Over the past few months, I’ve been working with various desktop CNC milling machines. I first tested the Othermill, which I really enjoyed using. The next desktop CNC machine I tested was the Shapeoko 2. Shapeoko is an affordable, open source CNC kit that has been on the market for a few years. Originally a Kickstarter project, it grew into a robust product originally sold through Inventables, and now the Shapeoko 3 is about to launch–sold exclusively through shapeoko.com.
Given that the company is on its third generation product, there is already a large online Shapeoko community. Tips, tricks, and mods can all be found on the site’s forums. Numerous videos on YouTube show you everything from step-by-step mill assembly to machine calibration, and even material-specific best practices. That’s a compelling asset.
My Shapeoko 2
The mill itself is also very user friendly and lends itself well to modification. If nothing else, the Shapeoko is a very robust X, Y, Z plotter that is incredibly hackable. If you have plans to build your own job-specific machine, the Shapeoko’s parts would be great bones to start with. I have seen watercolor painting CNC’s, DIY laser cutters, even Zen garden sand printers built from this chassis.
If the Othermill is Eve, then the Shapeoko is Wall-E.
Putting It Together
As I mentioned, the Shapeoko 2 arrives as a kit and must be user-assembled. The company sends everything you’ll need to put it together: wrenches, zip ties, a tap, even goggles. The ad claims you can build the Shapeoko in a weekend. I found this to be true if you’re experienced in assembling kits (especially tapping holes) and have two solid days to devote to the build. For first-timers it will take a little longer, and there’s no need to rush.
Shapeoko mid-build, getting the gantry together.
Confession time, at the moment, my machine is mostly built. I assembled the X, Y, and Z gantry, put together the mill bed, installed the stepper motors and timing belts–all in a couple of days. The online directions are straightforward and thorough. And the build was an enjoyable process, and helps you learn how the machine works for future maintenence. But I eventually hit a wall, not because the assembly became difficult, but because I was faced with too many options. Which wiring system is best for me? What kind of enclosure do I put the motor controller electronics in? Do I want my e-stop on the left or the right? Well now I have to build a work table for the CNC to sit on, should it have drawers? Should I use a triceratops as a speed control knob?
Needless to say I’m still working on it.
Almost finished with my Shapeoko 2 build
So to actually get some testing done, I called up my friends Mark and Nick at Floating Point, a Brooklyn art/design collective. They were kind enough to let me spend some time with their assembled and working Shapeoko 2.
As far as CAM goes, Shapeoko says that “as long as your program can export standard gcode, Shapeoko can work with it.” So if you already have a favorite software, it will likely work just fine.
Back when these mills were being sold by Inventables, they recommended Easle (probably because Easel is developed by Inventables). Now they recommend MakerCAM for the newest Shapeoko 3 model. For all of my testing, I used Easel.
Easel web app
Easel is a free web app that works in your browser. It’s fairly barebones, but clear and easy to understand. You can import SVG files or draw your designs directly. This is a nice feature, basic shapes and icons can be quickly created and then milled. This cuts out the steps of going back and forth from one software to another, a typical practice in most CNC operations. I like the simple materials list and automatic tab function. They are smart, simple features that will make milling easier for beginners.
Tabs can be easily added to designs so parts don’t go flying
You have a few options for what does the actual cutting. The basic kit comes with a standard rotary tool that clamps on to the Z-axis. The full kit comes with a quiet, speed-controllable spindle that mounts using the same clamp. Or you can purchase a custom bracket to attach a heavier duty woodworking router. I performed all of my tests with the quiet cut spindle.
Truth in advertising: the spindle made very little noise and was more powerful than I expected. I don’t think I’ll waste any time using the rotary tool on my mill, but I am curious how the router will perform as the Shapeoko’s cutter.
No matter which cutting option you pick, the spindle controls work independently from the rest of the CNC. The speed and power are not tied into the rest of the machine. I wasn’t crazy about this design choice, I foresee myself forgetting to turn on the spindle someday or setting the wrong speed during a job and breaking some bits.
Noise, Mess, and Materials
This is definitely a workshop-only machine. The mess is not contained and if you’re using a rotary tool or router as you cutter, the noise will be too much for inside a home or office. But it’s suitable for any garage, basement shop, or makerspace. For my testing, I milled wood, machinable plastic, acrylic, and aluminum.
This machine is ideal for wood. The spindle is beefy and cuts through with no trouble. Half of the pre-set material choices in Easel are different wood species. You have the ability to slide pieces of lumber through the mill, this allows for working with material longer than the 12” x 12” mill bed. Thick material can be quickly clamped down using the bench clamps that come with the kit. Definitely a win for woodworkers who want to get into CNCing.
I had a lot of luck milling acrylic too. There was little to no melting and very sharp edge details. If you don’t have access to a laser cutter, this will do the job. It does smell a bit though.
I didn’t have as much luck with aluminum or machinable plastic. But then again, I never have luck milling machinable plastic…why do I keep trying?
For aluminum, there was a lot of chatter during the cutting. I only had it clamped down, in hindsight, I should have used some double sided tape for a more secure hold. But I wasn’t thrilled with the cut quality. I don’t think I’ll be cutting too much metal with my Shapeoko.
The Shapeoko 3 will begin shipping soon, and it is expected to be a much more rigid and rugged machine. Inventables has also come out with a new model, the X-Carve. A bigger more rigid take on the existing Shapeoko design, that is completely backwards compatible with Shapeoko 2. I’m excited to see both of these machines in action.
Who’s This For?
I think that the Shapeoko 2 is good for tinkers and people who want to fully understand and modify their own CNC. It’s really for the “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it” crowd. And if wood is your material of choice, I don’t think you’ll be able to find a better more affordable solution out there.
This mill needs occasional maintenance, parts need to be tightened, calibration from time to time. Basically, this machine needs a little love. But the Shapeoko has so much potential, as well as a lot of character–something I never thought I’d say that about a CNC.
Photos by Ben Light. Find more of Ben’s projects on his website.