CNC or Computer Numerical Control is a foundational technique of programming a milling machine to remove material in three-dimensional space.
A CNC machine can be programmed to cut (or carve) a piece of material to precise specifications. The programmability means that you can produce identical products at scale.
While you likely recognize these tools for their use in metalwork, they can also be used to cut wood, carbon fiber, and foam. The latter is frequently used to create molds for plastic and ceramics.
A CNC router allows you to create factory-grade milled work from your home garage.
There is a little bit of a learning curve with your new router, but you can shorten that with the correct software (Draftsight is one such easy to use program that exports as Gcode). Most of the design software is user-friendly and makes it extremely easy to design and implement your unique creations.
We’re seeing a lot of Etsy store owners buy CNC routers and, with a little more than a graphic design skillset, create gorgeous signs, stencils, mugs and more from their garage.
CNC Routers For Woodworking
A CNC router is different from a CNC machine in that it is designed specifically for woodworking.
Some of these include a built-in router. However, an excellent option is to buy a programmable CNC frame that you then add a standard router to (we have one of those on this list). Standard routers are better-built and more affordable to repair or replace and all you need is a handy 3-axis CNC frame and a circuit board to input your commands into.
These routers are also handy for prototyping, cabinet making, sign carving and spindle engraving (a few of these models offer a mini-lathe attachment).
CNC Shark HD 4
The first couple of routers on this list are going to be from Next Wave Automation. This company is blowing up the CNC industry with its depth of user-friendly tools.
The Shark is one of their affordably-priced commercial units. It has a massive working area with 25” x-axis and 25” y-axis with 7” z-axis travel and ample space outside of that area for affixing your clamps.
It also is compatible with their added spindle motor that can turn dowels and spindles in a 4th axis for automated machining of cylindrical objects.
The durable gantry and smooth ball screws create an exact, fluid machine that delivers consistent, high-quality work.
The Shark can handle powerful routers up to 2.25 horsepower. The compatible models include the Bosch 1617 and 1618, the Dewalt 610, 616, 618 and the Porter Cable 890 and 690 Series. It is likely that you already have a few of these sitting around.
What sets the Shark apart from every other machine on this list is the Virtual Zero software. It scans the material piece that you load into the device and adjusts the maps to account for warped or misshapen wood. This automation delivers a higher quality piece of work with fewer failures and frustrations.
The Shark includes the Vcarve Desktop software and is one of the most comfortable machines to master. If you are scared about the learning curve of CNC machines, this is the one to choose.
What I love about both the Shark and the Pirahna below is that they don’t expect you to be experts. Whether you are having problems with the control software or with one of the features of the tool, there is an active community of users that you can talk to and get advice from.
For example, toolpath creation is essential for some of these tools. With the Next Wave Automation products, its software mostly handles toolpath creation automatically.
The Shark is a good CNC router for folks who have more money than time. It’s one of the quickest ones to master.
- 25x25x7″ Table
- Virtual Zero
- Laser Engraver Adapter Available
- Mini Lathe Available
- Designed for professional use by beginners
The Piranha XL should be one of the best CNC routers that you consider. In fact, it could likely be the only tool you consider. It’s one of the most robustly-made devices that we’re reviewing with a rigid frame that provides unmoveable support for the most excellent accuracy and the least amount of wasted materials.
Ostensibly, the big selling point is the 12-inch by 24-inch work area. This provides a better surface for the router to cut compared to the smaller CNC Piranha FX.
Now, you are likely thinking “what about those projects that are larger? Will this router be big enough?” The cool thing with this router is that the software will take your project and cut it up into multiple 12×24 segments so that you can mill each section of the project.
The trick is that you will need to move the project around some as you are working.
The other thing that I love about this project is the dedicated forum. New Wave Automation has an active forum for their products, and it can be a real life-saver when troubleshooting problems that the support team has never heard of.
When you purchase a Piranha, you are buying membership into an exclusive community of fellow crafters.
You will need to purchase a Dewalt or similar palm router (the Bosch requires an added bracket). The frame comes fully assembled from New Wave Automation, so all you have to do is to attach the router and connect it to your computer.
One of the neat features of this setup is that you can also use it with a laser engraving adapter or with the digital duplicator to scan real-world objects in order to create a digital map for recreating them. These optional accessories cost a little more, but this makes the Pirahna one of the best all-in-one machines.
The Pirahna is suitable for plastics, soft metals, MDF, and wood.
- Professional Grade CNC
- 12″x24″x7″ XYZ
- Active Help Forum
- Optional Laser Engraving
- Smaller than HD4
- No Virtual Zero
JFT 3040 Metal and Stone Router
The JFT 3040 is an often-overlooked gem. Unlike the American models that rely heavily on the idea of a kit where you add the router to a frame and gantry system, this one is more of a professional milling machine.
