Week 13: Learning Project Wrap-Up

Learning to use a CNC Router has been an adventure, and a process, to say the least. This being said, I’ve loved each and every minute of it. In an earlier update, I started by telling you that I tend to obsess, and this could be more truthful. Over the last 12 weeks or so, I’ve been reading reviews, watching demonstrations, learning software, travelling to hardware stores, comparing prices and value (to a painstaking degree,) having discussions with administrators, and meeting with community members, all in an effort to learn more about my latest obsession, which just happen to also be my Learning Project for EC&I 831. Although I ran into quite a few barriers that prohibited me from progressing as much as I wanted during this time frame, I am comforted in knowing that the interest I have in this project is stronger than ever, and therefor my learning will continue long after this course ended. Strap in as this is a bit of an update and a wrap-up all in one post!  

The Journey

  • February 2021– initially become interested in CNC Routers. Approach my school’s administration about the possibility of purchasing one to use with my Drafting and PAA classes. I was met with encouragement, and told to look into quotes
  • May 2021– Approach administration again. Discuss price and lead times. Told we will likely look at ordering one in the fall
  • September 2021– Enroll in EC&I 831 as my first master’s class. When deciding on a Learning Project, I realize doing something practical to my practice, as well as something I could incorporate with my students has me very encouraged
  • September 2021– Begin deeper research on different CNC Router models, manufacturers, software, wood types, bit types, and much more. Due to the wide variety of resources, and manufacturers, and software options, this continues to this day and will continue long into the future. See many of my thoughts during this time by reading my blog post from September 21, 2021
  • September-October 2021– Deeper discussions with administration about ordering a CNC. Due to tight budget constraints, I was told to wait until late November or early December before I might get the go ahead to order.
  • October 2021– I reached out to two community members, one that works in custom cabinetry, and one that has a hobby-sized CNC Router (similar to the one our school may be getting,) in order to learn more about operating the machines, as well as seeing them in person. Take a look at my second update, on this blog post, where I discussed many of the different choices that I’ve researched, the criteria I look for, and the software I was considering.
  • Late October/Early November 2021– During my next blog post update, I discussed some alternative ways I was going to learn about CNCs as my school was still unable to purchase one. It was also during this time that I found a (comparatively,) cheap, and much smaller CNC available on Amazon. After finding some online forums that were present with thousands of users of the same CNC, I felt comfortable purchasing it in an effort to further my learning before a full sized unit could be purchased by the school. (I didn’t mention this in the blog post due to the possibility of it shipping too late. However, I was happy to report that this was not the case.
  • November 2021– Once the CNC arrived, 5-10 hours were spend building it, three different materials have been experimented with, two new pieces of software were learned (Easel and Universal G-Code Sender,) a large amount of reading on different bits and how they affect different types of carves, and additional bits were put on order.
  • Late November 2021– Through a TON of experimenting, tinkering, online tutorials and reading of online forums, I started to have some success with the CNC. It was frustrating at times, as I had to keep reminding myself that this was not the same machine as the ones I was researching, and I had to adjust my expectations as such. That being said, scroll down to see some of the results since my last update.

Progress Since the Last Update

As mentioned above, I purchased a 3018 Pro CNC Router from an Amazon Reseller. A 3018 is a cheaply made CNC router, sold under a number of different brands, all of which use a very similar design. Essentially, this was a vastly scaled down version of what I hoped to purchase with the school, both in terms of cutting area, and quality.

After spending many hours building the 3018 (it came completely disassembled,) I began experimenting with Easel, a free software for CNC routers. See some images below that document some of my progress during this time. I began cutting out of MDF (the darker material,) simply because it is cheaper and slightly more forgiving. Initially, everything was assembled as intended. Everything had power, and the test cuts were successful.

The Good!

The Bad

Some cuts resulted in valuable learned lessons. When I was unable to find out why a cut failed, I consulted numerous forums and videos online. Some of my biggest pieces of learning were:

  • Different materials require different speeds
  • Incorrect speeds greatly affect quality, cut time, and open the opportunity to break bits
  • Different types of cuts require different bits
  • Screws and bolts loosen over time
  • Dry grease is needed on all rods to lubricate while preventing dust build up. Using a dry grease with PFTE is the most recommended.

