The marriage of a wood block and a CNC mill could be just what your project needs. Because if you’re trying to pick which color of PLA to print that coffee table with, you’ve got a problem. (Or the need for a humongous spool of filament to mount on an equally huge 3D printer.)
CNC carving wood is a useful process, not just because of the size capabilities, but also for the aesthetic and material properties of wood. Napkin rings, for instance, bring a more cozy feel to the kitchen table when produced in wood as opposed to plastic. Plus, you avoid bringing bioplastics near your food.
But how do you pick a machine out of the many out there? Well, you can get a head start with this list of some of the best CNC carving machines, refreshed for 2019.
No list about CNC carving machines in 2019 could get away without mentioning Carbide 3D’s Shapeoko. This beast of a machine needs no introduction – it earned the status of Editor’s Choice CNC machine quite recently, after all. It’s the Prusa i3 of CNC milling machines.
The Shapeoko comes in three size variants: The Shapeoko 3, the Shapeoko XL, and the Shapeoko XXL. They are intuitive, reliable, and capable across the board. As we mentioned in our full-length review, everything about the Shapeoko feels like it was designed with the user in mind. The assembly is simple and well-guided, the software is straightforward (and less intimidating than on most other machines), and most importantly, it produces some fine parts.
In terms of value, the Shapeoko is right in the middle of the pack: not so much bang for your buck as to arouse suspicion regarding quality, but not too premium as to exclude beginners. Overall, it’s a solid machine to have in the shop, whether it’s your first or tenth CNC carving machine.
The Inventables X-Carve provides quite a unique experience, despite looking like a Shapeoko copycat, at first. True, it’s got roughly the same capabilities and performance as its Carbide 3D lookalike, but the way this machine differentiates itself is with its ecosystem.
When you purchase an Inventables machine, you get to use their cloud-based design and machine interfacing tool, Easel. This software makes it easy for beginners to get milling right away, and it’s a refreshing presence in CNC milling’s typically-mediocre software landscape.
This software is one of the most compelling reasons you would choose the X-Carve over the Shapeoko: the holistic experience from design all the way to cutting. We’re not saying the Shapeoko provides a bad experience, we just feel that Inventables went the extra mile here with their ecosystem.
If you’re really curious about how the X-Carve stacks up against the Shapeoko, Carbide 3D actually wrote a comparison article between both machines. Sounds biased, we know, but it’s a fun read regardless.
The BobsCNC E3 CNC Router Kit, made of assembled laser-cut wood, has some stellar ratings on Amazon. Plus, the price tag nears impulse purchase territory. These are two facts that make it a dangerous combination for a maker’s bank account. But that not necessarily a bad thing. With a decent cutting area and respectable accuracy, this sub-$1,000 kit is quite the milling machine.
However, one thing to make note of is the moderately-technical assembly process. After all, the machine isn’t super useful if you can’t figure out how to put it together. Some users have reported that the machine is challenging to put together if you don’t already have technical experience.
If you’ve got some problem-solving skills and an appetite for tinkering, the E3 CNC Router Kit is your chance to get a ton of milling value for your money. If you’re a beginner, however, we recommend investing in a slightly more expensive machine, first, to get a more guided assembly process.
If you don’t need to cut very large objects, here’s a sturdy, compact CNC carving machine for you. Although its construction isn’t as beefy as something like the Carbide 3D Shapeoko, the CNC Piranha FX from Next Wave Automation is reportedly quite stable. This is likely due to its smaller cutting area relative to all the previous machines mentioned. You could get the XL version for a slight upgrade in real estate, but it’s still smaller than most of the other machines on this list.
If you’re at a loss for workshop space, this machine might be exactly what you need: reliable milling in a compact package. Just make sure that what you lack in space you make up for in technical expertise, because some users have reported that the customer service of this particular manufacturer is somewhat unreliable.
In addition, if you’re a Mac user, you should pass on this one. The software you need to communicate with the CNC Piranha FX only works on Windows, oddly enough.
The Carbide 3D Nomad is a such a compact, neat package that we couldn’t help but include it, even if it was released long ago. The Nomad is an unusual option on this list, mainly in its appearance. The entire machine is contained in a sleek, desktop-ready enclosure. This means you won’t constantly be dusting wood chips off your keyboard while working next to this machine as it’s operating.
However, the broader approach Carbide 3D has taken with this product is equally fascinating. Being the only fully-assembled machine on this list, the Nomad already seems like it’s geared towards a different audience. When you dig deeper, you’ll start to see more of this: various unique jigs are included, the software is polished, and it comes with a surprisingly-large price tag, given its size.
These little details show that the Nomad is intended for a more niche user, perhaps someone working in an office setting where noise, mess, and aesthetics are a concern. Wired put it best in their article on the Nomad: “CNC mills don’t have to be beautiful, but this bamboo one sure is.” If you can pay for the luxury of good looks and sleek operation, you’ll enjoy this machine.
Regardless of your experience or incentive to buy the Nomad, you’ll be quite impressed with its milling prowess. But before you test it out, you’ve got to figure out how to fit your design in the compact cutting area.
In 2019, the reality is that all these CNC carving machines will probably serve your woodworking shop well. We’re quite lucky to have such diverse options to fit so many use cases – there’s a mill for everyone out there.
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Feature image source: Viral Maniacs / YouTube
License: The text of "CNC Carving – 5 Great CNC Machines to Carve Wood" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.