pieces include a sculptured animal, sculptured human face, engraved symbol, engraved 3D tattoo, etc.

PCB routing

Printed circuit board (PCB) is of composite materials, flat, multiple layers, which makes it a perfect piece for cnc routers to manufacture.

DIY routing

CNC router is diyers’ sweet child, with it they can make anything, their imagination is the only limit. Some of the cool things people ever made with cnc routers:

 

a cnc router is engraving a sign of cat

CNC router engraving a cat sign.

Scrabble
Surfboard
Music instrument body
Dome structures
House models
Boat models
Tattoos
Sculptures
Creative signs

Wood

There is a huge variety of wood objects a cnc router kit can make, here’s a short list of them:

 

cnc router draws a picture

A cnc router draws a picture in inkscape

Wood structures of plants
Wood models of animals
Wood furniture
Wood kitchen ware
Wood decorations
Wood timepiece (body)
Wood box
Wood bin
Wood frame
Wood table
Wood cabinet
Wood puzzle pieces
Wood racks
etc…

Stone routing

CNC router can do stone projects too, either it is marble, granite, they typically engrave stones to make signs, molds, crafts for decorating buildings and homes.

Die & mould routing

Some industrial grade cnc routers can be used to make die & mold. These die & mold then make the shape of the later mass produced components.

How to choose a cnc router

We write a buyer’s guide for cnc milling machine, and buyer’s guide for cnc lathe, while the principles are the same, cnc routers are quite different machines, with different applications, for different users, we write the following specifics for a potential buyer’s reference.

Good plan

It all starts with a well thought of plan, for now and for foreseeable future:

1. What you want to do with this machine?
2. What materials will you cut?
3. What is the dimension of your workpiece?
4. What accuracy do you need to achieve?
5. What set of tools do you need?
6. What CAD/CAM software do you use?
7. What CNC do you prefer?

At this stage you’d better make up your mind what you want to make out of the cnc router – is it a 3D model of boat? Is it a aircraft model? A engraved glass? A marble sign? You can start with all sort of wild ideas but when you are about to buy a machine, you want to narrow down to one product.

That material is your workpiece? Is it metal? If so you need a stronger router, with rigid machine frame, powerful motor, bigger spindle torque etc, which will cost your more money. If it is wood, your requirement on the router can be relaxed.

What is the 3D dimension of your workpiece? Your machine’s work space (length, width, height) must be larger than your workpiece but not too much larger. You want to consult with potential suppliers about the size, tell them your workpiece dimension and ask for their advice. You also need to think a bit ahead into the future, will you probably manufacture larger workpiece in the near future?

How accurate you need your router to be? Do you have a concrete number? Either yes or no you want to ask for specifications from potential suppliers and digest them.

What tools do you need for cutting/engraving your workpiece? Can you router supplier supply them? Whenever possible you want to deal with one source of supply.

Are you currently running any CAD/CAM software? Is your products already designed with it? If so, check how well it works with the CNC of your router, if your CAD/CAM is running on Windows OS but your CNC control is Linux based, you want to know it in advance. Nowadays most CNC interface nicely with personal computers, but you still need confirmation, and you want to know which OS the CNC is compatible with? Is it Linux? Mac OS? or Windows?

Budget

It’s eventually down to what you can afford, but don’t buy a CNC router with tight budget, instead, prepare to spend more. If you wish to buy a $1000 machine, prepare to spend at least $1500 because you need additional tools, fixtures, spare parts, circuit boards etc. Unless you are a real geeky DIYer and you have a lot of fun building a machine yourself, you shouldn’t try to DIY a cnc router for the purpose of saving money. Because you will be swamped with a lot design decisions – the specifications of bed, table, portal, how strong they should be? What speeds and torque the spindle should have? Which servo motors or stepper motors should be used? You will spend a lot of time, and you face uncertainty – you may fail – which eventually cost you money.

Quality components

This one is easy to understand – you want your supplier to use quality components for your router – quality mechanical parts, quality motors, quality linear motion parts, quality spindles, quality electric boards. Ask your potential supplier where they source or manufacturer these parts, it is the quality of these parts that makes the quality of the router.

Experienced builder

You want your potential supplier to have rich experience in building a router machine. How many years are they in business? Do they have a good team? How many engineers do they have? It is not rare that a promising project raised funds from kickstarter but in 12-24 months it fails and close doors, so check it out.