The significant benefit of this setup is that it is water cooled. Similar to how tile-cutters work, this one is able to cut tile, stone, and metal for a wider variety of materials than the other devices on this list.
The 24×24 table size gives you plenty of cutting area and built in x, y, and z-axis limits keep the tool from damaging itself.
It is designed to work with all the major professional-level software such as Mach3, TYPE3, ArtCAM, CAD, and CAM. This is extremely handy for those users who might already be fluent in AutoCAD from their day job and who want a compatible router to work with. (It seems to work best with Mach3)
This one is more popular in Europe, but United States shoppers can get their hands on them.
Right away, you might want to upgrade the cheap wire quality to get more consistent performance out of the stepper motors. Homan Designs have 4 wire shielded cable that works really well.
It’s going to work pretty well on thin aluminum, or for tile and stone. Once again, this more of an entry-level industrial machine, so the average home-based user is going to skip over it.
However, the home machinist and engineer is going to love the professional computing compatibility that this offers.
- Built-In Router with variable motor speed
- Capable of cutting metal and stone
- Learning Curve
BobsCNC E3 CNC Router Engraver Kit
Don’t mind a project that has a little assembly required? This setup is going to interest you. There are a lot of great youtube videos from folks selling (or sharing) plans on how to create your own CNC router from some spare lumber and parts that you buy from the local hobby store.
There is nothing wrong with that approach, but unless you have an electrical engineering degree, it is improbable that you can follow their system from start to finish.
Bob’s system solves that problem. By providing you with precut frame pieces at an affordable price, you can quickly assemble the frame with the servo motors. You then add a Dewalt router that you purchase separately.
The frame is huge. You get a 24″ by 24″ cutting area with a little better than 3.25-inch (85 mm) cutting depth on the z-axis.
It’s a straightforward assembly. You are looking at less than a day to put the laser cut, solid wood frame pieces together. You can quickly assemble it over the weekend.
Their customer service is also legendary for its quick response. Don’t hesitate to email the company with questions.
The entire CNC machine is controlled with a preprogrammed Arduino Microprocessor board loaded with GRBL.
You’ll want a Computer to transfer your designs to the engraving machine, and you can easily do so with Gcode. Gcode runs on Java so you can use it on all operating systems. You will probably also want to download the UGS Platform and F-engrave or MakerCam (Vectric and Cambam are two other excellent ones to look at).
As with all of these units, you’ll connect your PC to the router with a USB port.
For being a kit, this is a surprisingly heavy duty unit. It is also not nearly as difficult to set up and run as you might think. The
- 24x24x3.25 XYZ (approximate)
- Affordable way to get a production-quality machine
- Relatively easy to assemble
- Multiple parts. Intimidating to some users
- May require working with customer service to troubleshoot.
CNC 3018-PRO Hobby Router
If you are wanting to master CNC work and start doing some smaller woodworking with a CNC router, then this mini CNC needs to be near the top of your list.
You’ll notice right away that it is nowhere near as durable as some of the more expensive models. However, it has all of the important features you need to begin doing some light milling.
This entire system runs on GRBL, which is an open software that controls how machines move. It was based on a Gcode that was being used on Arduino boards. The standardization of this open source code makes it flexible for hobbyists to get cheap access to high-end software.
The good news is that there are countless forums devoted to working with GRBL. The downside is that it requires a little more nerdiness to debug problems that you might run into.
Most people will use other computing software such as Fusion 360 or Lightburn to generate the designs. Then, you can either load the design into the attached pendant or unplug the pendant and run it directly from your computer.
This is a great little unit for soft materials with the included stepper motor head. It’s going to work more slowly (the motor only produces 0.25N/M of torque), but it can engrave plastic, wood, acrylic, PVC, and wood. You can also purchase a laser engraver head to attach for more flexible.
Think of the 3018-PRO as a learning tool. You have to be careful not to exceed limits with it, and to set it to work slowly. As long as you are patient (and kind to it), you’ll get a lot of fun out of the tool and while making cool crafts and learning some high dollar skills.
It’s the next step of up from a DIY CNC Router Kit in ease of use. However, Router kits can be the best way to get the most power for the money.
- Good Educational Tool
- Spare parts included
- Affordable Entry into CNC
- Small Size and motor limit the crafting abilities and its speed
MySweety DIY CNC Router Kit
Here is another Mini CNC desktop router. This one is built on the 3018 frameset but uses more aluminum in the frame design than in the 3018-PRO above.