After investing in some different bits and dry grease, and researching speeds for the MDF and plywood I was using, I had a bit more success! (See the paragraph below.) I also found this image extremely helpful to assist in understanding the minute differences between bits.

Color-Coded Bit Chart: Choosing the Right Bit – Inventables (zendesk.com)

Here’s to Improving!

After quite a bit of tinkering, troubleshooting, and researching, I’ve gotten a handful of carves that I’m not completely unhappy with. I have to keep reminding myself that there are limitations with a inexpensive machine, as results will rarely be perfect. Below are a few images of these type of carves. Each have small imperfections, but they are much better than the examples above.

When looking for ECI 831 related shapes to cut out from Easel’s library, I found it very interesting to find a shape, similar to the one Alec created that went viral! (Top-Left)

To Wrap Up

Many of my goals that I referenced in my initial blog post, unfortunately were not able to be realized. This was primarily due to the school’s timeline for purchasing one being pushed back, which prevented my goals that involved working with students with the router. However, my learning shifted in another direction, and primarily focused on my learning around the most efficient use of the machine. This learning will be extremely valuable going forward, and something I’ve truly enjoyed.

During my second update, I mentioned some two of my largest initial goals were choosing a model and software to use. Currently, I am using Easel (software) and a 3018 router. Through my research, I know now that when the school is able to purchase one, I am comfortable recommending an Axiom Iconic, Onefinity, or a Longmill by Scienci Labs. The given budget will make the decision between these three. In terms of software, I will reccomend using Easel or Carbide Create until we have budget to purchase VCarve Pro.

I am thrilled with the amount I’ve learned through this project. This being said, my journey is far from over. I’m really intrigued by all facets of CNC routers, and when the school is able to purchase one, I know I will be that much further ahead in my learning and be able to bring it into the classroom that much quicker. My end goals continue to revolve around sharing my interests with students, and teaching them to use this tool in a safe, effective, and engaging manner.

Where the Journey Continues:

Although this class may be over, my learning is far from done on the CNC router. Having my own small CNC will allow me to continue to learn about the craft while waiting to experiment on a larger machine. Also, having friends willing to support this my learning by allowing me to experiment on their machines is invaluable to my learning.

Some of the goals for future products:

  • A set of coasters (more intricate than those I have attempted prior)
  • Signs of all sorts
  • Cribbage boards
  • Serving trays and cutting boards
  • Bit organizers
  • Topographical maps
  • Complete my basic ECI 831 sign that I’ve created in Fusion that I mentioned in my last update
  • Basic Stools for my classroom
  • Guitar Body

I also want to continue to make my beginner document in Canva that I mentioned in many previous blog posts. Although I feel that I have not experimented and learned enough on larger scale machines to create a beginner’s document at this point in time, it is something that I look forward to sharing in the future. If there is a way that I can take my learning process and summarize it in away that makes it easier for the an individual going through the same process, my work would be well worth the journey.  I plan to continue to use twitter to share progress of my CNC journey, and feel free to follow me there.

I want to thank Alec and the entirety all of my classmates in EC&I 831. This class, and in particular this project, has allowed me to reflect on my own learning in a way that can only assist me in becoming a better teacher. Everyone’s helpful recommendations and comments go a long way in expanding my view and building a personal learning network that will benefit my students and I for years to come. I appreciate the support from each and every one of you, and wish you the best during the upcoming holiday season!

One thought on “Week 13: Learning Project Wrap-Up

  1. Colton,

    You tackled a HUGE project! Just looking at a CNC Router terrifies me! However, you did a fantastic job experimenting and adjusting your plans. I found I was always changing gears with my project as well… Just when I thought I had a plan, I would be changing it just as quickly!

    I think using this with your students is a fantastic idea, as they will have the opportunity to create something that they will cherish and take pride in. Sometimes students are our best teachers and learning alongside them will make for a collaborative and meaningful experience! Hopefully, you are able to do this in the future!

    It has been a pleasure working alongside you this term! Best wishes!


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