Another Year, Another CNC

Blog, Computers, Woodworking / Thursday, April 8th, 2021

You might remember about a year ago, I went through the process of retrofitting the electronics in an old Dahlgren 400EZ CNC Engraver. I bought it off of Craigslist for $50. To be honest, I still think that is a steal even after learning its limitations. I researched and learned a lot to get it moving because the skillset was completely different than anything I had attempted before. The moment I was able to get it to move for the first time was pure joy.

For those of you who are unaware, CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control. What it means is that I have three motors driving the X, Y, and Z axis on the CNC and I can use a computer to go to any space in that box. A woodworking router is strapped to it and moves with the motors, allowing me to cut anywhere in that 3-dimensional space.

You might also remember that the Dahlgren was not my first CNC. I had bought and built a Maslow CNC a year or two prior. Touted as an affordable, large format CNC, the Maslow is ideal for hobbyists. I think all in I spent about $600 on that one. I only just got it running before I packed it up for the season. Because of its size it needed to stay outside. Because of Wisconsin weather, I had a solid 4 months a year where I could comfortably use it. It really didn’t meet my expectations, so I sold it for roughly what I paid for it.

Now given those two forays, you might not be surprised to hear that I decided to get another CNC. I talked it over with Ellie, trying to figure what was affordable and still meet my needs. For a hobby, it I could not justify spending a few grand on a new machine. If I did that, I would feel like I’d need to make money with it. There are always a handful of used CNCs that came up on auction sites, mostly ones that ran off Windows 95 and decommissioned by a high school. The age of electronics didn’t scare me because of my Dahlgren experience, but I kept being outbid. Sure, I could have bid, and bid, and bid to guarantee I’d win one, but even though it might have seemed like it at the time, my heart wasn’t in it.

Jump back in time with me to when I was working to get the Dahlgren up and running. My dad mentioned that there were some plans to build a CNC in his Woodsmith magazine. I borrowed the two issues because I thought they could help me get the Dahlgren up and running. Ultimately, they didn’t have the information I needed so they sat on the lower shelf of the coffee table for the better part of a year.

Woodsmith 242 Magazine Cover - Build your own CNC Router

Then, at the beginning of this year, I made a snap decision. It disheartened me every time the auctions didn’t go my way. I wanted needed a CNC. Something more versatile than an engraver with a larger cutting bed. As a person who likes to work on the furniture scale, I needed mid-range to big sized and the 18″ x 24″ cutting area wasn’t…uh…cutting it. I looked down at the lower shelf of the coffee table and grabbed the Woodsmith magazine. I decided I was going to follow those plans and build myself a CNC. From scratch. Out of wood. To cut more wood.

The plans provided by the Woodsmith magazine offer a 24″ x 48″ cutting area. I think the depth of cut is 4″. Using mostly 3/4″ plywood for the build, some off the shelf hardware, and only a few specialty items the build should come in right around $1,000. That amount is a lot more than I was putting on bids. However, I know I’ll be getting a bigger machine than those auctions would offer. I’ll have new and better electronics controlling everything as well.

In preparation for the build, I determined how I was going to buy the material and cut it all. My small basement shop cannot accommodate 4’x8′ sheets of plywood nor the 5’x5′ sheets of Baltic birch plywood. Don’t even get my started on what I can fit in our SUV.

Wait, you know what? I started. Why, and I really mean why, can’t car makers build a trunk to have an opening of 48″ minimum? The car is wider than 48″ on the inside? Why, also, can’t the diagonal opening hit that 48″ mark either? Is big trailer secretly dumping money on the auto manufacturers to make their SUVs too small to carry industry standards? Is is automakers wanting to push trucks over the more versatile SUV?

Anyway, I determined that I needed 5 sheets of 2’x8′ plywood. I can easily fit those in our old Corolla but I cannot get them in our SUV. Don’t ask. After that, the hardware was straightforward to find and buy. The electronics gave me the most trouble. They’re aren’t really off the shelf items and I avoid Amazon whenever possible. Eventually I found the best motors and controllers for my build at a reasonable price.

The cart is loaded. It’s time to go out, get the items, and start making sawdust.

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