Whether to Invest in a CNC Machine

Should a part-time woodworker with a small shop make the jump to CNC? April 18, 2015

Question (WOODWEB Member) :
I've scoured the archives countless times and although I realize similar questions have been asked and answered I'm hoping for some feedback unique to my situation. I have a good paying full time job (started out part time) with flexible hours and don't want to leave it yet. I built a new shop (1700 sq ft) on my property this fall and I would eventually like this to turn into a full time job but don't have the desire to grow past a single man shop (don't see myself being a good employer).

My ideal work would be custom cabinetry and built-ins. I enjoy getting maximum functionality out of a given space and I am happy to sub out doors and drawers. My question is what to do about equipment. Right now I've just got the basics: cabinet saw, chop saw, router table, jointer, band saw, planer, table top edge bander, and DC system.

Where do I go from there? Does it make sense to start accumulating a used vertical panel saw, line boring equipment, etc. one piece at a time or would I be better off spending more up front and going with a basic CNC right off the bat that could be expanded as I grow (vacuum system, tool changer, higher HP spindle)? I like the idea of saving time cutting and grooving parts since I'll have limited time in the shop anyway and also like the added versatility the CNC would bring. I like computer work and enjoy working in e-Cabinets the little that I've used it. Individual pieces would be easier to buy as I went but would probably add up to the price of an entry level CNC by the time I accumulated them. I don't like the thought of tooling up, getting a good business going, and then feeling like I need to make the transition to CNC and regret not doing it first.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From Contributor H:
I think you've taken a level headed approach to getting your shop set up and a CNC is a good logical next step. My answer to your question is to go into a CNC immediately with one qualification - your financial situation. If you have been able to build what you have from existing resources, and those funds are adequate to acquire an entry level CNC, then going in this direction is the right thing to do. If on the other hand you have to borrow money to move forward with a CNC then I'd suggest slowing up and waiting until the business is strong enough to support the additional overhead.

From Contributor W:
ďIf it is a good idea today, it will be a good idea tomorrow." I do not use this for procrastination but I do use it for tool purchases. I always said "the jobs" will buy the tools. This worked until I fell in love with CNCís. Many who get into CNCís do several months (at a minimum) of due diligence, keep working, go see machines and shops and etc.

From Contributor Y:

My operation is a lot like you described. A one man shop (some part-time help) doing residential custom cabinetry. I have been having CNC shops mill cabinet parts for me for several years now, an increasing trend in my area, and I like it. It's affordable, I get CNC accuracy, and I get to spend more time building cabinets, which is what I like to do. At my volume, I would never be able to justify the expense of a good CNC. If you stay with eCabinets, there is a network of shops using Thermwood CNC's that will cut parts for you. You can find shops on the Thermwood site. I simply email my job file and several days later, parts will show up at my shop, or I can pick them up. If, on the other hand, you do like computers, you could get a lot of enjoyment with a CNC, possibly milling parts for guys like me.

From contributor P:
I think what you should be asking yourself is what is my competition in my area. Are there others that have a CNC that are already doing that in my area? You have to find what you can make money at and if that building cabinets with a CNC, then go for it. But if you have five shops around and a couple big box stores that supply your area then you may have to get big just to beat them out. Remember most designers and GCís don't care how well itís build as long as it looks good and it makes them money that is what counts. So if a CNC will help you separate yourself from the others and you can afford it go for it but don't buy one because every cabinet magazine tells you it will change your business to compete with the big guys. They did this ten years ago with all the ads for sliding table saws, line boring machines and edgebanders. If you are going to get a CNC maybe think about a bigger shop also Ė 1700 square feet is kind of small with a CNC in it.

From the original questioner:
Thank you for the responses so far, some great advice. Financially I'm not at the point where I can buy any more large equipment right now. Building the shop took most of my savings and I need to get it built back up. I borrowed 25k for the shop and also have a mortgage on the house. Total for both is a little under 65k and I'm making double payments hoping to get them paid off in 5-7 years.

There aren't a lot of custom cabinet shops in the area or big box stores, it's a rural area. The lumber store in town sells nice cabinets and there are a fair number of other cabinet dealers about 20 minutes from here in a town that has a lot of summer/vacation homes for some very wealthy people. Pretty much all of them (except the lumber yard in town) seem to cater to the high end. I only know of two custom shops in the area. Once is a 1-2 man operation and the other is considerably larger. But I also know there are a fair number of small operators like me doing it out of their shops and garages on the side. As far as I know none of them have a CNC. I did find a commercial cabinet manufacturer close by (20 minutes) and it sounds like they could do both CNC and finishing for me if I wanted.

