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I believe that CNC machines are the ultimate maker tool. They blend mechanics, electronics, and computers into a machine that creates stuff! It’s kind of like magic, only better. When I built my CNC router last year, I knew I would have to learn and spend a lot. Building a machine is only half the battle; the rest is getting and figuring out how to use the software. CNC machines require two different kinds of programs: one for controlling the machine, and one for generating g-code that the machine follows.

Initially I used some free tools to turn CAD drawings into g-code but soon I found myself wanting more control, capability, and simplicity. I researched my options and kept hearing great things about a software company called Vectric. After downloading trial versions of their Cut2D and V-Carve Pro programs I was sold. Both software packages are very easy to use, allow you to generate tool paths, and let you preview a 3D representation of the finished product. VCarve Pro offers vastly more options than Cut2D, but of course it cost four times more ($600). Since my bank account was still recovering from buying the machine itself, I purchased Cut2D for $150, keeping in mind that I could upgrade to VCarve Pro for $480 when funds allowed. Cut2D worked well for my needs, but I still kept my eye on VCarve Pro.

A few weeks before Christmas this year I attempted to talk my wife into letting me get V-Carve Pro as an early Christmas present. To my surprise, she agreed, so I quickly purchased a copy before she could change her mind (as any good husband would.)

The difference between Cut2D and VCarve Pro is similar to the difference between MS Paint and Adobe Photoshop. Cut2D gets the job done in a minimalist manner, whereas VCarve Pro does nearly everything you want and more. You don’t need a separate CAD or vector graphics program to use VCarve Pro, as everything you need to lay out, create, and edit vector art is built-in. There is also a “Fit Vectors to Bitmap” function which I found very helpful, and is one of my favorite features so far.

VCarve Pro, as the name implies, is a professional software package. It’s designed so that you can make money by selling what you create and has a number of automated features to save time and money. These include “nesting,” which finds the optimal arrangement to squeeze parts into the material to reduce waste, and automatic “tab placement,” which makes it easy to add small tabs to keep your creations from slipping as your router cuts them out. Another great “pro” feature is the “Estimated Machining Time” function. According to the program, for instance, these monkeys will take around 30 minutes to cut out (so I’ll know how much to bill my wife’s preschool class.)

Of course the most prominent feature of VCarve Pro is its ability to make designs using a v-shaped cutting bit. You can easily generate g-code for sign and texture creation, as well as engraving tool paths. The software automatically calculates the depth for the v-shaped bit to give sharp corners and intricate lines. All you have to do is select the vectors, click the “V-Carve Toolpath” button, and adjust the parameters accordingly. Also, colors can be added to each toolpath to allow customers to preview the finished product.

Overall, I am very happy with VCarve Pro. It has allowed me to streamline my workflow and has greatly increased what I can do with my CNC router. Even though I’ve only had it for a few weeks and have only scratched the surface in this review, I have found it amazingly easy to use and what I can’t figure out is clearly explained in the video tutorials on Vectric’s website. Also, Vectric’s customer support is second to none so it’s good to know that help is there in case you need it. Even if you don’t need the v-carving capabilities, the drawing options and time saving features of V-Carve Pro make it well worth the money (assuming you didn’t spend it all building your CNC machine.)

The only gripes I have with the software are A) that you have to remember to use the ‘Shift’ key when selecting multiple vectors (I’m used to holding down Control like other Windows programs) and B) that using VCarve Pro may tempt me to upgrade to Vectric’s flagship Aspire software for $1445 more. That might be a bit harder to get the wife to agree to.

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Michael Castor

I am the Evangelist for the Maker Shed. It seems that there is no limit to my making interests. I’m a tinkerer at heart and have a passion for solving problems and figuring out how things work. When not working for Make I can be found falling off my unicycle, running in adverse weather conditions, skiing down the nearest hill, restoring vintage motorcycles, or working on my car.


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Comments

  1. Steve C says:

    Did you buy your CNC or did you build it?  I am really getting the bug to build one, but money is tight right now.  Other problem is explaining to the wife why I need one. “I don’t know, I just want it to build… stuff” doesn’t really fly anymore.

    1. Anonymous says:

      The machine is the FLA100-00 kit from finelineautomation.com. I purchased the kit first and the electronics when I got the money to soften the blow to the bank account. All my other CNC purchases (router, software, dust collector, etc) have been incremental. At first I was going to use my own design but after figuring out the materials cost I would have saved maybe $200 – $400 dollars. I’m definitely happy with my decision.

