An Unsolicited X-Carve Review

Have you ever thought about trying to build your own CNC router?  I have been wanting to for a very long time.  It always seemed like it would be a neat experience, plus it would be a cheaper way to have a really cool tool.

I used to program very large CNC mills in the tool & die industry and thought it would be pretty cool to do with wood on a much smaller scale.

For quite a few years I drooled over a few different plans that I had found on the internet.  The only thing that held me back was figuring out the electronics.  It seemed to me that I almost needed a degree in electrical engineering.

Then, lo and behold, along came Inventables and the X-Carve.  I stumbled across them about a year ago as I was once again dreaming about building my own CNC.

Pinnable - Build your own cnc router“Hmmm, a Build Your Own CNC Router kit.  All the electronics included”

Could I afford it?” I asked myself.  Maybe, if I budget things just right and save some money.  The small stripped down version of the X-Carve is less than a $1000.

I talked to my wife about it.  She thought it would be a great tool to have.  She had a few hundred dollars stashed away that she wouldn’t mind donating, especially if I could earn a little extra money with it.

Yes,  I could make… Stuff!!… and sell this,,,, stuff….  Online!! On Etsy!!!

It could pay for itself!!!  It would be like getting a free tool!!!”  I was both giddy and borderline hysterical at this point.  I had talked her into it, and I could see the future.

So I started saving for it.

Then I started looking at all of the options and upgrades from their basic kit.  Hysteria was upon me.  I think this is when I began talking to myself.

Hmmm… Maybe I should get the longer rails, so I can make larger,,,, Stuff.”  Cha-Ching….

The ACME lead screw will be much better to have than the M8 lead screw”  Cha-Ching….

Motors…. I should have larger motors for more torque…  Yes, more torque is better…”  Cha-Ching….

People have had problems with their quiet cut spindle….  Better get the Dewalt 611.”  Cha-Ching….

“Gotta have limit switches” Cha-Ching….

Ooh, better get the toolkit, it’s got a T25 Torx driver!”  Cha-Ching….

Definitely need some bits.  Oh, and I could really use the clamp set.”  Cha-Ching….

I basically was looking at the fully loaded X-Carve.  Hysteria complete

I calculated the shipping and fell off my chair.  I was up to almost $1600 dollars.  “Uh oh“.  I decided that I could make my own waste board.  That would save $128 for the waste board, plus about the same for shipping.  That brought the price down to $1340 and change.

So, I waited, semi-patiently, while I scrimped and saved.  Finally, the day came when my wife said: “just go for it“.  Hysteria came upon me once again as I hit the checkout button.

Approximately three weeks til delivery.  “AAARRGH…… ”  Patiently waiting……  Hysteria slowly turns into insanity….

Building the X-Carve

If you’re going to build your own CNC router, the X-Carve is really the way to go, at least in my opinion.  I’m not going to go through the entire build here, but just give an overview of some of the things that I noticed and some of the challenges.

The Waste Board

CNC WasteboardI began my build by making the waste board.  I did this simply because I could get started on it before the rest of it came.

One thing to mention is that it is very important to make sure that the waste board is perfectly square.  Since I had decided to make my own the responsibility of a perfectly square and flat waste board was on me.

Having a square waste board makes it much easier in making sure that the entire machine is square later on.  I wish mine was a bit more square than it ended up being.  I have one edge that is not square to the adjacent ones.

This is not a deal breaker, it just made things a bit harder later on.

I used a piece of pegboard as a drill template to drill all of the holes for the threaded inserts.  (NOTE:  I had to order the threaded inserts and waste board screws separately).  The peg board didn’t quite have the same spacing as what was called for, but these are just for clamping projects down to the board anyway.  The distance between them is not critical.

The Arrival

The day finally came when everything arrived.  After jumping up and down and acting like a giddy schoolgirl for about an hour, I began inspecting my packages.

The initial shipment of items arrived in two packages.  The long aluminum maker rails in one, and the other components in the second.

There were a couple of components on back order, however, and the packing list didn’t list them as being on back order.  This confused me, and I thought that I was missing something and that Inventables just screwed up.  A quick email to their customer support cleared things up.

Certainly a forgivable offense.  🙂

The rest of the components arrived a couple of weeks later.

The Tool Kit

Inventables toolkitHonestly, the toolkit, in my opinion, is kind of cheap.  If I had to do it over, I wouldn’t spend my money on it.