Rather than starting to invest in smaller equipment one piece at a time I think I'll plug along with what I've got for now and start saving for a CNC, or at least a good down payment on one. If I decide in the end that I don't want to go to CNC I'll still have the money and in the mean time I'll keep the projects within my equipmentís reach or let the commercial shop cut it out on their CNC.

From contributor O:
We cut and finish for a local one man shop. I really enjoy helping him out and he likes the quality of the CNC cut parts. We also edge band for him as our larger bander is quicker. I wish we had a couple more like him. It helps keep the router busy as it has far more capacity than our shop. I think waiting and saving is a good idea as it will also let you see what type of work and volume are in demand. You may learn there is no need for a CNC or you may learn you need more than 1700 sq ft.

From the original questioner:
To contributor O: May I ask a couple questions about how your relationship works with the other shop? Such as: In what format do you get the designs? Are they made up on software compatible with your CNC or do get a cutlist and have to draw them in the software yourself? How do you bill your labor for cutting - by the hour or by the sheet? Is there a setup fee for each job? Just trying to get an idea of how it works with most places and what I can do to make it smoother for both me and the shop doing the cutting.

From contributor O:
We use cabinet vision to draw, engineer and write files to our router. We first set up a construction method for the customer based on his construction methods. Now that is in place all we need are cabinet dimensions (height, width, depth) type of drawer slide and other details. Typically he gives me a drawing (he uses AutoCAD) and a list of cabinets with the dimensions I mentioned. A typical kitchen will take me approximately 30 minutes to have ready for routing. I didn't charge a setup fee for his construction schedule since he was using hardware we already had in our schedules. The construction method didn't take much changing from a standard for us either. I figure I will get the setup money back in time. It also took time on the clientís behalf to get it right so I guess itís a tradeoff.

From contributor R:
Donít borrow more money! You describe a rural area, money folksí vacation homes some distance away. You also tell us you have one lumber dealer, a fair number of cabinet dealers, two custom shops, and a fair number of garage shops, all selling or building cabinets. Just how many cabinets are going to be needed in your area, and how are you going to steal those limited number of customers? I don't think even the wealthy remodel vacation homes that often. I say your area is plenty saturated with ways for people to get cabinets. Have you priced out the CNC system (a minimum of $40,000, not including tooling). Now, add in a learning curve of six months working part time. You need to make a business plan and talk to your banker if nothing else. Just having a CNC in the corner is not going to bring in customers. Also I hope you are a young man. Slinging enough sheet material to feed a CNC by yourself all day will make you old quickly. Better add in a lift truck to the estimate.

From the original questioner:
I don't think I have a chance of competing with the cabinet dealers in the area for the large vacation homes, nor do I want to. The lumber dealer in town also has a large share of the market that I probably won't be able to get. As far as I know the actual cabinet shops are all doing overlay FF with a little bit of inset. I hope that my niche will be frameless, inset, and functionality. My target customers will be people who have a limited amount of space but want to get maximum functionality out of it; whether that be a kitchen, book case, or other storage in the house or garage.

Starting out I've also done some small kitchen reworking that has been pretty easy and well received. Such as installing pullouts in a tall pantry that had only shelves and replacing some large drawers that had light weight (broken) 3/4 slides with sturdy full extension slides. I'd like to do more of this as well and think it would be pretty easy to sell.

I don't plan to run out and buy a CNC right away. I hate going into debt and this is the first time I've had any in ten years at least. What I'm trying to figure out is that once I get some money saved up do I find a good used vertical panel saw, save up some more for the next piece of equipment, etc. or do I hold off on any purchases to see how it goes and maybe jump straight to a CNC when the time comes? Either way I have a lot more thinking and research to do before making my choice.

