The Use of CNC Routers in Small Shops

How Could You Fit a CNC Router into Your Shop?

Is Your Shop Sufficient for a CNC Router?

In the back of your head, you might be thinking that one day it’s possible that you might add a CNC Router to your shop, then you’ve got a lot to think about.

This Laguna IQ 2’x3′ CNC Router, like others in this class, is well designed and engineered for small-shop digital woodworking.

If you’re at the point to where you’re at least thinking about the idea of adding a CNC Router to your shop, then you’ve likely done some research. If that’s the case then you’ve certainly noticed there’s a huge range of sizes and prices of machines to consider. With CNC routers from as small as 12” x 18” to as large as 5’ x 10’ in size, and prices from a few thousand dollars up to the stratosphere, there’s a lot to think about.

Owning a CNC router would have been unthinkable for a small woodworking shop just a few years ago. The high cost of these remarkable machines meant that CNC routers were out of reach for all but the largest operations, but recent cost reductions have meant that even do it yourselfers can have the power and versatility of a wood router. A CNC wood router can be a great investment, especially if you want to produce high quality signage. With such a machine the user can input almost any design into the software program and produce intricate engravings, three dimensional effects, and even pictures of people or animals that are incredibly life like.

There is a way to narrow down the choices quickly. That’s to keep in mind that — more than any feature, or level of performance, or price — it’s the size of the CNC that directly determines the kind of things that they can best be used for. So I encourage readers to think beyond those flashy 3D carving demos that every manufacturer has and consider some of the practical things that you might use a CNC for.

The smallest machines that are suited for detailed carvings and small project work might not work quite as well for furniture projects if your intention is to use it for cutting parts. The larger machines are designed around cutting full sheets of plywood but may be too big to fit in your shop. So whether you’re driven by need, space or cost, the best solution for many woodworkers needs is likely somewhere in the middle.

Over time, I’ll cover different sizes and classes of CNC machines from less expensive tabletop machines all the way up to bigger, fancier, and thus pricier, solutions. But that’s a lot to cover. Since I can’t do it all at once, a good place to start is at the intersection of size/function/price where I think a lot of woodworkers will be most interested: CNC machines that are large enough for a broad range of hobbyist/small shop furniture projects. They also happen to be around the size of a table saw and priced just above a fancy one. That makes them a nice fit in home or small professional shops that are typical of many Popular Woodworking readers.

What size of CNC am I referring to? Machines that are in the range of 24” wide by 36” to 48” long. A machine of this size is well-suited for cutting parts for the majority of furniture projects that a serious hobbyist would likely to build. The smaller machines in the range could be used to make guitars, parts for smaller cabinet projects, 3D carving details, many furniture parts, stools, chairs and just about any kind of shop project or jig you could come up with.

Keep in mind that with any CNC there are ways for even smaller-sized machines to work on larger projects, so they can definitely work as well as the larger size. It’s just easier to start with enough length to begin with; that extra foot makes the 48” of some models a plus for longer furniture parts like dining chair backs and some cabinet pieces. And, as a division of 4’ x 8’, a 2’ x 4’ CNC is a natural for plywood-based projects.

In this size range, there are at least a dozen candidates including machines from ShopBot, Shark,Automation Technologies, Legacy CNC Woodworking and more. Plus, there are a handful of companies that produce quality kits like CNC Router Parts and the wonderfully designed Grunblau Platform CNC. Over time, I hope to look into these and other CNCs in more detail.

For this article, I’m going to focus on a specific group of machines that are very similar in terms of design, engineering, and choice of components. These are the machines made by Laguna Tools, Powermatic and Axiom Precision. I’ve had the opportunity to use two out of the three on CNC projects, so I’m familiar with their capabilities and have had a close look at the third. Between their components, specifications and construction, they have much in common and much to like. So, let’s have a look.

What’s in a Class?

These are the features that make this 24″ x 36″ to 24″ x 48″ class special — and give digital woodworkers a lot to like in a package sized for a small shop.

  • Z height of 6” or more
  • 3hp water-cooled spindles
  • Linear rails for smooth guidance
  • Ball screws for precision motion
  • Stiff frame and gantry for strength and accuracy
  • A simple pendant controller

You certainly make a valid point. Beyond learning to live with the technology that’s part of digital woodworking, for many hobbyists there’s the issue of the cost of entry into this world. I don’t have an easy answer but I can offer a couple of observations.

When it comes to the price of the equipment itself, time and market size is already having an effect and will continue to do so. Just a few years ago, quality machines in this class and performance would have been $12K-$16K, easily. For them to drop to this range in such a short period is certainly an indication that the market is growing quickly, more manufacturers are getting involved, common core components like linear rails, ball screws, spindles, etc are more prevalent. And, because machines like this are just as desirable for another group of CNC users known as “Makers” expect the prices to continue to drop.

The one caveat I’d make is though mechanically CNCs are somewhat simple, compared to other fixed tools like a shaper they are much more complicated with a demanding precision build and the added electronics. So, it’s hard to imagine them falling to that range. But, over time, closing in on the price of a tool like a Saw Stop Industrial table saw seems possible.

A second thing to take into perspective is that many home woodworkers invest quite a lot of money into equipping their shops. I’ve heard all kinds of industry estimates, from a few thousand to many thousands on average. But let’s just say that it’s an impressive amount. For some woodworkers, particularly new ones, a CNC may be an alternative to some of the other expensive fixed machinery in a shop. Like any tool or approach to the craft, the choices you make all depends on what you want you to do with your hobby and how you want to do it.

Finally, there’s another way to go if cost is the critical factor. As I hinted at in this article and will get into more detail in the future you could choose to build your own machine from a kit. There are some good ones out there that are well thought out, well spec’d and quite attractively priced.

Then there are also other alternatives to fixed CNCs. The Maslow CNC for example. And, the very impressive Shaper Tools Origin that will debut this fall. They don’t have all the benefits of fixed tool CNCs, but they do come with far less cost and still keep most of the good parts of digital woodworking.

With all that said, all the machines in the group in the article are well designed, engineered and executed. For many digital woodworkers including some home hobbyists in small shops, these CNCs offer a lot to like in ready-made solutions. Like the best table saws, shapers, planers, and bandsaws, these are good tools.

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