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CNC Routing: Uses, Router Machines, and Differences from Milling

Computer Numerical Control (CNC) routing is a versatile machining process that uses computer-controlled machines to cut, carve, and shape materials. CNC routers are widely used in various industries, including woodworking, metalworking, plastic fabrication, and even the production of composite materials.

This article explores the uses of CNC routing, the types of CNC router machines, and how CNC routing differs from milling.

what is a cnc router

What is a CNC Routing?

A CNC routing is a subtractive manufacturing process that uses computer numerical control to direct a rotary tool for cutting, carving, and shaping materials like wood, plastic, and soft metals. It typically involves a gantry-style machine where the spindle moves along the x, y, and z axes. Unlike traditional manual operations, CNC routing provides high precision and efficiency, transforming digital designs into tangible objects.

CNC routers are distinguished from standard CNC mills by their suitability for softer materials and limited z-axis travel, making them ideal for precision cutting but not deep holes or hard metals.

Components of a CNC Routing

A CNC router comprises several essential components that work together to enable precise and efficient material cutting and shaping:

  1. Table/Bed: Where materials are secured for cutting, the bed features clamping mechanisms to hold materials in place during operations.
  2. Frame: The frame provides structural integrity and stability, crucial for accurate cuts by minimizing vibrations.
  3. Controller: Serving as the machine’s brain, the CNC controller interprets instructions from CAM software into motor movements, ensuring precise execution of designs.
  4. Motors: Stepper or servo motors drive the movement along the X, Y, and Z axes, with servos offering superior accuracy through feedback mechanisms.
  5. Gantry: This bridge-like structure supports the spindle/router and moves along the X-axis, crucial for positioning and movement in the Y-axis.
  6. Spindle/Router: The cutting tool responsible for carving and shaping materials, varying in power and speed to accommodate different cutting needs.
  7. Ways and Axis Drive: Linear guides and drive mechanisms translate motor rotations into precise tool movements along the axes, influencing speed and accuracy.

How Does a CNC Router Work?

A CNC router operates by precisely moving a cutting tool to specific x, y, and z coordinates within its working area. The machine uses a router or high-speed spindle to remove material at designated locations. Advanced models may feature an Automatic Tool Changer (ATC) for seamless tool swapping.

These machines vary in build volume and axis configurations, controlled by computer software that executes CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) programs. CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software is used initially to create intricate designs, which are then translated into machine-readable G-code by CAM software. CNC routing excels in transforming digital blueprints into physical objects with exceptional accuracy and efficiency.

What Types of Materials Can a CNC Router Cut?

A CNC router is versatile in cutting a wide range of materials, each with specific properties and applications:

  1. Wood-Based Materials: CNC routers excel in sculpting and carving hardwoods like oak and walnut for furniture, as well as softer woods like pine for intricate designs. Plywood and MDF are also ideal for precision parts and templates.
  2. Plastics: From acrylics for signs to PVC, PLA and ABS for industrial components, plastics offer durability and versatility in CNC routing applications.
  3. Composite Materials: Lightweight and strong composites such as carbon fiber and fiberglass find use in aerospace and automotive industries for their high-performance capabilities.
  4. Non-Ferrous Metals: CNC routers can handle aluminum, brass, and copper, balancing strength and aesthetics for decorative arts and functional parts.
  5. Foam and Modeling Materials: Easily shaped materials like EVA foam and urethane are essential for rapid prototyping and architectural models.
  6. Other Specialty Materials: Rubber for gaskets, cork for bulletin boards, and Corian for countertops demonstrate the CNC router’s adaptability across diverse applications.
  7. Stone and Marble: Specialized CNC routers can engrave intricate designs on stone and marble, adding elegance to architectural features and personalized gifts.
router wood cnc

What Types of CNC Routers Machines are Out There?

Each type of CNC router offers distinct capabilities suited to different applications, from industrial manufacturing to hobbyist projects and specialized productions.

