Blog, Woodworking / Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020

For years I have wanted to have a CNC (computer numerical control) router to play with and cut fun things with. For a period of time, I thought the MaslowCNC would be my entry into the world of computerized making. I even bought one and set it up but ran into a few issues (configuring it was hard and it is outside in Wisconsin which means I’m either fighting the heat, cold, or bugs). But no, my true entry into hobby CNCing would come in a smaller, much older package.

A CNC is the automated operation of a machine by a computer. Using a series of code directions, each line of code tells the CNC to move to a different place within the X, Y, or Z axis.

Back in October, I was browsing the Tools section of Craigslist when I saw someone had posted a CNC for $50. It wasn’t operational, but all the parts were there so for that price, it was too good to pass up. I picked up the heavy, heavy machine and brought it home to figure out what I had on my hands and what I needed to do to get it up and running once more.

Dahlgren/Suregrave 400EZ

The machine was labeled a Dahlgren/Suregrave 400EZ. Some Google searching helped me discover a whole lot of nothing about the machine. I did learn that the machine was sold at a local surplus auction a year or two prior for $250 and it had come from the university (which explains why Bucky Badger was accidentally engraved on the bed of the machine). Also, the CNC isn’t a router, it’s an engraver but I didn’t know what that meant for me right away. And finally, the company that made these revolutionized CNC engraving back in the 80s and this specific machine was likely from the late 80s/early 90s. Cool.

The original electronics came with the CNC, but I had no intention of figuring out how to use them in this modern world of computers. I’m sure if I had, it would have severely limited what I would be able to do with the CNC. Instead, I planned to build a modern controller with new parts off the shelf (something I had never done before nor knew anyone who had). What could go wrong?

Version 1 of the CNC control box
My first attempt at an electrical control box for the CNC. Everything was mounted and all, but I vastly improved upon this later.

In the grand scheme of things, very little did go wrong. I fried one of the stepper motor controllers because electricity is hard. And I wired, and rewired everything about 5 times once I had figured out how to connect everything correctly. But eventually, I was able to get the old machine to move. I didn’t do it alone, though, I had a whole lot of help from friendly strangers on a forum. These people had more than enough patience to answer all of my questions, no matter how simple they were. Finally, when I was able to post that things had worked, they celebrated alongside me.

The video above, of the machine slowly moving back and forth on the X axis was a thrill the day I recorded it. And then not long after, I was able to get the spindle running as seen in the video below.

But getting a CNC running is only half the battle, I also needed to learn how to create the code used to control it. If you know me even a little bit, I like to do as much as I can for as cheap as I can. The majority of the commercial software to design and generate code costs $500 and up. That’s a lot to spend when there are free options outs there, I just needed to find them.

And find them I did. So far, two pieces of software have entered my arsenal and I’m learning to use them. One, is FreeCAD which is a full blown computer-aided design software and the other is a very much barebones engraving software, F-Carve. Teaching myself to use these for my purposes has been a slow process, but it has helped me get through the past couple months of quarantine. I’ve been able to focus my attention on learning when it seemed like all else was off limits. Now, I’m familiar with the softwares, though not yet proficient. Time will improve my skills.

The first dozen of times I tried to run the CNC, I ran into problems. The machine was configured incorrectly and I just plain did not know what I was doing.

So going forward I’m going to try new things with my CNC. I’m going to learn the limits of it as an engraver and not a router. I’m going to learn the limits of what I can conceive, design, and execute with it. I want this to be a fun toy for me where I never stop learning. What I make should delight myself, the process shared with others, and occasionally gift the results to friends and family.

There are a dozen projects planned for my little machine and all of them require me to learn something new. I’m looking forward to it because this is one of the most fun things I’ve learned how to do in years; it is satisfying to see something you dreamt up come to life with the push of a button.

What would you like to see me cut with my CNC?

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