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In the not too distant past, CNC routers were tools that were specific to the industrial/manufacturing center.
Few people expected to own an independent shop, let alone buy a router for home use.
However, tech has changed, and with it, the cost of owning one of these eminently helpful machines.
That said, their availability hasn’t necessarily made choosing the right one any easier. Unfamiliarity with what you’re investing in can be a bit daunting.
This guide is designed to recommend the best on the market, but that’s not all.
It should also help you build some familiarity with what’s out there and what to look for to help with your projects.
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In a Rush?
Here's 3 products we picked out that thought you would be interested in depending on your budget...
The Best CNC Routers with Reviews
Here’s a list of the best CNC routers we found on the market today:
1. CNC Piranha FX
There’s no assembly needed, and all the software and firmware required is included, making it an excellent choice for beginners. Also, fantastic email support from the company if you need it. You don’t need a wired connection to a computer since you can use USB drives with the touchscreen interface.
Not so Good
The touchscreen controller can be a bit clumsy for larger hands. However, a stylus can help. It can also overheat and requires time to cool down.
The Piranha FX is a professional quality machine. It has some of the best software in the industry. It comes fully assembled, and has a mid-size cutting area at approximately 12” x 13”, which is fantastic for the price. The touchscreen controller may be a bit tricky to get used to, but there are workarounds; it is well worth it!
Also, most units in this price range require that you have a constant wired connection to a desktop or laptop computer with a USB port. That’s not necessary with the Piranha FX thanks to the fact that you can load up a thumb drive with your designs and pop it right into the touchscreen interface.
One of the biggest pluses is that this is a very sophisticated machine, but possible for the beginner to learn how to use (albeit with a learning curve). While you will have to take some time to learn, that’s true of all CNC routers for woodworking.
2. BobsCNC E3 CNC Router Kit
While assembly is required, the wooden parts fit together like a dream. It’s a straightforward process, even if you’ve never used a CNC router. Also, the included router is a nice touch, especially at this price point. Many kits require you to choose a separate router, which can be daunting for a novice.
Not so Good
You will need at least an intermediate understanding of CNC software. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but for a true beginner, it could be a serious obstacle. All of the required software is not included, so you will need to research, download, and install your own. Also, the wooden frame tends to flex under too much pressure.
This is an excellent machine for the price. Don’t be put off by the self-assembly. While it’s time-consuming, the instructions are easy to understand. We did have to be very careful with the switches during installation, as the wires are somewhat fragile. You can re-solder them if they come loose. It shouldn’t be an issue once the build is complete.
With the right knowledge and additional tools, we were amazed by what this inexpensive machine was able to accomplish.
It also has a very generous cutting area, larger even than our top choice.
If you already have some professional CNC experience, and you want a CNC router for woodworking in your home shop, this is a great budget option. Those with advanced software knowledge and some engineering experience will also find this to be an exceptional deal.
3. MYSWEETY DIY CNC Router Kits 1610
The assembly was surprisingly easy for a budget CNC router for woodworking kit. Not as detailed as it could be, but more than adequate. You can get great results with this machine as long as you have the software and hardware know-how. It also has a solidly built, rigid frame. The included software bundle is underrated in our opinion!
Not so Good
Proceed with caution if you don’t have experience with these types of machines and software. It can be a headache learning from scratch with a kit like this. Also, this is a very small cutting area. It is worth it for the price, but not suitable for large projects at all. This is a hobby machine for the experienced user.
Assembly is very simple, with instructions similar to what you might find for an IKEA product. While less comprehensive than the BobCNC instructions, they are very doable with some concentration. Also, it came with a few extra parts, which we always appreciate!
Like the BobCNC kit, getting your software up and running may be a challenge. Prepare to have a learning curve even if you are pretty tech savvy. We had to do a bit of trial and error to find something that was compatible with the GRBL firmware. It can get frustrating. If you’re brand new to this, a more “plug and play” style machine may be better for you. It’s compatible with both Linux and Windows, however, so you do have a lot of options.
One important point: You’re getting a very small work area here, only 16 cm by 10 cm. This is not the CNC router for large projects. If your goal is smaller stuff, and you have the know-how, the you can get great results from this budget machine!
4. CNC Piranha XL Router
Like the CNC Piranha FX, this comes with full software and great support. Which, if you look at less expensive machines, is a huge benefit for the beginner user. You’ll save hours of times since you can jump right in with VCarve. The real selling point is the much bigger cutting area, much more versatility for projects!
Not so Good
Oddly for an otherwise exceptional product, the instructional manuals included are sparse and confusing. While fully assembled, adjustments will need to be made. Better instructions would be useful for this, especially if you’re new at using a CNC machine. It also has similar issues with the touchscreen as the CNC Piranha FX.
This machine will leave you satisfied and can handle anything you throw it. The large cutting area, great software, and available support make this CNC router a home run. Be ready to search the internet for better instructional guides, but don’t let that stop you from harnessing the power of this machine.
We recommend this tool for those who know their way around a workshop and wants to improve their abilities.
5. Beauty Star DIY CNC Router Kit 2418
This is a very decent kit for a beginner because it comes with a complete software package. It also comes with all the hardware you need, so there’s no need to shop for power supplies or palm routers. It’s relatively easy to assemble and has a larger cutting area than some other machines in this price range.
