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Thistle

Best entry level CNC machine.

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I've been seriously thinking about buying a cnc to make my guitars with. i don't have a huge budget (around £2500 gbp max) so I have been looking at the secondhand market for the past few days. My problem is that I don't know enough yet about my actual requirements.

There are a number of cheaper machines on eBay that state they are engraving/milling etc but I'm guessing these are useless, so an older, used but good quality one is what I'm looking for, unless you guys know of a decent one in my price range it'll be a used machine I buy. 

Is my budget too small? Or can I setup a rig that will produce bodies and necks with that number in mind?

Any suggestions or tips on buying or makes to avoid would be greatly appreciated guys, what do You use?

thanks in advance, Brian. 

 

Edited by Thistle
Auto correct sucks.

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<Shameless self-promotion>

Have you seen my write-ups regarding mini CNC machines for guitar building?

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

</Shameless self-promotion>

In all seriousness, the machine used for those articles was marketed as an engraving machine/mini CNC on the ebay store I bought it from. It's probably very similar, if not the same as the ones you mention.

I guess it depends what you want to achieve from the CNC. I personally only want to use it to complement the hands-on aspect of guitar building, rather than do the bulk of the heavy lifting. A small machine like that one fits the bill as I don't expect it to be over-taxed, such as directly cut a body from a timber blank or carving the back of a neck. Making routing templates, doing inlays, cutting cavity covers etc is what I use mine for.

A bigger machine will permit the use of bigger cutting operations at the expense of requiring more space and deeper pockets. A machine big and powerful enough to mill a guitar body from a timber blank will set you back multiples of thousands. It will make a bigger mess too, so you'll need a way to keep the dust under control.

Any CNC will involve a significant amount of learning and experimenting if you're not familiar with CAD, CAM or motion control software. The software itself and some decent cutters will probably set you back a further several hundred bucks.

Don't be put off by the idea though. Once you've settled on a unit and got the basics down it opens up a big world of new ideas and techniques for guitar building and general woodwork.

In addition to the Chinese eBay units, the X-Carve and Shapeoko3 seem to be popular kit-based machines for around a grand. I have no experience with either unit, but the Shapeoko looks the more robust of the two.

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Hello again Curtisa. Those articles are brilliant mate. I'll have a good study on them tonight when I get home. And shameless self promotion isnt a bad thing when your as skilled as yourself man ;) 

My intentions were never to try and get a "make me a guitar" machine, being able to rout bodies or neck carves from a blank would be cool but I didn't consider the dust extraction side of things, and it's a good point since I do my building in my spare bedroom at home. Now I've had a much better look I'm realising my main goals with this should be more to help with most of those processes you show in the articles, much like you mentioned yourself I never really wanted to take too much of the "handcrafted" out of it, but the possibilities are endless and I'm only just begining to realise the potential of these. Fret slot cutting and inlays being two things that I didn't consider at first, and would be tremendous for saving lots of my time not to mention the accuracy! Also the templates etc, amazing! I'm definitely doing this.

Been a long time (about 15 years) now but I already have some experience with 2D cad. Autocad in particular but I have used several other similar type programs, so it shouldn't take me too long to get up to speed again on that side of things. I also have PCs capable of running it all, so it's really just the actual CNC side of things I will need to study and learn from scratch. 

The shapeoko looks really good actually, and at the moment is now at the top of the list, but with the quality of work your doing on the China ebay type it's definitely put those back into the equation for me too. 

I'll do much more research before I order anything, however you've put me on the rite path now, thank you very much again mate, really appreciate you taking the time to reply in such depth. 

Keep you posted on what I end up with, Brian.  

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Thanks Chris. Didn't notice that till you mentioned it. The x-carve however in its large configuration with 1000mm legs gives an 800x800mm work area, and that's big enough for anything I can think of guitar wise other than a through neck piece I guess. At $1399 plus shipping looks like the one. I've just watched a few vids on YouTube of guys using it to do several guitar processes including cutting a body out of a solid timber blank and carving a neck profile (kinda) and inlays. Think It comes with its own software by the looks of it, and the "want it big" 1400 buck kit seems to include most of the goodies like upgraded stepper motors, tool kits and waste boards etc also. Seems to get decent enough reviews so its in the lead for now. 

Still got a load of research to do before I order one, but I'm feeling much more comfortable with what im looking at now. Next thing to start looking at is cutters. Through my day job I have local suppliers who can get me pretty much whatever I want in bits/cutters type stuff, so I'll pick these up bit by bit in the next few weeks. It's a standard dewalt router that fits in most of the machines I see inc the xcarve so I can start collecting those now. I already have several individuals and sets that I've used with the hand router but I'd like to buy new good quality fresh ones for this. What's the most common used types and sizes I will need?

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I guess some good quality 1/4" diameter straight and 1/4" round nose tungsten-tipped bits would be a good starting point. If you want to do engraving maybe get a V-point bit too. If you're going to get one of the machines that uses a palm router as the spindle you'll probably struggle to find bits smaller than about 2mm in diameter that directly fit the collet, so you will have to get a collet reducer to take advantage of smaller bits with, say a 1/8" shank.

