CNC machines come in many sizes, configurations, with features and different levels of precision and price. Prices have dropped rapidly the last few years, but even a small CNC machine is a considered purchase for a hobbyist or professional. So, like any major woodworking machine in a shop such as a table saw, joiner, planer or shaper, do your research and plan for and buy for long term use. Just as comparing an inexpensive job site saw from a home center to a quality cabinet saw, the least expensive and smallest solution may not be the best choice looking forward. An under-powered and sized CNC good for making boxes could be limiting if you also plan to build furniture. Think longer term.
Take a careful look at what you’re building today and tomorrow and size accordingly. And, don’t forget to consider the available space in your shop. Any CNC needs an extra few feet in every direction beyond its table dimensions.
Many sizes to choose from
Cabinet shops tend to prefer larger CNCs designed for cutting sheet materials and are sized 48”x 96” or larger. These are direct descendants of large factory machines. They tend to have a low depth of cut of 3-4”. Their large work surfaces often use heavy duty vacuum systems to suck down flat material like plywood to hold it in place while cutting. Though excellent for this purpose, vacuum tables don’t work particularly well for small solid wood parts. It’s a great solution for a cabinet shop with the space and the industrial power to drive large 25hp vacuum pumps. Machines range from $15k for some 48” x 48” machines to well over $75k. When you add the holy grail of CNC options – an automatic tool changer you can go way beyond that.
It might be more practical for a smaller shops and hobbyist to consider a smaller machine. There’s a number of CNCs available in the 18”x24” to 24”x36” sizes. Prices range from $3k to $7k. With a small footprint being the key limitation make sure you keep in mind what you’ll be using it for and the size of parts you need to cut.
New machines suited to a broader range of woodworking tasks that still fit in smaller spaces are finally becoming available. This is a big breakthrough for woodworkers. Sizes ranging from 2’x4’ to 32”x60” to 4’x4’, etc. are suited for making furniture parts and general woodworking uses in smaller shops. A vertical Z height of 6” or more is a valuable feature to look for if you plan on doing 3D work. Price range is $6500 to $20k+.
Finally, an often discussed alternative is to build your own CNC – which I generally don’t recommend. Though cheaper, it’s a big challenge to pull off successfully, very time consuming, requires special skills and knowledge in many areas and the results often fall well below the quality and precision of a factory or custom made machine. Fortunately, there is now a middle ground. If you’re inclined to built it yourself, have the time, are handy with tools and a little bit geeky, a few companies make well designed pre-cut kits where everything is included and critical components like electronic control boxes come assembled and ready to plug in.
Don’t forget to add in the cost of tooling – the various kinds of bits needed for woodworking on a CNC. Plan on spending at least a few hundred dollars just to get started.