Pocket-sized progress

There seems to be a big boom in little CNC machines and I’m curious as to how they fit – if they do – into today’s professional shops.

In an article by John English in the current (Feb. 2013) issue of Woodshop News, a couple of benchtop CNC machines caught my eye. These are nothing new, as there have been hobby and DIY versions of these for a number of years. But these new CNC machines aren’t toys, and are being marketed as serious machines for serious shops. Their specs (and the result of their work) seem to back that up.

The manufacturers of the Shopbot Desktop, CarveWright, Rockler Click-N-Carve and CNC Shark, the Velox Desktop, the Zenbot Mini and others are fighting what may be lingering notions of those extremely light-duty hobby machines of years past. But the real question is whether pro shops are ready to embrace these new little workhorses. Obviously, if you’re turning 5×10 panels into cabinet parts, your needs are far different. But what if you’re not?

There are plenty of pro woodworkers who earn a good living making things smaller than 24″ – box makers, sign makers and high-end crafters come to mind. Then there are those shops that make larger items that incorporate smaller components, such as decorative panels and inserts, who might benefit from this growing market segment.

So my question to you pros is this: Are these machines ready for prime time, and are you ready to for them? I’d like to know how you might use them, whether you’re considering one, or what’s holding you back. And I’d especially like to hear from those of you who already have one and are seeing results.



  • Chuck R says:

    Cost to benefit ratio prevails here – for my small shop and my high proficiency in hand cutting dovetails, etc., it’s not going to happen. Besides, my customers cherish my entirely hand made products.

  • John Gresko says:

    Hi A.J.
    I have been on the fence so to speak for several years and recently almost made a substantial purchase from one of the widely advertised machines.It seems that support for the brand I was interested in is a closely held veil. It was apparent that to learn how to successfully learn to operate it, one must use a lot of trial and error and are required to use that method according to one big dog at that brand cnc. To ask why they didn’t offer the most basic of a manual to assist in setting up and actually making your first part without the ‘ guess’ it might work method brought a stern admonishment to myself for even asking that question. It appears they want you or me to struggle with it as they once did years ago when cnc was just starting to go. I didn’t buy that machine but may buy another brand in the future. As that particular gentleman told me , cnc is not for everyone. Well he was right , his brand was not and will not be for me for sure.To summarize, I still believe they have a place, just choose wisely in your purchase. Thank You, John

  • Evan says:

    If I was working in an area that demanded a lot of decorative carvings, I could see having one of these machines. It could be a nice little niche business on its own.

    However, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, just about everything we do is in a modern or old craftsman home. The modern homes are all straight lines and shaker or slab doors, and the embellishments on the craftsmans are all straight-milled mouldings that are available off the shelf from a local supplier.

    For the occasional Victorian home, Enkeboll and Art For Everyday have such a broad catalog of designs that it’s hard to justify an original embellishment.

  • Jerry Finch says:

    I taught Wood Products Manufacturing at Fox Valley Technical College for 25 years, and the first CNC router we had, in 1987, was a Powermatic single spindle, 20HP, with a vacuum table that was 24 x 36 and a Fanuc control. The working field was only 16 x 30, but the students did amazing things on that machine, which we had for 10 years before getting a KOMO with a 5×10 ft table and a tool changer.
    One thing the students learned to do was THINK about the job and come up with fixtures that allowed larger pieces to be machined in the small working space. One student milled a piecrust edge on a cherry table top that was 36″ dia. He made a center-pivot fixture so that he could rotate 1/4 of the circumference into the working field at for each pass. It worked perfectly. Another use for the CNC router was milling perfect curved guide bases for shaper jigs and other machine jigs. Many people forget that the CNC router is almost as useful for that purpose as for making parts directly.

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