Woodworker researching CNC. Where is it going?

Hello. In retirement I’ve built my dream shop and am enjoying woodworking as a hobby. During my career I was involved in product development, creative design, and marketing so woodworking in retirement is a opportunity to focus my creative ideas and skills into producing items of interest to me or dive into projects that develop new skills or stretch existing ones.

Recently some of my woodworking friends have taken the plunge into CNC I have been intrigued with their projects and the potential to expand the applications of the technology. I’m now in the process of researching equipment, software, companies and processes to determine if I wish to become involved hands on, and if so what machine and software to acquire.

While I have a number of hopefully active and productive years ahead of me, I have the impression a CNC machine may be an ideal tool for continuing my woodworking hobby at a point in the future when my spouse and I downsize dramatically and I no longer have the luxury of the the large basement in my hope gives me for a full compliment of woodworking equipment.

I’ll be actively reading posts on this forum (and those of other manufacturers) in an effort to understand the capabilities of various machine options, the pros and cons of specific machines, and the experiences of users with the equipment and software providers. I’m also trying to understand how the industry, and users, see the technology evolving in the personal CNC market (as opposed to the engineering and professional market). I view it as early stage, perhaps where the PC industry was in the early 1980’s. I’d appreciate any thoughts from you who are hands on.

Inexpensive CNCs have come a long way since @edwardrford announced plans for an inexpensive CNC

and launched a Kickstarter:

EDIT: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/edwardrford/project-shapeoko-a-300-complete-cnc-machine?ref=live

and Bart Dring launched MakerSlide:


Since then the Shapeoko has gone through 4 iterations (5 if you count the Pro separate from the 4, 6 if you include the HDM) and Carbide 3D had a very successful Kickstarter w/ the Nomad:


which presaged standard features such as homing switches and the tool length sensor (BitSetter) as well as integrated spindle which have since all come to the Shapeoko.

Since then a wide array of accessories, esp. for workholding have been released.

Software has come a long way from a few opensource apps, and even fewer inexpensive commercial applications — Carbide 3D making Carbide Create available not just for our machines, but free for anyone to use:


was huge, which still affects folks.

A lot of what has been released for inexpensive CNCs has been previously available for commercial machines — remaining options tend towards expensive or special-purpose to the point of obscurity.

What sort of woodworking do you wish to do? How do you wish to approach it?


In my shop I envision using it to make small parts for furniture and home accessories. I anticipate they can be cut and transformed on a CNC machine much more safely than using a table saw, band saw, or router. I may also use it for model making, again forming and embellishing small parts. Replacement parts for damaged older furniture may be formed more accurately with a CNC.

I certainly see the value of the CNC for personalizing and embellishing wooden items. There are some sign applications I can envision making for family and friends.

As for products I have some ideas for lamps and clocks as well a picture frames. I am also interested in experimenting with creating decorative wooden tiles. Creating three dimensional maps is something I wish to explore as well. Needless to say I can also see it useful for creating jigs and fixtures for my workshop.

From experience I know until you have a tool and begin using it, you won’t begin to understand its true potential.

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That all sounds workable — all of it should work well on the machine.

I’d suggest trying to draw up a part using Carbide Create, then work up toolpaths and see if the 3D preview matches what you envision.

For 3 dimensional maps see:

Thank you for the information on terrain relief models.

I’ll give Carbide Create a try. I’m a Mac user so I’m pleased there is a Mac version.

I have said it before and will continue. You are only limited by your imagination with this tool.

Good luck with your decision. We are here to help.

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I have only got a short history with CNC so far but will share what I have seen. I work in IT and have done some woodworking years ago as a hobby. About 3 years ago I started doing some simple woodworking projects in my basement with a very limited tool set. Mostly small things but did build a table as well by repurposing wood from an entertainment unit my neighbors like the top of but not the rest. I started with a very small machine about a year and a half ago just to see if it was something that I would find interesting. I bought a 3018 similar to thin one.

I lasted about 1 month before I decided I was hooked and needed something bigger. I researched a few options and within my budget was the X-Carve from inventables and the Shapeoko. I looked at reviews, tried the software for both and surfed around on the community sites for each. Shapeoko won hands down for me. I bought the Shapeoko 3 XL. I had a little trouble when I got it but Caarbide 3D was awesome getting it sorted out.
The Carbide Create software took me a little more to get my head around compared to Easel but it was way better in the long run. Also, free helped a lot. Inventables has a free version but it is not nearly as useful and it requires a network connection. I still have not bought the pro version of Carbide Create but I expect I will in the future.
I expect you will be able to do everything you want and more with a CNC. I am still slowly building up my repertoire but have done signs, cribbage boards, boxes, clocks and more.

Good luck with your research.

I have been a hobby woodworker for 45 years. Four years ago I bought a used Shapeoko 3XXL and have upgraded it. I bought it to supplement my traditional woodworking. I love it and am hooked. Since I have a traditional background in woodworking I dont try to do everything on the CNC.

