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The Robots are Coming!

Whether you’re an early adopter of technology or a Luddite with a flip-phone,  these horizon-expanding tools will add an entirely new dimension to your woodworking. With prices coming down as the technology matures, many of these machines cost about as much as a cabinet saw—or less. If you’re intimidated by the idea of a computer-operated woodworking tool, take a deep breath. There’s nothing magical about these machines; each one, at its simplest, is just a device that moves a bit, laser, or extruder along three axes to cut, engrave, or build.

CNC: An automated shop assistant

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The area where a workpiece rests on a machine is called the “work envelope.” This dictates the largest workpiece that fits in or on the machine.

What it does

No, it won’t sweep floors or empty the dust collector for you, but a CNC can cut out multiple identical parts with perfectly shaped edges while you do other things, photo below.

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A CNC cuts complex parts to exact size. A straight bit cuts through the blank and into an MDF spoil board, freeing the workpiece.

Looking to engrave soft metals, such as brass or aluminum, acrylics, or wood with textures, images, or text that would be next to impossible to create or recreate by hand, photo below? A CNC has your back, ready to save you loads of time—if you can stop watching it work. (It’s mesmerizing!) 

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Create in CAM. A model or drawing created in CAM software can be re-created on any number of workpieces, and scaled up or down easily.

What to look for when buying

As with any machine purchase, consider the manufacturer’s reputation, warranty, and technical support. You may need a little guidance when getting started, particularly if you have no experience with CNC technology. The Laguna iQ, for example, comes with an offer of two hours of one-on-one training with tech support. 

Consider also whether you want a CNC machine that drives the router bit using a router or spindle. The latter costs more and typically requires a cooling system, but runs quieter and lasts longer. 

Be aware that many of these machines don’t come with routers included in the prices, or with the CAM software (see “Select your software”) required to use the machine.

Select your software

The software available for running CNCs is almost as diverse as the machines. It ranges from simplistic and free-to-download (often without technical support) to advanced programs that can cost thousands. The majority of programs run on Windows operating systems, but you’ll also find a few Mac programs.

Although each CNC has different software requirements, the majority work the same way when it comes to programming. First, you design the model, text, or pattern in a computer-aided design (CAD) program such as Adobe Illustrator or SketchUp. That file must then be run through a computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) program, such as Vetric’s VCarve. That program takes the model file you created in CAD and renders it compatible with your CNC by outputting what’s known as G-code, the most widely used programming language.

Finally, the CNC controller software interprets the G-code and sends signals to the machine to move the cutter in the three axes—up/down, left/right, and forward/back. Sometimes the controller software is built into the machine. Sometimes it’s run from a separate computer. Sometimes both.

The etch-anything laser cutter

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Full Spectrum H-Series 40W Laser, $3,499 110V power supply, 24×36" envelope fslaser.com Although many lasers come with a blower fan to exhaust fumes to the outdoors, a self-contained air purifier eliminates the need to run a duct outdoors.

What it does

Laser cutter/engravers transfer detailed images to wood—burning the likeness of a photo or illustration, for instance, photo below—and their minuscule kerfs make it possible to create very precise parts from thin material, photo below. Those who regularly do marquetry, build with small, thin parts, or need to engrave or inscribe would find a laser most useful.

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This one-second exposure captures the on-and-off pulses of the laser as it travels across this panel, burning in a design. With this machine, the bottom can be removed, making it possible to engrave or cut pieces too large to fit inside.

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Cut precise small parts. A laser makes easy work of the interior cuts in this puzzle map of the U.S. Because the laser burns away the wood, the edges of the 1⁄4"-thick pieces have a singed brown color.

What to look for when buying
First, decide whether you need a CO2 laser or a diode laser. A CO2 laser, like the Full Spectrum H-series laser shown right, works well for cutting or engraving wood, acrylic, glass, plastics, leather, paper, and even stone. However, reflective metals might damage it. CO2 lasers cut thicker materials—a 40-watt unit like this one can cut 14 "-thick plastic or wood—and leaves behind a smoother surface finish. 

