Before You Buy A CNC Router
There is really not much comparison between the two. Both tools are similar only in that fact they both hold a router bit and can rotate it to cut material at high speeds. A router is a 110V consumer grade tool that is rated for intermittent use while a spindle is an industrial motor that has been manufactured to run all day long, day in and day out for exactly the purpose you want to purchase it for – CNC cutting. Spindles are more powerful (note that hp ratings between routers and spindles are not comparable) and will maintain their full torque down to much lower RPMs than a router. Spindles have precision bearings, which means less run-out and thus smoother and more accurate cutting. The bearings on a spindle also stand up to continuous use better than those of a router. Bearings in a heavily used router will need to be replaced every three-four months, while a similarly used spindle should be good for a few years between bearing replacements. A spindle is also much quieter in operation than a router.
That been said, if you don’t need a heavy cut and noise is not an issue, then a router is a safe choice. In production situations, we highly recommend a spindle. In addition, the full performance capabilities of our machines are fully realized with a spindle because a router will bog down in heavy cutting at higher cutting speeds.
In making a decision, the real dividing line between the two is on how you make your money. If your paycheck comes from someplace outside your shop, then buy whichever you feel you can afford. If your paycheck is generated inside your shop, and your living and reputation is on the line, you need the security and substantially higher cut quality that comes from a spindle.
Depending on your CNC system, you will need three different software programs.
- CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing)
- Machine Control Software
The CAM software is the one that you will most likely need to purchase in addition to your CNC machine. Some CAM programs like Vectric V Carve or Cut 2D have a design component included in the software, so one program meets both 1 and 2 above.
Design programs like Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, Corel Draw. CAD programs like AutoCAD, Fusion 360, Sketchup, Solidworks, etc. STEPCRAFT supports these and many more of the popular CAD/vector design software programs on the market. Depending on what you are looking to do will determine how much knowledge you will need to have on a CAD or design program
A CAM (computer aided manufacturing) program. A CAM program will take the vectors or 3D model that you have designed and allow you to tell the program which tools you intent to use as well as the material size and the speeds and feed rate that you wish to run for your project. The CAM program will output a G Code file, which is basically common machine language for CNC machines. Vectric programs like V Carve and Cut 2D make this process pretty easy. STEPCRAFT sells and supports the full line of Vectric programs as well as Deskproto Multi-Axis CAM software.
Most CNC machines will come with machine control software. STEPCRAFT, for example, comes with UCCNC when ordered from the USA office. They provide UCCNC as well as WinPC-NC in other parts of the world. Mach 3/4 is a very popular machine control software program which is used with many commercial machines as well as the DIY CNC world. There are also programs line Linux CNC for Linux platforms and come manufacturers will include their own proprietary programs.
You can expect that many commercial CNC machines will come with software, as the machine is useless without it. If you are making your own (DIY) CNC machine, then you will most definitely need to purchase software like UCCNC or Mach 3/4 for machine control.
The short answer is that both will work, however, if you are looking for high accuracy then a screw drive system will outperform every time.
Belt drive systems are much cheaper to produce and require less expensive components to make them work. A belt drive system is usually a one to one ratio between motor movement and gantry movement. Meaning that there is no gear reduction so as the motor moves, the gantry will move an equal amount. Because of this, the motor on a belt drive system will usually be much larger than a same size lead screw driven system. Belts are also more susceptible to stretching and wear. This will always affect accuracy. If the belt stretches that will immediately translate into an inaccuracy at the bit into your workpiece. Some might argue that a belt drive system will move the gantry faster, but keep in mind that moving faster into a material and having stretch on the belt will cause deflection and the belt will act more like a spring thus increasing the risk for lost steps and positioning.
A screw driven system usually consists of a threaded rod (screw) that is either an Acme-type lead screw or a ball screw. The motor will rotate the screw and the gantry is attached to the screw with some type of threaded nut (lead screw nut or ball nut). As the screw turns, the gantry is moved in the corresponding direction. The number of threads per inch will determine how many rotations the screw must turn for the gantry to move one inch. This gear reduction means that you can either use much smaller stepper motors to control the movement and still maintain a very high accuracy, or you can use a larger motor and move a larger mass as compared to using the same size motor in a belt driven system. You will find much better repeatability and accuracy in a screw driven system with minimal to no linear free play. Due to the costs of lead and ball screws and components, you will find that these type of drive systems will cost more than a belt drive system.
