All You Need to Know About CNC Routing and Its Process

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We’ve provided plenty of articles discussing cutting materials with a CNC laser, but some materials are better suited to being cut with different tooling. Just as CNC lasers come in sizes ranging from desktop to full industrial, CNC routers have followed a similar path. From hobbyist machines using simple woodworking palm routers at home, to industrial sized machines that can handle full sized sheets of material and more, CNC routing is a popular way to cut material.

SendCutSend offers CNC routing as a service, which allows us to offer materials that cut better with a router than a laser. For more information, read on.

What Are The Benefits of CNC Routing? 

Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of cutting on a CNC router.

  • Lower Cost – A CNC router works similar to a CNC milling machine but on softer materials. In general a CNC router is significantly less expensive than a mill which is an advantage for hobbyists and businesses like SendCutSend. We’re able to cut materials on the CNC router for less cost and pass those savings along.
  • Large Bed – While there are smaller machines, the large working area on bigger machines allows them to process full sheets of raw material at a time. This allows them to cut bigger parts or higher numbers of small parts without having to reload additional material as often, improving productivity. 
  • 2.5D and 3D Capability – Some machines have sufficient travel in the z-axis to do more than just 2-dimensional cutting. This can allow a lot of useful blind depth cuts in woodworking that aren’t possible with a CNC laser cutter, like flattening surfaces, counterbored holes, dados, rabbets. Even v-carved letter engraving and low reliefs can be machined using a CNC router. At the time of writing this article, SendCutSend does not offer these capabilities.
  • Versatile Tooling – Just like a handheld router, a CNC router can accept a variety of router bits. V-bits, flattening bits, chamfer bits, roundovers, etc. The list is even longer when you consider specialty bits meant for single purposes. Some machine tooling, such as end mills can be used in certain routers. Even straight bits for simple cutting come in a near infinite number of styles such as straight flutes, spiral upcut and downcut flutes, compression bits, single flute vs multiple flutes, and on and on.
  • Scalable – CNC routers come in all sizes, from desktop machines for home use to machines with beds measured in feet like those used by SendCutSend.
  • Precision and Speed – Being computer controlled means cuts are very precise, reliable and repeatable, along with being significantly faster compared to a manual router and even a CNC mill.

CNC Routing Process: How Does CNC Router Machines Work?

CNC routers can be made from all varieties of materials, from plywood to aluminum extrusion to bespoke cast components. The layout typically consists of a similar set of parts. Let’s take a brief look at the main components that make up a common CNC router.

CNC Router Parts

  1. Bed/Table 

The bed or table is the work surface of a CNC router. It’s where the material is placed to be cut. Often the bed contains clamping features to secure the material as it’s being cut. Unlike a CNC milling machine, the bed on a CNC router is usually made from something like MDF. This is so it can be easily resurfaced flat, as full depth cuts in material can run the tool into the table surface slightly. The bed on a CNC router is considered a wear surface and gets replaced as needed.

  1. User Interface

The electronic interface for the machine may be as simple as a laptop or desktop computer running the appropriate software, or it may be a dedicated computer built into the machine with a dedicated control panel or touch screen. In either case, this is where the user loads the g-code files to send to the machine. This is also where individual commands can be entered to perform functions like jogging axes, setting up home positions and possibly even tooling changes.

  1. Computer Controller

As with any CNC machine, a computer controller and motor drivers are used to translate the software g-code tool paths into electronic signals for the motors. 

  1. Motor(s)

To actually get the machine to move, motors are used. Stepper motors are most commonly used for their accuracy and low cost, while higher end machines may use servo motors for more consistent control with feedback. They can drive pulleys connected to belts, ball screws, or some machines use a rack and pinion style drive system.

  1. Gantry

Most CNC router machines are built using a gantry. Usually the router or spindle is attached to a vertically moving section (z-axis) that runs horizontally along the gantry (x-axis). The entire gantry moves longitudinally (y-axis) to cover the working area.

  1. Spindle/router

The part of a CNC router that holes the holds and spins the tooling is the router or for more heavy duty setups it may be a dedicated spindle (more on that below). Depending on the size of the machine, the router/spindle can range from smaller commercial palm routers to multiple kilowatt, and even liquid cooled spindles.

  1. Tooling

We discussed tooling above and the wide range of types of tooling available. The tool or bit is the swappable part that does the actual cutting. It was barely an exaggeration to say there’s a near infinite number of different styles of tools available. Different materials have unique needs, such as more or less flutes. The direction of the flutes, whether straight, up, down or both can be used to influence chipping of the edges around a cut. Different coatings can be used to help control heat and tool life.

CNC Router vs Spindle

A router usually refers to the handheld woodworking power tool. It’s little more than an electric motor with a collet chuck on one end. They are often used in hobby sized CNC routers because they are inexpensive and easy to source. They provide plenty of power for cutting soft materials like wood and plastics. Some people even cut thin pieces of aluminum with them.

