CNC routers are fantastic machines that can do intricate and repetitive work much faster than it would take to do it by hand. Those wanting to get in on the action usually ask themselves whether it’s better to build or buy.
Building a CNC router may cost less money than buying one, but doing so requires technical knowledge and skills and will also take much longer than buying a complete or kit-form machine. You may also run into problems along the way while designing and building your machine from scratch.
Below, I’ll discuss some of the factors you should take into account when deciding to build or buy a CNC router. By the end of this article, you should have a clear idea of which option suits you best once you weigh the information provided against your abilities, patience, and intentions.
The Differences Between Building and Buying a CNC Router
If you want to save some money by building a CNC router rather than buying one, you’re not alone. However, there are pros and cons to keep in mind.
Here’s a summary of the pros and cons you should remember when building or buying a CNC router:
Building a CNC Router
- A great choice for the Hobbyist shop
- Can be cheaper than buying a CNC router
- Customizable to your preferred size and specification
- Can be more satisfying than buying a machine
- You Are going to learn a lot about how a CNC operates
- Replacement parts are usually available online
- You can modify them to fit your growing needs
- Requires technical knowledge and expertise
- Far more time-consuming
- No after-sales support
- May not work as well as commercial machines
- Not a good choice when a business depends on CNC uptime (little or no support)
- May not include a controller box
- Will have to provide your own table for the machine to sit on
Buying a CNC Router
- Easier and faster to get working
- No designing required
- After-sales support
- More up-time
- Vendor provided training
- Usually comes with all you need (like a controller box)
- The fixed design may not suit your needs
- More expensive than building
- May have features you won’t use
- Long Shipping times
- Power and weight requirements may not fit in a hobby environment
Building a CNC Router Takes Much Longer
If you want to produce work ASAP, you may be better off buying a CNC router rather than attempting to build one.
Granted, building a CNC router has its benefits. The process of designing a machine, procuring all the parts, and putting them all together can be a very satisfying experience. After all, nothing beats the feeling of being able to say: “Wow, I built that by myself!”
However, building a CNC router from scratch can take six months or more, depending on how much time and energy you can spend on the project. You might also find that the parts you need aren’t readily available, which can add to the costs if you have to get them shipped. You may also encounter unforeseen problems along the way, necessitating redesign or modifications.
The best way to approach building a CNC router is with a good measure of patience. If you aren’t in a hurry to get up and running and want the satisfaction of building it yourself then, building it might be for you.
Designing Your CNC Router Is a Process in Itself
Arguably, the design process is the most challenging part of building a CNC router. You’ll have to either find a design online or start from scratch and create your own if you have the technical expertise to do so.
Here are some of the critical parts you need to consider when designing a CNC router:
- The size of your router: You may have more flexibility in terms of size when designing your own router, either a small tabletop job or a more ambitiously sized, freestanding router.
- The linear drive system: Either you’ll need to choose an appropriately sized set of lead screws or opt for a sturdier rack and pinion system. This also includes rails needed for movement. You might be interested in my article What Size Lead Screw Does a CNC Router Need?
- The stepper motors: These will have to be strong and fast enough to move the weight of the moving parts at acceptable speeds.
- The gantry: This assembly will have to be sturdy enough to withstand the forces of the operation without deforming.
- The spindle: The heart of your CNC machine that drives your cutting bits needs to be powerful enough to cut your desired material. You might be interested in my article CNC Router Motor vs. Spindle: Which Is Better?
- The controller: This is used to receive G-Code and translate it to machine code commands that operate the stepper motors and will require some electronics knowledge to get the correct response from your setup.
- The table: This is used for holding and securing your workpieces.
- CAM (Computer Controled Manufacturing) Software: Another thing to think about is the CAM software you will use. Somehow you will need to generate G-Code that will feed into your controller and drive the Stepper Motors. I currently use Vectric V-Carve Pro software, but there are many other free options to get you started.
Even if you have an excellent working knowledge of design, you may encounter a significant challenge selecting the right parts or getting your computer to deliver the correct commands to your motors. You can ask for help from someone who’s more knowledgeable in electrical engineering, of course; but, there’s a risk that person may not be too familiar with CNC routers.
Building a CNC router is a formidable undertaking, and you may not be able to replicate the quality of a commercially-built machine even if you’re highly skilled. If your goal is to use it for manufacturing goods, it may be best to simply buy a commercial CNC router.
CNC Router Kits: The Best of Both Worlds?
If you want to save on costs, you might consider one of the many kit CNC routers available. This will preclude the need to design the machine and do all the calculations, not to mention the headaches you might get from sourcing the parts and getting everything to work together properly.
CNC router kits come with all the correct parts you need to build the router, and you may also get some after-sales support. Moreover, this option is typically cheaper than buying a built-up machine but comes with its own potential downsides. Kits can usually be assembled in anywhere from a couple of days to a few weeks, depending on your skill and the complexity of the kit.
If you shop around for CNC router kits, you may notice that they’re mostly on the smaller side of things. If you want to go bigger, you have to either take the time to design your own or save up for a commercially-built machine of the size you desire.
For example, you can easily grab a BobsCNC Quantum CNC Router Kit from Amazon.com. It already comes with a controller and a Makita router, though you will have to assemble it yourself. I like that the color gives it a woodsy feel — minus the lack of durability from wood, of course. I have had no direct experience with BobsCNC but they are highly spoken of for the beginner hobbyist.
Other kits I am familiar with (no affiliate links here – just honest opinions):
- Queen Bee CNC This is my current machine
- Avid CNC Good choice for Home use Industrial grade machines.
- Build Your Own CNC Plywood based but very well engineered
- Openbuilds Several open-source kits are available as well as accessories and free software.
Buy a CNC Router for the Best Results
Ultimately, if you want a perfect cut with your CNC router, it’s best to leave the designing and manufacturing to the professionals. A reputable manufacturer will offer unparalleled quality and after-sales service that you won’t get even if you opt for a kit machine.
Commercially manufactured CNC routers are more expensive than building your own, but if you don’t have the time to tinker and want to have an accurate cut from the outset, then you shouldn’t compromise.
CNC router kits and self designed CNC routers are often made out of Aluminum extrusions. This is strong enough for most hobbyist requirements. If you own a business and are looking at a commercial CNC machine, you will quickly notice that they are made from welded steel and are very ridgid. This is ideal for the quick turn-around jobs needed for comercial production. You will also quickly notice the HUGE price difference.
It’s often said that you get what you pay for, and this is definitely true for CNC routers. So, if you do decide to buy a complete machine, make sure you get one from a good manufacturer. This will ensure that you aren’t left high and dry if you ever need any spare parts or information when you run into problems down the line.
I don’t have any direct experience with the larger commercial CNC machines but I have been following a few as my interest in CNC routers has grown. Check some of these out and decide for yourself if one fits your needs. Again, no affiliate links, just some good recommendations.
- Legacy Machining Seems to be a smaller company but has a lot to offer.
- Laguna Woodworking Tools This is a big company with lots to offer.
Designing and building a CNC machine will take a lot longer than buying one, so if you can’t set aside a few months for the process of designing and building your dream CNC router, you’re better off spending the extra money on something that will work out of the box.
A predesigned kit is another option that may cost more than your own design but will be shipped to you all ready to put together. You will still learn a lot about how the CNC works but will get to cutting much faster.
If you own a business, time is your most precious resource. If you have a dream project or business idea, investing that extra bit of cash in a commercial machine will give you better results in the long run and save you from potential headaches you might encounter when trying to build your own.