Using a desktop CNC router: Frequently Asked Questions

For those of you who are considering getting a desktop CNC router when you haven’t used anything similar before, here are the answers to some of the questions and doubts you might have.

How easy is it to use this machine?

Depends on how much time you spend educating yourself and practicing. Desktop CNC is a powerful machine with really lots of possibilities but you need knowledge to operate it properly, and if you haven’t used it before it will take a few trial & errors before you get the first part right, so first my first advice to you is to be patient.

What kind of software should I use?

The process of using desktop CNC is not as simple as scan a sketch – adjust it – and let the machine engrave/cut.
You can of course scan your sketch but you would then have to convert the image to vectors. This is done in a program that then converts the drawing to machine readable code (called G code) by creating something that is called a toolpath. This essentially means creating a file that the machine will use as a ‘scenario’ how to move and what to cut/engrave in which order (this calculation is done automatically).

For this I am currently using software called ArtCam, but there are others that you could use, like Type3, Wentai and others. When you export the G code file from there you then import it to Mach3 software, which controls the machine (this is the software that I am currently using).

Do I need a separate computer to run the machine?

Yes. But the good news is that it really shouldn’t be expensive. For this purpose an older computer priced between 80-150 NZD is quite enough. On this computer you would be running Mach3 and dedicated only to controlling the machine.
On your regular computer you can prepare the drawings, convert them to vectors and G code, but the machine’s computer shouldn’t be used for any of that and it shouldn’t run internet, music, or any other process especially while the machine is running.

How hard is it to set up limit switches and probe? How much will it cost?

For probe I am using just simple a piece of PCB plate and 2 wires, and here it is most important to know the thickness of the plate you are using.
Regarding limit switches price depends on the quality of used parts – price range for switches is going from couple of dollars to tens of dollars. You can get the cable in Jaycar or similar stores – 2m should be enough here and XLR connectors costs around 7 dollars a piece.

For installing limit switches there is no special knowledge needed, the switches need to go on end of each axis so when the machine reaches the end of each side it triggers the limit switch and stops. It is just a way of creating physical borders of the machine and telling it where it needs to stop, so we avoid any breaking.

If you have any other questions to this, let me know in the comments.