A spindle is effectively the same thing, but in a heavier duty form. Where a router typically fits into a base for hand operation, a spindle is meant to be clamped or bolted onto a machine. They will usually have more power, bigger stiffer bearings and better cooling for longer life compared to a router. This makes spindles the better choice for CNC routers beyond occasional use. If you’re making parts in your garage a router should be just fine. If you’re running a business doing CNC routing, you’ll want a dedicated spindle.

What Materials Can Be Cut With a CNC Router?

As we mentioned above, CNC routers are similar to CNC mills, but for softer materials. Woods, both hard and soft, are great for routing. Plastics and composites can usually be cut using the right bits. With the right machine and settings, soft metals aren’t out of the question if you don’t have a better tool for the job. Cutting harder metals like steel is possible with a CNC router, but requires a very rigid setup, the right RPM and tooling. It can be done, but there’s usually a better option (like laser cutting).

Here at SendCutSend, we have a selection of tools and always use the best option for the parts and materials you send in. Polycarbonate for example, doesn’t leave as clean an edge using a laser, so we use our CNC routers. We use our CNC routers to cut these materials.

Achieve Better Finished Edge and Higher Parts Quality with SendCutSend 

CNC routing can be a great way to cut soft materials like woods and plastics. It offers excellent precision at a relatively low cost. You can buy or build your own CNC router for generally less than a small laser.

If the amount of parts you’ll make doesn’t justify your own machine, or you just don’t want to invest the time to learn how to use a new machine, SendCutSend is here to help. With our years of experience and wide library of materials in stock, we can cut your parts quickly and efficiently. If you want to learn more about CNC routing with SendCutSend visit our guidelines page.

FAQs Around CNC Routing 

What Is The Difference Between a CNC Router and a Laser Cutter?

Both a laser cutter and a CNC router use computer controlled motors to drive a tool along predetermined tool paths defined in a g-code file. The difference is that with a laser the tool is a focused beam of light used to burn or vaporize the working material. With a CNC router, the tool is a spinning cutting bit. A laser can vary its power, while a router can vary its RPM.

How Does a CNC Router Compare to a CNC Milling Machine?

They work similarly, with a tool like an endmill mounting in a spinning motor. Both typically drive the tool in 3 axes. The big difference is CNC routers are more often used in soft materials like woods and plastics and CNC mills are used more for cutting metal. This is because a CNC router typically doesn’t have the same rigidity that a mill does. There’s often a tradeoff with a CNC router that gives up rigidity to save cost, but you gain bed size to cut larger materials.

Do I Need Special Software to Create Designs for a CNC Router?

Yes and no. The software you use to create the design isn’t any different that what you might use for a laser cut design. You define the shape using a vector file. This can be done in a number of different software packages like Illustrator, Inkscape, Fusion 360, SolidWorks, etc. See our guidelines for more details on designing for CNC routing.

If you’re the one running the CNC router yourself, you’ll need CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) software to turn your design into g-code instructions. Fusion 360 is a great free option for both design and CAM. We’ve covered this in a lot more detail in other article about laser cutting design software and what is CNC machining.

Do I get to pick my cutting method with SendCutSend?

At this time, SendCutSend will pick the best cutting method based on material, thickness, design and several other factors. On each material page we list which cutting machine we typically use for that material. This can help guide you in setting up your file properly if you know which machine your material will be cut on.

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We proudly use hardware by PEM

Flush Standoff, 4-40, .250" Zinc plus Clear Chromate

Aluminum: 5052, 6061, 7075 Steel: Mild, G30

Thread Size4-40 x .250″
Hole size in sheet (+0.003/-.0.000).168″
Minimum sheet thickness0.040″
Maximum sheet thickness.125″
Fastener materialSteel
Minimum distance hole C/L to edge0.230″
When determining the distance between two or more fasteners, you can calculate the distance by the formula, C/L to edge + 1/2 the diameter of the second mounting hole..345″
Recommended panel materialSteel/Aluminum
Coating typeZinc
Aluminum material ranges (5052, 6061, 7075)0.040″-0.125″
Steel material ranges (CRS, HRPO, HR)0.048″-0.119″

We proudly use hardware by PEM

Flush Standoff, 4-40, .250" Passivated

Stainless Steel: 304, 316

Thread Size440
Hole size in sheet (+0.003/-.0.000).166″
Minimum sheet thickness0.04″
Maximum sheet thickness.125″
Fastener material400 Stainless Steel
Minimum distance hole C/L to edge0.230″
When determining the distance between two or more fasteners, you can calculate the distance by the formula, C/L to edge + 1/2 the diameter of the second mounting hole. Example shown with x2 of the same hardware..313″
Recommended panel materialStainless Steel
Coating typePassivated
304 Stainless Steel material ranges0.048″-0.125″
316 Stainless Steel material ranges0.060″-0.125″