What material should you use for your next CNC project?
Woodworkers, Craftsmen, CNC Operators and Laser Engravers are always pondering, “what material should I use next?”
The answer is as infinite as the question and really can’t be decided here. Too many follow on questions, this is just more of a philosophical view of the equation. The following is a poll of 50 woodworkers and CNC operators that answered what woods have they, or do they like to work with. One the way we picked up some other materials as well.
The WOOD Poll.
I made a poll, because honestly this is me learning too about what materials people really like working with when doing CNC milling. This is the list of about 50 people in the trade and some added opinions behind the why. In no specific order, but with Janka scale in parenthesis.
Because these woods were taken from a poll, I don’t have experiance with all of them. If thier is comments, I personally have worked with the wood either in traditional woodworking, or with my CNC.
In my opinion cherry just cuts like butter on the CNC. It has such a smooth and dense, evenly distributed grain that it just is a joy to cut. It works great for dovetails too. My only problem, and I could be wrong, is that it seems to change humidity or moisture content more than some of its competitors. This causes the occasional warp.
- Pro: Very dense wood that is not terribly hard. Nice color.
- Con: Tends to be a little warpy. Color can get to be too much for a big project like cabinets.
Oh the great Walnut. I absolutely love working with Walnut, it’s heavy, dense, hard and doesn’t seem to warp. I will also say that much of the rough milled Walnut I get is very free of knots and damage. Great for the CNC, probably my favorite.
- Pro: Very consistent material.
- Con: Price? Maybe, I don’t have a great con for Walnut!
I am a big fan of Sepele and many rough lumber companies stock it. Ultimately due to cost I would say it is probably best for accents and not entire projects. I really like the hardness that the 1410 Janka scale provides, but it is really on that edge of too hard for CNC. Can you cut harder wood? Sure. Will it look good? Probably not.
- Pro: Beautiful wood tone and grain.
- Con: Pretty hard. Pretty expensive.
Hard Maple (1450)
The picture above is Selepe and Hard Maple (the Hard Maple is the blond wood in the background). I think for traditional woodworking Hard Maple is the bees knees, it’s hard, dense, with a predictable grain.
What I have found with CNC work is the it is less suited for rotary type cutting. That’s not to say this isn’t my main wood- because it probably is! That is much more a function of price and availablity. The downfall to me with Hard Maple is that when cutting, say with a Downcut Endmill, you must take the perfect amount of depth per pass or you will have fuzzy tear-outs. Most of the time they are sandable, but not always.
- Pro: Clean looking wood, very hard, doesn’t have much moisture variance.
- Con: My only real complaint is the tear-out.
Red Oak (1220)
Douglas Fir (660)
Olivewood is one I haven’t tried yet but really want to. It has a beatiful olive color and usually irregular grain.
Tulipwood is the most AMAZING smelling wood on Earth. Coming is at 2,500 hardness it is really beginning to get difficult for CNC, but wow, you won’t have to light a candle in your shop for a while! Cutting with the grain reminds me a bit like shaving butter.
Pro: Very Aromatic and generally stunning grain.
Con: Harder wood, more difficult on rip cuts which becomes a problem with most CNC projects.
Purpleheart Wood (2520)
A quick snippet on Purpleheart Wood, but I wrote a whole article on in called Purpleheart Wood (the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly).
I have a strange relationship with this wood as it is beautiful, cuts well (it’s HARD), and has very nice grain features. I mean, it’s purple wood. That’s just cool in itself. On the other side of things though, it oxidizes badly and how many tables or charcuterie board customers actually want purple? Not many.
- Pro: Hard wood, tight grain, amazing colors.
- Con: Hard wood! Oxidizes.
Other considerations for choosing wood as your material.
Some wood side notes. I think really any wood can be cut- but the key is finding the wood that is going to hold together well (a hard wood) but not kill your bit, be ridiculously expensive or be brittle in the fine portions of the cut. I added some hardness scales (Janka) to the woods above for additional information. Higher numbers are hard (highest being 5060).
There are a few Hardness Scale posters you might want to buy, I promise they are helpful. I have this one hanging in my shop!
You should also know that some woods,
1. Can smell wonderful and make it worth the carve, and
2. Can cause allergies! Many people have strange allergies to wood dust. I have issues with hickory.
Other Materials (plastic & composite)
HDU or High-Density Urethane
MDF or Medium Density Fiberboard
HDPE or High-Density Polyethylene
HDPE Color Core (really cool and easy way to get multiple colors on layers)
Corian (acrylic polymer & alumina trihydrate)
High Density Fiberboard
Fire Rated MDF
MDO Plywood or Medium Density Overlay Plywood
Insulation Foam Board
Other Materials (metal)
Aluminum Composite (Dibond, Maxmetal)
Titanium (ouch- I’m gonna have to try this one, sounds expensive and hard)
I hope you found this article about choosing materials for your CNC helpful!
Have a great one!
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