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cnc router

CNC Routing: A Comprehensive Guide for Experts

CNC routing is an automated process that uses a specialized tool to cut materials such as wood, plastics, polyurethane foam, and soft metals into various shapes.

This technology uses CNC machines that follow computer-generated machine instructions to move high-speed tools to different coordinates and machine-preferred designs. Understanding everything about this machining approach is essential to derive peak benefits.

This explores the basics of CNC routing, how it works, and the essential components of a CNC router. You will also learn more about the various CNC router types and the benefits and limitations of the process by reading to the end!

What Is CNC Routing?

what is cnc routing
What Is CNC Routing

CNC routing is one of the standard machining approaches in modern manufacturing. It involves shaping compatible materials into specific shapes or geometry with a specialized rotary tool called a router. However, the tooling and capabilities of this machining process differ from other standard CNC machining methods. Besides, CNC routing allows a more extensive range of motion along the Z-axis than a CNC milling machine.

A routing machine utilizes a specialized tool known as a router with a rotating bit. This CNC router rotates across the workpiece based on the programmed instruction (G-code) and predetermined paths to execute the machining operations. A typical CNC router has a gantry-style configuration where the spindle moves left and right along the X-axis and back and forth on the Y-axis. However, note that a CNC mill differs from a CNC mill because they are not designed to handle high-speed cutting of intricate features and geometries in harder metals.

How Does a CNC Router Work?

how does a cnc router work
How Does a CNC Router Work

Computer-controlled routing is an indispensable process in different industries. The CNC (Computer Numerical Control) router works following a series of meticulous steps or stages, which help to ensure the final product matches the customer’s specifications. Here is a breakdown of how the CNC router carries out its operation:

  • Design Creation: The CNC routing process starts with design creation, the final product’s conceptual blueprint. Product designers use CAD software to draft detailed models, including all specifications, tolerances, and features.
  • CNC Language Conversion: After the design modeling, the next thing is to convert the CAD model into a CNC machine language (Geometric-code). The CAM software programs are reliable tools for converting design intricacies into machine instructions.
  • Machine Setup: You must use the right machine tools and CNC router bits to set the machine up for routing operation to achieve the desired outcomes. Likewise, ensure the workpiece is firmly secured in the machine bed.
  • Zero Positioning: The CNC router bit is programmed at the starting point (0, 0, 0, referencing)
  • Machining: The CNC routing task begins after the machine has been correctly set up and calibrated. Following the G-code directives, the CNC router bit rotates at high RPM to remove material across the predetermined toolpaths.
  • Surface Finishing: You may have to apply additional finishing operations like deburring, sandblasting, and brushing if the as-machined finish doesn’t match the intended aesthetics or functionality.
  • Quality Control: This is the final checkpoint where you must ensure that the finished part meets all specifications and quality standards. It includes inspecting the workpiece for dimensions and surface finish accuracy, guaranteeing the CNC routing process fulfills the highest standards.

Main Components of CNC Router Machine

cnc controller
CNC Controller

A CNC router typically has various components, each performing a unique role and function. The combination of these components completes the CNC routing process and contributes to the overall performance and versatility of the CNC router. Here are the typical CNC router components:

Frame and Gantry

This CNC router frame is a stand with legs made from steel or high-grade aluminum. It is regarded as the backbone of the CNC router because it withholds the exerted cutting force and reduces flexing or vibration, ensuring machine rigidity and stability.

Also, the gantry is a bridge-like structure that supports the spindle and cutting head movements. Hence, it ensures smooth movements and stability of the CNC router for clean cuts and intricate details.

CNC Controller

A computer controller and motor drivers interpret the G-code tool paths from the CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) software packages, converting them to electronic signals that guide the motors’ movement. This machine controller is the brain of the CNC routing operation. This interface receives the programmed command and monitors the routing process, ensuring the CNC router creates more accurate designs.


spindle router

The spindle or router is a principal component of the CNC router responsible for engraving, carving, and shaping workpiece material. The spindle/router exhibits a wide range of cutting capabilities due to its varying power and speed, allowing delicate engraving or deep, aggressive cuts.

