What Is CNC Woodworking?

Maggie J. Hall

Computer numerical controlled, or CNC woodworking, involves mechanically moving wood cutting tools that receive instruction for particular cuts via a computer and software. Learning CNC woodworking encompasses the steps required for creating the design on the machinery performing the cuts. A computer, worktable, lathes and routers typically comprise a CNC woodworking system.

Professionals who do CNC woodworking need a number of skills and years of practice to program the CNC machine.
Professionals who do CNC woodworking need a number of skills and years of practice to program the CNC machine.

The first step in CNC woodworking requires creating the two or three-dimensional design the operator wants the machinery to replicate. The hobbyist or operator then recreates the design in the computer aided design (CAD) program. The software requires information about the size and type of material receiving the cuts. The program illustrates the dimensions of the material on x, y, and z axes before and after the wood removal occurs.

The computer aided machining (CAM) translates the illustration into language that the computer comprehends. Different tool palettes create varied cuts, and the operator must choose which tool pattern or patterns he wants to use. The software also enables the user to enter the exact coordinates of the cuts, which indicate the location on the work surface receiving the cuts or wood removal. The program designates when and where the machining starts, stops, and what directions the cutting tool must follow. The operator also enters the speeds at which the cutting tool starts, stops, and performs each cut.

Machinists often refer to the entire program containing all the required cuts as a G-code, which is a file containing a specific design. Files are often saved and used repeatedly as a template for future work or modified according to size or style dimensions. Industrial woodworking environments typically use CNC machine templates to create a number of replicated pieces. The G-code transfers this information to the cutting tool through controllers. This equipment links the machinery and worktable with the computer through motors and cables.

The last step involved in CNC woodworking involves creating the actual product. With the information entered into the computer, the computer linked with the machinery, and the machinery turned on, the CNC system creates the finished product. The types of woodworking tools required for a CNC operation depend on the user. The cutting tool itself may be nothing more than a small rotary hand tool mounted on a do-it-yourself table. The worktable may be commercially manufactured or also homemade.

As the computer must only contain one program, many hobbyists implement much older models of machines into a CNC system, saving hundreds of dollars. CNC software downloads from the Internet cost anywhere from nothing to thousands of dollars, depending on the complexity of the program. The cables and motors controlling the machinery might cost a few hundred to a few thousand dollars and are typically the most expensive aspect of CNC woodworking.

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