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Our Build a CNC Router course is coming up again in April, and I’m really excited about it. I love building, programming and using CNC routers, but seeing the photos from students in this class is even more fun. So many people have built their own machines over the past year, and they’ve shared photos of the process and their finished projects in the course galleries.

A Build a CNC Router student incorporated a drag chain in his build.

A drag chain (that black plastic thing) keeps wire organized in this student’s CNC router.

The project is fairly straightforward, and anyone with a few basic tools and woodworking skills can build it. In previous sessions, some people followed the plans exactly. But a few students made some simple modifications and improvements. One of the first tweaks to the design was the drag chain shown above that keeps the wires organized and out of the way. For just a few dollars, the student who built this machine was able to make a huge improvement to the look and performance.

Kevin from Build a CNC Router made his own shaft collars from MDF.

A student in Build a CNC Router saved a few bucks by making his own shaft collars out of MDF.

There are several mechanical components in the project, and I’ve linked to a website where students can purchase them. But it’s possible to save a few bucks by making some of those components, which is exactly what Kevin R. did to the machine shown above. There are four metal collars on each axis that hold the shafts in place, but they could be made out of MDF. That’s a good way to save about $50, and you can see how this works in the photo.

Tony from Build a CNC Router used t-track on his machine.

The t-tracks on this machine provide a way to clamp workpieces in place during routing.

Workholding is one of the biggest challenges in CNC routing. Big commercial machines use vacuum systems to keep parts in place, but smaller machines can make use of mechanical clamps. Tony S. routed a couple of dados into the X-axis of his router and installed t-tracks. Now he can use clamps and feather boards to hold workpieces during routing. Tony’s build should be encouraging for people who think they’re too set in their ways to try this new technology. He’s getting into CNC at 70 years old.

One student in Build a CNC Router made the moving-gantry version of the machine.

This machine has a larger working area because of the moving gantry.

My favorite modification is from a student named Ray S. I included two SketchUp models in the course: one for a fixed-gantry machine and another for a moving-gantry version. Most students have opted to build the fixed-gantry machine because the course focuses on that one. But Ray built the moving-gantry CNC. He also made a few sweet upgrades. To provide additional support for the X-axis, he set two pieces of tube steel into notches in the front and back of the machine. He added an emergency stop button, which any experienced CNC operator can tell you will come in handy sooner or later. In addition, his machine is light and strong because he built it with 3/4” plywood instead of MDF.

Here's one of the first completed projects in Build a CNC Router.

Here’s one of the first completed projects in Build a CNC Router.

As much as I love these modifications, I was thrilled when I saw the first student photos of the machine exactly, or in some cases, almost exactly as I designed it. Kent D. was one of the first students to finish the project. That’s Kent’s CNC router in the photo above.

Build a CNC Router is always a fun course, and I think that’s because there’s so much interaction between students. When someone asks a question in the discussion, other students often reply before I have a chance to put in my two cents. I’ve had mechanical engineers, electricians and machinists in the course, and they’ve all helped out with valuable input. Now this is why we do online courses at Popular Woodworking!

—Nick Lieurance

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