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An email conversation about CNC machines, lasers, and plasma.

Posted by Brandon Satterfield on

We speak with makers all the time about our CNC kits. Typically the individuals we are speaking to are 3D printer guys (the cnc router is the next evolution when plastic applications find their limits) or wood workers wanting to move to an automated process, or guys that are moving up from a previously purchased build from that other company that makes CNC routers.. :-). 

As SMW3D will be moving to soon we are running new marketing campaigns including charity events. 

I recently went to one of these events with one of our machines. It was an eye opener. 

It brought back memories of how simple the machine looked and how exciting the opportunities of being able to make usable, awesome stuff could be. The other stuff though, of electronics and how to make it work and computer programs, etc. was all intimidating for me personally. Now I tend to ramble in technical terms and verbiage native to the CNC culture. These unfamiliar terms can cause a bit of discontinuity to a newcomer. 

I watched as these emotions ran over one gentleman's face as I explained the machine then went into how much one could do with great gcode. 

Gcode, DXFs, CAD, CAM, Stepper Motors.. I recalled that all these were unfamiliar terms when I first started.

One gentleman stayed with me though, still seeing all the possibilities. His lovely wife soon joined our conversation and started catching a few things I was saying. 

She explained she had one the vinyl cutters that are now super popular among creative desktop makers. I said DXF, she said SVG, I mention gcode sender she compared to the companies' computer program that sent her file to the machine. Soon we were speaking the exact same language. What a beautiful thing these little cheap vinyl cutters have done for home brew makers. 

A couple of days later this same gentleman got a hold of me, excitement filled his voice. He had one particular request though, he also want the machine to do plasma work. We have done this here, it is great to take either of our current machines and not only use a spindle to create amazing 3D products (2.5D actually, this is a blog post of its own, a 3 axis router is not a 3D machine regardless of what other companies may say) but to also add the capability of laser and plasma. In this set up a single machine can process carbon steel, stainless steel, aluminum, leather, plastics, and wood. There are  difficulties in this though, and the price of such a rig can climb up there fast.

But the DXFs are made for the torch holder, the laser add-on is already listed and both can absolutely can be done. 

I knew there was a lot of information I wanted to relay so I ask for an email address. I thought we should share this here in the event it can help others get an idea of how, what, and why.

"Morning brother.

So going to try and break this all down as much as possible. Make sure you have about an hour to read through all this, lot of information several links to follow.


Let us do the hardware first.

First the machine:

The machine needs to be built, it comes as boxes of assembly steps and instructions:

Easy to mechanically build should take about 4 to 6 hours for the mechanical portion.

You would then need to wire the motors and spindle and such, the kit comes with all the motors, wire etc. How to do this is also in the instruction manual.

Once built you will be ready to cut wood, plastic, and engrave soft metals like brass and aluminum.


You will need some computer to hook up to the machine, we use typical laptops, doesn't need to be fancy or expensive. A 200.00 or old computer laying around will do, no tablets or phones can be used.

The machine comes with the controller but we need to connect the controller to a computer to tell it what to do, much like the wife's vinyl cutter. There is also a full control box and computer product we are about to release that removes the requirement for a separate computer. When done it will remove 140.00 from the price of the machine, but the control box unit will be an additional 425.00. It'll be pretty neat, makes wiring a snap and no computer required just a monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

To use the machine the wife's knowledge will come in handy. We need a DXF file first.

If you don't want to draw out things, no worries, hit up the net there are tons of free and paid for DXF files. One such example comes from the CNC cookbook guy Bob, see a long list of ready to go files here.  We even make them here for a small charge.

But anything your wife makes on the vinyl cutter can be made to a DXF. She most likely works in SVG, they are similar in ways.

Then, we need a software that will change the DXF to a GCODE file. There are a ton of options here for CAM software, some are free, some are super expensive. I like the product we sell, called CAMBAM it is 150.00. This is a program that will sit on a computer in the house or shop that has some computing power. The program will take the 2D DXF file. You will tell it how big of an end mill you have, how deep you want to go, how fast you want to go. The program will then make a gcode file.

The gcode file will go into the machine's controller.

You will tell the machine, by "jogging it around" (this just means using the computer hooked to the machine to move the machine around to the starting point of the job) where to start. You will tell the machine, by clicking a button, this is home for this job. Literally, what ever the job is, it will always be in relation to the home you set.

Then hit start. The machine does the rest.

We have a good write up on this with an example you can follow along with and try before buying and building the machine and make sure your comfortable.

Things the base machine can make:


Now we want to cut carbon steel.

The machine will move and groove any way you tell it to. It does not care what is attached at the head. So we attach a plasma head to where the spindle is and do some fun wiring stuff.

Things we will need:

Plasma cutter, I use a Hypertherm 30A.

She ain't cheap. I have not tried a different kind of plasma cutter for this, would like to try one of the cheapo harbor freight kind but have not had the opportunity because the Hypertherm is amazing quality.

One thing in a plasma cutter to look at is the consumables. It may be hard to get good tips and cups and such on the cheap units. We also will want fine tip consumables, the hypertherm with fine tip consumables will cut a line so fine you can barely see through it. If we are making stuff for the house or for sale we want great looking cuts. The fine tip is needed for thin sheet metal.

Still on the plasma cutter, like we were discussing last night, we want the CNC to control when the trigger is pulled on the torch and when it should be off.

We will use the same signal that we turn the spindle on with to tell the plasma machine its time to fire. We do this with a relay, about any cheapo will do.

Basically when we make that gcode from above, instead of the spindle turning on and off we will be triggering the torch.

Think of the letter B. We would turn the plasma on to cut the outside of the letter. We then need to turn it off to move to the inner "D" looking shapes of the top and bottom part of the letter. We then want it to come back on to cut these shapes. It is actually very simple with the controller that comes with the kit, we will type something into the computer and it will do this automatically for us.

Lastly to get fancy we need THC. Torch height control. Metal moves when you cut it with a plasma, the thin stuff will jump around almost. If we set a Z height of the torch 1/4" above the metal and start the job the metal will move and groove so much you will most likely hit the metal with the torch before the job ends. The metal will move and your blood pressure will go up, well... does for me.

So we add a module:

They sell on ebay for about 300.00. Worth every cent.

In the link you kind of get an idea how it is wired up.

Things you can do with the plasma are only as limited as your imagination and carbon thickness equal to what the plasma can handle, ie the one linked we have used on 20g up to 1/4".

This is what will build that awesome family name on the ranch gate.



About another 350.00 you can add a laser engraver to the machine as well. This works wonders on plastic, wood, leather, and things of this nature. It is actually connected to the machine much like the plasma but we do not need THC for the laser. It will not work on shiny materials, just reflect and put and eye out.

This company is actually right down here in Clear lake and a stand up guy. Great product.

Click on this to see some of the stuff this little add-on can do:

So if you haven't fallen asleep by now, :-) , this should really give you a great idea about what you can do. It all sounds a little more complicated than it is. Once everything is built and wired, it will be second nature to see something you want to make, draw it up in a computer, make gcode, and send it to the machine while you enjoy a cold beer. 


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