However, the project’s specific requirements determine the choice between a hand-held router and a specific one, including the design’s intricacy and material hardness.


Table/beds in CNC routers are flat surfaces with T-slots or hold-down systems, allowing fixtures and clamps. These tables or beds position and hold the workpiece firmly for machining. Furthermore, CNC router beds have tool-path sensors or sometimes spoil boards of MDF. However, the table’s design determines the compatible materials and the precision of each cut.

Axis Drive System

The axis drive system, which includes the rack and ball screws, changes the motor’s rotational movement into linear motion. This movement drives the gantry and spindle across the material. The axis drive system employs stepper motors to drive the router axes, controlling the cutting tool along the X, Y, and Z axes. This drive system influences the machine’s accuracy, speed, and ability to work on various materials.

Types of CNC Routers

automatic tool changer cnc router
Automatic Tool Changer CNC Router

There are various machines in the world of CNC routing, each specially engineered to fulfill the specific needs of your project. This section discusses the different CNC routers available based on their characteristics, capabilities, and applications:

ATC (Automatic Tool Changer) CNC Routers

Automatic tool changer routers are intricate machinery with an automated tool-changing mechanism allowing them to swap out tools without machinists’ intervention. Moreover, this attribute improves productivity and efficiency significantly, most notably in tasks requiring multiple cutting tool types.

ATC routers are mainly applicable in production environments where time is a primary factor, and precision is of the essence. Their extraordinary capability to mitigate downtime and human error makes them valuable assets for large-scale, complex projects.

3-Axis CNC Routers

3-axis CNC routers are the standard and most widely used CNC routers with the ability to move in their directions. These include X-axis (left to right), Y-axis (front to back), and Z-axis (up and down). The versatility of 3-axis CNC routers makes them applicable for extensive cutting, milling, and drilling applications across flat surfaces.

Since they are efficient and straightforward, beginners and experts widely use 3-axis CNC routers in machining signs, furniture, and other intricate designs on flat surfaces.

4-Axis Routers

The 4-axis CNC routers expand the 3-axis machines by introducing an extra axis of rotation, allowing the workpiece to rotate along the X-axis. This additional flexibility allows the creation of highly complex shapes and designs like sculptures or parts that must be machined on several sides.

These particular CNC routers are applicable in industries with high demand for precision and multidimensional cutting because they can create more complex geometries without manually repositioning the workpiece.

5-Axis Routers

5 axis cnc machining diagram
5 Axis CNC Machining Diagram

5-axis CNC routers are highly versatile CNC routing machines able to move along five axes simultaneously. As a result, these machines can make undercuts and cut complex shapes, providing smoother surface finishes.

5-axis CNC routers are best suited for advanced manufacturing applications that require intricate design tasks, such as high-precision parts, architectural elements, and aerospace components. They offer endless possibilities for innovation and design versatility due to their unique capability to cut the workpiece from virtually any angle or direction.

Desktop CNC Routers

As implied by the name, they are compact CNC machines built to fit in a small workshop space or on a desk. These CNC routers are best suited for handling smaller projects and prototyping because they offer a cost-effective solution for those new to the CNC routing world or with limited space.

Desktop CNC routers provide outstanding precision and versatility, perfect for machining plastic, wood, and soft metals regardless of size. Their ease of maintenance makes them the most widely used CNC routers among hobbyists, designers, and small businesses.

Hobby CNC Routers

This CNC routing machine is engineered especially for DIYers and enthusiasts who practice CNC routing for personal projects or low-volume production. These machines balance low cost and performance, providing a gateway into CNC machining without requiring industrial-grade equipment investment.