Not so Good
While the assembly itself is not difficult, the instructions are not very helpful. There are plenty of helpful video tutorials online, however. The software documentation is also lacking, but we didn’t have any issues finding what we needed online.
The ToolsFirst team found this to run more or less neck in neck with our budget pick, the MySweety DIY CNC Router Kit 1610. The extra required research to assemble it, however, is a major downside.
On the other hand, if you’re looking at doing very simple projects and appreciate the larger cutting area, this may be a better pick for you, especially if you don’t mind relying on YouTube tutorials for the initial assembly. You can get some serious results out of this little guy if you appreciate its limits.
It’s also worth noting that the hardware is very high quality for the price, and if you were to truly “DIY” and buy everything ala carte, it would be significantly pricier.
Is it worth buying a more expensive CNC router?
Whether you should spend more depends on your current skill set, your desire to research, and of course, the scope of the projects you’re planning to work on. If you have the tech and mechanical skills already, you can do a lot more with less.
There are some consistent themes you’re going to come across when you move up or down in price range. We found that higher priced machines are typically pre-assembled and have more thorough software included. There’s no doubt that these pros are worth the money.
However, if you are great at tinkering and you have in-depth software knowledge, you don’t necessarily need them, and you might prefer to spend your budget on a larger cutting area, for example.
What is your goal?
Versatility is another point in favor of higher priced machines, and not just regarding project size. The type of material and the depths of cuts possible might matter to you. On the other hand, if you’re working with simple, small wood projects for your Etsy shop, you don’t need a massive machine.
Finally, look at what is really included when it comes to purchasing a kit. What might seem like a great price at the outset might not be so great when you factor in having to buy a router, power supply, and many different essential bits.
Moreover, don’t forget about shipping. These are heavy machines with big components, and the shipping prices can drastically affect the bottom line. The more expensive CNC router for woodworking may in fact be a steal if the shipping price is less than a competitor’s.
What to consider when buying a CNC router?
We firmly believe in doing your research before investing in a tool. That’s why we put so much effort into finding the best tools! However, no tool is one-size-fits-all, so the first step of your research is knowing what you personally need in your CNC router.
The size of your projects is going to be one of the first ways to weed out the machines that won’t work. Other issues, like material, can be worked around with replacement parts in some cases.
However, if the cutting area isn’t there, it’s just not there. So, the first thing you’ll want to do is narrow down your cutting area size requirements. Note that this isn’t the same thing as table size, so be sure to double check.
The second issue is your current skill set. Can you teach yourself from scratch if you don’t know what you’re doing? If that’s something you enjoy, then there are many machines for you. However, if you’re going to become quickly frustrated and not use your tool as a result, then shop around for friendlier CNC routers. You know yourself better than we do. Plug and play setups are very different from bare-bones setups when it comes to user experience.
Types of Projects
Size isn’t the only limitation regarding project types and picking the right CNC router. You’ll also want to consider how much versatility you need in terms of material. If you are exclusively going to sculpt wood, maybe this doesn’t matter. However, many woodworking CNC routers also handle plastics, acrylics, and soft metals well. If you have any interest in pursuing these types of projects, look for a machine that is suitable for this without much modification.
Finally, compatibility. For the most part, you’ll be able to find software compatible with your current laptop or desktop, but it’s by no means a given. You want to double-check that your router will integrate with your operating system.
The most popular operating systems are:
What do the “X axis, Y axis, and Z axis” mean in product descriptions?
These axes refer to the cutting area available. The X-axis is the length of the cutting area. The Y-axis is perpendicular to the X-axis. The Z-axis refers to the depth of the cutting area, or how deeply you can cut into the project.
Is a CNC router for woodworking a good investment?
The answer to this is two-fold.
First, you can do much more with a CNC router for woodworking than you can without it, so in that sense, yes. It will certainly elevate your skill, and the types of projects you can turn out. Once you know how to use it, it will also save you massive amounts of time. In terms of precision and scope, a quality CNC router and well-tuned software are simply unmatched.
Second, you’ll find that some traditionalists suggest you learn to do as much by hand as possible before moving on to higher tech options. While this is a nice idea, it’s also an extremely expensive prospect. At $5,000 to $8,000, fully outfitting a woodworking shop with lower-tech tools isn’t cheap. Moreover, with the affordability of today’s CNC woodworking routers, why do that? Especially when, after learning to do it all by hand, you’ll probably still want a CNC router for complex projects and speed.
Do I have to know how to write software code to use a CNC router?
Not anymore. This used to be the case at one time. Today, however, user interfaces are improving at an exponential rate, and this sort of knowledge is by no means a necessity.
You will, however, need to either familiarize yourself with plug and play software, or research what software will suit your needs and skill level. Basic Google skills and knowing how to download software and view how-to videos will be as intense as this process gets.
Are software and patterns expensive?
While they can be, there’s an absolute wealth of free and cheap open source software, patterns, and more available online. We suggest you browse forums or Facebook groups to help find these.
Wrapping it up
You now have a deeper understanding of what affects a CNC router for woodworking’s cost, associated learning curves, and other features.
When taking all these things into consideration, we found the CNC Piranha FX to be a fantastic all-around investment for the hobbyist and more professional user alike.
With its relatively generous cutting area, plug and play software, and pre-assembly, it combines the best of all worlds for users.