Chinese CNC Buyers Guide and Top 5 Machines

Is a Chinese CNC right for me?

Chinese CNC machines are a great tool for the hobbyist with limited space or somebody just looking to tinker on a CNC machine without shelling out thousands of dollars. There are of course limitations to what these machines can do and support isn’t always the best but they are nice for what they are. If you’re somebody with some technical experience or even experience running a 3D printer you should have no problems learning to use one of these machines.

Quick Overview

ModelEleksMill2417 CNCT8 CNC3018 CNC2418 CNC
EleksMill CNC2417 CNCT8 CNC3018 CNC2418 CNC
Work Area130×90×40mm240x170x65mm130x100x40mm300x180x40mm240x180x40mm
Frame Size260×260×260mm430x430x330mm200x200x310mm400x330x240mm330x340x240mm
Motor555 Motor555 6000 rpm775 motor775 7000 rpm775 7000 rpm
More Info More Info More Info More Info More Info

Things to consider before buying

Figure out and be okay with the limitations of the machine before purchasing, they are cheap for a reason. The cutting areas are relatively small and there are limitations on what can be cut with a Chinese CNC in this price range. We recommend reading this article before you consider buying as it covers most of the limitations and concerns of using of these machines.

Chinese CNC prices

A hobbyist can expect to spend between 180-300 dollars on a machine, with the average being around $245. CNC machines in this range perform mostly the same with the main difference being that as the cutting area goes up price also goes up. For example one of the lowest cost CNC machines available for around $180 has a 130 x 100 x 40 mm cutting area while a larger CNC machine at roughly $260 has a 300 x 180 x 40mm cut area.

Size considerations

We recommend when buying a Chinese CNC machine to really put some thought into what size machine you pick up. Usually these machines are one time purchases so it’s a good idea to keep future plans in mind. Someone only wanting to engrave small PCBs now might find themselves later on wanting to do larger PCBs.

What can I do with a Chinese CNC:

While these machines are cheaper than a standard CNC machine they are still quite capable and can do a lot of the things hobbyists want to do.

  • Engrave PCBs: Create PCBs with a sheet of copper clad and an engraving bit.
  • Carve wood: Engrave beautiful and intricate designs in hours
  • Cut Acrylic: Design and cut custom enclosures (albeit slowly)

Top 5 CNC Machines

#1 EleksMill

EleksMill CNC
First up we have the compact EleksMill CNC featuring excellent build quality and some unique features other machines don’t have. This machine is our absolute top pick for engraving PCBs and other applications like wood carving, acrylic cutting, or stamp making. Extra features include knobs to manually fine tune each axis, easy to swap parts, and a well designed control board with extra I/O. The frame is made of high quality 2020 aluminum extrusions with all other structural parts made of thick acrylic. If you’re buying this specifically to make PCBs check out our section on Z probing below.

#2 2417 CNC

2417 CNC
Next is the 2417 CNC machine which has double the working area and an extra support frame piece on the X axis when compared to other models. This extra piece of frame helps support the heavier X axis and results in a cleaner cut. Also included with this machine are manual knobs on both the X and Y axis to help with fine tuning the cutting tool position.

#3 T8 DIY CNC

T8 CNC
The T8 CNC is the cheapest machine on our list at around $180 at the time of writing, one of the most compact, and best of all features a complete metal construction. Its all metal construction means it’s very rigid and makes for a reliable clean cut. Since it’s the cheapest option available the bed is smaller, but it’s still an accurate machine great for engraving.

#4 3018 CNC

3018 CNC
The 3018 CNC machine has the largest cutting area on our list and is the best option if you’re looking for the maximum available space. The frame is completely metal with a few 3D printed plastic parts for things like the motor bracket.

#5 2418 CNC

2418 CNC
The 2418 CNC is the second largest machine on this list sharing the same general frame design as the 3018 but is slightly smaller. This is a good option if you like the design of the 3018 but want something cheaper or slightly smaller in size.

Pros and Cons of a Chinese CNC
As with most tools from China there are always going to be positives and negatives.

Pros
  • Lower cost
  • Open source software
  • Easy to find parts
Cons
  • Can’t mill hard metals
  • Assembly required

What materials can I use on my Chinese CNC

Softer materials like wood, copper clad, acrylic, other plastics, foam, and wax are all things that can milled with these cheaper Chinese machines. As far as cutting metals go these machines are very limited and will only be able to lightly engrave something like aluminum.

What controllers do Chinese CNC machines use?

The controller hardware varies between machines but fortunately most of these Chinese CNC machines have controllers which use the open source grbl firmware. Because these machines use open source firmware lots of support can be found and even additional features like electrical probing can be used. Grbl is a highly functional low cost controller firmware that runs on any controller that uses the ATMEGA328p chip which is what the Arduino Uno is based off of.

What software do I control the machine with?

Since the controllers for these machines are usually based off or use the open source grbl firmware there are a lot of software options available for controlling the machine. Any software which the developers have added grbl support for will be able to control these machines.

Here is a list of some software that can be used

The most basic software will just send over raw Gcode commands while some of the more advanced software choices have features like auto bed leveling. Auto bed leveling comes in handy while working with something conductive like copper clad (pcb material) that isn’t always perfectly flat.

What software is used to design the cutting files

The software used for creating a design depends entirely on what is being created. To design a PCB first a software like Kicad (open source) or Eaglecad (closed source) would used to create the board layout and then a software like Flatcam is used to generate the Gcode for the CNC machine to run.

Likewise to create a design for cutting acrylic something more advanced like the cloud based Fusion 360 or open source Inkscape software can be used to create the design and generate Gcode.

Additional running costs

Something else to consider is the additional stuff required to keep a CNC machine up and running. Things like cutting materials, milling/engraving bits, and lubricants are all “consumables” that while aren’t expensive can add up over time if a machine is used frequently.

Assembly of Chinese CNC

Chinese CNC machines are usually shipped unassembled in a box and will take a few hours to assemble all of the parts together. Build instructions can sometimes be lackluster but these machines are popular enough that it’s no problem finding assembly instructions.

Build quality

Aside from the use of cheaper motors most Chinese CNC machines actually have pretty decent build quality being made of mostly metal with only a few plastic parts. Expect the setup to last awhile as long as the motors aren’t overworked or used to cut something the machine isn’t meant to be used on.

Availability of spare parts

Cheaper Chinese CNC machines have frames commonly made of sturdy 2020 aluminum extrusions and are highly unlikely to ever need replacing. The parts that might need replacing at some point are the bearings or motors which are cheap and easy to buy.

Z Probing for engraving PCBs

Since all of the machines on this page use the grbl firmware they all have the ability to do Z probing. This feature is critical when creating an engraved circuit board using copper clad as it’s not always perfectly flat. Z probing works by connecting one end of the positive/negative probe pins to the cutting tool and the other end to the copper clad. After making these connections software is used to probe the bed automatically and adjust the Gcode to always maintain the correct Z height for engraving.

Are Chinese Laser Engravers Safe?

We can’t honestly recommend in good conscience any of the cheap “laser engravers” on the market mainly due to safety concerns. Everyone only gets one set of eyes and in our opinion it’s not worth the risk. Nearly all of these cheap laser engravers have 0 built in protection from reflections and it only takes microseconds to damage vision permanently.

Even the “protection goggles” these machines come with have no guarantee to actually protect your eyes as they’re not certified by anyone to provide adequate protection.