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Thread: To CNC or not to CNC

  1. #1
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    To CNC or not to CNC

    Hi everyone,

    Would really appreciate hearing from those of you that use CNC machines - what you like, what you don't, any buyer's remorse - any feedback at all, i.e. came with good/bad software, but software can be upgraded, etc.

    Long ago I visited the home of routerman aka Pat Warner, for several days of study. He was a genius of fixturing and jigs, and made all of that stuff without a CNC machine. But if you want to optimize your time, CNC would seem invaluable for creating routing templates. That's just one use I can think of, but I'm sure for actually creating furniture, there are time savings there as well.

    I have extreme computer skills, but zero experience with CAD.

    Thanks in advance --

    Ned

  2. #2
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    For me, CNC was the logical intersection of woodworking, technology and my life-long pursuit of many kinds of art forms. Putting a CNC in my shop quickly brought me to the point that's similar to the old saying, "To a hammer, everything is a nail". When I'm developing a project or noodling with ideas, it's become natural for me to consider "how can I employ the CNC to make this .... ". And I'll say right up front, the CNC is not a "finishing tool". You still have to do all the same finesse work you have to do using any other method of producing components for a project. You still need to use your hand tools, your other machines and your finishing prowess. There is no "push a button and out pops a thingamajig fully baked". But it does take away the drudgery that comes in some projects for rough material removal (like chair seats and guitar necks), leaving more time for that special work. CNC isn't for everyone, of course. There's a learning curve for sure. There's a financial barrier to entry too...and a reason that so many folks will say "buy your second machine first".

    One other benefit I've derived from my own CNC machine is it's an extra set of hands. While it's working on something, I can be working on something else. Nearby, of course, because you NEVER leave a CNC machine running unattended for safety reasons. But I can be working on some component or a completely different project which the CNC is cutting something or carving something, etc.
    --

    The most expensive tool is the one you buy "cheaply" and often...

  3. #3
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    Jim - nicely said!
    David

  4. #4
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    Take this with a grain of salt, because i had a basic level CNC for about a month and a half before i became frustrated with its abilities. In a way, i suppose my experience does answer some of your initial question. I had a used CNC shark with a 2x3 bed with vetric software. While you can design and draw in vectric, i much preferred making things in autocad. Vectric didnt appear as well thought out as a design tool. It is excellent for simplifying the gcode process. From a high level perspective, i think ALL cnc's are incredible. The shear versatility is incredible. However, they are limited by your design abilities and creative thinking process. Obviously, the perfect templating feature is amazing. Have you seen Darrel Peart's GG stuff? Perfectly matching the reveal of the fremont drawer to the front rail is something so simple on a CNC, but very complicated to do by hand. Vcarve inlays are another thing that can be enormously rewarding with a CNC and nearly impossible to do by hand. I do not think they are the end-all-be-all that they are marketed as. Most basic machines are not cutting out furniture parts from hardwood stock. Nor is it a 45 second project to whip up a design, create the gcode, and get to cutting. You are going to spend a ton of time on the computer end of things before you ever pop in a bit and hit start. Most projects will have multiple toolpaths and different bits that you need to break down and manually manage.

    Buyer's remorse:
    You really need a machine big enough and stiff enough to do the work you want to do. The shark would be fine for someone just looking to vcarve small to medium signs. For me, it was too small and limiting. It couldnt cut all the templates for a maloof rocker, because the back legs were longer than 3'. I think a 4x4 is the minimum size a serious CNC enthusiast should consider.
    Next, it really struggled to cut material. 1/4" thick plywood took a 4-6 passes and was completely inefficient. CNC cut templates are sweet, because they are absolutely perfect, but i could have done it at the bandsaw and spindle sander faster than the Shark.
    Something that caught me off guard is how loud these things are. I had a water cooled spindle on the Shark, and when its running and not cutting, it is whisper quiet. However, when you are cutting material at 18-24,000 RPM, its a screaming banshee. Incredibly annoying to be around, even with ear protection. With the smaller machines, you might cut a simple file in 45 minutes, and that is a long time to be next to a banshee. This could just be me and im a nut about hearing protection and loud noises, but this in no way compares to a dust collector or table saw/planer.
    I underestimated how much of an issue fixturing workpieces can be. On cheaper machines, this sucks a bit. I ended up just screwing oversized workpieces directly to the spoil board. This works, but you need your workpiece to be very flat to begin with. Think about how flat some thinner sheet good material is. A 1/16" cup over 2' is actually a pretty big deal with some CNC work.

    I know plenty of brilliant people make wonderful things with Shapeoko and xcarve machines, but i really think the beauty of a CNC's capabilities come into play on the $10-20k class machines with ATC, vacuum beds, and the rigidity and size to do a large variety of projects. Unfortunately, those machines are not in the cards for 99% of us hobbyists.