It comes with a 30×18 router table and a 4.5 cm cutting depth (just under 2 inches). The router can be programmed to exceed these limitations, so you need to check your code before you run it to keep from wrecking your router ( a common problem with these small hobby models).
This one does not come with the 110 v power supply. Make sure to add that to your order before you check out.
As with the model above, this one is mostly controlled with GRBL .
The all aluminum frame doesn’t seem to offer a lot of upgraded capability over the plastic frame. however, it is a nice alternative to the 3018-Pro.
- 6″x4″x1.8″ XYZ (approximate)
- All Aluminum Construction
- Great for kids and people wanting to learn CNC
- High Learning curve and the ability to troubleshoot is a must
Best Professional CNC Router: The Shark HD4 is idea for Etsy stores and woodworking shops that want to add sign making and other carved designs to their capabilities. Go with the Shark Extended bed and you can do fast, intricate, cabinet design.
Best Affordable Kit: The Bob’s EC3 is great. It gives you the entry-level access that a DIY kit does with the ability to still do bigger projects
Best For Learning: Everyone is buying theer kids tablets so they will be “technologically savvy”. Skip the tablet and give your kid the 3018-PRO. Learn hands-on real-world CNC skills and get prepared for the high-paying jobs of the future!
A Burgeoning New Industry
There are two challenges for manufacturers in this niche. First of all, most of the people who would use an automated router are intimidated by them. As a result, there is a very niche demand. Secondly, programming raises the costs of the devices significantly.
These little machines can do a lot of cool things, but they are quite exclusive.
Additionally, these companies frequently go out of business, and some of the best routers go out of stock.
Accordingly, I tried to prioritize those products that seem to have the best longevity and support. We’ll try to update our list multiple times a year to provide you with the best information.
Considerations Before Purchasing A CNC Router
1. Use Type
What you plan on using it for is always the most important consideration. If you want to learn some hands-on CNC and make small trinkets, the mini CNC’s are perfect. Our list offers routers in the beginner and mid-level range. There are industrial machines available
2. Ease Of Use
If you are new to CNC, choose a device that is not intimidating. One of the Next Wave Automation or Bob’s frames is going to be some of the easier ones for a beginner to master. They also have excellent software compatibility.
3. Software Compatibility
All of these devices will need some CAD (Computer Assisted Design) software. If you are plinking around, the open source Gcode software will work. Most users will find that they need to upgrade down the road to better software.
4. Company Support
You aren’t going to find a company who is willing to teach you AutoCAD. However, there are a few of these companies that have robust online forums where you can ask questions from other users. Additionally, some of them, such as Next Wave and Bob’s have high-quality email customer service.
5. Spare Parts
Longevity is everything. With many of these companies based overseas (and the constant change in the industry), the availability of replacement parts is always a concern. Next Wave is a well-known business, and they have created a lot of machines, so spare parts should always be available. Bob’s unit relies on over-the-counter circuit boards and servos, so it should be easily repaired. All of the 3018 models are cheaply made, but most come with a bag of spare parts, and their parts seem pretty easy to find online.
We don’t currently have any on this list, but there are some full-sheet CNC routers out there that can cut multiple items out of a single piece of 4’x8′ plywood. Most of these professional units are much pricier and designed for commercial use.
7. Motor Size
Most of the units on this list require you to add your own after-market router. One of the advantages of a unit that includes its own spindle motor is that the router machine can control bit speed. With the units that use a stock handheld router, there is less variability.
However, these units with that have a built-in motor hold you hostage to the company’s spare parts and maintenance down the road. If that company goes out of business, and the spindle motor fails, your entire router machine might be toast.
Weight Doesn't Matter
We keep seeing other blogs discuss the weight of the machine and how many pounds they weigh. This machine should be stationary on your workbench, and it will not matter how much it weighs. Make sure to invest in a solid work surface, and a place where your computer can sit that is near the machine but far enough away to not be in danger of getting exposed to sawdust.
Adding a vacuum system that you can use to remove sawdust and metal shavings is perfect.
Lead Screw Vs. Ball Screw
You are going to see both terms used in reference to some of the drive systems used on the better-quality router machines.
The Lead screw is the cheaper option. Your gantry and router are going to slide directly on the screw mechanism. For non-load scenarios, this is more than fine. However, if you start trying to cut metal or denser material, you might start noticing the tolerance differences. Additionally, a lead screw design will likely wear out sooner.
Ball screw uses a ball rolling on the hardened screw surface. This design seems to last better and doesn’t lose their tolerances over time. They Also tend to run more smoothly. Typically the machines in a higher price range will have ball screw systems.