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.
More: See all of our “Toolsday” tool reviews here.