  5. #5
    'Buyers' Remorse' ?
    The only remorse I might have, is that when we bought our router, there was no such thing as cheap chinese stuff.
    The router has a 4 x 2m bed, and celebrated its 32nd birthday (made in 1989), and weighs about 3 tons. It's servo-driven.
    We bought it 2nd hand 14 years ago, and it owed us about $32k at the time.
    When you see what you can get from China for under $5k, it's amazing these days.
    However this is a quality unit, and its age is of no consequence.
    Software - I use an ancient version of Enroute that came with it, plus an ancient version of Corel Draw (x3), and I like the system- very productive.

    The only issues I've had have been trying to diagnose and repair things as they go wrong, by myself.
    Best wishes,
    Ian



    ULS M-300, 55w made 2002 with rotary. Goldenlaser 130 watt, 1300x700 made 2011.
    Flat bed 2500x1300 150/90watt 2 tube laser, 2018 model.
    Esab router, 1989, 4.5 x 2.0 m, conv. to Tekcel, and modded a 2nd time.
    HP L260-60". Roland PNC-1410. Mimaki GC-130 SU.
    Screenprinting carousel 6x4 and 7x4 ft 1-arm bandit vac table.
    Corel Draw X3, Illy, Indesign & Photoshop CS2 & CS5, Enroute 4
    Pencil, paper, paintbrush, airbrush & dagger-liners & assorted other stuff.

  6. #6
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    Exatly the kind of feedback I was looking for, thanks very much to all who have replied.

  7. #7
    There's a thread entitled "Buying a CNC? Do Your Homework!!"on the Camheads forum by Gary Campbell, a very knowledgeable guy. Start there. Decide what you want to use a cnc for and what sort of machine you are aiming at, then locate some owners and go visit them. The vendors will give you some leads of willing customers and you can ask for invitations on the various forums (CNC Zone, Shopbot, Camheads, Vectric, etc.) Take a hard look at their gear and what they are able to accomplish. Decide if you want to invest the time and money needed to get into this.

    You can do quite a bit with a portable router body on a solid frame, but for production or heavier cuts you will want a spindle. For sheet goods a vacuum table is almost mandatory. A tool changer is a game changer. For long involved toolpaths a closed loop system is superior to steppers. Heavier components need bigger feed motors, guide rails and bearings. All this runs into money.

    Cnc is like turning in that holding the work is half the battle. The possibilities run from blue tape and CA glue through t-track and hold-down clamps to high horsepower regenerative vacuum blowers.

    If you are into computers you already know how much time it takes to learn new software; you need cad for drawing and cam for translating that into code the machine can use. I use Vectric V-Carve Pro and it is a great value but you will have to figure out what is best for you.

    Support is really important, both for the hard and the soft. When I was starting I would have lost my mind if not for help from the Camheads and Vectric forums. There is a good deal of information on the cnc forum at Woodweb also.

    I have a 10 year old Camaster Stinger 4'x8' with a Porter Cable router, NEMA 23 stepper motors and I think 16mm Hiwin rails and linear bearings with a welded base, a bolted together aluminum gantry and a shop-made vac system. For my purposes it is ok- decent accuracy and repeatability and enough power if you are not in a hurry. For someone trying to do production it is limited.I don't really use it enough to justify it as I have gotten into turning more, but I can't bring myself to unload it as it has paid for itself and is so useful when needed. I would have been frustrated with a machine like the one Patrick had.
    Last edited by Kevin Jenness; 06-22-2021 at 2:24 PM.

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kevin Jenness View Post

    I have a 10 year old Camaster Stinger 4'x8' with a Porter Cable router, NEMA 23 stepper motors and I think 16mm Hiwin rails and linear bearings with a welded base, a bolted together aluminum gantry and a shop-made vac system. For my purposes it is ok- decent accuracy and repeatability and enough power if you are not in a hurry. For someone trying to do production it is limited.I don't really use it enough to justify it as I have gotten into turning more, but I can't bring myself to unload it as it has paid for itself and is so useful when needed. I would have been frustrated with a machine like the one Patrick had.
    Yes, the only good part of owning the NWA Shark was buying it for $750-800 and selling it for $2,500 a month later. Absolutely crazy story of buying it too. It involved the seller playing the bagpipes outside an apartment building while also wearing makeup. He was in a 12x12 sf studio apartment and the CNC was next to his bed. Finally, he said a prayer/blessing over my car after packed up the CNC and i paid him. Truly, one of the stranger and better craigslist purchases of my life.

    That sucks you arent over the moon with the CAMaster. Something like you describe sounds like the point where a CNC starts to shine and can actually perform cutting applications. Its the kind of machine i keep trying to find second hand,

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by Patrick Kane View Post
    That sucks you arent over the moon with the CAMaster. Something like you describe sounds like the point where a CNC starts to shine and can actually perform cutting applications. Its the kind of machine i keep trying to find second hand,
    Keep in mind that as good as his 10 year old Camaster still is, current generations of the same plus those from similar competitors are even better; beefier in many cases, faster/stronger due to upgrades to heavier steppers or servos, more advanced version so the control software, spindles moving closer to being "the default" choice over a router motor, etc. Having options like the AVID machines is really nice, too, particularly for the non-production situation where one wants a larger machine at a more affordable cost. (Or wants a larger machine that they can actually get in their basement... )
    --

    The most expensive tool is the one you buy "cheaply" and often...

