Handheld CNC routers bring the tool to the work, rather than the other way around. Check out some great handheld router options in this detailed guide!
Routers have many things in common. They all use a vertical motor to spin a bit at high speeds. Different bits can be used to cut different profiles. Add a ball bearing, and those same bits can be used to follow templates or round over the edges of a board. Suspend the motor from springs, and you get a plunge router, capable of starting and stopping its cut mid-board. Edge guides help cut precise rabbits and dadoes. Most handheld routers have speed controls, and many of the newer ones are cordless.
But one thing routers can’t do accurately is follow a freeform line. Freehand cutting is difficult because the line of cut is hard to control when the bit is running at 15,000 RPM and hits a knot or different grain. Human hands can create amazing works of art, but probably not with a router. For this, you need to add computer numerical control (CNC) to the equation.
Manual routers are cheap, with even the best tools coming in under $300. All the major manufacturers – DeWalt, Bosch, Makita, Festool, and many others – make a selection of tools from small laminate trimming units to large multi-horsepower workhorses designed to mount into a router table.
When we think of CNC routers, the image that comes to mind is a cutting head suspended over the workpiece from a 3-axis gantry. They can do awesome work in a variety of materials, but all share a common requirement: They are limited to the gantry footprint. Even the largest commercial routers max out at around 10 by 10 feet.
Handheld CNC routers avoid the limitations of a fixed-base machine. Smaller and smarter computers, machine vision systems and servo motors bring all the functions of a stationary CNC router to a portable tool. Without the constraints of a fixed base, there are no limits to the area being worked.
Unfortunately, the technology to accomplish this is complicated. Despite what seems like a potentially large market, only two manufacturers currently produce commercial handheld CNC routers: Shaper and ShopBot.
The Shaper Origin uses machine vision and servo motors to fine-tune the path of the cutting head as the user moves the router, while the Handibot shrinks a traditional gantry-based router into a portable unit that can be shifted across the work area section by section. We’ll discuss the features and limitations of these two units and then review a couple of their more basic cousins.
At its heart, the Shaper Origin is a handheld router that uses machine vision to keep track of where the cutter head is located in two dimensions. This is done by placing specially-printed adhesive tape markers on the work surface and storing your design as a set of coordinates relative to the fixed markers. The router displays the design on its screen and you try to follow it.
If this sounds like you have to be perfect with the router, you don’t, and that’s the key to the Shaper Origin. The router is mounted on a five-bar linkage controlled by a pair of eccentric cams. Keep the cutter within a half-inch of the line on the screen, and the cams adjust the router to a stated accuracy of .01″. If you stray, the router automatically retracts the bit.
The obvious lure of the Shaper Origin is its lack of limits. The manufacturer claims no restrictions on work area dimensions, although your ability to kneel for long periods of time might be the real limit. And while the automatic Z-axis zero feature is nice, the lack of ramping capability effectively kills the ability to do true 3D carving. If you need to do 2D inlays across a ballroom floor though, this is the tool to do it with.
Shaper Origin accessories include three bits, wrenches, a dust shroud and two rolls of position marking tape. There is a one-year warranty and a 30-day trial offer available.
The Handibot from ShopBot Tools takes a completely different approach. This self-contained, portable gantry-style router has no base plate. This allows the router to be placed on any surface large enough to hold it.
Working on areas up to 4 x 8 ft is possible using their Large Material Jig tiling tool, and a smart operator could probably extend this even further. While it stretches the definition of a handheld CNC router, its portability qualifies it as at least a “jobsite tool”.
The Handibot is less suitable for freehand routing or room-size work than the Shaper Origin, but what it loses in portability it makes up for in Z-axis flexibility. Like any CNC gantry router, it can 3D carve and ramp through most materials.
The machine’s frame is aluminum reinforced HDPE to help reduce weight yet retain rigidity. A DeWalt 611 router provides the spindle. Standard equipment includes their proprietary Handibot Console computer, 3 bits, dust extractor, and a see-through cover. The warranty lasts two years.
Choosing a manual (non-CNC) router depends on the type of work you do and the special features you might want, such as plunge or template compatibility. Handheld routers range from one-hand trim routers to heavy, high-horsepower units. We’ve highlighted two typical routers below: A large-capacity plunge router and a smaller cordless trim router.
Bosch makes a wide selection of handheld routers with both fixed and plunge bases. The Bosch EVS 1617 2.25 HP router represents the mid-range option in their line. A high-power, corded model, it comes with both fixed and plunge bases, a pair of collets, wrenches, and a carrying case. This type of router offers the power and flexibility for many shop tasks such as edging, cutting dadoes, surfacing boards, and cutting recesses.
At the other end of the spectrum lie trim routers. These small, lightweight units are designed to use with one hand to quickly round the edges of a board or trim laminates. The DeWalt DCW600B combines lightweight with cordless portability. It features a built-in light, soft starting, and a brushless motor. Available attachments include fixed and plunge bases, template and edge guides, and extra batteries.
As we said earlier, choosing a manual router is a simple matter of needs, features, and brand loyalty. With handheld CNC routers, the choices are much more limited, and the features are very different.
Every workshop needs a router. If edge profiles, simple slots, and trimmed laminates are your only needs, nearly any handheld router will work. If you’ve decided that the extra capabilities of a handheld CNC router are a must-have, the model you choose depends on how you plan to use it.
The Shaper Origin works like a guiding hand, continuously fine-tuning the tool’s direction as it travels across any size platform. It’s a cool technology, limited only in its ability to vary the Z-axis depth while in motion.
The Handibot is a more traditional CNC router. Its gantry enables Z-axis carving and easier use with materials other than wood, but it’s more limited in portability and the ability to machine large areas. Both machines have evolved into mature platforms with large user bases and plenty of resources for support, and either would make a fine addition to your tool chest.
(Lead image source: core77.com)
License: The text of "Handheld CNC Router: Best Machines in 2019" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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