      It was a hard sell for the wife at first. I started a “Machine Fund” in my desk drawer where I put extra money. It took a couple years to save the cash but it was completely worth it. My wife teaches special needs preschool so I make things like monkeys for her class to keep her from getting jealous of the time I spend with the machine. It seems to work! Also, the first thing I did with the machine was to plot out her name onto a piece of paper. Kind of lame but it earned major brownie points.

      It really is an adventure. You’re constantly learning new things. Now every time I’m in a store I look at items and try to figure out how I could make them on the machine. Plus, there’s always something to tinker with.

      Good luck!

  2. Sam Ley says:

    I’m a big fan of the Vcarve package, I use the heck out of it with my home-built CNC router. I’m normally a big open-software user, but the open source CNC workflow is just not here yet, especially when you try software like Vcarve and see what is really missing. I also appreciate that the company and price-point is aimed at small businesses, rather than most CAM software which is priced using the “if you have to ask you can’t afford it” model, and requires you to have dedicated staff just to operate it due to its complexity.

    Vcarve has been the perfect balance between functionality and speed. I can do entire designs just chatting with someone, sketching in Illustrator or Inkscape, importing into Vcarve, cleaning up the vectors with their CAD tools, and generating toolpaths. The cost is a bit higher than I usually pay for software, but has been totally worth it.

    1. Anonymous says:

      I completely agree. I prefer open source software but after I started using Cut 2D and VCarve I found it to be completely worth the money. Everything in the screen shots took me under 5 minutes to make. $599 really isn’t bad considering all the functionality and how much competing products cost. Plus, if you plan on using it to make money you could write it off as a business expense!

      1. jim says:

        is there a way that I can but a copy of vcarve for for me to train on,
        not a trial version ?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nice article. RhinoCAM is also a great bit of CAM software if you use rhino. Your CNC machine looks great. Have you released any plans for it? It looks like a simple, well thought through machine. Thanks. John

    1. Anonymous says:

      Thanks for the compliment! It’s really messy right now. I purchased it as a kit from finelineautomation.com. It’s the FLA100-00 2′x3′ machine. It is fairly simple but for directions you only get a 3D computer file. It’s not too difficult to figure out but expect a little trial and error when assembling.  I’ve been very happy with it so far. The design is open source and you can find plans on Fine Line’s website or on cnczone.com

      I’ve spent maybe an hour using Rhino on a friend’s computer. After I found out how much it cost I decided I could wait! I may revisit it in the future.

  4. David Randolph says:

    I’ve been building my CNC platform which my goal is plasma cutting. http://twitpic.com/820bm5 So far my build cost has been $1200 for the 4ft x 4ft (actual cutting area) with 6″ on the Z Axis. Any word if this software has plasma profiles with lead in-outs? I personally hate sheetcam and I’m looking for a simple replacement. BTW the pic is of the bare base. The welding pan isn’t made yet but it will slide in and the Z Axis has bolt mounting patterns so I can swap out tools to mill but for now I’m focusing on plasma.

  5. Jef Damewood says:

    Here here for VCarve!  Two big selling points for me… I am able to import work I’ve done in Corel Draw without issue… maybe have to close up a node here or there at most.  And it has a preset for ECM2 (freeware) which was a big deal for me.  I had ECM2 controlling the mill, but I never could get other software to save the Gcode so that ECM2 would read it.  With VCarve, when you go to save your work, just select the ECM2 from a drop menu and that is that, ECM2 will read the file.

    Steve C… your logic is how I ended up with a CNC mill.  I didn’t need one, didn’t want one, hell, didn’t know people were making their own CNC mills… but late one night while wired out on too many diet cokes, at 3AM, I came across a site showing a guy making a CNC mill out of MDF… say, that looks like a fun project.  I ended up going with 8020 (wonderful stuff I tell you) and now I have a CNC mill.

    http://tinyurl.com/22lqgvv  My build log.

    Bottom line, VCarve turned the hardest part of the CNC project (now that I built it, how do I use it) into something I was able to understand quickly.

  6. Ben Luzier says:

    Hello,Nice looking job !! did you make any type of vacuum hold down ? or do you just screw the blank down and use tabs? I have a shopsabre 4896 but got the tool changer instead of a vacuum hold down, so I.m interested in any ideas.
    Thanks,
    Ben

  7. Ben Luzier says:

    Yes, Vectric makes very easy to use programs and powerful too.Vectorart3d is an associate of vectric and they have a great collection of 3d models that further add to the capabilities of your cnc.
    Ben

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