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Patrick Kane View Post
    That sucks you arent over the moon with the CAMaster. Something like you describe sounds like the point where a CNC starts to shine and can actually perform cutting applications. Its the kind of machine i keep trying to find second hand,
    I'm not slagging it- it is a good fit for my purposes. It might put you over the moon, for someone pumping out kitchens or milling handrails it would not be optimal, that's all I'm saying. Anyone getting into this needs to assess their needs relative to their means. If you are looking for a machine that prints money you may as well invest in one that prints $100 bills rather than $5's. If you want to make accurate templates or inlays my router is quite capable. If I were looking to do cnc work full time I would invest in a different one.

  11. #11
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    @Kevin - I just readGary Campbell's thread that you referenced, thanks for the enlightenment --

  12. #12
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    I think your first question you need to ask yourself is are you planning on using it to make money for your business or just for a hobby. A lot of the advice given assumes that ROI is a factor. When buying for a business the advice will usually be "don't cheap out", well maybe not in those words but that's the gist. In other words if your business needs a truck to haul lumber don't buy a pickup and expect it'll work just as well as a full size truck. The yes or no question really comes down to was it wise to invest on a CNC router or should the money have been spent elsewhere.

    If you are a hobbyist the yes or no question is different. To answer it you need to think of projects that you would like to do. Will it do them? If not then you most likely will not be happy with your purchase. Can you invest the time to learn? Just like any other tool in your shop, you can't expect to be an expert. A CNC router is going to take longer to master because of all the different aspects. Are you a creative person? Most hobbyists make signs. They are easy and require not a lot of creativity. But if that's all you do then I think you'll get bored and not likely to be happy with your purchase. How much you can (or want) to spend also makes a difference. The smaller the budget the lower your expectations should be.

  13. #13
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    Personally I feel that the decision process "should" be similar for a hobbyist as for a business. While the latter is certainly more focused on positive financial benefit to the business, there's no good reason that someone who is considering a CNC for non-professional use shouldn't consider all the same factors. ROI still exists for a hobbyist, even though it might take on a slightly different flavor. For a very long time...like decades...my signature here has contained these words: "The most expensive tool is the one you buy "cheaply" and often..."' It's true for CNC machines, too. There absolutely is a learning curve when one adds CNC (and/or laser engraving) to their toolbox. A machine that performs poorly, is flimsy/less accurate and is cobbled together makes that learning curve a whole lot harder and all too often results in someone abandoning the effort. That's wasted time and wasted money. Choosing carefully from the start makes for a better experience. Yes, the initial investment might be more, but the fact that the machine and it's use sticks around makes it less expensive than the "toy" that gets abandoned, even if the person recovers a good portion of the money by selling the gear. The time is still lost. I'm certainly not suggesting that someone adopting CNC for their woodworking avocation should by a big, heavy, expensive industrial machine for sure. (unless they want to) But skipping the "toys" and at least investing in a mainstream product that is well designed, well made, well integrated and uses capable, mainstream software makes for a better experience.

    My brother made the mistake of buying a "toy"...he's never been able to get it to work and can't send it back...
    --

    The most expensive tool is the one you buy "cheaply" and often...

  14. #14
    Quote Originally Posted by Alex Zeller View Post
    Most hobbyists make signs. They are easy and require not a lot of creativity. But if that's all you do then I think you'll get bored and not likely to be happy with your purchase.
    I have to say that is an overbroad assertion. You don't have to travel far in VT to see some very creative commercial sign work, and as is often proven here amateurs are no less capable than the pros at producing work of excellent design and workmanship. I suspect that the core Vectric products were developed primarily for sign making, and although there is plenty of unoriginal and uninspiring work produced with them they are tools that offer considerable scope to a creative sign maker, though not limited to that work by any means.

    As far as ROI goes, I agree with Jim's post. A hobbyist may measure it in personal satisfaction rather than $, but it can't be ignored when buying machinery.
    Last edited by Jim Becker; 06-23-2021 at 9:51 PM. Reason: fixed quote tagging

  15. #15
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    I am a big fan of CNC Routers. Hobby or Pro a CNC machine can be a blessing, or not, but for my money they are "Fun to Run". I guess it depends on your personality, if you like to tinker a bit its probably a sure thing that you will enjoy owning a CNC machine. I bought my third machine first, it was more than I needed which is a rare situation. When I bought my second machine I downsized to a much smaller table but a more advanced machine IMO. No regrets at all so far, I can always go back to a larger machine if a business opportunity requires a larger bed. This is not a situation I expect to happen at my age.

    In a few more years when its time to close the door of my shop the CNC Router will be the last machine to be sold.

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