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As I usually do, I'll try and post without having read any of the answers above....

If you have a set budget which excludes part of what is normally used for homebrew or kit CNC, balancing off the compromises is the first thing to look at. If you don't do this, either something will end up compromised for you (not good) or it'll be short of your expectations.

One of the big points that @curtisa very rightfully picked up on is that smaller CNCs are not that appropriate for working "in the wood". Simply, they are better at making templates and jigs for the "real" work. A CNC has to be sturdy and reliable to hold a 700watt spindle, so that soon moves you up the price bracket.

If you're especially handy and have a reasonable grasps of metalworking, there's nothing stopping you from buying the motors, spindle, etc. and making your own custom-sized CNC. A lot of CNC makers use their first CNC to make parts for their second one.....

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Thistle, I agree, the large X-Carve is pretty high on the bang for buck list. I'm actually seriously considering one myself. However, I'll clue you in on some stuff that I've learned in my research of it. Firstly, it's run by belts and not lead screws for the X and Y axis. This means it's more likely to skip steps if you try and run it hard. So basically, expect to run this machine really slowly for true guitar-cutting operations... perhaps even slower than you could do it by hand for things like body routing. Go look up highline guitar's youtube channel as he has a number of videos that talk about feed rate and depth of cut for typical guitar stuff. For me, this speed limitation isn't a big deal for me since I'm looking at the CNC more as a tool to keep me productive in the winter while I can't access my giant cast iron, table-saw attached, router table. Another good idea I've thought of is to use this CNC to route the first 1/4" depth or so of anything, then pull it off, bandsaw close to the line, and use the CNC's 1/4" route as your template. CNC accuracy without taxing the run time of your CNC.

Speaking of run time, don't expect to use this as a machine that will do production runs! Routers aren't made to run for hours upon hours. They like cycle time (time on followed by rest time). That's why production run CNCs have spindles, they're made for minimal cycle usage; especially water cooled ones. Also, word on the street is you should create a checklist of things to re-tighten and re-adjust on the X-Carve after most major use sessions. Another reason not to use it for production runs.

I can;t say for sure since I don't own one... but if I had to hazard a guess I'd say this is a great guitar if you want to build a few guitars a year and have fun. If you're thinking of having a company and that this machine will be your way towards giant profits and pumping out guitars... I think you need to be in the $5000+ range.

Lastly, their free software is very limiting. The first big limit is that it's 2.5D. This means it'll use the x-axis... but just to go up/down to cut the next 2D layer. So don't expect to do belly carve, fretboard radii, arm bevels, etc. unless you spring for a more robust CAM software that covers true 3D. I plan to look into MeshCAM and Universal G-Code sender for Rhino (since that's what I model in).

Hope that help,

Chris

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I think the other thing with the X-Carve is that the software requires an internet connection to run, which may or may not be an issue for some people.

I'm on the fence regarding the X-Carve. There are enough so-so reviews and opinions about it to make me think that it's not necessarily the best value for money. While proprietary software and belt drives don't necessarily equate to poor performance, it's a little concerning that you may have to regularly check belt tensions, and that you're stuck with their online software.

Another concern I've seen mentioned is that the larger unit doesn't scale up the cross sectional area of the framework, so it tends to flex and sag a lot more than the smaller unit.

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If there's only so far that they can reasonable be uprated, they're more of a financial liability then I take it?

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Well all this throws some spanners in the works, but I don't have intentions of making hundreds of guitars each year. My hope was that I could build 1-2 a month so it wouldn't be too overly taxed. I'm a bedroom builder so it's only going to be operating weekends and some nights for now. Xcarve give a couple options on software so I could upgrade that at a cost and still within my budget. The whole belt drive thing is a concern tho. Brings my thoughts back to buying a more expensive machine but secondhand again possibly.  

This isn't going to be as easy as I thought lol. 

End of the day, the xcarve IS an entry level cnc within my budget, from a company I can talk to, and get support from. If I can't find something more suitable I may just order it despite its flaws. I have a lot of learning to do and for my first machine, it's maybe enough. No reason I can't upgrade in the future and buy the smaller rails for the xcarve, make it an inlay only machine or whatever. 

again thanks for all this amazing information. I'd have been months getting to even this stage if it wasn't for you guys. 

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Not so much a spanner in the works. Simply, you just need to know from the get go that an X-Carve probably can't mill 100% reliably into the workpiece itself. Maybe in softer woods over many light passes, however you don't want the CNC to be running for half a day doing one workpiece!

I am totally with @curtisa when he points out that his CNC is far more appropriate for small components or template stock or as @verhoevenc stated, doing a shallow "template starting" pass in the workpiece. To get a finished product that really is worth the investment, the machine needs to be stable and accurate enough to climb cut everything. Until you step up to 700W+ spindles (palm router territory) they just can't hack it. Even then, a 700W spindle needs to be kept in line without it jumping steps out or chattering in the cut from structural wobble.

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Side note: As a hobby "bedroom builder" I think 1-2 guitars a month, you'll find, is very ambitious! Even if just making strats and teles. Throw custom, setneck, etc. work in there and you've got to re-evaluate your business model IMO.

