After owning a Shapeoko 3 for several years but barely using it, I suddenly found myself swimming in milling projects. I’d finally spent enough time in Fusion 360 to be comfortable drawing up what I wanted to build, and my spate of Christmas projects had given me enough experience to finally be comfortable using the CNC. So, it was time to move on to bigger projects.

Except… not quite yet.

I managed to crack one of the plastic wheels on my Shapeoko almost immediately upon using it this year. It wasn’t completely unusable, but it wasn’t as rigid as it was supposed to be, and it was impossible to get replacements quickly enough. If you look at the picture of the inside of the jewelry box that I built, you can see that there was a lot of vibration while cutting the side walls. Also, the Shapeoko doesn’t have a lot of vertical clearance at the best of times, and once you stack a thick piece of wood on top of some MDF, and then try to use a long endmill, good luck actually being able to mill it without hitting the top of the Z axis’s range.

After a bit of research, I decided to kill two birds with one stone, and ordered an upgraded replacement Z axis for my Shapeoko. I bought a Beaver HDZ, which is dramatically heavier-duty than the stock Shapeoko part. It uses a ballscrew for motion instead of a slightly-stretchy belt, it comes with heavy-duty wheels, and it has about 2x the Z-axis travel.

This may have been a mistake.

The problem is that the HDZ is so much nicer than the rest of the Shapeoko. It’s a giant brick made of out anodized aluminum, rather than a bit of powder-coated overgrown sheet metal. Luke, the guy behind Beaver CNC, did a great job of answering a couple of my questions, and the new Z axis was in my hands and installed on the CNC within a couple days, even though it shipped from the UK.

Now that the Z axis was fixed and the wobble was gone, the next couple problems came into view. First, I didn’t really like the stock Dewalt DWP-611 router that the Shapeoko used. It had an RPM range of 16,000-26,000 RPM, and a lot of things that I wanted to do needed RPMs of under 10,000 RPM. Getting good results out of CNCs, especially with metal, require having good control over RPM, and that isn’t easily possible with the Dewalt. Ideally, I’d be able to control the router’s speed entirely via software, and even turn it on and off at the beginning and end of jobs. It’s possible to get the Dewalt to do that, but it’s not really cost effective. So I started looking at alternative spindles.

Next, I really wanted the ability to mill bigger projects. The acrylic map mounting boards that I’d made were right at the limit of what the Shapeoko could practically cut on all 3 axes, and a number of things that I want to build are Much Larger. They sell size upgrades to the Shapeoko now; the Shapeoko XXL doubles the size and can cut ~30” square pieces of wood, but that’s still a bit small for making some of the things that I want to make. Also, it still uses the stretchy belts, and I really like the ball screw on the Beaver Z axis. So I started looking at alternatives to the Shapeoko after Christmas.

Right as I started looking for Shapeoko alternatives, Luke (of the new Beaver Z axis) announced that he was going to be selling CNC kits that could be used to build ballscrew replacements for Shapeokos, and he’d be supporting sizes up to 1500x1500mm.

So, instead of actually making anything with my CNC over the past couple months, I’ve been rebuilding everything from the ground up. New electronics, new software, new spindle, new frame, new motors. The only things left at this point are the Beaver Z axis and the limit switches.

And it’s been a blast. I’ve learned a ton, and I’ve accomplished a few things that I didn’t really think I’d be able to accomplish when I set out to do them.

At this point, I’m on the cusp of having a working 1500x1000mm CNC with an automatic tool changer that’s at least 7x as fast as the Shapeoko. I’ve written software in 3 languages, designed electronics, debugged mechanical problems, and fabricated parts from scratch to tie parts together that were never meant to work with each other.

Over the next few posts, I’ll walk through each of the parts of the new CNC and explain what I’ve done, hopefully in a way that people will find useful.