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Over the Christmas holiday (and stretching a little past New Year's Day), I built an X-Carve CNC. The X-Carve is a reasonably powerful hobbyist level CNC machine. It doesn't come assembled. Instead, you get parts. A lot of parts. The benefit of this is that you can save a few bucks compared to pre-build CNCs while at the same time getting to know the device intimately. The disadvantage, well.. read on.
Every day when I had a little time, I went out to the workshop to do a little bit more building. Every day, once I was done with that day's build, I filmed a short video log about that day's build experience, which I then posted on social media sites.
These video logs became a build diary of sorts. The accompanying video shows all thirteen of those build logs, at about a minute each. What follows in this article are short summaries of the work I accomplished each day. By reading through my build log, you can get a feel for whether this is the sort of project you'd like to undertake.
Inventables, the company behind X-Carve, upgraded the X-Carve as a product in late 2021. They made it more robust, changed the cutting router, increased its cutting height, and more. I bought that upgraded X-Carve. The problem? All of Inventable's build videos were now out of date, as we almost all of the YouTube videos that showed how to build the device.
Thankfully, I found a guy out there on YouTube by the name of Jonathan who has a YouTube channel called Business Everyday. He recorded some detailed videos of his process of building the new X-Carve, which helped my build process quite a bit. If you're planning to build an X-Carve (or just want to support an intrepid YouTuber), go ahead and subscribe to Jonathan's channel.
Day-by-day build log
Here's a day-by-day summary of the build. If you'd like to see each step as it happens, feel free to watch the accompanying video.
Day 1: My biggest build ever
So I've started to build the X-Carve CNC. This is the week between Christmas and New Year's. There are four inches of snow outside. What better time to take on a project that's bigger than anything I've tried to do before? I have built kits and projects and electronics things for years, but this is the biggest, and I have to tell you, I'm a little intimidated by it.
The directions are okay, but not 100%. There are some videos online, but they don't quite match up with the current version. But hey, I'm going to try it. I'm sure by the end; I'll have a working CNC. We'll see.
Stay tuned, though, because I'm going to show you each day as we go along. And of course, over time, there'll be a lot of editorial on projects built with this. So here we go.
So this is day two of the X-Carve CNC build. Yesterday, I put together most of these waste boards. This is the part that the machine carves back and forth. It was tedious, but not too bad. The only thing was is that I was reasonably convinced; I was missing parts, and that's when I stopped.
And then I found an extra bag, which wasn't labeled. I'm kind of hoping it is the right set of parts. I organized things nicely in my parts tray with lots of little parts bins so I can keep track of everything I'm working with. The next process is going to be putting in 200 threaded inserts. So I'm going to be spending most of tomorrow putting in 200 of those.
Day 3: 60 Second shop tour
I wanted to show you the overall workshop setup for building the X-Carve [you can see it on the accompanying video].
Almost everything in the workshop is on wheels. That allows me to rearrange the workshop for each individual project. In this case, I rearranged the workshop to make room for this build. I built two rolling carts from Rockler (borrowed from an upcoming Fab Lab reorganization project), moved my workbenches around, raised up the TV. I have a TV connected to a computer (which was very helpful when viewing directions for building the X-Carve). That TV lives on an Uplift Desk, which can be raised and lowered, allowing me to tuck my folding miter station and table saw underneath.
For this project, here are so many parts! I'm very glad I'm able to arrange the workshop to be able to focus on this build and manage all the pieces as I put it together.
Day 4: Sides and so many threaded inserts
Another day, another X-Carve progress report. So today, I spent a good chunk of the time screwing in those 200 little threaded inserts that go on the bottom of the wasteboard. These allow me to attach clamps that hold down material, so the cutting bit doesn't send things flying.
Today, I also put in plastic sides, and that's making this thing start to look like a CNC. There were four plastic walls on each side of the machine. I then put on large pieces of aluminum extrusion, which X-Carve likes to call maker slides. That was the day between these putting in all of the threaded inserts and building the walls.
Day 5: Motor first look
Another day, another X-Carve build report. And since I know, some of you are going to ask this question, the reason that I do a relatively small amount each day is because I've my full-time job during the rest of the time. I did have some time off during the Christmas holiday week, but I'm back to producing work deliverables. I sneak away, and I get somewhere between 15 minutes in an hour, maybe two hours, if I can, to work on this.
So today, I put in the sliding sides, which is really cool. This is the first time I've gotten to touch the motors, and that's neat. One interesting discovery is how wheel alignment is performed. There is a little tiny mounting element that has an off-center circle that you rotate that allows you to scale up and adjust the wheels.
Day 6: Missing parts and mistakes
Another day, another X-Carve build report. Today was both frustrating and exciting. Let me get the frustration out of the way first.
Two things. First, I put the wheels in the cart, in the part that runs the cable, I installed them backwards. So make sure you follow the direction so that you get them installed correctly. Oops.
The second thing is that there are missing parts. I raided my old 3D printing gear for some spare tee nuts, but Inventables did not include enough parts. That was frustrating. I'm really hoping that my spares will do the job.
