Cheap cnc setup for learning

My brother uses sketchup (free version now, I think) to design wood working pieces.
I’m thinking about buying him a cheap cnc router just to experiment and learn with.
Is there a recommended cheapest option known? Maybe a published bill of materials for everything that would be needed to get going.
Like I said it’s mostly for learning/experimenting so quality, size etc aren’t too important but it has to cut wood. I know a about electronics and could build it from parts but it’s not worth the time for me to figure out the requirements and compatability etc.
I think he uses an apple computer right now but I could buy him a Windows machine if that’d make things easier/cheaper.

If you’re willing to build your own, I found this $350 kit pretty amazing in that it can handle 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood. You have to build the frame, add a shop vac and a router, and supply a couple of bricks to make it work, but the simplicity of it all makes me smile … you could make some really big structures with it :slight_smile:

We have a Shark HD with the VCarve software here at work but I wish we had gotten the X-Carve CNC instead. The X-Carve uses Easel as it software and it is more user friendly than VCarve. Easel seems to be browser based so the PC might not matter.

There are options, but make sure you understand what your brother wants first. Then explore the possibilities.

Edit: Personally I would suggest you get to know your brother better rather than asking other people what is best to buy for him. Trying to buy what you think others want never works. And with such a technically complex subject you are 3d printing a pandora’s box that may never cnc the light of day.

1 Like

Check out Woodsmith magazine, April/May 2019. Plans to build your own. This issue has part one of two.


CNC machines can go from a kit costing $ 250.00 to a commercial machine over 200 grand. At work we use an Onsrud CNC that is north of a 100 grand for cutting out cabinet parts. I really don’t think you could get a cheap CNC that you would be satisfied with. Of course one persons cheap might be another persons expensive. I am with Box on this one I would discuss with your brother on exactly what he wishes to do with the CNC and where he would like to be in the next few years using it. Another thing to consider is like all tools hobby CNC machines go on sale around Black Friday every year, you could possibly save a tremendous amount. I also think its awesome that you are willing to help your brother out. Nothing like a loving family.

1 Like

Think I’ll just buy a 3018 cnc. It’s just for learning the architecture of cnc systems and getting used to going from a cad drawing to a machine doing it’s thing.
If it gets used to produce any finished pieces that’d just be a bonus.
This 3018 gets good reviews. It uses a Woodpecker CNC board running grbl (apparently) which seems ok for now. It doesn’t have limit switches but they can be added.
If anyone wants to discourage me now’s the time!

1 Like

Just noticed that the 3018 I linked above uses a stepper on the spindle. Seems an odd choice to me. Is that normal/optimal?

Not in the least! That stepper is providing the Z axis movement. Steppers are used almost universally for ALL movement (save the spindle motor) on CNC machines.

You haven’t yet answered an essential question: Does your brother have any interest in CNC?

And even if you know he does have an interest, have you or he done any research on all the things that are involved? The cheaper the CNC machine, the more likely things won’t work “out of the box” - especially if you have to assemble and program it yourself.

Does your brother have the patience to assemble a CNC kit correctly? Does he have the computer smarts to figure out that he swapped two connectors? Does he see the potential of CNC as attractive enough to push through concepts he’s unfamiliar with?

Or perhaps he’s already decided he wants to try CNC, done extensive research, decided that, given his interests and temperment, he’s saving for one that comes assembled and tested, that’s large enough for the projects he contemplates, and one which two of his woodworking friends have so that he has someone local to turn to for help.And since you haven’t talked to him about this, you have no clue!

Here’s a related personal story.

I’d been interested in 3d Printing in an "Oh, I can see the usefulness of that. Maybe I’ll get into it one day. My background? I earned a Bachelor’s in Computer Science long ago, and have used and enjoyed computers in my jobs (peripherally) and personal life ever since. I do like to make things. And I enjoy modeling. I’ve even had a few ideas for useful gadgets that I realized were perfect examples of one-off designs for which 3d Printing seems ideal.

About two years ago, I stumbled across a website advertising a 3d printer kit at a price that seemed like a steal. I spent some time looking for reviews - mostly very positive, and the negative ones seemed to be vindictive. I decided to go for it, paid my money and eagerly awaited the shipment (from China, where else for so cheap!).

When it came, I spent a solid weekend assembling it. I’m normally fairly sloppy in paying attention to things like plumb, square, and parallel, but I knew this tendency of mine would sabatage the build, so I was uncharacteristically obsessive about getting these parts right. Finally I turned to the software side of things. I got things to move, start feeding filament, stop feeding filament, and zero the x and y axis. But the z axis was a killer! In order to use the maximum extent of the build surface, when X=Y=0, the Z axis sensor was off the plate!

I spent weeks online and travelling 60 miles to a user group meeting - their official monthly “help” sessions - trying to get my Z axis zeroing routine to operate AWAY from X=Y=0 so that the sensor was on the plate. COMPLETE FAILURE.

Now? The machine still sits in my living room. And I check a couple of forums every couple of months to see if anyone else has the same problem - and solved it. So far, nothing. I’ve put filament through it testing the extruder, but I’ve yet to try even an official test print.

And I’m saving for an assembled and tested machine with a good reputation. Likely the Prusa MK3S. It’s currently selling (assembled) for about $1,000 US. To my mind the simplicity of an out of the box working printer is well worth the cost vs the $249 US printer kit gathering dust in my living room.

The moral of this story? CNC (and 3D printing) requires an interest in doing it, and if you’re building a kit, great attention to detail and either a good computer background or a willingness to learn a lot of new stuff.

If your brother lacks any of these, he might thank you for the gift, make a start at using it, then give up as I did - thus wasting YOUR money.

TALK TO YOUR BROTHER - Don’t spring this as a surprise gift!

I misread the product info, it uses a 775 dc motor for the spindle.

sjdorst - No harm meant but I think maybe some green tea and meditation might do you some good.

I’m aware of the risks of buying the cheapest product on the market. I’ll resolve myself to it being a disaster before I order. I’m aware of the risk of buying an unwanted gift and it’s no big deal to me.


I would base your decision more simply: What does you/your brother want to do? Fool with a CNC, or actually make stuff with a CNC.

If the answer is “fooling with” then a kit based one is a great choice. The learning/joy/pain comes from building it yourself, troubleshooting and learning. What you make almost becomes secondary.

If he/you just want to make stuff, get a fully assembled, supported and working machine. This way from day one you can focus on designing and making stuff, not building and troubleshooting a CNC.

1 Like

experiment and learn