For many woodworkers, their first CNC is a small model that doesn’t cost a lot and hopefully offers a short learning curve. These are collectively called desktop, benchtop or portable units, but there are some differences between those categories. The words desk and bench are fairly interchangeable and are most often used just to differentiate scale (benchtop units being slightly larger). But portable CNCs are becoming a term unto their own. Just because a CNC is small enough to carry doesn’t make it portable anymore.
One of the most talked-about products at the 2019 AWFS Fair in Las Vegas was the Yeti Smartbench (yetismartbench.com), and this looks like the future of ‘portable’ CNC machines. It can machine a full 4’ x 8’ sheet, and travel 6” vertically, too. Other truly portable jobsite CNCs include the remarkable Shaper Origin (shapertools.com), and the versatile Handibot from ShopBot Tools (shopbottools.com).
While those ingenious machines are taking CNC milling to the jobsite, there is also a whole range of small, more stationary units that are described by their manufacturers as ‘desktop’ models. These are generally designed for prototyping, very short production runs, and the machining of unique but quite small items.
Desktop CNCs are generally quite affordable, and that makes them especially attractive to hobbyists, small professional shops, schools or colleges, and artists who design one-off projects that often incorporate other media such as plastics and soft metals. Some desktop CNCs can be switched from routing to laser cutting or engraving. Most are fairly easy to program and use, and many offer the option of using an over-the-counter portable router as the motor, rather than a dedicated spindle.
Companies that manufacture desktop units are often at the forefront of CNC technology, and many of their innovations eventually become mainstream in larger machines. Take, for example, the new Virtual Zero Unlimited software from Next Wave Automation (nextwaveautomation.com) in Perrysburg, Ohio. The program lets a woodworker map the entire surface of a board when it is placed on one of the company’s Shark or Piranha brand desktop CNCs. This eliminates problems caused by even slightly warped or bowed material, and also allows a user to maintain a constant cutting depth on oddly or intricately shaped projects. The latest Shark model, the HD5, also comes with Ready2Control software on board (the package simplifies machine operations) and, in the spirit of desktop flexibility, it can use either a 2-1/4-hp standard router or Next Wave’s water-cooled spindle.
Another name that’s familiar to small-format CNC enthusiasts is Axiom Precision (axiomprecision.com), which recently purchased Iconic CNC (iconiccnc.com). Iconic makes the X Series desktop router that the company touts as a “plug-and-play solution for production, as a creative tool, or simply as a hobby in your workshop”. It comes with a 20” x 15” work area, a 3.5” Z range (up and down), and VCarve software.
While one core aspect of desktop CNCs is their small size, that doesn’t mean they’re not as tough as their big brothers. For example, the new Desktop Max ATC from ShopBot Tools is an exceptionally robust machine, and it even comes with an optional automatic tool changer (ATC), just like the big boys. The ATC quickly and robotically changes cutters between tool paths, and that eliminates the need to change and zero tools individually. The machine has a 36” x 24” work area (that’s just about the limit for a ‘desktop’ machine), and it’s available with two different decks.
The first of these is an aluminum general purpose deck that comes with an attached MDF spoil-board. Because the Desktop MAX ATC is completely open underneath and the aluminum deck can be partially or completely removed (it’s a series of interlocking small planks), a woodworker can add widely available aftermarket dovetailing or end-milling attachments. The other deck option has a universal vacuum hold-down kit that includes a plywood plenum, MDF spoil-board, and ShopBot’s Vacuube, a plenum that works well for holding large parts like panels or flat doors without needing screws, nylon nails or tabs.
By the way, ShopBot recently came up with a new way for woodworkers to get their hands on a desktop CNC. It’s a subscription program (not a lease) that provides woodworkers with the tool plus everything required to make it work, for a monthly fee. This is kind of a partnership where woodshops can get new or good-as-new tools, and the company will continuously refurbish and recycle the equipment. There’s a minimum three-month commitment, and after that a shop can trade up, trade down, or cancel the subscription at any time.
Irvine, Calif. is home to Laguna Tools (lagunatools.com), which has long been a source for both traditional and automated woodworking machinery. The company’s CNC division offers the IQ series that features a heavy-duty frame and hand-held controls. There’s a basic model (the IQ) and an upgraded version (the IQ Pro) that includes a three-position automatic tool changer that uses ISO-20 tool holders. The workspace on both machines is 24” x 36”, and they sport an industrial-grade, 3-hp, liquid-cooled, electro-spindle.
Based in Cartersville, Ga., CAMaster Inc. (camaster.com) offers both full-size and desktop machines, so their engineering leans more toward production values than some smaller machines on the market that are specifically designed just to prototype. The company’s Stinger series of desktop CNCs offers several models and sizes, each constructed with a welded steel frame and high-precision bearings with hardened steel rails.
