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Thread: Hobbyist CNC router/laser uses and opinions

  1. #1
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    Hobbyist CNC router/laser uses and opinions

    While I know we have a CNC forum and laser engraver forums, this is a more general set of questions (and there is not a General numerical control doo-dad forum)

    I got pulled into teaching some summer classes(which I don't normally teach), and want to blow my windfall on something fun.
    I had toyed with upgrading my Jet 14" bandsaw to a Grizzly 17" G0513X2BF, or my Jet drill to one of the Nova DVR drill presses, but got to thinking that was just incremental improvements on capabilities I already had.

    That led me to think about a CNC router set up (perhaps something like a Shapeoko Pro (but I have no idea of the range of options and manufacturers)). Then I though should I look at something smaller and cheaper to dip my toe in and figure out whether I have a use case (i.e. does it amuse me enough to play with ) or is it something that will sit idle. There is the Sainsmart 3018 Prover that shows up on YouTube a bit. I know it would have limitations but it seems to be a tenth of the cost of the Shapeoko Pro. It does also have the option of a Diode Laser bundle.

    My brother, who with my nephew, has built up some 3D printers, suggests I just build one from scratch. This is perfectly doable for me, since I built laser systems and control electronics when I was in graduate school (I was even the machine shop TA for the chemistry department for a while). But I think I want to get to trying the making part sooner.

    A couple of questions:
    - What do folks use there CNC routers to make? Same questions for the laser systems?
    - What would be a good system to start in to play around in the CNC space? Will I be annoyed with the limitations of the 3018 Prover, or will it help me understand the field so I can make a better informed choices when I get the next system (if I like playing in this space)

    One application I have thought of is some engraving in wood. I missed out on some of my Patent plaques as I changed jobs, and would like to try to make the ones I am missing. Not sure if this would be better via mechanical engraving or laser engraving. Another application might be making storage of various ilk for tools (racks, stands, boxes etc). Maybe even cutting foam for 5S storage of tools.

    Any wisdom folks would care to share?

    Thanks

    John

  2. #2
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    The capabilities and uses are wide and varied, but are highly dependent on your design skills and software comprehension. I think most use them for making templates, vcarving, inlays, sculpting seats, making jigs and on and on. My issue with CNCs is that i can do most of the same operations using conventional power/hand tools. I could make the same templates at the same speed or faster than my old CNC shark could cut them out of 1/4" plywood. That includes gluing the paper template to a sheet of plywood, cutting close to the line, and sanding to the line. That machine was extremely slow and disappointing. I cant imagine that thing carving a maloof seat. I would crush it using a holey galahad wheel on an angle grinder. To really get into a lot of the fun aspects of CNC routers, i think you need to spend $10k+. I know that sounds crazy, but you need a stiff machine with a 4x4 bed or greater to really unlock a lot of furniture making capabilities, in my opinion. The practical application of vcarve inlays is relatively limited in my personal taste and preference. I dont have a need to carve a logo in a table top, but this would obviously be very valuable to you if you made signs for a golf course and wanted to show hole layouts with bunkers, water hazards, etc.

    I have no experience with the Sainsmart 3018, but googling it, i would probably stay away from that machine for woodworking. It might be a neat addition to a 'maker', but that looks like it would be a disappointing POS for most woodworking applications. My experience with CNC routers is limited to NWA's CNC shark, which i got off craigslist for $750. I used it for a month and then immediately listed it for a multiple of what i paid for it. Happiest days of owning that machine were the day i bought it before i set it up, and the day i sold it. I used a mid-range laser cutter in my university's architectural shop for 3-4 years, and think they can be incredible for 'makers', but somewhat limiting for woodworkers.

  3. #3
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    If you think you will like it (it's not for everyone) then spend the money to buy a decent one. The first step is trying to figure out what you want to make with it so you have an idea as to general size of material you will want it to handle. Next you will want one that's rigid. When I bought mine I knew I didn't want belts driving it or wheels running on an aluminum track. I wanted solid. I looked a little into the Shapeoko but after reading some of the forums it had some weaknesses that I didn't like. Probably it's strongest selling point was a vast amount of people using them so help was always easy to get. The price range seems to be really cheap (and I think you'll get a machine that may work but it'll leave you frustrated more often than not), the Shapeoko price range (about what a hobbyist should expect to pay to get good results), and then the $10k+ range where you will get a commercial machine that should be a work horse for a one man shop.

    When pricing it out don't forget the software. There's a free version of Fusion 360 but it can be tricky to learn. There's some suscription based options, and there's Vetric (pay once and cray once option that's very popular). Vetric's most powerful software is around $2k with cheaper options well under $1000 (under $400 IIRC for a smaller machine).

