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CNC Router or Laser: How To Get Started

By Jim Diederich on March, 9 2022
Laser engraving a logo on a co2 laser

I often get asked by people looking to get started in CNC (computer numerical control) work, which kind of machine they should buy and why? This is definitely a good question, as there can be a lot of time invested into understanding how to operate a machine, design the files for cutting, and troubleshoot issues you may come across.

The first question I always ask is “Do you like computers?” Often times the person asking the questions is a retired individual looking for a hobby for small projects. If they do not like technology and computers, I would highly advise against purchasing a CNC to begin with. The first word in “CNC” is computer, after all. Maybe the traditional woodworking equipment like planers, bandsaws, and planers are more in line with their current and desired skill. There is nothing wrong with this at all. I grew up in a wood shop and made all kinds of furniture and it was a blast. That does not actually prepare you for CNC as much as you would think. CNC machines are 95 percent computer work, and 5 percent woodworking.

If you have sufficient computer knowledge or decide that you would like to learn those skills, then the next questions will likely be which type of machine to purchase. Most commonly I get asked if a CNC router or CNC laser is better. There is really not a correct answer to this question. The answer really depends on the user of the machine. I ask what makes them happy. You will be spending a lot of time with the machine and the related programs, and if the end project does not excite you, then you may want to look at a different machine. The best way to find out is simply to do an internet search for images of “laser CNC projects,” and just look at them. Scroll through hundreds of images and just see if you feel inspired. Then search for “CNC router projects,” and see how those make you feel.


CNC Choices 2

I did this practice myself when first looking into CNC equipment and I was surprised in what I found. Before I did this exercise for myself, I was convinced that I actually wanted a router. I was interested in lasers but I thought that would be a project for the future. I looked at images for routers for at least a half hour, and the same for the laser projects, and was very surprised to find that I was much more motivated by the laser projects. The laser offers accuracies and flexibility that not only better matched my design skills, but the projects just were more inspiring to make. This answer will not be the same for everyone, which is why it is important to look for yourself.

This all mostly applies to those looking for a hobby or potential business, but if you already have projects lined up, then the projects themselves will identify which machine you need. If you are cutting thick hardwoods for making furniture, then the router is the clear choice. If you are engraving photographs, then the laser is the better choice. There also is some overlap in the capabilities of the machines to consider. It is possible to cut through thick wood with a laser and even engrave with a router, but that is not necessarily the most efficient operation for those machines.

If you take the time to make sure that the machine you choose fits your needs and wants, you will find that working on the machine is not a chore, but an enjoyable experience. The more you can eliminate negative factors in your production, the more you will find that your creativity and drive will show through in the quality of your product. This will only make you happier, and your potential business even more successful.

Plus, you can always go back and buy whichever machine you didn’t get the first time! My ideal shop will have a laser and a router someday, but I am more than happy to be working with my Laguna laser every day!

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