Computer numerical control, or CNC, is the technology behind the intricate cutting and drilling in modern manufacturing. CNC technology uses automation to follow precise instructions along all three axes—x, y, and z—and complete tasks that a worker could not do by hand. CNC lathes and mills have long been the province of commercial and industrial sectors; however, today, even hobbyists can build CNC machines of their own for woodworking and other creative projects that call for more than manual shaping. If you’ve wondered what you need for a CNC machine of your own, here are a few important items on the checklist.
The workhorse of a CNC machine is its spindle, which holds the tool as the computer program instructs it. When it comes to choosing a motor to power your spindle, you’ll want one that’s built for delicate and precise movements. This means either a stepper motor or a servomotor. While a stepper motor can be sufficient for most hobbyists, a servomotor allows even greater control of your tool than a stepper does.
Some CNC operators may be able to work along only two axes: x and z. To introduce the y-axis and work in all three dimensions, you’ll need to install a gantry or a bridge that runs across the cutting table. This will give your CNC tool the maximum range of motion.
Once you build your cutting table and install your spindle, you’ll need to tell the spindle what to do. Consumer CNC software will allow you to program your instructions. AutoCAD is the most popular CNC software on the market, but with its considerable learning curve, you may not be ready to immediately shell out for this program. While you learn the ropes, Google Sketchup provides an acceptable free alternative so that once you feel ready, you can upgrade to a true CAD/CAM program.
More than any hardware, software, or heavy equipment, what you need for a CNC machine is the patience to pick up your new hobby. If you’ve never programmed in G-Code before, or you’ve never had to worry about finding the right motor, you could find yourself feeling demoralized. But with the patience to see your hobby through, the possibilities of what you can create with your new CNC machine are virtually endless.