If you are looking for high accuracy, a more rugged design, or if you plan to cut harder materials like hard plastics, hard woods and metals, then you will want a system that uses a screw-drive. If you are just planning to cut thin, softer materials like soft woods and plastics and accuracy is not as important to you, and if you do not have a large budget, then a belt-drive system might be right for you. Always keep in mind when looking at purchasing a CNC system what you might need in the future. You might think that your immediate need to make model parts out of thin plywood, thin plastic and balsa wood might not require a screw drive, but maybe in the future you want to cut hardwoods, thicker plastics or metals, or you get a project that requires a high cutting accuracy – in this case you might be kicking yourself for not spending the extra few hundred dollars for the better drive system.
To be able to make your first CNC project, you need, at minimum, the following items:
- CNC base machine (STEPCRAFT 210, 300, 420, 600 or 840)
- A Spindle (HF500, Kress, Dremel, Dewalt, Proxxon, etc). Please watch this VIDEO for an explanation of all our spindle options.
- Tooling (also know as “end mills”). You will need an end mill for the particular material that you intend to cut/carve. STEPCRAFT sells a Starter Tool Set that comes with an assortment of tools to get you started cutting and carving woods, plastics, aluminum, carbon fiber, composites and two bits are included for engraving.
- CAD/CAM Software. STEPCRAFT includes a free year subscription to Fusion 360, which is a very powerful 3D design and CAM software system. However, Fusion 360, while powerful, is also time consuming to learn and become proficient at. STEPCRAFT also sells Vectric programs (Cut 2D, Cut 3D and V Carve). These programs are better suited for the beginner and will have you up and running with your first projects in a matter of minutes.
NOTE: Having a copy of a Vectric program is a good idea, even if you intend on learning Fusion 360. Vectric programs are quick and easy to setup a job where Fusion will become quick once you learn how to use it. Think of Vectric programs like a sprint and Fusion 360 more like a marathon when it comes to the end result with creating CNC projects.
That’t it! These are the minimum things you need to get started with CNC’ing. You can also check out STEPCRAFT’s Complete System Packages for preconfigured systems that come with everything you need to get started as soon as you receive your new CNC system.
There are three basic software program types that you will need to have some knowledge of when getting ready to use your STEPCRAFT CNC system:
- A design or CAD program. Design programs like Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, Corel Draw. CAD programs like AutoCAD, Fusion 360, Sketchup, Solidworks, etc. STEPCRAFT supports these and many more of the popular CAD/vector design software programs on the market. Depending on what you are looking to do will determine how much knowledge you will need to have on a CAD or design program
- A CAM (computer aided manufacturing) program. A CAM program will take the vectors or 3D model that you have designed and allow you to tell the program which tools you intent to use as well as the material size and the speeds and feed rate that you wish to run for your project. The CAM program will output a G Code file, which is basically common machine language for CNC machines. Vectric programs like V Carve and Cut 2D make this process pretty easy. STEPCRAFT sells and supports the full line of Vectric programs as well as Deskproto Multi-Axis CAM software.
- UCCNC (or machine control software). This program is used to setup, job and zero the STEPCRAFT CNC as well as loading and running the G Code file that was created from your CAM program.
So answer the question as to how easy it is to learn, really depends on what you are looking to do.
For example, if you are looking to do projects that are pretty complex and require that you design them in Fusion 360 or Illustrator, and you DON’T know how to use these programs, then you will have a longer learning curve since you will have to learn the design program as well.
Assuming that you already know how to use a design or CAD program, then the next program you would need to learn is a CAM program, such as Vectric V Carve. The nice thing about V Carve (or Cut 2D) is that the interface is very easy to learn so you can be on the way of making your first CNC project in a matter of minutes. However, as you progress, these programs have a lot of powerful features that will extend the limits on what you can create on your STEPCRAFT CNC machine.
As for UCCNC, this program takes about 15 minutes to learn how to use. Much of what you see on the screen are buttons and features that you will not use (unless doing advanced features like automatic tool changing, etc). There are only about 5 buttons that you will need to focus on to successfully start creating projects on your STEPCRAFT right away.
This video gives you a basic overview of the software programs and how easy it is to get started right away.
Using a CNC machine is like an artist painting.
The material you are working on is your “canvas” and the bits (otherwise known as “end mills” or “tools”) are the “brushes”
There are literally tens of thousands of bits available for a CNC machine from hundreds of manufacturers. Getting into detail on them all would literally be a book. So for this question we will break it down into XX types:
Square nose end mill – These bits are the most common and are what you would likely turn to for all of your CNC cutting. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and spiral types. If you are just starting out, you might want to have an 1/8″ 2 flute up spiral and a 1/8″ 2 flute down spiral end mill to get you started. Both bits will work in most all CNC machines as an 1/8″ shaft diameter is very popular, even if you are using a Dremel tool as a spindle.
