Desktop-sized digital technology priced for the home workshop.
by Tim Celeski
Generally, CNCs suited for woodworking have heavy construction for stable motion, precision tracking for accuracy and the power to carve through hard woods easily. They come in sizes from very small to huge and are priced from $3,000-$12,000 (and beyond).
Until now, there have been few CNC options for woodworkers on tight budgets with small shops. There’s a class of CNCs designed for “makers” – hobbyists who build all kinds of things using the latest technology – but these are usually light duty and not suited to machining solid wood. But a new machine, the Shapeoko XL from Carbide 3D, is.
The Shapeoko XL has a desktop-sized footprint – a cutting area of 33″ x 17″ x 3″. It’s priced at $1,499. And, if you have more room, consider the 33″ x 33″ x 3″ XXL version for $200 more.
Both come as simple-to-build kits. I put my evaluation unit, the XL, together in just two hours. For a spindle (the cutter), the user supplies a DeWalt DWP611 or a Makita RT0701C trim router (Carbide 3D offers both at reasonable prices).
The gantry (the crossbar that holds the router) straddles the wide axis, making it possible to machine boards up to 32″ wide. At less than 85 pounds, the Shapeoko XL is small and light, but it’s plenty stiff. On a CNC, the gantry and the beams that support it can flex as the machine moves; that creates inaccuracy. But Carbide 3D’s extruded aluminum beams are unusually large and thick. Combined with a light spindle and a 10-gauge steel frame, the XL doesn’t suffer from its small size; there is little measurable gantry or bed flex.
With the kit are other key ingredients for newbie digital woodworkers, including the free Carbide Create, a basic 2D CAD/CAM program to create drawings that then work with the CNC’s Carbide Motion Software that runs the machine. (Other CAD/CAM programs will work with it, too, but Create is included to get you going.) Unusual in the CNC world, both programs work on Windows and Macintosh operating systems.
So what is it like to use the XL in a woodworking shop? Though the cutting speed is about 75″ per minute, it doesn’t feel slow. (“Inches per minute” is how CNC speed is specified; more expensive units are not only larger, but faster.) Thanks to fairly large stepper motors, rapid moves (movements between positions) are quick.
It’s also fairly accurate, within .005″-007″. But because it is lightweight and has a small spindle, a measured approach is required for cutting solid wood. Small bits limit cuts to 1⁄8“-1⁄4” per pass, depending on species, with a maximum total cut depth of 1″. With patience and practice, you can get much of the work done you’d do on a larger machine. I’ll get into more detail, techniques, tweaks and modifications on my popularwoodworking.com blog in future posts.
The Shapeoko XL is an excellent entry-level CNC, particularly with the addition of two accessories: The company’s digital XYZ touch probe ($120) makes precision setup a snap. And for easy cleanup, the third-party SuckIt magnetic dust boot ($89.50) takes the dust away.
From the December 2017 issue, #236