Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines are great for projects that require precision and repeatable cuts. Until recently, CNC machines were too large and expensive for consumer use. But that’s not true anymore. Here are five CNC machines you can own.
What to Look for in a CNC Machine
CNC machines come in many shapes, sizes, capabilities, and at many price points. This is one of those cases where spending more typically gets you a higher quality machine or more features.
One of the first things you should ask yourself is what you want to accomplish with a CNC machine. If your goal is to engrave small projects with a logo, then a super-expensive, large machine is overkill. Likewise, if you want to make a guitar body, then a small cheap one won’t do. So, here are a few things to look for:
- Size: The size of the machine limits (or expands) your projects. CNC Machines for the home typically consist of a woodworking router on a rail system that moves around a bed (where you put your wood or other material). The larger the bed, the bigger the project you can tackle. The size also determines the weight of your CNC router, and that’s something to keep in mind. Larger machines sometimes weigh over 100 pounds, so you need a sturdy surface to hold one.
- Software: All CNC Machines require software to work. So, you should check which Operating Systems the CNC machine is compatible with, and which programs it uses. Some CNC software, like GRBL, is easier to use than others. Other programs might require more effort to learn or cost some money. If you aren’t sure what to use, check to see if the CNC router comes with free software—that will give you a starting point.
- Ease of maintenance: Much like 3-D printers, you have to do some maintenance on a CNC machine occasionally. And sometimes, parts wear down or break. On the more expensive CNC machines, you should be able to purchase replacement parts and repair your device as necessary.
- Assembly difficulty: Most, if not all, CNC machines arrive disassembled. Depending on the number of pieces, the size of the machine, and the tolerances involved, you might find assembling your new CNC router difficult. It’s not uncommon to need several hours over multiple days to put together a new CNC router.
Best Overall: BobsCNC E4 CNC Router
The BobsCNC E4 CNC router is a machine that maximizes what you get for what you spend. Other machines with a similar bed size cost hundreds of dollars more. You’ll have plenty of space to work on your bigger projects.
This machine uses a DeWalt router as its cutting tool, but you have to buy bits separately. Unlike most of the other CNC machines on this list, the main structure of this device is wooden. Most CNC routers rely heavily on steel. The benefit of its wood design is weight. Despite being one of the larger CNCs we recommend, this machine weighs just over 40 pounds. So, you can use something other than your sturdiest table to hold it.
BobsCNC is compatible with Windows, macOS, and Linux, and nearly every common CNC software available. It doesn’t come with free software, but you can use a free option, like GRBL. You have to assemble the CNC router, however, so expect that to take several hours, if not longer.
BobsCNC E4 CNC Router Engraver Kit with the Router Included (610 mm x 610 mm cutting area and 85mm depth of travel)
This CNC Machine includes a larger workspace than most at its price point. It's light, and you get a nice DeWalt router cutting tool, too.
Best Budget: Genmitsu CNC 3018-PRO
If spending several hundred (or over one thousand) dollars is outside your budget, the Genmitsu CNC 3018-Pro might warrant your attention. Its drastically smaller size and cheaper woodworking router considerably bring down its cost.
But while you’ll pay less, you’ll get less. The bed size is relatively small—7 x 3 x 1 inch—so you won’t achieve any larger projects. The small size means it’s an easier assembly process, however. You likely can assemble this router in two to three hours. As an additional budget benefit, this CNC router comes with cutting tips.
This machine is only suitable for soft materials, like softwoods, foam, and plastic. It doesn’t have the power to make it through anything harder. You’ll also have a hard time finding replacement parts, but given its low price, that’s forgivable. If you want to get your feet wet and start small, the Genmitsu is a good choice.
Genmitsu CNC 3018-PRO Router Kit GRBL Control 3 Axis Plastic Acrylic PCB PVC Wood Carving Milling Engraving Machine, XYZ Working Area 300x180x45mm
Small, compact, and fairly easy to assemble, the Genmitsu CNC router is a good choice to get started in tight spaces.
Best Mid-Budget: MillRight CNC M3
Carving in softwoods is fine for engraving and experimenting with CNC routing, but what about when you want to do more? The MillRight CNC M3 is a good stepping stone to the next level of CNC routers.
It has a slightly larger bed than our budget pick, as well as a much more powerful router—the DeWalt DWP611. This router offers dual benefits. First, you can replace the DeWalt with an off-the-shelf router (as long as the dimensions are similar). Second, you aren’t limited to soft materials. The DWP611 is powerful enough for hardwood, aluminum, brass, and even carbon fiber.
The MillRight doesn’t include any software, but it’s compatible with most CNC software programs, including GRBL and Adobe Autodesk. You’ll have to buy a cutting bit, but as it uses a DeWalt router, you can pick this up at a local hardware store.
Easiest Assembly: Shapeoko 3
CNC Machines can be difficult to assemble. The Shapeoko 3 from Carbide 3D attempts to change that. Everything comes in separate boxes, and you also get clear, color-coded directions and warnings.
The nature of the build calls for a single hex key, and you might be able to build it in about an hour. You also get a fairly large bed that provides plenty of space for larger projects. You can order the Shapeoko without the router, which saves you money and is also helpful if you already own one.
Like most CNC machines, you buy the cutting bits separately. Carbide 3D offers a large selection, or you can buy standard bits from your local hardware store. This CNC router includes all the software you need to start carving, but it’s compatible only with Windows or macOS (sorry, Linux people).
Most Customizable: Inventables X-Carve
The X-Carve is the CNC machine that gives you the most choice in components. You can add extra accessories, like a Z-probe, to assist when you measure the height of your material. Or you can add a dust control port to keep your work area clean.
Customizations include multiple bed sizes, routers, and more. The X-Carve even offers large enough beds to cut out a guitar body. Inventables also gives you software with a one-year subscription included, or you can use other free software if you prefer.
If you want a straightforward option with all the best parts picked for you, choose one of the pre-customized packs.
When you’re ready for a CNC machine that’s exactly the configuration you need it to be, the X-Carve is the way to go.