I had been considering for some time building my own CNC (Computer Numeric Control) Machine for the shop. If you have read my previous articles, you know that I have had a Carvewright Machine for several years and have made numerous wood items with it. I love it, but it is sometimes finicky and hard to use. The design software and all of the other aspects of it are proprietary requiring me to be dependent on the LHR Company for carving bits, parts, etc. Because the design software is easy to use, it lacks in capabilities. In order to expand the capabilities you have to buy their expensive software in pieces depending on what you want to accomplish. You can actually spend more on the software than the machine itself. I wanted to break away from this dependence and strike out into the world of free form design. I decided to acquire a new machine that was limitless in it’s capabilities.
Pricing and researching the commercial CNC Platforms available was a daunting task but it allowed me to learn more about how the machine actually works and what mechanics are involved. There are numerous complete machines available that range in price from $1200 to $7000 for the hobbyist, to $30,000 for the commercial wood shop. Some come with their own software which is also proprietary, and some will run on Standard G-Code. The G-Code is the language the machine uses to communicate instructions. You can type these instructions line by line to the machine but as you can imagine, it can be extremely difficult. Each movement of the router is choreographed efficiently to carve, cut, engrave, or shape the item being processed.
I found an online course being offered by Popular Woodworking on how to build your own CNC Router and I enrolled in the class for a small fee. I quickly ran through the course because I had done so much research beforehand. It supplied a Sketchup Model of a CNC Machine made from MDF Plywood, and included several options for electronics and drive capabilities. It took me about 3 weeks to build it and equip it with the components that I wanted. It is fully functional now, and I am starting to learn how to make it work. The photos are of the building process. I had decided early on to build it and equip it with the strongest and most powerful drive components that I could afford. It has 3/8 inch 10 turns per inch lead screws combined with 425 oz Stepper Motors. It uses a 36 volt power supply and I mounted a Bosch Colt 1 horsepower router as a spindle. This means that it will cut, drill, shape and grind metal and hard plastic if I decide to. The cutting area is 20″ X 28″ X 4″. It uses a software product called Mach 3 to deliver the machine instructions to the Stepper Motors and I have begun learning how to design with a extremely powerful software product called Fusion 360.
Mach 3 is the industry standard for the home hobbyist as well as the commercial machinist to operate CNC Routers, Lathes, End Mills, and Robotic Manufacturers. I have it running on an old Pentium Computer with Microsoft XP Pro. I design products on my office computer with Fusion 360 and transfer the finished G-Code to the shop computer via a USB Flash Drive. Because the entire machine is 30″ wide by 60″ long, I also had to redesign my shop work bench to make it wide enough to accommodate the new addition. I was able to place my new machine and my Carvewright side by side which allows free access to both as well as the computer.
In the weeks and months ahead, I plan to chronicle the building and learning process. I have included some photos of the CNC Machine construction and the overhaul of my shop.