About seven years ago, I spent a few days at a big woodworking show in Atlanta, where I was mesmerized by the CNC machines. Full sheets of plywood would slide in one end and cabinet parts — complete with joinery cuts, holes for shelving pins, pilots for mounting screws and even decorative grooving — would emerge on the other. Of course, many of the machines were bigger than my shop and cost more than my house. Over time, however, I’ve found some manufacturers, notably ShopBot, making downsized machines. The cost of even these smaller machines, though, was still out of my reach.
Then along came desktop CNC routers. They cost way more than top of-the-line router tables, but half what low-end ShopBots do. So now, you can buy a turn-key package, bolt the parts together in an hour or so, load a program into your home computer and, by the end of the day, start doing some real CNC woodworking.
For this feature, I’ve got a pair of CNC routers in my basement shop. Neither can slice a plywood sheet into cabinet parts, but either can cut small parts — drawer fronts, for example, or door panels — complete with joinery cuts, profiling and decorative carving. Either will mill a rough board smooth or texture a smooth board to make it rough. Where both excel is in making signs and relief carvings. One machine is the CarveWright, made by LHR Technologies (sold by Sears as the CompuCarve). The other is the CNC Shark, made by Next Wave Automation and sold exclusively by Rockler (rockler.com).
As of 2009, the CarveWright costs about $1,900, the Shark about $2,400. Both are categorized as desktop CNCs, because of their size and limited working area. They are pretty easy to use, have many practical applications and are reasonably affordable. But before I get into the particulars of these machines, let me give you some background.
As you would suspect, the CarveWright and the CNC Shark are much less sophisticated versions of those monstrous CNC (Computer Numeric Control) routers mentioned earlier, or even the down-sized ShopBot. You do need a computer and a CAD (Computer-Assisted Design) program to run them. Both of these products provide a version of CAD software (more on that later) so you can draw what you want to cut. Then you switch to the program’s toolpath feature. There you select the cutter (or cutters) you intend to use. The software calculates the cutting instructions and the calculation yields a file that you can name and save. Next, you secure the wood in the machine, install the correct bit, and begin the routing process.
The Money Question
If you are at all interested in this technology, I’m sure the question you have now is: “Well, buddy. Which one should I buy?”
As evasive as it may seem, I’ll reply that it depends on what you expect to make with it.
If your interest is simply making signs, carving and/or cutting small parts in 4/4 stock, I’d consider the CW. The software is less daunting to learn, and the machine more or less “talks” you through project setup. The manufacturer has tons of carving patterns and projects on CDs.
On the other hand, if your interest is in the realm of furniture making, I think the Shark is your machine. It certainly has more appeal to me.
Work I currently do using templates could be done more quickly and accurately (and safely) with CNC. If I want to contour the bottom edge of a table’s apron, I first use CAD to draw the contour. Then I try to duplicate that line on a piece of MDF, saw the line, sand it and, if it looks right, trace along its edge on each workpiece. I saw the work close to the line, attach the template to the workpiece and carefully rout.
With CNC, I could draw the line in CAD, calculate the toolpath in CAM, and cut the workpieces with the CNC. No sawing and sanding and sawing again. And if I wanted to save the template to use again in the future, it’s on my computer’s hard drive. No clutter of dust-collecting templates in the shop.
Moreover, the techniques and tricks I learn using the Shark will apply should I move up to a larger machine. I can use the VCarve software with most any CNC router. I have to send both these tools back, but if I could keep just one, it’d be the Shark.