    While you could build one I think you'll find it's like building a trailer. Yes you can do it but the guys who are building trailers buy in bulk so they get the parts at a much cheaper price. So in the end you pay just as much and have to do all the work yourself while not having a lot of good resources to troubleshoot.

    I have a Onefinity and it's a beast for a hobbyist machine. If you have specific questions about it ask in the CNC forum and you'll get answer from the few of us here who one them.

    But I would really decide what you want to do with one first. This was my latest project. All the pieces were made on the CNC router and then mated together. Some of the gaps aren't as tight as I would like (first attempt) I think I'll make a second where the top of the oval has flowers carved into the wood. Don't just think of simple things like signs.
    mirror.jpg

  4. #4
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    I took the plunge into hobbyist laser about 3 years ago. I primarily wanted something to engrave/burn my personal logo onto my wood work pieces.

    I bought an Ortur LM2 (about $250), built a cabinet and have used it quite a lot. If/when it dies, I will buy another or something similar.

    On the CNC front, I made the plunge last fall. I configured CNC from very bare bones up to a $15K Avid machine with a 5' x 8' footprint. I finally settled on the Onefinity Journeyman 48" x 32" final cost with accessories about $4800.

    For the laser software, I bought Affinity Designer($50), for design, and Lightburn for actual control of the laser.

    For the CNC, I opted for Vectric vCarve Pro($630), which seems to be the most widely used and supported in the hobby market.

    This is a tray I made for my daughter and used the laser



    The base of a tray for a friend who lost his dog


    Here I made a couple of hand held router templates on the CNC

  5. #5
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    Like some others above, I recently bought a OneFinity Journeyman. All in for about $4200. As others have said, it is a very rigid machine with a 48" wide X-axis, by 32", or any length if you use tiling, which I have. You no longer have to spend $10K to get a machine that's plenty capable for hobby level furniture and cabinet making, and more. I opted for V-Carve Pro software, included in the $4200, because it looked like it can do most anything I would ever want, and because Vectric has great tutorials and is the 800 lb gorilla in the hobbiest CNC software world. I have not been disappointed.

    What do I use it for? Not much for furniture making so far, actually, but definitely for making cabinet parts from sheet goods. It's great for cutting out nested parts and machining dados, shelf pin holes, etc. I use it for making multiples, things that are monotonous (and time consuming) to do by hand. I use it to make curved stuff. I use it to make high precision jigs and fixtures, especially where two parts have to mate together, whether for a tight or a slidng fit. Fitting a curved part into a mating mortise is simple with the CNC; not so manually.

    I use it to add numbers/lettering in plastic parts. I have used it to make inlays, and I can see a lot of opportunities for more in my future work. I use it to make 2D and 3D carvings, mostly just for fun to this point. And I plan to use it to make rocking chair seats. Sorry, Patrick, but there comes a point in life where letting a machine sculpt out the bulk of a Hal Taylor chair seat makes a lot more sense than doing it manually. I don't care if it takes 4 hours. The machine works for pennies, and I can do other things besides look for the Advil bottle. And if you need/want to make 6 or 10 the CNC is the smart way to go regardless of age. And that's where the CNC shines. It runs w/o complaint, hour after hour, and every part is identical.

    A CNC has utility at any scale you choose. But while a large machine can make little, tiny parts, a small machine can't make large parts. My advice is to buy the largest, stiffest machine that fits the space you have available and that your budget allows. You will never say "Gee, I wish I had bought a smaller one.".

    John

  6. #6
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    I bought my CNC in 2018. To me it's like that old saying about hammers where to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I feel the same way about my CNC. It's both "just another tool" and one I turn to more and more to accomplish things, both easy and hard. The former applied two days ago, for example. Making a desk for my younger daughter for her apartment because she can't use the same desk as her SO as he works from home and has "a setup". I needed a hole for a wire management insert of a particular size in the top. I don't really own any usable hole saws and don't have a Forstner large enough. Five minutes of setup while my machine did it's warm up and initialize routine and about 30 seconds of cutting and I had my hole, precisely placed and precisely sized.

    Two things about this kind of tool. If you decide to jump in, commit to it. That means a bunch of learning. It also means taking your time to choose a machine that's worth having. And if you get one...USE it as much as you can. Why? You learn better that way and discover the possibilities faster.
    --

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

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by John TenEyck View Post
    Like some others above, I recently bought a OneFinity Journeyman. All in for about $4200. As others have said, it is a very rigid machine with a 48" wide X-axis, by 32", or any length if you use tiling, which I have. You no longer have to spend $10K to get a machine that's plenty capable for hobby level furniture and cabinet making, and more. I opted for V-Carve Pro software, included in the $4200, because it looked like it can do most anything I would ever want, and because Vectric has great tutorials and is the 800 lb gorilla in the hobbiest CNC software world. I have not been disappointed.