Hobby CNC routers are sophisticated enough to handle different materials like plastics, wood, and foam. Hence, they are ideal for making unique items like home décor and prototypes.

Industrial CNC Routers

Industrial CNC routers are designed to handle heavy-duty machining jobs. These powerhouses of CNC technology are engineered with robustness and durability. Hence, they can handle large volumes of work faster and with high precision.

These routers feature innovative automation capabilities like ATC (Automatic Tool Changer) systems and high-end software interfaces for handling complex tasks efficiently. Industrial CNC routing applications include engraving, cutting, and shaping different manufacturing materials for automotive, aerospace, and furniture. Moreover, they are perfect for high-volume operations because of their precision and high production capacity.

Nested-Based CNC Routers

These CNC routers are specially engineered to arrange patterns to be cut to reduce waste, optimizing material usage and efficiency. Nested-based CNC routers are used in sheet metal fabrication, cabinetry, and furniture production industries.

This type of CNC router offers economic and environmental benefits due to its ability to combine precision cutting with software-driven optimization, minimizing waste and maintaining superior quality standards.

CNC Routing Benefits and Limitations

cnc routing benefits and limitations
CNC Routing Benefits and Limitations

The CNC routing process is widely used across industries for its extensive benefits. Here are some of the expected benefits:

  • Although CNC routers are significantly less expensive than CNC milling machines, they offer excellent results when cutting soft materials.
  • CNC routers with large working areas allow the processing of a full sheet of raw material at a time. As a result, you can machine bigger and larger amounts of smaller parts without consistent material reloading.
  • CNC routers are compatible with different router bits, allowing the creation of different intricate features and designs.
  • CNC routers deliver precise and repeatable cuts with high accuracy and speed since they use a computer numerical control.
  • Some CNC routing machines can do more than do more than 2-dimensional cutting in the Z-axis. Hence, this enables blind depth cuts like flattening surfaces, dados, counterbored holes, and rabbets in woodworking that are impossible with CNC laser cutting techniques.

Regardless of the benefits of the CNC routing process, the approach has certain limitations. Below are common ones:

  • Typical CNC routing machines generate loud noise due to their vacuum system.
  • It is generally difficult for CNC router machines to cut hard materials, including titanium and steel.
  • The bed size of CNC routers restricts the workpiece size, resulting in design changes that demand too much time.

How Is a CNC Router Different from a Spindle?

Although CNC routers and spindles perform similar functions, cutting a wide range of materials, spindle and router-based CNC cutting machines are available on the market nowadays. However, they differ in performance and applications because the CNC router uses high cutting speed and low torque. On the other hand, the spindle operates at low cutting speed and high torque. The runout for a CNC router ranges from 0.0010 to 0.0015 inches, while a spindle has 0.0002 inches or less.

Typical applications of CNC routing machines include engraving, furniture, soft metal, and plastic parts, as well as prototypes. Conversely, the spindle is well-suited for heavy-duty industrial applications that involve hard materials because of its immense power and better bearings. However, evaluating criteria such as workpiece material, design complexity, operational volume, cost, and precision requirements is advisable when choosing between a CNC router and a spindle.


CNC routing is a versatile, subtractive manufacturing technology with high precision and accuracy. Many CNC routers are mainly designed for cutting softer materials. Besides, gantry-style CNC routers are often less stiff than typical CNC mills when cutting more rigid materials. However, this guide has discussed everything you need to choose the suitable CNC router machine for your project.

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AT-Machining Top China One-Stop CNC Machine Shop

AT-Machining is the best CNC machining expert to contact whenever you need professional assistance getting your own CNC router. We have cutting-edge machinery and well-trained professionals capable of handling any design of CNC routing. We provide a vast array of CNC machining services across industries, with manufacturing services ranging from rapid prototyping of custom parts to mass production. Our experienced engineers and machinists work closely to ensure your products fulfill all design and quality requirements. Submit your CAD files now for instant and reliable quotes.

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