Cross-Training: Cabinetmaker to CNC Operator/Programmer

An experienced cabinetmaker asks what he needs to learn to get up to speed on CNC equipment. September 28, 2009

I am a cabinetmaker with over 25 years experience, mostly in the very high end market. I live in Port Saint Lucie, Florida and have been unemployed since October. The only opportunities I'm seeing is for CNC operators. I have been using a visual CAD for 16 years and recognize I need to learn how to operate a CNC router. Is there a program that is considered the industry standard, as AutoCAD is to architecture? And where do I go to find out about training in my area?

Forum Responses
(CNC Forum)
From contributor D:
These are hard times - we have had many layoffs this year and I believe if I hadn't secured my position by learning CNC about six years ago, I'd be unemployed as well. My view is that most experienced woodworkers make the best programmers and not the other way around. There have been some college grads in this shop that were pretty worthless. I imagine if I were in your shoes I'd target the job first, then tailor skills for it. Like if you know of jobs available where experience with a particular brand of machine or software is needed, then I'd try to get demo software and take a class at a community college that specifically uses that machine or software. Plenty of experienced CNC guys have come in here and had just as long a learning curve with unfamiliar software as a good woodworker who is also computer savvy. Some even have it harder because old habits with another machine die hard. This is one of those jobs that you learn every day in, so the sooner you get into it, the better.

From contributor S:
AutoCAD would be a good start. The last 2 CNCs I've worked on have been programmed in AutoCAD. I think all CNCs can be programmed with AutoCAD as long as you can write a post for the machine you want to use.

From contributor M:
The short answer is no, there is not an industry standard such as AutoCAD for writing code to the CNC. AutoCAD is a very good program to know, but it is not the norm for programming a CNC. It is possible but other packages written specifically for the purpose are much more powerful. AutoCAD excels at creating geometry. Other programs excel at toolpathing, nesting and export to the CNC. There are still other programs out there like Cabinetware, Cabinet Vision and Microvellum (which incidentally is built around AutoCAD). These have a useful place in a cabinet shop as well, but are more than just a CNC package in that they integrate design, pricing, graphics and many other functions as well as export to the CNC.

Some hardware manufacturers like Thermwood or Holz-Her supply a package with their machine. Others like MultiCam or Onsrud tend to direct you toward a separate package (an advantage, I think, but a debate for another thread).

The closest thing you are likely to find to an industry standard is AlphaCam or MasterCam. These are excellent platforms, hugely versatile, support nesting and point-to-point and are fairly widespread in the industry.

Everyone out there has an opinion on what software is best, but you don't need to get sucked into that discussion. If you want to find employment, experience with one of these two is likely to get you furthest. Alpha I know for sure offers training in Charlotte, and I have to believe MasterCam has a similar program.

From contributor B:
AutoCAD will not produce code to run a router or any CNC machine. It's just a CAD program, not a CAM program, which is what you need to program a CNC machine. We use AlphaCam - it's real easy to learn. I used to use Mastercam and it is very similar to AlphaCam. These are pretty much the standard programs companies are using now. I'd say get a job as an operator and the programming will come to you. You will have to learn to make edits and running the code enough times, you begin to see what is happening. Nothing beats on-the-job training. That's how I got started. Parts are parts, so once you learn the software, you can program anything you can draw or someone else draws. It's actually a fun job.