    What do I use it for? Not much for furniture making so far, actually, but definitely for making cabinet parts from sheet goods. It's great for cutting out nested parts and machining dados, shelf pin holes, etc. I use it for making multiples, things that are monotonous (and time consuming) to do by hand. I use it to make curved stuff. I use it to make high precision jigs and fixtures, especially where two parts have to mate together, whether for a tight or a slidng fit. Fitting a curved part into a mating mortise is simple with the CNC; not so manually.

    I use it to add numbers/lettering in plastic parts. I have used it to make inlays, and I can see a lot of opportunities for more in my future work. I use it to make 2D and 3D carvings, mostly just for fun to this point. And I plan to use it to make rocking chair seats. Sorry, Patrick, but there comes a point in life where letting a machine sculpt out the bulk of a Hal Taylor chair seat makes a lot more sense than doing it manually. I don't care if it takes 4 hours. The machine works for pennies, and I can do other things besides look for the Advil bottle. And if you need/want to make 6 or 10 the CNC is the smart way to go regardless of age. And that's where the CNC shines. It runs w/o complaint, hour after hour, and every part is identical.

    A CNC has utility at any scale you choose. But while a large machine can make little, tiny parts, a small machine can't make large parts. My advice is to buy the largest, stiffest machine that fits the space you have available and that your budget allows. You will never say "Gee, I wish I had bought a smaller one.".

    John
    Oh no, i agree wholeheartedly with you, John. Im 34, but i could be 12 and i still think a CNC is the better way to batch out sculpted chair seats! Ive done a handful manually, and its not my favorite thing in the world, very dirty work. However, the point i wanted to make to the OP is you need a fairly decent machine to carve 3/4"-1" out of any hardwood. I get your point that a smaller machine will simply take longer, but that increases the chances the machine crashes at some point, breaks tooling, or worst of all, causes a fire. If I need to run an 8 hour tool path and babysit the machine the whole time, that isnt convenient or effective for me. Maybe this OneFinity machine finally solved the $5,000 price point? I dont know a thing about it, but that would be great if it has, because that is right around my budget that i would be willing to spend to get back into it.

    I think we all think of CNC routers for monotonous things like carving seats or flattening slabs, but you can do really sophisticated work that otherwise would be impossible. Frank Howarth makes really odd things--in my opinion/style/taste--but he is doing pretty complicated 3 dimensional work with his CNC and then manually turning the piece on his lathe. That is the kind of next level thinking you need to fully appreciate and utilize the capabilities of a CNC. Right this second, i would love a CNC to make layout templates for a timber frame project i have in the pipeline. 15 minutes of work in aspire would give me all the layout templates i need for brace layout, tenons, mortises etc.

  8. #8
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    One thing that I might suggest is looking around your area to see if there are any maker spaces with lasers and/or CNC routers. Not only might you find people that can help you pickup the basics, but for a month or two of membership you can see if it's something that fits your workflow and you enjoy doing. Part of the reasons I like it is that I find the computer design portion satisfying in and of itself. I suspect there are people out there who find it tedious and unenjoyable. For them, CNC may not be a great option as a hobbyist.

  9. #9
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    I was in Camden Maine recently. While wandering around, I saw some super cool objects on display that a wood worker makes with his laser / CNC cutter and a whole lot of talent and artistic ability. He even make a trumpet completely from wood, and it works. His web site: https://www.woodenalchemy.com/

    It might give you some ideas of what one can do with one of these machines.

  10. #10
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    Just today I made some brass washers to repair a piece of machinery. No one would have them locally and I didn't want to wait even on Amazon. I had the 4 I needed after 10 minutes to create the file and another 10 to set up the machine and cut them out of some brass sheet I had. It was my first time cutting brass with it. I slowed down the speed and depth of cut and it was a non issue. Near perfect parts and more than good enough for my needs.

    There is a lot of utility for a CNC beyond woodworking.

    John

  11. #11
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    I have been thinking of getting something like the one John Stankus (orig post) is considering... something to just use as a hobbyist... NOT to use in any professional manner. Most of the replies are from folks with production uses... I have made many cutting boards for special occasions in our family and have a place to have designs laser engraved/burned on them... but thought it would be fun to do it myself...

    The Sainsmart 3018 Prover sells for $300.. how much more would it cost to make it usable for hobbyist use?? Software, laser attachment, etc... NOT for making money but for the enjoyment of doing it ??

