CNC Basics: What Do You Need to Get Started?

CNC for begginers

Thinking of getting into the world of CNC machining? You’ll need a few things to get started. No matter what you plan on creating with your machine, you’ll likely need the same tools, supplies and equipment.

CNC Basics: What You Need to Get Started

A CNC Machine

The first and most obvious thing you will need is a CNC machine. The type of machine you choose will depend on what you’re using it for. 

  • CNC Milling: A common type of CNC machine that can move and make cuts in various ways. These machines can carry out a number of functions, including shoulder milling, face milling, turning, tapping and drilling. Some models have a six axes configuration, while others have a three axes design.
  • CNC Lathe: These machines make circular cuts while the workpiece is being rotated. They have fewer axes, which allows for a more compact design compared to CNC milling machines.
  • CNC Router: Similar to a handheld router used by carpenters and woodworkers. CNC routers can also be used to cut other materials, such as aluminum, steel, plastic, foam and composites. These machines come in three-axes, four-axes, five-axes and six-axes options.
  • CNC Plasma Cutter: Cuts materials using a plasma torch. These machines are ideal for cutting metal and other heavy materials. They use electrical arcs and gas to reach temperatures of 10,000 to 50,000 degrees, which is hot enough to melt whatever surface needs to be cut.
  • CNC Laser Cutter: Similar to a plasma cutter, CNC laser cutters use lasers to make cuts in metals, hardwoods or plastics. In most cases, the laser’s intensity can be adjusted to meet the project’s needs.
  • CNC Electric Discharge Machine (EDM): These machines create shapes in materials by using sparks, or electrical discharges.

These are the most common types of CNC machines. When choosing a machine, consider what types of projects you’ll be working on. Some types are more versatile than others. 

Collets

A collet is a component that holds the cutting tool in the spindle motor shaft. They come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, so you’ll need to find ones that fit your machine.

Collets compress themselves around the shank of the cutting tool. This creates pressure that helps keep the cutting tool firmly in place while cutting.

Like any other component, collets are subject to wear and tear. They should be replaced regularly to avoid:

  • Cutter slippage. 
  • Lower cut quality due to the cutter being thrown off-center.
  • Damaging your machine.

Having some extra collets on hand will help ensure that you can replace them regularly.

Software

CNC machines are controlled by computer software. 

  • CAD software is used to design the part using a 2D drawing or 3D model.
  • CAM software then analyzes the CAD drawing, and converts it to GCode for the CNC machine.
  • The CNC machine executes the code.

CNC machinists may have several types of software in their arsenal, including CNC utilities that help calculate feeds and speeds.

CAD

Choose your CAD software carefully. This is the program you’ll use to create your designs, so you’ll likely be spending the most time using this software.

You’ll find both desktop and cloud versions of CAD software. The right one for you really depends on your personal preference. You should be able to find free trials for both types, so you can give each a test run to see which one you like best.

CAM

Some CAD software programs have CAM capability built-in, which will make your life easier. An all-in-one solution is ideal, but if you can’t find a program that meets your needs, you will need separate CAD and CAM software.

CNC Controller

You’ll also need to consider CNC control software, which serves as your machine’s front panel.

Professionals typically use OEM turnkey controllers. This means that the software and hardware is built into one machine. These should be a control panel on the machine itself that allows you to control its functions.

You can also find PC software that can turn your computer into your machine’s controller. You’ll find a variety of software programs for this purpose. They’re ideal for hobbyists, but they don’t offer the same level of control that OEM turnkey options offer.

GCode Editors and Debuggers

Some CNC machinists use GCode editors and debuggers as well. CNC programmers can use these platforms to improve GCode, write new code or analyze current code outside of CAM software.

Why bother doing this when the CAM software converts your CAD drawing to GCode for you? Most people use these programs to fine-tune their code in a way that CAM software cannot do or makes it too difficult to do.

People may also use GCode debuggers to check for errors before running their code. Errors are more common than you might think. CAM software isn’t perfect, so running a debugger can help you catch these issues before you start working on a piece.

You can also use these programs to learn GCode, which is an important part of CNC machining. The right editor will make it easy to learn GCode, and many have wizards that make it even easier. Eventually, you can start writing GCode from scratch.

Not everyone will want or need a GCode editor and debugger, but it’s something worth considering if you want your machine to perform more complex cuts.

Working Space and Materials

Of course, you’ll need a space to work and use your machine. Having a designated workshop is ideal, but it’s still certainly possible to do your work out of a garage. 

Make sure that you consider things like dust collection and ventilation when designing your shop.

You’ll also need materials for your projects and a place to store your materials. 

Summary

Getting started with CNC machining isn’t as complicated as it seems. There’s a learning curve, but you only need a handful of items to get your operations up and running. The two most important decisions you’ll have to make is choosing the type of CNC machine you need and the software you want to use.

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