Type of CNC RouterDescriptionApplications
Industrial CNC RoutersDesigned for heavy-duty manufacturing. High precision and automation capabilities.Aerospace, automotive, furniture industries
Desktop CNC RoutersCompact, suitable for small workshops and prototyping. Versatile for wood, plastics, and soft metals.Designers, small businesses, educational purposes
Hobby CNC RoutersAffordable, entry-level machines for DIY projects. Versatile for wood, plastics, and foams.Hobbyists, DIY projects, small-scale production
ATC CNC RoutersAutomatic tool swapping during operations. Increases productivity and efficiency.Complex and high-volume projects
Nested-Based CNC RoutersOptimizes material usage with software-driven patterns. Maximizes yield in furniture and sheet metal industries.Furniture production, cabinetry, sheet metal fabrication
3-Axis CNC RoutersBasic movement in X, Y, and Z directions. Common for flat surface cutting and milling.Sign making, furniture production
4-Axis CNC RoutersAdds rotational axis (X-axis rotation). Enables machining on multiple sides of the workpiece.Complex shapes, sculptures
5-Axis CNC RoutersSimultaneous movement in five axes. Achieves intricate designs and smooth finishes.Aerospace components, high-precision parts

CNC Routing Operations

CNC routing encompasses a diverse range of operations tailored to meet specific manufacturing and design requirements. Here’s an overview of key CNC routing operations:

  1. Profiling: Cutting out shapes along outlines to produce parts with precise dimensions. Essential for fabricating components and creating decorative panels.
  2. Threading: Creating helical structures on materials for screws, bolts, and fasteners, crucial for assembly and production efficiency.
  3. Drilling: Creating cylindrical holes in materials for assembly, ventilation, or wiring purposes.
  4. Chamfering: Beveling edges of materials for assembly ease, safety, and aesthetic appeal.
  5. Engraving: Precision carving of patterns, letters, or images on various materials such as wood, metal, and acrylic. Commonly used for artwork, signage, and industrial labels.
  6. 3D Carving: Sculpting materials in three dimensions to produce complex shapes and prototypes.
  7. Ramping: Gradually entering or exiting material surfaces at angles to minimize tool wear and optimize cutting efficiency.
  8. Parting/Cutting Off: Separating parts from materials with precision cuts, minimizing waste and optimizing material usage.
  9. Facing: Creating flat surfaces on workpieces for further machining or aesthetic enhancement.
  10. Pocketing: Removing material to create cavities or recesses of specified depths, ideal for creating molds or machining slots.
  11. Reaming: Fine-tuning hole sizes and surface finishes to ensure precise fittings and assembly.
  12. Slotting: Cutting narrow grooves or slots in materials for functional and decorative purposes.
  13. Inlaying: Embedding materials within others for decorative patterns or functional reinforcement.

Each operation utilizes CNC routers’ precise control over cutting paths and depths, enhancing efficiency and consistency across various industries from manufacturing to artistic applications.

how to use a cnc router

What is a CNC Router Used For?

A CNC router is a versatile tool used across various industries to precisely cut, carve, and shape materials such as wood, plastic, metal, and foam. These machines excel in transforming digital designs into tangible objects with meticulous accuracy and efficiency.

In manufacturing, CNC routers are indispensable for creating intricate components and prototypes. They are widely utilized in sectors like furniture making, sign making, aerospace, automotive, and more. By automating the cutting process, CNC routers enhance production speed and consistency while minimizing human error.

The ability to handle diverse materials and execute complex designs makes CNC routers a cornerstone in modern manufacturing processes, catering to both small-scale workshops and large industrial operations.

Essential Tools for CNC Routing

CNC routing relies on a variety of tools that are crucial for achieving precision and efficiency in material processing.

Cutting Tools

Tool TypeDescriptionApplications
End MillsVersatile tools for drilling, slotting, and contouring.General-purpose cutting, intricate details, robust cuts on tough materials.
Ball Nose CuttersRounded tips for 3D contouring and smooth finishes.Sculpting, mold making, precision detailing in corners.
V-BitsSharp angles for engraving and fine detailing.Creating crisp lines, intricate designs, lettering.
Straight Cut BitsEssential for making straight cuts and slots.Partitioning materials, cutting out shapes.
Spiral BitsHelical design for smooth, efficient cutting.Reducing heat buildup, material removal.
Compression BitsCombines upward and downward spirals to prevent fraying.Cutting plywood, laminates, veneers.
Specialty BitsDesigned for specific applications like engraving or surfacing.Address unique challenges in CNC routing.

Work Holding Tools

Tool TypeDescriptionApplications
ClampsVersatile holding tools in various sizes.Securing different materials and shapes.
Vacuum Hold-down SystemsProvide secure, uniform hold over the entire workpiece.Delicate or irregularly shaped materials, high-precision work.
T-Slot TablesFlexibility in setup, allowing precise fixture configuration.Repetitive tasks, reduced setup time.
VicesStrong, stable hold for smaller workpieces.Metalworking, substantial force requirements.

