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Read this before you buy a CNC router

Posted by Brandon Satterfield on

Things to know before clicking that buy button.

Congrats, you have the "CNC router bug"! 

Maybe you saw a video or have a neighbor with a machine, maybe one of the 1000 companies that sell them sent you an advertisement. 

Maybe you have a business and you are ready to stop outsourcing work.

However it happened a bug got in your head, you began researching and thinking of all the things you can make or build, or in the latter case of owning a business, you have started the research of which machine is the right fit for your product. 

I have spoke with 1000 s of people interested in these machines for over 4 years now. There are several others out there providing opinions that do not sell (or use from what I can tell) machines or those that will tell you their machine is the only one on the market that will be the right fit.

I avoid this, I have talked numerous people out of buying our machines as I knew they would not be the correct fit. Some would say I am not the best salesman, in fact I am self proclaimed as a horrible salesman. I have often suggested other manufacturer's machines because the purchase is about your dream not mine.

Let us look at some of the pitfalls and key points you should consider prior to "pulling the trigger".

1. Fit for purpose-

I will start here, I believe most people miss this. 

All the people that I have spoke with fit into 3 categories: 

A. The users that have something specific in mind they want make.

B. The users that are just interested in the possibilities that a CNC router can provide to their currently owned tools

C. The users that are interested in learning a new skill set.

Group A is my favored. Why? 

They know the size they need, the material they will cut, the amount production they expect. The conversations go well with these guys and gals, it is either yes our machine will do this or no it will not. The conversation is not always about CNC routing either, we have our OX machine out with multiple universities that use it for camera systems and other uses that the spindle is never installed.

Others use the Ox in hydroponic set ups that run 24 hours a day 7 days a week. We have these in other programs that house a ceramic extruder used for small habitats, think of the cement printed houses you have seen. 

If you know what you want to make, your selection is easy, get the right size and one that advertises the material you want to cut. 

The price should be about quality of materials and support. If you go bigger than you need, skimp on quality or try to save a dollar, understand your cut quality will suffer and your end product may send you back to outsourcing or worse, kill your dream. Buy the right tool for the right job. This last point is where most buyers that know exactly what they will make mess up.

Group B users are awesome but tend to fall into a bigger is better Tim the tool man Taylor mentality

https://www.google.com/search?q=tim+the+toolman+ta...

Bigger and better is not always the best approach when considering a CNC router. We get asked about once a week if we can strap a 2.2kW spindle on our machine, the answer is no by the way. Why would you not want the biggest spindle you can put your hands on strapped to your machine? The frame of your machine should have had deflection calculations ran on it during design at a minimum. Our machines have spindles on them that allow for a 1.2 factor of safety with respect to weight and deflection. Some do not care about this and look to make the sell to these bigger better buyers. You can often find post or reviews mentioning the spindle "rolls" the X axis or "sags" somewhere in the middle. If you want the biggest spindle you can get, look at the materials that the machine is composed of. A big spindle means everything around it needs to be more robust.

Group B CNC users that are most successful isolate the material they will cut and go from there. Numerous CNC hobby based machines from the US will do great for wood, carbon fiber, plastics, materials with a Rockwell below that of aluminum. Aluminum is not out of reach, our R7 was made specifically for this, but this is about lead screws and spindle. A hand router strapped to a machine is not going to be a good selection for metals like brass and aluminum, you have no real RPM control. Again buy the right tool for the job. We will touch on this more in materials below.

We have had group B users see something on a site like Esty or Ebay, buy a machine and shortly after have a fully functioning business. They did not have an exact item in mind at first but an idea of what they wanted to make. Others have no commercial interest and still become happy users making beautiful stuff. 

Group C builders a great to speak with, they are interested in learning a new skill set, expanding their personal knowledge. 

https://www.google.com/search?q=royalty+free+book+...

We think this is a great expansion tool but a few things to keep in mind, buying the tool is only one part. If the tool you buy is one you will build, you will get to learn about linear systems, wiring, stepper motors, and control systems.

After you build the tool or if you buy one already built you will learn about two other aspects, drafting and CAM. These are marketable skills. 

The last thing you will learn about is operating a CNC. If your machine has a spindle, not a hand router strapped to the Z, you will be learning how all CNC machines operate. Your machine may only fit on a bench top but the operations will be the same for a full size mill. We have seen guys start with one of our machines and go to work as CNC operators. 

You can absolutely learn an amazing marketable skill set from a $1500.00 bench top machine.

2. Size-

Where will you install this machine? We had a great laugh with a gentleman the other day. He had purchased one of our 1500 x 1500 mm machines, this is about 5 x 5 foot. He explained his wife was going to be very upset when she came home and found out she could no longer put her car in the garage. When you select your size keep in mind where you will install this new tool.

Size part two, rigidity is directly proportional to length of beams on X and Y. Our most rigid machine is a 500 x 500mm R7. It is a monster. If you want a machine that is 5 x 10 foot, buy something made of steel, has linear rails or huge SBR rails.

We have a request about once a week asking for a six foot plus router, I have to turn all these guys away or to commercial machines. I know I could make some modifications and make a sell, but at what cost? Bad reviews, unhappy customers, broken dreams. No thanks, we are here for the long run. Others unfortunately are not in the same mid set. My general rule of thumb is spend 1.5k more per foot over 5 foot in length from the price of a hobby grade machine. A 5 foot by 10 foot machine needs to be made of steel. If you wan to do full sheets of material expect cost to be 15k minimum. In your budget consider logistics as well. Again, this is your dream, if you skimp now you will pay later.

Z height. Through the years I have been asked about doing 6" plus thickness of material. One of my favorite quotes concerning routers, "A router is made for sheet material, a mill is made for doing thick material". I believe this is a perfect description. Even when I was deep into industrial construction and we needed plates above 1/2" they would be cut on a CNC plasma and final machining done on a mill. There are exceptions, we have had guys use our machine, drop the base out and do 6" foam machining. This is allowed as machinable foam is super soft and off axis moments are dropped to a minimum. 

3. Materials-

If you plan on cutting steel, this is not a typical CNC router job. Look at plasma machines and lasers. Typical materials for a CNC router were touched on earlier, wood, foams, aluminum, brass, plastics. Know your machines limits and stay within them. 

Materials of the machine, I saw a post once "You cant machine aluminum on a machine made of the same material". The poster could not have been more incorrect. You are not trying to bend one material with another material. As touched on above, under five foot aluminum gantry machines are a perfect solution. They ship cheap due to the weight of the materials, they are easy to move around, and are rigid enough to get the job done with great quality. 

4. Support-

The last thing to consider when purchasing a CNC machine (applies to all types) is support. I do not have one commercial machine that at one point or another we have not had the need to call support. A CNC is a complex tool it is not a hammer or a drill. You will at one point or another have a question. If you purchase from a company that does not have a number listed and are having an issue, how do you get it fixed? We get a ton of calls from guys that have purchased machines from abroad, we try to assist but we have no skin in the game. We will ditch this call for one of our makers. Make sure there is at a minimum there is a forum if no phone number is listed. An email address is simply not enough unfortunately, they are quickly ignored by several of these international sellers. 

I hope these tips help, joining the world of CNC machines can be super exciting and rewarding if done correctly the first time. Use my experience to make your choice and purchase as smooth as possible you will find it makes the movement into this so much more enjoyable. 

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