My obsession with CNC machines began a few years ago with my first Arduino shield – The Adafruit Motor Shield. After assembling the kit, my first real soldering project, I was amazed by the ease and precision with which stepper motors could be controlled. With a bit of free time on my hands, I spent a week or so searching out disparate parts to cobble together a haphazard single axis motor and control system. Watching my crude platform creep back and forth along a wobbly threaded rod was absurdly satisfying and I knew building a full CNC machine was in my future.
Free time quickly succumbed to work and left my CNC aspirations simmering on the back burner. During late night browsing I would scour Instructables and MAKE for CNC projects, filing away bits of information. My original intent was to build a machine of my own design from scratch, but I quickly realized the complexities were beyond my abilities at the time.
I began to research CNC kits and was inspired by Edward Ford’s Shapeoko Kickstarter project. Despite being reluctant to invest in the initial wooden version, I was very excited to see Shapeoko evolve into a substantial machine of metal and aluminum with the help of Makerslide, another Kickstarter project.
Sometime after I came across Shapeoko and immediately placed an order for a Mechanical Kit, the barebones machine without electronics. I spent the next month sourcing various components, some of which I already had, and reading the extensive Shapeoko build wiki and user forum in advance of receiving my kit.
Upon arrival, my first impression was of the professional packaging and meticulously labeled bags of parts. Enclosed was a Thank You letter from Edward and a well organized bill of materials. I was very pleased to find the pieces were of high quality, especially considering the low price.
A few days later, armed with the Shapeoko build wiki on my laptop and only seven tools, I started the build. The comprehensive instructions, photos, videos and user forum made the process surprisingly easy.
The pieces went together very smoothly—the most complex steps were using a rotary tool to grind away paint in holes on the metal end plates and tapping the Makerslide. I have to say, I was a bit leery of tapping the pieces by hand, but the instructional video on the wiki inspired confidence and my 14 tapped holes turned out perfectly.
There were a few sections in the instructions which were a bit unclear, mainly the description of the X and Y belt attachment. However the active Shapeoko forum offered a variety of solutions, from zip ties to custom “L” brackets. I opted to create a mounting solution of my own, admittedly, not as elegant as the “L” brackets, but definitely very functional.
For my initial electronics build, I decided to go simple and temporarily mount the components on a scrap piece of wood. I used recycled Ham Radio cables and coupled them with quick release connectors to the stepper motors. My goal was to get things functional and eventually use the Shakeoko to build a proper enclosure to house the electronics.
The Shapeoko is controlled via Grbl, an open source CNC milling controller that runs on an Arduino. After downloading it’s very easy to upload the Grbl hex file via the Arduino IDE. Once flashed, your Arduino is now a Grbl controller ready to interpret GCode and drive your machine. The 3 axes grblShield from Synthetos simplifies connecting the stepper motors and 24 volt power supply. New grblShields are available with a special Z Axis Mod specifically for the Shapeoko – Grbl and the grblShield provide parameters for setting a feed rate for the X, Y and Z motors, but are designed for machines with constant settings across all axes. Shapeoko uses a combination of belts for the X and Y axes and threaded rod for the Z axis. The modification requires cutting a trace on the grblShield and soldering a jumper to the ground to enable a different rate for the Z axis. The documentation makes the 10 minute process quite easy for those who already have the board, such as myself.
With the electronics and Grbl controller together, I sourced the recommended software for communicating with the controller. Originally starting on the Mac, I opted to use a PC laptop running Illustrator, CamBam and Universal-G-Code-Sender. The combination of software allows me to export vector artwork as DXF files, convert to GCode via CamBam, and send GCode to Grbl from Universal-G-Code-Sender.
Universal-G-Code-Sender also allows you to manually send GCode to your machine. The excitement of my original single axis build was easily multiplied by three as I performed a series of tests to understand how GCode works and to calibrate my Shapeoko. Upon seeing the smooth movements of each axis I knew I had come a long way from where I started. The user forum made the process easy with the vast amount of information, including a calculator to help perfect the Grbl settings.
Once everything seemed to function properly, I proudly ran the provided “Hello World” GCode to print the Shapeoko logo on paper with a marker. My first attempt ran well, but printed the logo in reverse. After some quick Y axis tweaks, thanks to the settings calculator, I printed off a picture perfect Shapeoko logo!
Impressed by the quality and precision of the output, I quickly created a DXF file in Illustrator with my newborn son’s name, converted it with CamBam and output it with the Shapeoko. There was excitement throughout the house when his name, drawn via CNC, was hung on the fridge.
One of the great things about Shapeoko, and use of Makerslide, is compatibility with parts found at the average hardware store. Picking up a variety of extra metal plates, M5 hex bolts, nuts and washers definitely helped as I built a simple pen holder to advance my pen and paper tests.
With paper tests complete I swapped my pen holder with an inexpensive rotary tool. My initial cuts were a bit sloppy, but after some adjustments to the Shapeoko and rotary tool, cutting precision increased tremendously. It took some time to noodle with and adjust the feed rates and depth settings in CamBam, but I’m proud that within a few days of my build I am cutting clean pieces from quarter inch plywood with 1/64” accuracy.
While I’ve yet to build my electronics enclosure, I purchased additional Makerslide to expand the machine’s cutting area and have been researching sturdier spindle options. I believe with the right combination of spindle and endmills the Shapeoko will have the ability to etch copper clad boards to create functional PCBs. With an Open Source Universal 3D Printer Extruder on the way from another Kickstarter project and an upgrade to the Synthetos TinyG 6 axes controller, I foresee modifying my Shapeoko for a variety of uses.
The ability to modify the open hardware design and extendable platform is what excited me most about Shapeoko. I could have certainly purchased an off-the-shelf CNC machine, or even a complete kit, but I wanted to experience the learning process of working with the electronics and—with the support of an active user forum—tweaking and customizing the machine.
I must say Edward Ford has done a tremendous job creating Shapeoko and driving a very active community around it. I believe the machine is an ideal platform for anyone interested in CNC who is eager to learn first-hand through build and experimentation. I’ve learned a tremendous amount in a very short time and having a well designed stable platform from which to build has made the process accessible and with great reward. I look forward to continue learning and creating many projects with my Shapeoko.
The Shapeoko is available as part of a pre-sale from Inventables starting at $225 for the Mechanical Kit.