The allen wrenches are a bit wimpy.  I’m not sure what they are made from, but they aren’t as nice as the ones that I already had.  These seemed kind of soft.

I was using one of the smaller ones on a really tiny set screw and overturned it just a bit.  The softer allen wrench kept turning after a set screw stopped turning, wedged itself in the hex end of the set screw and became stuck.  I could not get it out.  I was using the ball end of the allen wrench.  If I had been using the other end, this may not have happened.

My suggestion is if you don’t own a good set of allen wrenches, then buy some good ones instead of depending on the ones in the toolkit.

There were also a couple of very small screwdrivers in the set.  These are nice and did come in handy, however, I could’ve gotten by without them.

Also, inside the toolkit was a small set of metric end wrenches and a pair of safety glasses.  Again, I could’ve gotten by without these as I already had some.

The best part of the X-Carve toolkit was the T25 Torx Screwdriver.  This was the only reason I bought the tool kit.  It is very stout and has a nice grip.  You could probably buy a good one of these for about half the price of the toolkit, if you have the other items already, which is what I probably should have done.

All the tools in the kit come in a nice canvas pouch, which is nice and I do use.

My Takeaway on the Tool Kit:  If you don’t have all of these tools it is certainly worth it to buy it.  You won’t be able to buy all of these tools individually, plus the pouch for $25.  You will just have to be careful with small allen wrenches.  If you do have some or most of these, then skip it and only buy what you do need.

Other Tools/Items Needed

There were a few other tools that I used in building my CNC.

  • Circular Saw
  • Cordless Drill
  • Hex Bits
  • Soldering Iron
  • Fish Scale
  • Tapping Oil

The one that I used the most was probably my cordless drill.  I used it to drill all of the holes in the waste board as well as to insert all of the threaded inserts into it.  I also used my circular saw to cut the waste board to shape.

After a while, I got a little tired of spinning allen wrenches so I chucked a hex bit into my cordless drill and began using that instead.  I just had to be careful not to over tighten the bolts with it and possibly strip some threads.

I knew there was some soldering to be done so I purchased a small soldering iron.  At one point, I ran into some belt tensioning issues and ended up using a fish scale in order to correct this.

You will need some sort of tapping oil for the self-tapping screws.

 

The Assembly

Assembly Tips

little bagsThe overall assembly process went pretty smoothly.  The online instructions from Inventables are very good.

The best tip I can give if you are going to build your own CNC router from X-Carve is to pre-read/watch the instructions, before buying, so that you know what you are getting yourself into.

The next best tip that I can give to build your own CNC router from X-Carve is to pre-read/watch each steps instructions before performing each step.

Also, make sure you have all of the components for each step laid out before you begin assembling that step.

Many components come in a little bag with the part number on it.  Keep the components in the bag until it is time to use them.  You won’t necessarily use all of the components in the bag for any one step.

Sometimes, that component bag will be used for several steps, so make sure when the step is completed that you put the bag back into the box that it came in.  Each box is labeled as a particular kit, so the instructions will tell you that you need ‘x’ component from the ‘y’ kit.

There are lots of small parts that can easily be lost, be careful.

Be organized!!

My Assembly Process

It took me quite a while to assemble my X-Carve.  I only had an hour here or there to work on it, so it was assembled over the course of several weeks.

The instructions will give an estimated time for each step to be assembled.  I think these times are based on someone knowing exactly what they are doing.  They don’t seem to take into account the process of watching the video first, assembling a little bit, going back to the instructions to see if you did it right, etc.

It probably took me twice as long, or more, as the instructions said it would.

I started out assembling things on the dining room table, but after a short while moved to my workbench in the shop.  I had a 4×8 sheet of plywood laid out on the workbench giving me plenty of room to work.

Most of the assembly process was straight forward, and not too difficult.  There were, however, some very small parts and it was difficult to get them into some very small spaces.

There was some soldering to do.  This scared the daylights out of me, as I had never done it before.

When I was confused or had questions I went to the forums.  They were very helpful.  Most of the questions or concerns that I had were already addressed in the forums and I just had to search for them.

Troubleshooting

Once everything was assembled and running, there were a few issues that I had to deal with.

Z-Axis Motor Plate Interference

design flawThere was one minor design flaw that I came across.  The X-Carve originally was designed for a smaller router spindle.  It wasn’t necessarily designed with the larger Dewalt 611 in mind.