Excellent support

You WILL encounter problem when you install, operate, cut workpiece with your router machine. It will be a great help if you can reach your supplier, asking questions about a unfit mechanical part, about an assembly decision, about an alarm signal, about a malfunction, about anything… In the purchasing phase, try to be clear what support you can expect? within how many hours? Do they have a contact person for you to call or email? Understandably, some suppliers sell cheap cnc router and they leave everything pretty much to you – do it yourself, you’d better know if you can handle it before placing the order, and don’t be afraid to ask for extra support and be ready to pay.

Active user forums

It is an excellent sign if a supplier has an active user community, it is good for supplier and it is good for you. You can ask questions and usually receive good advice from the peer users. Try to locate the supplier that has an active user forums, make it your preferred supplier if everything else is equal.

Good CNC/CAD/CAM

Ask your potential supplier what CNC system they pick, search it online, find out if it is a good one, a versatile one, the one you can program and control on your personal computer. Do you need a special board or USB to be inserted in your computer? How it interfaces with other CAD/CAM software? You will spend a lot of time playing your CNC system, you want to make sure it is a good system.

Spare parts

Machines are wearable good, they do heavy works and they will get worn out, starting from some parts, such as a cutting tool, a ball screw, a rack and pinion, a bearing. You want to have quick supply when they break, so check with your supplier how quickly, how costly you can get spare parts.

Excellent reviews

Search the web for the cnc router you consider to buy, see if you can find any user reviews, if yes, good for you! If you can’t find any, try to ask other people’s opinion by posting on forums like cnczone, the information you will likely get is valuable, it can save you a lot of time, a lot of money, so make sure to collect it.

Further reading:
How to choose a cnc router
Information resource about cnc router
A guide to choose CNC bits (tools)

CNC router manufacturers

We can find a few listings of cnc router manufacturers in our manufacturers directory, that’s not for DIY cnc though. So we compose a new list that is more DIY oriented here.

Note the price information is as of June 1 2016

ManufacturerCountryRouter modelMaterials to cutUser ForumPriceNote
Carbide 3DUSAShapeoko 3aluminum, plastic, woodactive$999.00
Carbide 3DUSANormad 883 Prometal, plastic, woodactive$2,599.00
BuildYourCNCUSABlacktoewoodn/a$3,999.00CNC sold separate
cncrouterpartsUSACRP2448wood$1,975.00CNC sold separate
ZenbotUSAZenbot 2424n/a$1,299.00CNC sold separate
ProbotixUSAV90 Mk2woodactive$2,699.00
PDJ Inc.USAPilot Pro CNCmetal, plastic, woodn/a$3,750.00DIY Kit
Joe's CNCUSAEvolution Kitmetal, plastic, woodactive$565.00DIY kit
DIYLILCNCUSABigShoulderswoodinactiveDIY instructions
gocncGermanyNext 3Dmetal, plastic, woodactive$1,200.00DIY Kit
chinacnczoneChinametal, plastic, woodn/a
IEHKHong KongIEC3040/6040metal, plastic, woodn/a$1,499.00
Badog CNCSwitzerlandFatdog NCmetaln/a$15,500.00with CAD/CAM
Shanghai SunmoreChinaV90 Mk2metaln/aIndustrial
CR OnsrudUSAmetal, plastic, woodn/aindustrial
AXYZ AutomationCanadaAXYZmetaln/aIndustrial
WitechSwitzerlandArtistmetaln/aindustrial
VHF CamfactureGermanymetaln/aindustrial
MB PortatecGermanymetaln/aindustrial
LangGermanyImpalametaln/aindustrial
FlexicamGermanyFlexicammetaln/aindustrial

Make a correction

If you find any information in this guide incorrect or inaccurate, feel free to send us a message, we will be happy to review.

Review a product

If you are a user of a product, you can help others to make wise decisions by sharing your experience, what’s good about it? what’s bad? what is the trade off? What’s its accuracy? What’s its durability? We encourage you to create a listing for the machine or the manufacturer, and write a review about it at wikimachine.com

9. Additional resource

CNC router basics by makezine
CNCZONE – an active forum of cnc machine users
A builder’s guide for cnc router
DIY CNC explained
3d printer
cnc computer numerical control
cnc grinding machine

Reviews