From contributor C:
Good luck with whatever you choose. I've been wrestling with whether to pull the trigger on a CNC for over a year. I do have a couple employees and about 4500 sq ft of production space and 500 ft of office/showroom. We have a vertical panel saw and a multi spindle borer and a Hersaf router for dadoes, along with the standard machinery. We have been fortunate to stay busy with the exception of a couple of months all the way through the slow down. One of my fears is with a CNC is the learning curve, the other is assuming I can get over the curve then working ourselves out of a job with the increased speed and efficiency a CNC would bring. Wish I could find a CNC shop like one of the posters above to cut parts for me to get my feet wet.

From contributor L:
I did it backwards as I bought the CNC then learned the software. Now I canít afford the software I need and no one will let you learn on theirs. I had a co-op shop 3000 ft and moved it home to my shop (1400 ft.). By the time I had all the tools set up to build cabs I was out of space - no room for a real table saw. I did that for two or three years then had to move to a real space (22,000 ft.). Your space will limit how fast you can move your parts and you will be constantly moving the parts you just cut. You will be able to cut parts and make money at it but assembly space will be hard to work out. If you do not cut in just the right order and stack your parts in just the right spot the time saved by cutting on the CNC will be lost in moving parts. I built my shop before I ever thought about buying a CNC- big mistake. The bigger you build your shop the longer you will be able to stay at home.

From contributor M:

I spent 11 years running a CNC wood shop for someone else. Had a full-on CNC horizontal panel saw, pt to pt, a multi spindle Komo, a 4 axis CR Onsrud and a 5 axis Onsrud, and I am now out on my own. I will preface my opinion with the fact that I did not have the learning curve of the machine to get over, it was/is the business learning curve that is the tough thing. I have a knack for the machines and I can make them do anything I want them to, just my passion and I invested the time and energy in figuring out how to make them do what I want. So, I did not have the fear that some others do when considering buying a machine. For me it was just figuring out how to pay for it initially and once it was on the floor I had it making parts in short time.

It took one year to get a building and a CNC router and all the other stuff that goes with a shop. I would not even consider a shop without a CNC machine. I feel, and have had it confirmed by my customers that I have a niche in my area that no one was filling. I do not do cabinets for others, I did at the previous employer, but I do not plan to make and install cabs for anyone but myself. I will take on parts for local cab shops if they bring it to me, but my customers are typically commercial companies that need weird things made or wear parts for their production lines. I also do a lot of work for sign shops and the plastic vendor in my area. I am more of a job shop than traditional wood shop.

The benefits of a CNC router are hard to overcome with manual methods. I would be hard pressed to invest in major manual equipment with any thought to getting a CNC in the future. I would not be afraid to get a router and only run it for a few hours a week if it is still paying for itself and making the jobs go that much quicker.

The thing that I have learned as a one man shop is that the man hours will kill you, if you can't get a job out quick enough to stay ahead of the supplier invoices and waiting on a customer check, you are going to have a rough time of it. If a CNC makes it so that you can process a kitchen in a couple weeks vs a month, that alone will pay for the aggravation of learning it. If you aren't going to have any employees, you will need all the automation you can muster and a CNC router is my go to machine. I do not plan to have any human help myself and so far it is working. As mentioned earlier, get a forklift, it is amazing how much you use one, they are great adjustable assembly tables as well as lifting tools.

From contributor I:
Alan, a while back I asked a somewhat similar question on this forum. Since then I received a lot of advice. Maybe others can chime in on my observations. Machinery dealers strongly advised me to go straight to CNC as I could easily invest the same amount in older machining methods and be stuck with them. But, my observation is that even a CNC shop needs other supporting equip. such as, a bander, a horizontal edge borer (for frameless), miter saws, frame assembly equipment and a table saw for other work.

So take away the CNC and all you need to add is a 32mm multispindle borer and maybe a better table saw? My point is that even a CNC shop needs a lot of supporting equipment. You could slowly buy this equipment and if or when the time is right all you really need to sell is the multi-spindle borer. I know some are so streamlined that they sell the panel or sliding table saw but my feeling is that most keep them for the occasional rework or small job. Am I seeing this wrong? I am considering building a shop and accumulating some more advanced tooling but CNC would be a huge jump for me. This observation does not take into account the new types of work that may open up to a CNC shop, only what it takes to machine and assemble boxes. I absolutely do agree with Contributor M though. A small shop ownerís time is extremely valuable. If I could spend less time in cabinet part preparation it would be very helpful, but for me that first step might just be to have an edgebander, double row boring machine, and previously mentioned equipment at modest used prices.