Because of this, when the Z-Axis is raised to it’s highest extent, the plastic housing on the router hits slightly on the Z-axis motor plate.  There was a small lip on the housing that would catch on the plate.

This was easily remedied by filing off the lip.

Uneven Belt Tension

I had a problem of getting all three of my belts tensioned properly, and they kept slipping as well.  I found a helpful YouTube video from ManhattenWoodProject that with some tips to help with this.

To deal with the slipping, I ended up using some zip ties to hold the teeth of the belts together.

To set the tension, I basically hooked the fish scale in the middle of the belt and lifted it one inch.  The video says the fish scale setting should be 3.5 lbs so this is what I tensioned mine to.

Losing My Zero

stir the potsThis was probably the biggest problem that I ran into.  I would be running a program, and suddenly the y-axis would stutter, and then everything would be cutting lower on the y-axis.  My y-axis had lost it’s zero point.  Of course, this ruins the project.

I scoured the forum for others that had this problem, and of course, I found some.  There was one post that helped me the most.

In a nutshell, what needed to be done, was to adjust the current level that was being sent to my y-axis motors.  Mine was too low.

This is done by adjusting the potentiometers on the grblshield.  Each axis has its own potentiometer and can be adjusted simply by turning the dial.  I had to have a program running while adjusting them.

Basically, for each axis, I would turn the dial down (counter clockwise) until the router would begin to stutter.  I would mark this point with a felt tip pen on the dial.  Then I would turn the dial up (clockwise) until it would again begin to stutter, again marking this point on the dial.  I then adjusted the dial to be in between these two marks.

Apparently, from what I learned in the forums, too much or too little current can be bad for your motors, so you want to have enough current, but you don’t want too much either.  If you want to dive deeper into this ManhattenWoodProject has a really good video on it that you can watch.

Two Outstanding Issues

There are two other issues that I have with my CNC.  They are not actually anything that is inherently wrong, just issues that I haven’t taken the time to deal with yet.

1 – My z-axis sounds a little funny sometimes.  I think that the threaded Delrin block is a little out of alignment with the flanged bearing causing a little vibration and noise.  Not really sure, though.

2 – The other issue is that my limit switches are not working.  Not sure why, it could be a bad solder, could be they became overheated while soldering, maybe a wire is pinched someplace.  I just don’t know at this point.  The machine runs just fine without them, so I haven’t taken the time to investigate.

Customer Service

The Inventable’s customer service is awesome!!  I had emailed them at one point asking them what size the set screws were for the pulleys because I had lost a couple.  They responded by saying that some new ones were already being shipped to me free of charge.  Pretty Cool!!

Programming the X-Carve

Inventables has free online software for programming the X-Carve CNC Router as well as being a G-Code sender.  It is called Easel.

In my opinion, Easel is just ok.  It does basic 2D design and programming.

At my day job I use a full fledged 3D CAD software, so I am a little bit spoiled and have become quite picky when it comes to the design and programming software that I use.  This led be to be a bit disappointed in Easel.  There are many people who do use Easel and make some pretty cool stuff with it.

I don’t use Easel.  There are a couple of CAD programs that I use here in my Shop.  I use Fusion 360 from AutoDesk and ArtCam.  For a G-Code sender, I use Universal G-Code Sender.

Projects I’ve made so far

Mostly, I’ve been playing and making scrap wood.  However, recently I have been making some real projects.  These are my most recent ones.  Some of these were gifts for family members and some I am going to try and sell on Etsy.

Sign Collage

I also have a lot of other projects running through my head and as I do them I will write about them.

 

Rating My overall experience

I knew going into building my own CNC router that it would be a challenge.  I wasn’t wrong.  I do believe that the X-Carve is worth the money if you have the time and inclination to do so, as well as some, at least rudimentary, computer and electronics skills.

You sort of have to have an engineering and a maker mindset.  This is not for the dabbler.

There are times that it seems that I am working on my machine more that using my machine.  This can mostly be avoided with some routine maintenance, which I will cover in a future blog post.

I am NOT disappointed that I went for it, and now that I have it up and running, I can’t wait to get into my shop and make some … stuff!!

 

Have you bought an X-Carve?  Thinking about it?  I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with it.  Please leave a comment below.

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