To many woodworkers, Computer Numerical Control (CNC) technology may seem clouded in equal parts mystery and intimidation. Although there is no getting around a potential mountain of stuff to learn, it need not be insurmountable. In fact, it may be easier than you think.
My journey to CNC took place over a couple of decades, but yours need not take so long. Yes, I was presented with challenges, but looking back on it, those challenges were no greater than many of the other woodworking obstacles I have faced as I grew my skills and business.
So where do you start? CNC machines encompass numerous components any one of which could potentially overload us with information beyond our comprehension. But the same could be said of a new car or computer. Most of us would not be able to explain, in detail, the inner workings of the technology around us, but we make use of it nonetheless. The same is true of CNC. Although with practical experience learned over the course of time, some of the inner details will lose their mystery.
I approached my first CNC purchase as I would any other any piece of technology. I determined what I needed the machine to do and worked backward from there. Still, there were gaps in my knowledge base that needed to be filled in order to make an informed decision. Some of those gaps were filled by personal research, but the bulk of it came from friends who either had a machine or were about to get one. I was lucky that some of those friends were true lovers of the details and had dived in head first, immersing themselves in the minutia. (Fig. 1)
The fact is that most of us are not starting from zero. If you’re reading this article, you most likely have a working knowledge of computers and programs. This knowledge alone makes the CNC learning curve much shorter. If you are a CAD (Computer Aided Design) user, you have whittled away even more of that mountain of learning.
Over the past many years several CNC manufacturers have targeted the small shop with current prices at about the cost of a good-quality table saw, or even less. (Fig. 2) While machines at the lowest end of the spectrum are not as accurate as I would suggest, the price of highly-accurate machines has come down as well, and is within the reach of many woodworkers. The large industrial machines, with an abundance of bells and whistles, still carry price tags that reach into the stratosphere.
For those of us who do not have endlessly deep pockets, compromise is in order. Our needs are much different than that of big industry, so compromise should not impair them to any significant degree. Our wish list versus our actual needs, however, may be a different story.
My goal is not to provide a step-by-step guide, but rather to highlight some of the issues you’ll encounter. Further self-study will be needed to match your specific needs to a machine. I’ll use my machine and experience to highlight some of the features and tolerances that I found essential.