Measurement and Setup Tools

Tool TypeDescriptionApplications
CalipersMeasures material thickness accurately.Quality control, ensuring specified dimensions.
Edge FindersAccurately locates workpiece edges.Setting the origin point for precise cuts.
Dial IndicatorsCalibrates machines and checks spindle runout.Maintaining CNC router accuracy, consistent performance.
Tool Length SensorsAutomates tool length offsets for depth calibration.Saving time, reducing errors in multi-tool operations.
cnc routing process

How Does a CNC Router Compare to Other CNC Machines?

A CNC router can be likened to other computer numerical control (CNC) machines like CNC mills and CNC laser cutters. However, what sets CNC routers apart is their ability to precisely cut and carve materials such as wood, plastic, metal, and foam with a rotating cutting tool.

Unlike CNC mills that excel in high-speed cutting of complex geometries in hard metals, CNC routers are ideal for softer materials and offer versatility in handling various shapes and designs. Laser cutters, on the other hand, use a laser beam for cutting and engraving, offering different capabilities depending on material type and thickness.

CNC Routing vs Milling

Here’s a comparison table between CNC routing and milling:

FeatureCNC RoutingCNC Milling
Primary OperationCutting and shaping wood, plastic, soft metalsCutting and drilling hard metals and other materials
Tool TypeRouter bitsEnd mills
Material TypesWood, plastic, foam, soft metalsMetals (aluminum, steel, titanium), plastics
Tool MovementTool moves along x, y, z axesTool rotates and moves along x, y, z axes
AccuracyHigh for intricate designsHigh for complex geometries
SpeedGenerally slowerGenerally faster
ApplicationsFurniture making, sign making, woodworkingMetalworking, automotive parts, aerospace
ComplexityLess suitable for hard metals and tight tolerancesIdeal for complex geometries and tight tolerances
VersatilityVersatile in handling various shapes and materialsSpecialized for specific materials and operations

Why Should You Use a CNC Router?

The primary benefit of a CNC router lies in its ability to automate and precisely execute complex cutting, carving, and shaping tasks with minimal human intervention. By using computer numerical control (CNC), these machines ensure consistent quality, high accuracy, and enhanced productivity in manufacturing processes.

CNC routers are invaluable in industries like furniture making, sign making, and aerospace, where precision and efficiency are paramount. They enable the production of intricate designs and prototypes efficiently, reducing production time and costs associated with manual labor.

What Software is Utilized in a CNC Router?

The software used in a CNC router primarily includes CAD (Computer-Aided Design) and CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) software. CAD software is utilized for designing detailed digital blueprints, while CAM software converts these designs into machine-readable G-code instructions.

CAD software allows users to create intricate designs with precise dimensions and specifications. CAM software then translates these designs into instructions that control the movement and operation of the CNC router. This process ensures accuracy and efficiency in manufacturing processes across various industries, from woodworking to metal fabrication.


CNC routing is a highly versatile and efficient method for cutting and shaping a wide range of materials. Understanding the different types of CNC router machines and their applications can help users select the right tool for their specific needs.

If you want to learn more about other information or services provided by BOYI, please feel free to contact our engineers for assistance.



What controls a CNC router?

A CNC router is controlled by computer numerical control (CNC) software that directs the machine’s movements and operations. This software interprets design files created in CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software and generates machine-readable instructions, typically in G-code format.

What type of CNC router is best to buy?

Beginners and DIY enthusiasts can consider Shapeoko, which is suitable for small-scale wood and foam projects. For users who require large-scale industrial production, ELECNC 2130 is recommended, which has automated loading, tool replacement, and component labeling functions, suitable for efficient production needs.

What sets apart a CNC router from Its spindle component?

A CNC router is the entire machine that moves a cutting tool across materials, while a spindle is the specific part that rotates the cutting tool for cutting operations. Lower-cost CNC routers often use standard off-the-shelf routers as spindles to reduce costs.

What is the brief history of CNC router machines?

CNC routing originated post-World War II with John T. Parsons and Frank L. Stulen’s development of the first numerical control system at MIT. This innovation evolved from punched-tape models to sophisticated computer-controlled machines. Richard J. Kegg further advanced the technology, making CNC routing widely accessible in manufacturing and fabrication.

How long does CNC routing typically take?

The duration of CNC routing varies widely, from a few minutes for simple cuts to several hours for intricate designs. Factors affecting the time include the complexity of the design, the material being used, the type of CNC router, the depth of cut, the need for tool changes, and the optimization of tool paths.

How much does CNC routing cost?

CNC routing costs vary widely. Machines range from $5,000 for hobby models to over $150,000 for industrial ones. Project complexity, material type, tooling, and labor also impact the total cost.

Catalog: CNC Machining Guide

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