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CNC: Beginners Get Started Here
Who would’ve thought anyone that wanted one could have a CNC machine right in their own home workshop? You can buy completed machines from companies like Tormach or Carbide3D for very reasonable prices or you can build your own machine, either from scratch or as a conversion of an existing manual machine. Once you have your machine and know how to use it, you’ll be able to make beautiful parts quickly and easily. But, there is a challenge–knowing how to use CNC to create your parts requires you to pick up a number of different kinds of knowledge. It’s not hard, but it’s also not very well organized or accessible. Until now.
With this page, we’re going to bring together links to articles that cover all the basics you’ll need to use a CNC machine or to get started with the planning to buy or make a CNC machine. If you go through these articles, you’ll wind up with a solid grounding in the basics. You’ll know how things fit together and you’ll have the basic background you need to dig deeper into other areas of CNC you get interested in. We’ll also organize the page so the order the concepts and articles are presented is an ideal order for you to learn things in. But, you don’t have to stick to that order if you don’t want to. Feel free to jump around and check out whatever interests you.
1. Learn the Basic CNC Concepts
This interactive infographic article walks you through all the steps needed to make a CNC Part. Consider it your map to the treasure that is understanding how it all fits together.
This article will get you quickly into an overview of the kinds of knowledge you’ll be learning. It suggests you find someone locally who can do a little mentoring. While it’s possible to learn CNC without a mentor, it can be dramatically easier to have someone show you certain skills versus having to learn them watching videos or reading articles.
Wondering what the heck this CNC stuff is? Try this article. A little basic history often helps to get oriented. It’s amazing that individuals can build or own machines that rival the power of the original CNC machines being created for defense and aerospace applications.
There’s more than one kind of CNC Machine available to you: 3D Printers, CNC Plasma Tables, CNC Routers, and CNC Milling Machines being the most common. This article will help you understand what these machines are and what sorts of parts can be made with them. It also tries to assess the costs and difficulties associated with building one as a DIY project.
This is a good time for you to get an overview of the different kinds of software associated with CNC and how they work together. See what the basic CNC Software “Stack” consists of and learn where other software fits in.
Keep this link handy in case you hit a term you don’t know. Our CNC Dictionary to make it easy to find out what all the terms mean.
Do you like good old fashioned books on paper? Here are the 7 best books for CNC’ers that I know.
2. Learn Basic Tooling and Workholding
Having gotten a few basics under our belts at the 10,000 foot level, it’s time to delve a bit into some of the basic tooling and workholding every machinist should know, CNC or otherwise. Note that the articles in this section are a bit specialized. Choose the ones that are appropriate to the kind of machine you’ll actually be using first, then branch out and see how some of the other machines work for comparison.
Learn the basics of cutters used with CNC Milling Machines.
Upcut, Downcut, Compression Cutters, Straight Flutes, Diamond Cutters: There are quite a few different cutter types in the CNC Router arsenal, and it’s important for CNC Router users to have a basic idea of what each one is for.
This article on tooling up a CNC lathe will give you a good introduction to the types of cutters you’ll be using with a lathe.
Milling Vises, Step Clamps, Fixture Plates, and all the rest. There’s a plethora of workholding solutions available for mills and this article walks through them.
Spoilboards, Clamps, Vacuum Tables, and more.
We’ve categorized the different workholding methods for lathes based on their precision, repeatability, and convenience. This makes it easy to choose the most convenient workholding solution that will work for your application.
All the many ways to turn parts with round features not concentric.
Hey, that cutter has to be held in the spindle somehow–what’s the best way?
Properties of different metals and how to
finish them for best appearance.
3. Learn Enough G-Code and CNC Machine Basics to Use a CNC Like a Manual Machine Tool
Full on CNC programs are capable of doing some very complex things. It’s almost magical to watch a complex CAD drawing first get converted to g-code by CAM software and then to see the actual 3 dimensional part taking shape (as it were) as all the chips that are not finished part get machined away. Because the process seems complex to the uninitiated, it’s very easy for manual machinists to conclude its only good for making really complex parts or large production runs of simple parts. But you can do most anything on a CNC Machine that can be done on the manual tool and often faster and better. It’s worth learning how to do basic manual-style machining on your CNC if you’ve ever done any manual machining because your learning curve will be short and you’ll suddenly see how a lot of things go together. But even if you’ve never done any manual machining, it’s still worth knowing how to do the simple things easily, without recourse to CAD or CAM, because again, it keeps the learning curve to getting simple things made less daunting.
The other reason to learn g-code at least this well is you’re going to see it flowing by on your machine controller’s screen. You’ll understand what the machine is doing a lot better if you can equate them most common g-codes you see coming up with what the machine is likely to do when it executes them. You’ll also have a much easier time making simple changes to the g-code programs your CAM software generates, which can save you a lot of time and effort.
To satisfy this learning goal, we’ll draw on some of the first chapters of our free online G-Code Course. This course is very comprehensive and you can keep going with it if you want to learn all the ins and outs of g-code. But, to learn enough G-Code to use a CNC like a manual machine tool, you want to start with these:
More on what you can do with g-code, basic concepts, and an interactive tool to help you learn faster.
Is it a right-handed or left-handed coordinate system?
The great thing about standards is there are so many to choose from.
Pretend your CNC is just a manual machine with DRO’s and Power Feeds on every axis.
In addition to chapters from our G-Code Tutorial, here’s a couple from our Blog that are optional, but can help:
Let’s boil it down to exactly which g-codes you need to know to run your CNC like a manual machine. There’s only 9 and they’re very easy.
This hot potato is always a little contentious, but worth discussing. We’re talking here about learning to use a CNC like a manual machine tool, which sort of implies you know how to use a manual machine tool and just want a quick way to get your CNC to do something. Not everyone starts out learning manual machining.
Make a Part, Manual Machining Style
Get a Wizard’s Help for G-Code Without CAM Software
4. Learn CAD So You Can Draw Your Parts
3 Step Process for Choosing CAD Software: Pick the right one for your needs.
CNC Beginner’s Guide to Learning CAD: How to learn your chosen CAD package well.
5. Learn CAM Software to Generate G-Code
CNC Beginner’s Guide to Learning CAM: How to select a CAM package and learn it.
6. Put It All Together to Make a Part
If you’re still with us, you have the basic skills and a great foundation for CNC. It’s time to put it all together and make a part. Just a few more skills and an understanding of the overall workflows and you’ll be there.
Basic Feeds and Speeds
Part Zero, Tool Length, and Homing: How the Machine Knows Where Everything Is
Let’s Make a Part!
How Do I Graduate from Beginner?
“Beginner” Blog Category: Best Blog posts for beginners.
How About Some Free CAD Files to Play With?
Start out with these simple designs you can use to make cool signs and engravings. They’re a great way for you to practice your CNC techniques with proven graphical designs.