How to pick your 1st CNC

What to look for when shopping for a new CNC
So you’re in the market for a new CNC machine let’s go over a few things you should keep in mind while your looking around.
  1. Purpose: 1st thing you need to identify is the purpose will the CNC server. There are many different types of CNC machines and some are designed and better suited for different tasks than others. Are you looking for a large CNC to cut sheet goods for cabinet making? A CNC plasma table for cutting metal? A small machine for detailed 3D carvings or a Laser engraver. Each one of these machines is designed to perform a certain task, Knowing which type of task you wish to do will greatly help you narrow down your selection of machines.


  2. Size and Capacity: Like most anything CNC machines are available in many different sizes, depending on the work you will be doing will dictate the size of the machine required. Typical hobby-based machines will normally be 4’x8′ and under. What determines a hobby vs professional grade machine would be the construction of the machine and the components the machines are made from. Most entry-level machines will be assembled by the user and will have smaller lighter-weight components that can be run on regular household electricity. Industrial-grade machines are normally installed by a trained technician and will require considerable single or 3-phase power. With those 2 variables in mind, industrial machines are often much more powerful, accurate, and efficient.

    Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many different CNC users, some with very unique machines. 1 Gentleman had a 16’x10′ table used to cut custom flooring for boats, and another had to cut a hole in his garage ceiling to accommodate a custom-made machine with 48” of Zaxis travel for machine custom chairs.


  3. Accuracy, Precision, and Power: Depending on your application these may or may not play a role in choosing a machine. If your goal is to machine small pieces with a high tolerance of accuracy you might choose a small desktop CNC mill rather than a 4′ x 4′ table. In most cases, machines with higher accuracy, precision, and power will have a higher price due to the increased cost of parts and manufacturing. It’s also important to look at the rigidity of the machine, if you’re planning on running a machine in a production environment at faster speeds it’s important to take a couple of things into consideration. -Does the spindle have the power to cut through the material you intend to use at a reasonable and acceptable rate? -Is the machine rigid to push the spindle through the material without compromising accuracy and quality? Most machines within the same class will in the end produce the same product they will just do it with different levels of accuracy at different speeds.


  4. Software: When using a CNC there will be 2 main types of software you will need to consider. 


    – Design software for CAD/CAM. This might be an easy choice for you if you are purchasing a machine with a specific task or industry in mind. Similar to a CNC, when choosing a design software you need to make sure the software is designed and equipped for the task you need it to complete. Maybe you’re cutting kitchen cabinets, milling precision parts out of steel, or making commercial signs each one of these tasks requires different software suited to the job. Now if you’re a hobbyist just getting started at home with a small desktop machine there are going to be many choices to choose from, ranging from free to several thousand $$. Most free software can be great for beginners to get their feet wet but most quickly outgrow them due to their lack of features and available options. I personally recommend doing your research and jumping to a quality software like Carvceo or Vetrics as soon as possible. Many new users get discouraged switching software because every time you jump from free software to software you begin the learning hurdle again, having to learn a new software only to realize a couple of months down the road that the free software is either hard to navigate or doesn’t have the features you desire. I prefer Carveco’s line of software with their monthly subscriptions, you can cancel at any time and you can also choose to step up in levels of software whenever you’d like. Vetric’s also has a popular line of software but as of right now, they are only available as a 1-time purchase. Fusion360 is also a very powerful free software but also has a steep learning curve and it is better suited for mechanical design. 

    -G-code sender. Once you have a design you’ll need to get that information in a way that your CNC will understand it. G-code is a numerical language that is used to control your CNC. Some CNCs will have a Gcode sender built into the machine/interface others will need separate software to send the file. Most machines will have a factory-recommended sender. Some entry-level machines will use basic software with basic features, for most people this is adequate but some people may choose to upgrade the software to gain control over certain options.


    ** An important note. Before choosing any software be sure that it supports your machine, there are different languages and compatibilities between hardware’s and software’s also different Gcode languages. 


  5. Maintenance and Support: Something else you should strongly consider when shopping for a new machine is the ease and availability of manufacturer support. Many people are drawn into certain machines due to their price point but then come find out the is very little to no technical support when problems arrive. It would be advisable when researching your machine to talk to current users and get real-world experience. Check and see if there are active forums and Facebook user groups with an active community. Maintenance can be an often overlooked feature of CNC machines. Although proper maintenance is always recommended some machines may require more regular care than others. Some machines using belts and wheels may require the replacement of parts as they wear, some machines may require greasing and oil, and machines using routers instead of spindles may need to have the brushes on the router replaced if not the complete unit. Keep this in mind when choosing your CNC, most often Cheaper machines will use lower quality components which will be prone to wear and malfunction.


  6. Price: Most of the price is the biggest deciding factor when people buy their 1st CNC. In all the years I’ve been doing this and the hundreds of CNC owners I’ve talked to I’ve never heard anyone say that they regretted buying the larger machine. Most people once they are comfortable with their machine, realize that the bed size can be a limiting factor. My recommendation would be to get the largest machine you can comfortably afford. When I say that I don’t mean everyone needs to get industrial 4′ x 8′ tables, what I mean is if you have narrowed your choice down to a particular man or brand try and go with the larger option. If you have it narrowed down to 1 or 2 which one has the larger machine. This applies mainly for hobby-based CNCs because once you get into the larger industrial tables so don’t have a limit. 


    At the end of the day, you need to find a machine that’s big enough to suit your needs is rigid and easy to use that’s within your budget. Sounds easy right?


    Good luck! And have Fun!