Do Handheld Router Bits Work in a CNC router – What Must You Know


Woodworkers using traditional handheld routers are finding a new world of opportunities as CNC wood routers become more affordable and more available.  The precision control and ability to do intricate work at incredible speeds make CNC routing an attractive upgrade for many woodworker’s shops.  The question many woodworkers have is, “Can I use my regular router bits in the CNC machine?”

Most regular router bits are useable in CNC wood routing machines. That collection of router bits that have accumulated in your shop over the years are adaptable and useable in your CNC machine. The router bit design should remove wood fast enough to cope with the high-load demands of some CNC wood routing machines.

Most regular router bits will work when paired with a CNC wood routing machine.  We’ll discuss differences between hand routing and CNC routing, as well as the critical things to have in a router bit that will work well in a CNC router.  Many of those bits stored in your cabinet are well suited to your CNC machine when paired with a little knowledge.

Can You Use Regular Router Bits in a CNC Machine?

In general, if the router bits in your collection cut clean and easy when you are using your handheld router, they will continue to do so when installed in a CNC router.  There are some caveats that you should understand and some preferred types and styles of regular router bits that work better with a CNC woodworking router.

Several factors can decide whether one of your regular handheld router bits is compatible with your CNC woodworking router. 

  • The Number of Cutting Edges – Handheld router bit designs that allow the removal of a lot of wood quickly are better suited to CNC wood routing.  Typically, those bits having two cutting edges are more suitable. However, as the diameter of the bit gets larger, the number of cutting edges may increase as well.
  • Shank Size – Many home and hobby sized CNC woodworking routers come equipped with routers that use a one-quarter inch bit shank.  The smaller shank size can limit the number of options when using bits you have been using in your handheld router.  Most fixed-table and plunge-style handheld routers used in woodshops require a one-half inch shank.  There is also a much wider variety of bits available for half-inch shanks.
  • Bit Material – The preferred material for CNC router bits is carbide.  Many router bits used by woodworkers in their handheld routers have carbide cutting edges and should work correctly in the CNC machine. 

The Cutting Edge – Router Bits and the CNC Machine

Woodworkers who use handheld routers in their shops know that the range of styles, shapes, and types of router bits is vast.  No matter what job you can envision, there is probably a router bit available that will make that cut or profile.  Versatility is the name of the game in router bits.

The router bits used in CNC machines are usually of a few specific types.  CNC routers are not often used to create intricate corner joints or to perform long edge profiling jobs.  Overall, CNC woodworking routers find their best uses in doing intricate work on panels creating intricate designs, inlays, and other decorative work.  The types of bits used for this kind of project fall into a small list.

  • V-Groove bits – V-bits are often used in CNC machines where there is lettering.  Many sign makers using a CNC woodworking router will have a range of v-bits with different angles on the shoulders of the bit for different looks on the finished product.
  • Up-Spiral Bits – Where a flat bottom on a cut is a requirement, spiral up-cutting bits are the answer.  Many traditional woodworkers who use a handheld router for doing inlay work are well acquainted with spiral up-cut bits and will find that their collection of bits will work well in their CNC wood router.
  • Ball-nosed bits – Like spiral up-cutting bits, ball-nosed bits are carving bits.  Many woodworkers like the scalloped visual effect you can achieve using a ball-nosed bit to remove material from larger areas.

CNC vs. Hand Routing – Machine and Man doing the Same Jobs

CNC, or Computer Numerical Control, pairs the power of a computer with a woodworking router’s ability to perform clean, precise cuts.  Most woodworkers have used routers in the past to perform some intricate woodworking feats.  There has always been an understanding that woodworking routers have had untapped potential.

Handheld woodworking routers typically perform a variety of projects in the workshop.

  • Profiling edges
  • Create decorative flutes
  • Cut inlays
  • Trim wood, veneers, and laminates
  • Recess hinges
  • Cut mortises
  • Flush trim edging
  • Make traditional woodworking joints

Most of these applications are doable by hand, but many of them can be tedious, especially when the pattern or profile must be repeated many times throughout a project.  Many woodworkers facing these challenges resort to building complicated jigs or patterns.  Producing these jigs and patterns is time-consuming and can be expensive in some cases.

Repeatability and Precision – The Realm of the CNC Routing Machine

Pair a router with a computer and the appropriate controls, and you bring new possibilities to the world of wood routing.  The advantages of using a CNC rather than traditional wood routing methods include:

  • Greater Precision – A good CNC woodworking router brings precision from the realm of fractions of an inch to hundredths of an inch.  Even most home or hobby CNC wood routing machines will operate with a precision that hand routing can’t match.
  • Speed – CNC woodworking routers are incredibly fast.  Once the design goes into the computer and the material is fastened securely to the worktable, the machine goes to work, leaving you free to address other parts of the project.  These machines move swiftly, taking minutes to do jobs that would often take hours when done manually.
  • Repeatability – Creating duplicates of project parts that are the same visually can be a challenge when working by hand with a router.  Even with the best jigs or patterns, the variability of the human hand and eye can be a problem.  Not so with a CNC routing machine.  Precision control can create multiple identical parts in much less time.

What the Woodworkers Say – A Survey of CNC Router Users

A quick survey of woodworkers, both professional and hobbyists, returns hundreds of comments and conversations about using regular router bits in a CNC woodworking router.  In general, the remarks and suggestions gleaned from this survey include:

  • Regular router bits get used often in CNC woodworking routers by most of the users who commented.  There seem to be many applications in CNC routing where regular bits perform well.
  • Regular router bits seem to be the choice among those users that we surveyed.  Some did respond that for some materials, they use specialty bits but for most woodworking uses, regular router bits are their choice.
  • Many comments are advising against trying to use regular router bits with bearings. Projects where a router bit with a bearing is needed are best done on a router table.
  • The main differences pointed out between regular router bits and CNC router bits is the construction of the bits.  CNC bits tend to be solid carbide, while woodworking router bits tend to have carbide inserts.

Use Those Bits – Let the Sawdust Fly

By and large, if the bits you are using in your handheld router do the job for you, they will continue to perform in your CNC router.  There are some exceptions, such as those bits having bearings.  Overall, if your router bits are sharp, have carbide cutting edges, and are two-edge designs, your collection of handheld router bits should continue to serve you well as you move into CNC wood routing.

John McCormick

I have been woodworking since being introduced to the hobby in High School. I enjoy woodworking as a hobby and would like to share some of what I have learned with the world. I have recently built a CNC router system and I have enjoyed learning this new dimension of the hobby.

Recent Posts