When you’re ready to enter the world of precision computer-controlled fabrication, a CNC router is one of the most versatile tools to invest in. Even the cheapest routers are quite expensive, though, so it pays to do your homework before buying. Here’s a basic guide.

How CNC Routing Works

First of all, CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control. In this case, what it means is that a CNC router obeys digital commands rather than direct user input. Routers equipped for this type of operation are typically capable of full 3-dimensional movement, with the greatest limitation in the Z (or vertical axis).

Operating a CNC router requires some specialized software. The raw “G-code” used to direct the machine cannot be written directly. An interpreter program is needed to convert ordinary 3-dimensional designs into instructions for the router. Mach3 and TurboCNC are the most common software tools for this at the home / hobbyist level.

Finding The Right Router

The major points to consider when you’re buying a router are its working dimensions, its speed and material capacity, and its control requirements. Tabletop routers typically have working fields of just a few square feet — the Gowe CNC router with its 10 inch by 13 inch workspace is a perfect example. If you need a larger router, buying it in kit form and assembling it yourself may be your only option. BuildYourCNC offers a monstrous kit for a routing machine that handles 4 foot by 8 foot materials, the BlackFoot. This massive machine will cost you more than $3,000. Smaller kits, like Zen Toolworks’ petite 7 inch by 7 inch machine, are much more affordably priced. (The Zen machine is well under $500.)

The software and connection requirements for these routers are often arcane. Many routers require connection through a parallel port, a feature that hasn’t been standard on PCs for many years. (Conversion cables don’t always work, either.) You may well need to build (or buy) a custom PC dedicated exclusively to router control. Always review the software and connection specifications of a router carefully before buying.

As with any expensive tool, you need to do some careful research before buying a router with CNC capability. As long as you confirm all of the specifications and understand what other equipment (and software) you need to operate your router, (or build your router kit) you can buy with confidence.