It was exciting to see the gantry move finally. The gantry goes forward, back, left and right. It's starting to look like CNC -- and like a 3D printer, for that matter. We have an XY Cartesian mechanism for carving.
Day 7: Z-axis and router
Another day, another X-Carve build report. Today, I got to install the spinning wheel of death, the router, on the Z-axis of the machine. I installed the Z-axis adjust mechanism, which controls the up and down movement of the router. And I also installed the router itself. I think I get to start wiring tomorrow, and I'm excited. See you then.
Another day, another X-Carve build report -- and another day and some missing screws. I did contact Inventables, and they are FedExing me some spare parts. So that's good, although right now, they're stuck somewhere in the FedEx system. But meanwhile, more missing parts.
In any case, my big accomplishment was getting the drag chains and the wiring done for the machine. The wiring is mostly done in the sense that the wiring to all of the mechanical pieces is complete. I haven't yet hooked up the control box, and I haven't hooked the wiring to the control box, but the drag chains are in place.
They work going back and forth, both on the X and Y-axis. The sideboard, which is an optional component if you get the larger kit, has been installed as well, and that's going to hold the controller. So tomorrow, we get to belt this thing, which is putting in all the belts that move the axis.
Day 9: Belts and tensioning
Today was a surprising amount of work. I put in the belts. There are three belts that need to be put into this thing, and getting them to run under the various cogs that they need to run around and then getting them to stretch just right and tension just right turned out to be a lot more work than I expected. I had to take the main one single belt and cut it into three parts when I started. That really freaked me out for some reason, but I just laid one end of the device to the other, measured a cut, and it was fine.
Tomorrow, I get to build the X controller. I get to build all of the electronics that drive this thing. So essentially, all of the mechanical and electro-mechanical stuff is done. And tomorrow, it's just the controller.
Day 10: X-Controller assembly
Another day, another X-Carve build report. Today, I got to build the X-Controller, which was just about as easy as building any electronics device. To be clear, the X-Controller is the controller for the X-Carve, not just a controller for x-axis movement. The X-Controller controls all three axes (axese? axisi? axi?).
If you've ever done any PC building or anything like that, you're fine. I do wish Inventables had done a few things differently. I wish they'd recommended routing the wiring up through the spoil board where there's a hole for it, as opposed to just leaving them out because cable management is ugly on this thing. I wish that they had made all the cables coming from all the parts and at exactly the right distance so that there weren't longer and shorter cables right at the back of the X-Controller.
And weirdly enough, the router has a cord that comes to an end, right where the X-Controller is, but there's no plug for it. And yet there's a very long plug coming out of the X-Controller. So you'll need your own extension cord. But in any case, it looks pretty cool. I get to do more tomorrow.
Day 11: Astonishingly dumb design moves
The dust collection system is done, and this is the end of the actual build. My next step will be a test, but ending the build turned out to include a number of astonishingly dumb design moves.
To start with, the pole that holds the whole dust collection structure doesn't have a bottom. So I have it attached with duct tape. Otherwise, it just falls through. You can see this pretty clearly in the accompanying video.
The other thing that was kind of astonishingly dumb is you have to disassemble all of the gantry components to get the slide-in pieces to work. Why couldn't have we done that earlier? I don't know, but it's done.
I'm hoping it's going to work. I'm going to get to test it tomorrow. So cross your fingers. Here we go, testing time.
Day 12: Mini-rant: Missing parts
Now that the build is done, I want to address an area of huge annoyance during the process of this: missing parts. I had missing parts again in putting together the dust collection; there are a couple of missing screws.
I contacted Inventables after the holiday weekend and asked them for some spare screws. I asked them for 4 T-nuts and four missing screws. They sent me two full packages, nice packages of a whole bunch of different parts, which I'm really grateful for.
They FedExed them, which was great, but why couldn't they have just been included in the kit? I can't imagine, with all the reports I see of other people missing parts, that including a couple of bags of spare parts would add too much to the overall cost of the unit.
I can't imagine it's worth the frustration and anger that comes from pieces missing. And I double-checked every one of my parts. I keep track of all the parts bags and checked them.
Day 13: It's done! It carves!
Another day and it's done! That's right. It's done. And it works. And I carved a square. Yes. I made sawdust with the X-Carve. I'm excited. Can you tell it's been a big project? It's been huge, but it works. It's done. Check it out on the attached video. I mounted a board. I clamped it down. And it carved!
Also, a big shout out of thanks to Asus for providing the shop computer for this project. When I told Asus that I was building a couple of CNCs (there's a tiny one coming, too) and I needed a dedicated computer to control them, Asus sent me their Asus Zenbook Duo UX482 to run the gear. This will definitely come in handy as I build more projects.
So there you go. It is done. It is currently sitting on two borrowed carts out of the Fab Lab. I'm going to eventually build a cart system for this thing, but it's done, and it's in place.
In the future, stay tuned for more articles and more videos about the X-Carve. There's a lot to learn. Thanks for coming along for the ride. I'll be doing a lot of building using the X-Carve.
Have you used a CNC? What have you built? What should I build next? Let us know in the comments below.