    Think in terms of a hobbyist, not a business or professional use..
    Last edited by Ed Aumiller; 06-23-2022 at 7:24 PM. Reason: spelling

  12. #12
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    Some of this depends on what the hobby actually is making stuff or building CNCs/lasers


    for the folks suggesting going down the industrial production path I don't foresee myself wanting to carve seats of chairs ...

    It might be interesting to engrave some stuff
    It might be interesting to try making some small parts on a system
    It might be interesting to make some small patterns or jigs
    Those things might give me a sense of whether to justify one of the big gun CNCs or lasers


    One question for ChrisA-- On that Ortur LM2 which laser did you get the Short focus (better for engraving ) or the long focus (better for cutting)?

    John

  13. #13
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    Another Onefinity here. A lot of bang for your buck. in the 3000 price range it offers more features similar to 7000 range. Round linear rails was a big sell for me. Cable management wasnt the best but there are 3d printed cable management available. Alot of the $3000 range runs on belts, with belts you will get a little backlash.

    A big reason I got the CNC is I have 2 kids 2&4. I get home at 630 and put them to bed at 8. My garage is under one of their rooms and my DC is next to that room. So I cant woodwork at night. I get time every other weekend or so. With theCNC I can program a couple things at night and run them over the weekend. While its running I sand the previous project. Then Finish during the week(this is quiet)

    First projects was a ship sign it tought me basic vcarve. The next few were boxes. That added a couple more toolpaths. Since then I engraved coasters, made a Shop sign for a buddy, made a template, Flattened cutting boards, Juice grooves. Its a nice add to the garage. The only thing I dont like a bout a CNC is when youtube creators get one and that becomes the content from then on.

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by John Stankus View Post
    Some of this depends on what the hobby actually is making stuff or building CNCs/lasers


    for the folks suggesting going down the industrial production path I don't foresee myself wanting to carve seats of chairs ...

    It might be interesting to engrave some stuff
    It might be interesting to try making some small parts on a system
    It might be interesting to make some small patterns or jigs
    Those things might give me a sense of whether to justify one of the big gun CNCs or lasers


    One question for ChrisA-- On that Ortur LM2 which laser did you get the Short focus (better for engraving ) or the long focus (better for cutting)?

    John
    Sorry we got somewhat hyper focused on carving seats, but dont think of that as 'industrial/for profit" kind of work. What i meant to say is, if you truly want a CNC router capable of many furniture related tasks and actually CUTTING wood or plywood, then I dont see how you achieve that effectively without spending $10k+. And by no means is $10k a professional quality or industrial CNC. The guys batching out cabinet parts day in and day out are in the $200k+ level. I dont mean to offend anyone, but it looks like sub $1500 is a toy, $4-8,000 is hobbyist floor, $15-20k is fully capable hobbyist and light professional, $40-500k is production level. If you only want to lightly vcarve some stuff or add a laser diode to engrave things, then the machine you asked about should fit the bill. I think a lot of the lighter build CNC routers miss the point of what the broader category is capable of, and marketing is to blame for that. Whats the first thing you think of when i say CNC woodworking? Im guessing your association is some form of vcarved cutting board/coaster/sign with a grandkid's name on it. Thats because rockler and others market the crap out of their lightly built machines that are only capable of vcarving. I dont think Jim meant his hammer anecdote in this fashion, but thats my problem with cheaper grade CNC routers--everybody ends up vcarving little knick knacks. I had a machine that did that kind of work, and it was very interesting to watch it run a tool path the first time; however, after the novelty wore off it wasnt a tool that was accretive to my projects or woodworking evolution. Had i kept it, my family and friends would more than likely be overrun with engraved coasters.

    Its all about having fun, however, so if you have an interest then i say research this Onfinity everyone keeps talking about and jump in with your extra cash. Worst case scenario is you hate it or are very lousy, and you sell it at a 25% discount. You lose $700+/- and have a much greater understanding of how CNC routers fit into your personal project aspirations and workflow. I still wouldnt go for the mega cheap sainsmart thingy. I know enough to guess that will be a frustrating and extremely limited introduction. Finally, dont rule out a used xcarve or shapeoko. I see them for sale regularly in my area, because guys either lost interest or upgraded to something bigger and better a year later. They are never discounted very much, but that will limit your downside if you choose its not for you.

  15. #15
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    I agree with Patrick's premise...what you want to do has impact on what you choose to invest in for CNC. Furniture parts, for example, have some requirements that are going to be hard to meet with the smaller, lighter machines for both rigidity reasons and "reach". Even my heavy duty Camaster 4x4 machine has challenges for mortising, for example. It's not about "production" so much as it is about what it takes to make the cut, as it were. For a huge amount of the things that one might do in the workshop with a CNC that don't have those requirements, a more modest machine is going to work very nicely and with a more comfortable budget.
    --

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

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