The catalog from Baileigh Industrial (baileigh.com) in Manitowoc, Wis. includes the Desktop CNC Engraver, model DEM 2720, with a 20” x 30” work area and a 4” Z stroke (its vertical ability). It comes with software and tooling included. It’s also laser engraver ready, so a woodworker can swap out the spindle for an optional laser that is sold separately. For woodworkers who already own some tooling, this machine comes with an ER-11- 4.0 mm collet.
Vision Engraving & Routing Systems (visionengravers.com) in Phoenix provides a full catalog of desktop to full-size machines. The latest addition is the 1624R, which comes with a 16” x 24” aluminum t-slot table to accommodate various work-holding fixtures, a red laser pointer for easy job set-up, a Series 5 controller with a V-Touch pendant, and an optional Raster Braille Inserter for automatic Braille bead insertion.
The California manufacturer Carbide 3D (carbide3d.com) makes three very inexpensive desktop CNC machines in its Shapeoko line, and the company has just added a new router motor that fits all three models. The new Carbide Compact Router comes as just the motor (no base) with a 1/4” collet and two sets of replacement brushes, all for just $80. It’s variable speed and the range runs from 12,000 to 30,000 rpm. The smallest Shapeoko has a work area of 16” x 16” x 3”, and the top of the line XXL model can handle parts up to 33” x 33” x 3”. For woodworkers with no experience in this area, the package also includes a crash course in CNC and the company’s Create 2D CAD/CAM design software.
The selection at Velox CNC (veloxcncrouters.com) in Orange, Calif. includes models starting at 24” x 24” all the way up to a full 5’ x 10’. The company says its desktop CNCs “have the power to rough out deep cuts on hard woods and yet still are accurate to one-fifth of the thickness of a human hair.”
The BT1212 benchtop CNC router from Techno CNC Systems (technocnc.com) in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. includes a 1-hp router, full safety enclosure, aluminum t-slot table and brushless stepper motors and drives. It comes with Techno’s popular hand-held controller. The machine is ideal for small part production, prototyping, model making, engraving, signage and educational applications. Techno also just introduced the HD II, which is a compact version of a full-scale CNC system that has a 20″ x 34″ process area, with 7-1/2″ gantry clearance and a 9-1/2″ Z-axis stroke. It comes standard with a 2-hp HSD high frequency collet spindle, and a vacuum t-slot table.
Pasadena, Texas is home to LHR Technologies and its CarveWright line (carvewright.com), which offers the new CX model. It looks like a lunchbox planer, and because it’s open-ended it can handle material of essentially any length. The CNC package also offers scanning and woodturning options. This machine is known for a short learning curve and it comes with simple to use drag-and-drop software. CarveWright also has more than 7,000 patterns and projects in its library that woodworkers can download and create.
Digital Wood Carver (digitalwoodcarver.com) in Martinsville, Ind. has a very active user group, and the company is noted for its customer support. The catalog includes a few variations on its 24” x 40” x 5” model (including 3- and 4-axes packages), plus a basic 18” x 24” model intended for carving. Most of the kits include the machine, VCarve or Aspire software, and a vacuum system.
Romaxx CNC Systems (romaxxcncrouters.com) in Redfield, Mich. offers three desktop CNCs – the WD-1 (handles work up to 25” wide, 8-1/2” tall and any length); the WD-2 (32” x 30” x 6”); and the HS-1 (up to 14” wide, 4.4” tall and any length).
Winder, Ga. is home to Probotix (probotix.com), which offers four desktop models that range from 25” x 25” to a whopping 37” x 50” workspace. A woodshop can choose between supplying its own spindle, or adding either an air-cooled or water-cooled one from the company.
EzRouter (ez-router.com) now offers a tabletop version of its commercial-duty Mini CNC that can be ordered with tables up to 40” x 40”.
Maslow (maslowcnc.com) is a community driven open source project that has developed a large (4’ x 8’) CNC cutting machine. While obviously not a desktop CNC, it is extremely affordable (about $500), has a small footprint, and is essentially shop-built. Plus, it works with both Mac and Windows.
Built in the U.S., the ShopSabre 23 (shopsabre.com) has the rigid build of an industrial CNC machine and a 30” x 40” worktable. It is designed with industrial ball screws on every axis and is equipped with the ShopSabre control system.
Zenbot (zenbotcnc.com) offers five very basic and affordable CNC models from 16” x 24” all the way up to full sheet capacity. And the Chinese company Omio CNC (omiocnc.com) offers 11 models of desktop engravers/CNCs.
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.