Diode lasers, like the one found on Next Wave Automation’s Piranha Fx (see “Get all three machines in one,end of story), are more compact than their CO2 counterparts, and require less electricity. They work on reflective metals without risk of damaging the machine. But because they’re often of lower wattage, they are mainly used as engravers.

Some lasers, such as those in Epilog’s Fusion M2 series, feature both diode and CO2 lasers in the same units.

Refine design with a 3D printer

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Dremel 3D20-01 Printer, $1,000 110V power supply, 9×5.9×5.5" envelope 3dprinter.dremel.com Most mass-market 3D printers are similar in size and noise level to an ordinary inkjet printer.

What it does

You might wonder how a machine that builds in plastic could be used in woodworking. Well, if you’ve tried to draw out a piece of furniture for a client or spouse only to have them struggle to envision it, imagine how helpful a 3D printer would be for generating precise, scalable prototypes, photo below.

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Start out small. A physical prototype lets you look at a project from all angles, checking its proportions and how light and shadow affect its appearance.

In addition, 3D printers excel at making small parts that complement your wood projects or jigs. Build a chess or checkerboard? Print your own customized game pieces. Have a jig that needs a knob or an odd-size plastic washer? Save yourself a trip to the store and make your own instead. A 3D printer also provides a way to make perfect-fitting
reducers/adaptors for every dust-collection port in your shop.

What to look for when buying

3D printers use extruded PLA or ABS plastic. The Dremel 3D20-01 printer, above, can only print using PLA plastic, but many models can use both. PLA is biodegradable, has a pleasing smell when melting, releases no harmful fumes, and can be printed on a cold surface. It’s less sturdy than ABS and has a lower melting point, though, so don’t leave your printed model in a hot car. 

ABS, a petroleum product, requires a heated printer bed (to keep the layers from curling as they cool) and outdoor ventilation for the fumes generated as the machine works. 

Also consider a machine’s maximum build resolution—the thickness of the plastic layers in the model, photo below. Finer layers make for a more detailed model, though it will take longer for the machine to build it.

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To make your model, use thin layers. The Dremel will print at a 100 micron (.10 millimeter) resolution. More expensive models can print in layers as fine as 20 microns thick.

Tip! Some online hardware retailers provide CAD files of their parts. Use these files to print an item to check its fit or function when prototyping personal projects. Check their terms of use so you don’t run afoul of copyright
or patent law.

Tip! An unheated glass bed benefits from having blue painter’s tape applied to the surface to improve model adhesion.

Get all three machines in one

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Next Wave Automation CNC Piranha Fx, $3,200 (Includes CNC, laser, and 3D printer) 110V power supply Laser and CNC envelope: 12×13" 3D printer envelope: 12×12×3" nextwaveautomation.com

If you view yourself as a would-be casual user of this technology, but don’t want to invest in three dedicated tools, consider the CNC Piranha Fx. On its own, it’s an affordable ($1,600), router-powered benchtop CNC machine. But if you purchase the laser engraver and 3D printer modules, which mount in the chuck of the router used for the CNC function (around $800 each), you can have the functionality of all three machines in one system, for a lower price than the cost of purchasing dedicated units.

The Piranha comes with some limitations. Its 12×18" envelope for CNC work is substantially smaller than many dedicated CNC machines. The 3D printer module, despite having a large 12×12" envelope, is only capable of printing models up to 3" tall. The laser module is very low power—3 watts—so it’s limited to light surface engraving and cutting only veneer-thick material.

On the upside, you only have to learn two programs (VCarve for the CNC and laser, Next Wave 3D for the printer) to run three machines. Plus, the Piranha Fx comes equipped with a VCarve software package—an added cost with many other CNC units.

 

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