2 Flute is a common type since most CNC routers run at very high RPM, so you need fewer flutes to extract the chips from the material as you are cutting quickly.
Up Spiral bits will pull the chips away from the material, but can leave a frayed top edge of your workpiece, these bits are better for plastics and aluminum and harder woods.
Down Spiral bits will push the chips into the work material but will leave a very clean top edge cut. These bits are best for softer materials and wood as they leave a better finish. They also force the material down into the bed of the machine which is good for thinner materials, where an up spiral bit will tend to pull it away from the bed.
Ball Nose End Mill – These bits have rounded bottom and are typically used for carving 3 dimensional projects. When used properly they can leave a very smooth and detailed finish on your workpiece.
If you are just starting out, I would get a 2 flute 1/8″ and 1/16″ ball nose for your tool kit. These two sizes are very common and depending on the level of detail, you would have a bit for most requirements.
Engraving Bits – These bits will have a V point on the end are used for engraving materials for lettering or designs. Its suggested to have 1/8″ 90 degree and 60 degree engraving bits for your tool kit when you are starting out. These will give you a lot of flexibility for engraving options.
Additionally, if you have a CNC that can support 1/4″ shank bits, then its suggested to get a 1/2″ V router bit with a 1/4″ shank. These are commonly found at home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowes. This 1/2″ V bit is perfect for sign lettering and when using a program like V Carve, you have the ability to do some really nice 3D lettering.
These are the most common bits that I suggest any beginner have in their tool box. As you gain more experience, you can add many more bits to your system in a variety of shapes and sizes for different applications. STEPCRAFT has a Starter Tool Set
that includes all of these bits which can be found HERE.
This is a question that can be answered in many ways.
Use A Premade Design
The easiest way to get a project made on the CNC is to buy a design that is already done for you. You can find many for free on the internet, but a few VERY good commercial options for 2D and 3D designs are:
- www.makecnc.com – Excellent selection of puzzles and other creative projects.
- www.designandmake.com – Very high quality 3D projects that can be reworked into hundreds of different possibilities.
- www.thingiverse.com – large selection of free 3D designs. Most are for 3D printing but many will work with a CNC as well.
- https://woodgears.ca/gear_cutting/template.html – Gear designer
- http://www.vectric.com/cool-stuff/projects.html – 2D and 3D high quality project files
- www.cnccraze.com – many project files
Bitmap Image Trace
Another option that is no as easy as just buying a file or downloading something that has been already designed, but is still easier than designing something from scratch, is to import an image or logo (i.e. from Google Images) and use the Image Trace feature in Vectric to create a vector from the bitmap image. Once it has been converted into a vector, you can assign tool paths to it and proceed to cut out on your CNC.
Another way to convert your bitmap images to vectors is to use the site (or software) https://vectormagic.com/. The online version of their program works very well and returns a vector that has excellent quality.
The following video shows you how to use Vectric’s Image Trace feature
Design Your Own
Sometimes you can not get exactly what you are looking to create from an online source that is pre-made, so you must turn to making your own design. This is not as scary as it sounds, especially if you are looking to cut out simple things like letters, signs, etc. The CAD (or design) part of Vectric programs make this easy. Cut 2D and V Carve have a design component to their software and you can quickly and easily design many different projects and then switch to the CAM part of the program to create the tool paths and output the G Code to the CNC.
You can also create vector designs with programs like Corel Draw and Adobe Illustrator, or if you need something designed to very specific dimensions, you can use a CAD program like Fusion 360 or Sketchup.
Hire Someone To Design For You
There are many outsourcing websites on the internet where people are looking for design work. You will be find many very talented people from all around the world and many (depending on the country) are willing to work for very reasonable rates.
www.upwork.com is one site where you will be able to post your job and have people bid on the project. You can read up on the applicant, discuss specifics and finally hire the person who best meets your needs.
You can go on websites like www.cnczone.com or the Facebook Group CNC Router Tips and put a post up with what you are looking to have designed and more often than not, you find people who are willing to do your design for a small fee (if not for free)
If all else fails, then contact the manufacturer of your CNC machine and ask them if they can help with the design or if they know anyone who you could contact.
YouTube is also a good source to find how-to videos that can show you how to make your designs or how to use various software programs.