New to CNC. Looking for advice

Hello all,

I am posting on behalf of my father who is a sign artist & has asked me if I knew any information regarding a CNC Machine. He would like to use a CNC Machine to cut through PVC high density foam and detailed wood carvings. Aside from the many chinese off-brand miniature CNC’s, Shapeoko seems to be the most beginner friendly and offers great support. Before considering the Shapeoko 3, I would like to know if anyone had any information on what size I should consider and anything I should buy with it & where-- (bits, clamps, etc…) Right now I plan on purchasing the Makita router. I would greatly appreciate any help I can get!

Hi @HenryH22,

I see you already found one of the many threads where people show the great signs they have been making, so no need to convince you that signs and the Shapeoko are very compatible.

The question about size really depends on the type of signs you would be making, but my feeling is:

  • the Shapeoko3 would turn out to be too small/narrow. This is the model I have, and while it’s great for many things, I think signs are usually larger than its typical work area (about ~16x14" inside the machine)
  • The ShapeokoXXL is four times that
  • …but signs tend to be more rectangular than square, so probably a ShapeokoXL would work fine, and for the Y directory size you can always do tiling (one any of the models) and have “infinite” Y work area

Bits: I have a small section about that in the ebook here, but for signs in PVC & wood carving, I would primarily get one of the sign-making starter packs of single flute Amana tools that C3D sells, and a couple of V-bits for the wood carving. You can of course buy cutter in many other places, but I would advise to not go too cheap on bits, learning feeds and speeds with mediocre cutters is not a fun experience (don’t ask me how I know)

Clamps: making your own is a typical rite of passage, but you could also consider the Gator tooth clamps from the C3D store, people have only had good things to say about them here (I don’t have them, so don’t take my word for it)

Note that you will need to install a supplementary wasteboard on top of the machine’s MDF baseboard, so get some 3/4" MDF sheets to be ready to make one. You can’t really cut anything without one (especially as a beginner…mistakes happen)

Next up is dust collection, which you will realize pretty quickly is mandatory. There are MANY solutions, but basically the first step would be to get a cyclone dust separator (DustDeputy or any knock-off, really, they just work) to put between your shopvac and the machine’s dust shoe…which there are many types of. You’ll get a Sweepy with the machine so that should be enough to start and take the time to look into your long-term options.

The rest…you will discover as you go.

EDIT: obviously you’ll need a PC or Mac to run the machine too, something that is compatible with a dusty shop…


Thank you so much for the thoughtful reply! I appreciate it, especially for a beginner like myself. I will consider everything you suggested, and I’ll most certainly take a look at your eBook!

one other suggestion, as silly as it sounds, is take a tape measure to some of the existing signs made

just to get an idea of what sizes are typical


Ask your father if he’s ready to spend upwards from $2,000. Perhaps not all at once, but eventually.


Wow this eBook is an incredible resource! I know what I’ll be doing this weekend…


I wouldn’t call myself a professional sign maker. I do have a Shapeoko XXL and cut a lot of wood, though. Feel free to pm me, I would be happy to discuss anything. As always, I am an open book.

Cue shameless self promotion in 3, 2, 1…
A monkey gets his hands on a Shapeoko (Regularly Updated)


Of course, he’s prepared & I told him that we would need to make a table to set up the Shapeoko on. He’s somewhat tech-savvy, so he’s aware.

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Well, use your time now to get prepared for when you do get a machine, and build that table with this as the main structure. You’ll have really good results later.

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Thanks, I appreciate all the help I can get. Do you know if I should consider the Z Axis? I will probably go with the XL or XXL based on what people are suggesting for sign making. There also doesn’t seem to be a very active market for used Shapeoko machines, either.

My take on the Z-axis options:

  • belt-drive Z — works surprisingly well (I actually was planning a lead screw upgrade when I first got my machine, but never bothered once I got the belt tensioned correctly)
  • Z-Plus — easier for folks who have difficulty tensioning the Z-Plus (which is much easier now with M4 Z-axis tension bolt) — great value
  • HDZ — the delux option — may be worth getting for the additional travel on X alone.

Thank you!
I may end up purchasing the XXL with no upgrades nor options, then. As soon as I get it & assemble it, I plan on making a wasteboard like many others suggest and use clamps to tighten any wood work or acrylic I may use.

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It’s always nice to start with the basics. @Julien covered everything I would have said. I like to put extra emphasis on Bits! The more I try the more I want! As for the Z axis, I love my HDZ but I ran for a while with the belt drive and it worked perfectly.

What made you upgrade to the HDZ? I wasn’t sure if I should upgrade to it or not, I really don’t see why other than it may perform better from what I read.

@HenryH22, forget the upgrades for now. None of them are plug-and-play. You’ll have your hands full just getting the machine assembled and squared and flat.

Go slow. Take your time. All will be revealed to you in time. :smiley:


Yep, I’ll second Tex,

Get the basic machine first and learn how to use it and what you (your father) wants to use it for, then you’ll find out what’s important to you and whether any of the possible upgrades are the right thing for you.

I’ve machined some pretty big chunks of birch ply and hardwood ply on a standard XXL and been fine with it. And plastics, acrylic, hardwoods etc.

You’ll also want to figure out where to put it, do you have a bench big enough, are you going to build one, do you want an enclosure over the top, do you want to fit dust extraction (yes, you do) etc. etc.


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