To your question about where the CNC is going the current Shapeoko 4 and Pro and HDM is where the hobby CNC industry is going. Linear rails and bearings is the trajectory. I am on the Inventables forum and several others and unless you go over the $10,000.00 mark C3D has more features and options than the completion like XCarve and OneInfinity. I had a Shark for about a year but their forum is as dead as dead can be. The C3D forum is quite lively and has good content. We have everything from a complete newbie to high level engineers and software engineers that are pushing the boundries.

As far as software the Easel from Inventables seems to be ok if you like cloud applications. I personally do not like the could and that includes Fusion 360. The Vetric software is designed for hobby CNC woodworking and quite advanced. Some people like Carveco and C3d has the MeshCam. There are a lot of free programs available for if you get the software and hardware from the same OEM there is no finger pointing at the other guy when, and you will,have problems.

I am not the most advanced person on the forum but take a look at my youtube video:

I recently prepared this for a woodworking club I am a member.


Zman is right on with this comment:

Recently my wife snapped the handle off the lint screen for the dryer. A few minutes with CC and presto, a new handle was ready to cut. I don’t know what a new lint screen would have cost me but knowing her, a new dryer was on her mind. Did my SO3 save me money? Yes indeed, enough for a new fishing rod!


Thank you for your perspective. As an Apple Mac user I like a single vendor providing the hardware and key software.

The video was insightful. Thank you for sharing it.

I’m in the same boat as you–newly retired with ambitious plans in my shop. I have been a woodworker for over 20 years, started building cabinets and other furniture, then progressed into lutherie and mostly use my shop for guitar building these days. Like you, I researched the different offerings in the “hobbyist” level machines, and ended up with an XL 3. I’ve done some upgrades to it such as swapping out the z axis for one with a lead/ball screw–well worth the investment, so if you’re looking to buy, go ahead and get something with a mechanical z rather than belt drive. Shapeoko offers a bundle of options and the support is second to none. As noted, this is an active forum with many experienced members who have done just about everything imaginable with their machines.

As more woodworkers get into CNC, there is less and less “stigma” associated with owning one. I can remember the time when you were not considered a “real” woodworker if you used one, and the same goes for luthiers. Now, more and more people are adding them to their shops as a “tool” arsenal support member, and they use them for many operations that were once reserved for all the other traditional power tools as well as doing new and creative things once unimaginable to the traditional hobbyist woodworker.

What I have found, in both furniture and guitar building, is you more often than not will fall into using the CNC as a complement rather than the be-all end-all tool. That is, while it will do almost anything you can do with a table saw, band saw, router, etc., there are still operations that are much better and faster done with the traditional tools. I’ve done joinery, for instance, on my Shapeoko with good results, but set-up and other factors often make it more easily done with, say, a router table or dado blade in the table saw. The other thing to know is that with the hobby level CNC, you cannot expect to hog out lots of cavities or cut a lot of big profiles in a quick manner. These machines are not like the ones used in the commercial shops where they throw a sheet of 3/4" plywood on the bed or a 2" chunk of mahogany on the bed and in one operation cut out all the parts for a cabinet or hog out a bunch of cavities in a guitar body. The Shapeoko will do it, but it takes time, and you have to know when and when not to use the machine for best effect. As a guitar builder, I learned this early on. For instance, I rarely cut out my solid-body guitar bodies with the Shapeoko because cutting a profile into 2" of mahogany with a 1/4" endmill takes a long time and really taxes the machine. Rather, I use it to accurately place things like pickup cavities, bridge mounting holes, accurately cut neck pockets, etc., then fall back to the bandsaw and router table and templates for cutting and finishing the outline. On the other hand, cutting a neck profile and shaping the back of a neck takes time on the Shapeoko, but the precision and “repeatability” of results is worth the tradeoff. And, should I mention, that you can’t beat a CNC for precision inlay work, adding decorative accents, and cutting fret slots (which must be cut to high precision for accurate tuning).

Finally, expect (unless you have advanced computer skills or experience with other CAD programs) a steep learning curve for use of the software that creates your designs and programs the machine for doing its job (CAD/CAM). I’ve found Carbide Create suitable for really simple things like cutting shapes, v-carving signs, and adding decorative details on furniture parts. It’s a good starting CAD/CAM program and will get you up and running pretty quickly. But, if you want to do more intricate things, and especially if you get into 3-D carving, profiling, etc., you are going to want something more advanced and more suited to intricate and accurate design. Some people like the Vetric programs, and they do a good job, but at a price. I prefer Autodesk 3D 360. For now, the hobby version is free, and its capability rivals some of the highest level CAD/CAM programs that are used in large commercial shops. It interfaces well with the Shapeoko, and there is a large body of “how to” videos available on Youtube for teaching and learning. I use it for both furniture design and lutherie. It takes a while to learn all the intricacies of the design features, and CAM can also be a beast if you are doing complicated machining, but it really excels at design modeling and transferring that design into parts that can be machined on the Shapeoko. For furniture building, I particularly like the “drawing” feature that allows addition of accurate measurements for creating part cutout lists, etc.

Good luck on your retirement journey. So many people told me I would be bored in retirement, but they have been so far from wrong.


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