March 3, 2020
What used to cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars has now become an affordable addition to the workshop for individuals and businesses alike: desktop CNCs. Here at MatterHackers we’ve worked with many different CNCs and it's safe to say that we’ve learned a few things about what setups and conditions do and don’t work. Whether you’re deciding on the right layout for your tools or just interested in exploring ways to streamline your workflow, I’d like to present these tips to you to give you the best chance of success with your new desktop CNC.
Let’s get started.
Choosing a Location:
Every form of digital manufacturing has its conditions that can make or break a successful operation. In the case for desktop CNCs, it’s the mess and the noise; no matter what you do, there will be dust and the sound of a router spinning at tens of thousands of RPMs with the added noise of a vacuum of some sort. Ideally, setting the machine up where you can shut a door to help cut down on the noise and keep the dust localized is the way you want to go.
With smaller, enclosed machines like the Carbide Nomad or the CNC attachment for the Zmorph, you are at least able to set these up indoors fairly easily. A small room tucked away is typically enough to keep things manageable. Since both of these are enclosed, you won’t need to run the vacuum during an entire operation (which could take hours) and can instead do a quick cleanup when everything is finished; simply lift the hood and get cleaning. Enclosed CNCs are usually compact but dense, so make sure your table can adequately support them and is rigid enough to not vibrate and resonate as the spindle reaches high speeds.
For the larger CNCs with dimensions that measure in feet instead of inches, you will likely need to set in up in a garage or a workshop; somewhere that if it gets dirty or dusty there won’t be much concern. Due to their size, any sort of enclosure is most likely going to be a DIY setup at best or non-existent at worst. To compensate for this, add-on dust-shoe accessories or other dust management systems will significantly cut down on how much dust is spewed into the air, but it won’t capture 100% of it, and the vacuum attached to it will need to remain on from the beginning of the job until the end.
Depending on the size of your CNC, you will need different solutions for where you are going to keep your materials. In either case, you want to find a setup that does not necessitate moving material around to get to the piece you need; your goal should be having things organized not unlike books in a library.
For a small CNC, you would do just fine with a cabinet or shelf right beside it containing all the woods, plastics, and soft metals that you have (properly labeled and organized, of course), but a large one will need very different considerations. When projects can be 3 feet wide and long, it becomes a lot harder to find an easy solution. Take some notes from the setups that woodworkers have and keep your raw materials separate from your ready-to-go materials. In our case here, we mill with a lot of wood and limited space, so I will set out our table saw and rip sheets down to size before storing it. With a larger area, you could much more easily have two separate stacks for your full size sheets of plywood and a stack of the pre-cut stuff.
First priority is to have all your PPE on hand in an easy to access location and to always return it back to the same place. A dust mask or respirator rated for dust particulate (not vapor), protective eyewear, and hearing protection are all essential for safe operation of large CNCs. You can get away with not wearing a dust mask with the smaller, enclosed CNCs, but the rest are non-negotiable.
When it comes to what software to use, at least in the beginning, follow along with the software that comes packaged with your CNC. Some can offer some basic design tools, but for those with experience 3D modeling, it can be easy to outpace what you need with what the software is capable of doing. There are other free and paid for software that will allow you to tap into the advanced capabilities of your tool like 3D milling and easy tool-changing operations. Speaking of tools, be aware of how many endmills you will amass the more you use the CNC.
A coworker milled out this really nice holder for all the end mills, wrenches, and collets which in addition to being very useful also leaves us with plenty of room to grow. To learn more about end mills, be sure to check out our end mill comparison guide here.
If having most but not all of the dust sucked up by a vacuum attachment isn’t enough for you, then I would suggest making it a top priority and even your first project to build an enclosure to go around your CNC. This way it’s at least built to the exact specification that you need it to be, rather than to a specification for general users. Consider adding some minor tool storage, a vent with HEPA filter and fan you can control for cleaning the air before you vacuum all the debris, and an easy to access power strip as you will need to run these all from a computer, as most don’t feature any onboard UI and instead on connecting a computer over USB.
When it comes to clamping, everyone does it differently. Some utilize metal threaded inserts, others have T-track and clamps, and some rely on you using wood screws to clamp everything together. Keep that in mind and consider upgrading your clamping setup if you find you aren’t satisfied. While I haven’t personally tried it, I have seen other users find success applying painter’s to the wasteboard and the back of the material and then super gluing the painter’s tape together. The idea is that this won’t permanently bond to either piece, but has the holding power of super glue keeping everything down.
Keeping a CNC clean is an everlasting battle, as you will find dust gathering and working its way into places you didn’t think possible. Do everything you can to vacuum up the majority of the dust and debris, brushing off any exposed surface, and vacuuming again the dust that gets kicked up. When you are finished milling you are going to have scrap wood left over. Take a good hard look at it and determine if it’s something you really need to keep or if it’s pure trash. It’s all too easy to think “I could get a usable piece out of this” and it sits in storage for six months before you think about it again. Keep things lean!
By nature, CNCs are tools to be cautious around. With a spindle or router spinning at thousands of RPM, you inherently have a projectile waiting to happen should anything snap or fling off of the workpiece, or in normal use it's a loud obnoxious device. If the CNC isn't enclosed, then it's kicking up MDF dust, acrylic, or saw dust into the air and it's all harmful to breath. Make sure that any time you are working with a running CNC you are wearing a dust mask rated for particulate, ear plugs, and protective glasses.
Keeping your CNC clean is a big part of its maintenance. Too much dust may clog up any sort of cooling fan for the controller board or jam the moving parts causing the carving to skip steps and offset the toolpath, scrapping the part, the material, and potentially the carving bit. For the CNCs that utilize roller wheels instead of bearings or linear rails, make sure that they aren’t over tensioned against the rail they ride along; too much pressure and they will form a flat and prematurely need to be replaced. The wasteboard that everything is clamped to will wear down over time and need to be replaced. If you are mainly carving all the way through your material, you will replace it much sooner than if you only carved halfway through, as the surface of the wasteboard won’t be marred by the end mill.
When compared to 3D printers, there’s a lot less that can go wrong with CNCs. A lot of it can be narrowed down to making sure your feeds and speeds (the speed at which the CNC moves or “feeds” material and the speed that the CNC spins at) are set properly for the material you are working with. There are too many materials to list the feeds and speeds for each and every one, but the general rule to follow is that you want the spindle spinning fast enough to easily clear out all the material in its path but not so fast that the bit and material is heating up, and for your feedrate to be fast enough that it isn’t rubbing the edges that have already been cut but slow enough that the bit doesn’t start deflecting. If you do find yourself having trouble though, don’t hesitate to give us a call or send us an email and get a MatterHackers pro to help you through your problem.
Desktop CNCs have a lot to offer for many workshops, whether you are setting out to create weekend projects, prototypes, or end-use products. Making sure that the environment for the CNC is well thought out and your workflow is ready and prepared can make what would otherwise feel daunting a much simpler and easy to digest process. I hope that I’ve put you at ease and that you’re ready to get milling. If this has been helpful for you or you have something you’d like other CNC users to know, I’d love to see it in the comments down below.
Have fun milling!
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