Chris

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Ok thanks again guys. There is an auction coming up soon here with several mid size to larger machines. I'm going to hold off on the xcarve till ive been to that. I've been told there are a few that would be up my street so to speak, but in all honesty If there isn't anything that just straight fits the bill in my budget im just going for the xcarve. 

My intentions of 1-2 guitars a month is probably too high I know Chris. But my thinking was I could build 4-5 of the same model at a time, over 3-4 months using the cnc. Maybe I'm being unrealistic but I do have lots of free time. Obviously I will have a long period of learning and I don't expect to start banging them out straight away, but using the cnc in one repeated operation a few times making necks for a week or two at a time say, has got to be more economic on the overall build time. Guess I'll find out soon enough. I only have two guitar places in my area and both are itching for me to supply them with some to sell after seeing my work. This just seemed to be the way forward. End of the day even if I just use it for the inlays templates and all, its still gonna be an awesome tool that will give my guitar making endless new possibilities. 

Ive already collected some 1/4" round/straight and engraving bits. Ordered the reducer collet and a set of small cnc cutters aswell. All tungsten tipped. Spent a small fortune on those to honest so I can't back out now lol. I'll keep you guys posted. 

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My 2c is this.

I started looking at entry level machines. After much research and hearing other peoples opinions and stories I decided to skip the entry level and go straight to a machine that now owes me over fifty grand once you add up cutting tools and holders etc.

 

Now that I've been operating a machine for a couple of years that cost this much and knowing it's limitations, I am scared to think how much regret I would have if I bought a el cheapo five grand entry level machine.

 

At the end of the day, if you're wanting to do this as a hobby, don't look at CNC. Do it by hand. If you get to the point you "need" CNC, then you won't be looking at entry level machines. You'll be looking at machines which will cost tens and tens of thousands.

 

 

 

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Fact, as stated.

I find that smaller CNC in the category of hobbyist/enthusiast (less than 10k) are only good for one project at a time. Very little repeatability, and poor turnaround even if there is any. Your money would be better spent outsourcing the work to a friendly CNC shop simply because you won't have to spend weeks on the learning curve, waste lots of material doing test cuts to calibrate and "learn" the foibles of your machine, etc.

Nothing in that bracket would qualify as a "production" machine, or anything that is as simple as putting the workpiece in and getting a near-finished item out of the end. They excel at producing workholding jigs, templates or minor routing work. If I had ten grand to spend on a CNC, I would spend two grand on the CNC, a few hundred on upgrading/stabilising it, a few hundred on stock materials and using it to make better manual working processes. It's tough to find realisible returns with CNCs at any point unless you run them ragged all the time like Allan!

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A bit late to the party here but I think I can offer you some insight into getting into the cnc thing.   I built 2 machines large enough to do guitar bodies, I bought two commercially made machines over the past 7 years, and I bought a Shapeoko2 for a winter project.   If you are an enthusiastic hobbiest like I am,  a $ 5000 CNC will do the job for you.    The key to success is rigidity, and some of the commercial machines have it and some don't .    The shapeoko is very toylike, one video shows it cutting a body in 6 hours.   That is ridiculous.

Check out the machines by Velox as as example of what you can get for 5000 dollars.   A few years ago K2 was a popular machine brand for instrument building.   They were bought out by Velox who has expanded the line and gotten away from some of the smaller desktops.   

I probably make about 10 different type guitars a year and the cnc router has become a go-to replacement for some of my other machines.   Having gotten into the cnc thing over a decade ago when the softwear was in its infancy, I learned how to draw and create Gcode by hand.   I now have taught myself 3D to some degree with Rhino, but only use 3D machining for carving necks and guitar tops.   It's faster to do 2.5D for everything else. 

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I agree about the hand coding part. If you're the programming type (I was brought up on assembly!) then it makes sense to dial in the right geometry for 2.5D; software gets you some nice curvy things but you can't beat working with the nuts and bolts if it gets you exactly what you need.

I've had to take my hands off the table more than once in conversations with CNC amateurs who insist that floppy machines like Shapeokos are adequate. Like you say, they're not. Unfortunately it seems that there is a high degree of mental investment which clearly overrides the sense gland with some. Still, not my loss.

Nice bit of info there, and I hope that it's useful beyond this enquiry @MartyM. 6hrs is very much well over the line of ridiculousness for anyone rooted in reality.

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Side note: I ended up going with a Shopbot Desktop. It's large enough to do my style of bolton necks milled on a diagonal since the bed is only 18x24". I was able to get it used (lightly) from another luthier on craigslist for a steal (I think like $6k if I remember correctly, with the spindle upgrade).

Check the used market! May allow you to go higher quality than new... and a lot of non-professional CNCers don't really beat up their machines too often I'd imagine.

Chris

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If I haven't already written this, then I might as well do it here. One of the first things a serious CNC maker will make with their first CNC is part upgrades for their CNC. :D

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....and some people don't consider 3D printers and CNC tools....

Weird weird world. I'm off to sleep. Please don't let Drumpf get elected whilst I'm not paying attention.

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