CNC Essentials: How to Maximize Your Machine

Brian Clancy

A CNC is usually the first major equipment purchase a woodworker makes, and it’s important to know how to both choose and use it well. 

During the 2021 AWFS Fair, Brian Clancy brought his CNC advice to an educational session. He shared how he researched his purchase, integrated it into his shop, and learned how to make the most of its capabilities. We asked him to share some of the highlights of that presentation, CNC Essentials: How to Maximize Your Machine.

 

The purchase

My decision to buy a CNC came from a project requiring me to create an elaborately curved reception desk. I wasn’t sure how I would do it with the equipment I had, but fortunately, a local contact connected me with a woodworker who had a CNC. I watched him fabricate these pieces for me and vowed that I would figure out how to get one of those machines. 

After that, I began researching on my own and through the Cabinet Makers Association’s online forums. The info I got from shop owners who had already made that investment was really helpful. 

Here are a couple of thoughts that influenced my CNC buying experience:

  • While I had always bought used equipment in the past, I didn’t have enough knowledge to feel confident about going that route for this large purchase. I bought a brand-new machine so I would have service and support to rely on.
  • I ended up agreeing with the mindset that you should “buy your last machine first.” In other words, if you already see a time when you’ll need more, go ahead and buy for that scenario. This was a massive investment for me, and I wanted to ensure I got the right machine for both the residential and commercial work. I decided to stretch and buy a 5×10 model instead of a 4×8, and I have never regretted it. 

I touched on several topics in the presentation, and I’ll boil them down for you here. (By the way, none of my advice is original to me! I learned so much from others and through trial and error and making lots of mistakes; mistakes are great teachers.)

 

Material handling

This is such an important consideration, and I learned the hard way. You have to think through where the machine is going to be located in your shop in terms of the logistics of loading and offloading the materials. There are fancy tables out there for loading and unloading, but in the end, I solved my problem by taking ideas from the CMA forums and coming up with my own solution. I found a heavy-duty material handling cart that tilts and lifts. It’s set up in such a way that I take the stored panels and slide them onto the cart. It’s on wheels, so it’s easy to move it over next to the CNC to start sliding the material onto the spoil board. I also made a parts cart for storing the cut parts before they head to the next step in the production process. Thanks to all of the ideas I got from others, I seldom have to lift a sheet of material and transfer it from one horizontal surface to another. 

In short: Plan for the space needed to load and unload BEFORE you get the machine. 

 

Software

My advice on this important topic is a) be aware of the learning curve and b) get familiar with the program before you buy the CNC, if possible.

The extent of my experience on a computer was emails, Facebook, and the CMA forums! The intimidation factor was huge. If you are worried that you have to know AutoCAD, you can stop worrying: Most software has features that mean you don’t have to be a CAD expert to be successful.

For me, the breakdown of getting up to speed on my CNC was 80 percent on the software piece and 20 percent on learning the machine. You’ll be so far ahead of the game if you do your homework with the software beforehand.

 

Tooling

Here are some tooling tips, in a nutshell:

  • Understand what you’ll need,
  • Establish a partnership with a supplier,
  • Buy three sets of tools, and
  • Budget for the price of tooling and sharpening expenses.

It’s so important to have additional tools for the CNC; when one breaks, you need to put the backup tool in place quickly, so you don’t lose any time on the project. The third set should be at the sharpener.

I don’t have three of every single tool, but I have backups, especially for the more heavily used tools — cut-out tools, compression bits, drill bits, etc. I also have a great supplier who can get parts to me by the next day, and I have a sharpening service that comes once a week. 

I have resolved the budgeting issue by adding these costs into the jobs. For instance, melamine and laminate wear out the tools faster, so I add in $100 or so for the set of tools for those types of projects to cover that reality. 

 

Training and service

I’m combining these two topics because they are so intertwined. Here are the questions I recommend researching as part of your homework:

  • How reliable is the manufacturer’s service and parts program? 
  • Where is the manufacturer located? 
  • What is the installation process? 
  • What training will the manufacturer provide? 
  • Beyond the manufacturer training, what peer support is available to you via user groups or forums? 

These questions are self-explanatory, but here’s a little more detail about Question #2.  

My manufacturer is based across the country. While they don’t have reps in my area who can stop by, they are very responsive (they usually get back to me within 30 minutes) and will get on the phone, connect virtually and visually if they need to see something, or log in to my machine if they need to troubleshoot. 

 

Parting thoughts

Before I invested in the CNC, I was physically exhausted from doing everything manually. When I got it, I was so enthusiastic and reinvigorated. Some think automation takes the fun out of the work, but after working with the CNC, I felt the sky was the limit. 

You begin to appreciate the lack of mistakes, the ability to make joints that fit together so perfectly, and the unique or tricky things that are so much faster and easier to execute. 

I also experienced a common effect of having my own CNC: Other shops asked me to cut parts for them, which is a nice added income stream. 

Good luck! 

 

This article was reprinted with permission from FDMC magazine.

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