CNC SHARK vs. X-CARVE
I’d say that CNC machines are a dime a dozen these days, but while the market is flooded with options, they are far from inexpensive. The cheapest will run you hundreds of dollars, the mid-range units are in the thousands, and the sky is the limit when it comes to professional models. Choosing the right one can be confusing, and making the wrong choice can be expensive. Very, very expensive. The old saying, “You get what you pay for,” applies to the high tech world of CNC perhaps more than any other tool category. Often we shop with a price in mind, trying to get the most features we can for our budgeted amount. This inevitably requires us to make more concessions than we should. But until the money trees you planted in your back yard start producing, bargain hunting is a fact of life. So let’s compare two CNC systems that are in different categories. One is made for the budget conscious, the other for the buyer who is more concerned with features, but doesn’t want to spend a fortune either.
The most basic CNC machine on the market today (the X-Carve) will cost you just shy of $1000 by the time you include the extras you’ll have to buy to get it up and running. (Some have built homemade versions for less, but that is a whole different skillset.) The CNC Shark HD3 will cost you about four times as much. I own them both, and I can tell you that it’s not fair to compare the two machines as if they were in the same league. But that’s not what I’m doing here. I’m comparing the two so you can see what that extra money buys you, and you can decide for yourself if the CNC Shark HD3 is really four times better.
ASSEMBLY: Since time is money, you should consider the amount of work a CNC machine will require before it is ready to perform.
The X-Carve comes completely disassembled in a series numbered boxes and bags. It is essentially a collection of parts that the seller purchases from various factories, and they let you turn those parts into a machine, cutting out the middle man and keeping the price down. Some people say they were able to assemble it in a good, long day. Others report needing a week or more. No instructions are provided, but a comprehensive tutorial is available online. I found the assembly to be a complicated- and at times frustrating- process. There are literally hundreds of parts. But with patience and a few basic skills (soldering, etc.) most people should be able to work through it.
The CNC Shark HD3 Comes almost fully assembled. You have to connect the top and bottom halves together and assemble the spindle carriage. It can be a little unwieldy for one person, but the entire machine will be up and running in about an hour. I did have some difficulty getting the router motor mounted into the carriage, which was a very tight fit, and I skinned my knuckles a couple of times in the process, but it was manageable.
BUILD QUALITY: A CNC machine has to be built for the work you intend to do. Absolutely no flexing can be tolerated in the frame or spindle carriage. So the lighter the build, the less material you can remove with each pass, significantly extending the amount of time it takes to complete a task.
The X-Carve frame can best be described as a pair of ¾ inch thick extruded aluminum rails attached to a light weight frame, on top of which rides a third aluminum rail with an attached spindle. The bed is a sheet of MDF with a series of threaded inserts for attaching clamps. It’s heavier than it looks, but it will easily flex under pressure. The X-Y movement is controlled by light duty stepper motors (upgradable for an additional cost), attached to Neoprene belts and guided by nylon rollers with sealed bearing inserts. It is designed to take very light passes with small router bits. I found that it was essential to find a very flat surface to mount my assembled machine to. It is very easy to twist the entire thing out of alignment.
The CNC Shark HD3 is made from ¾ inch thick high density polyethylene reinforced with aluminum plating. The bed is 1 inch thick extruded aluminum with multiple grooves for attaching clamps. The X-Y movement is controlled by heavy duty stepper motors which drive wear compensating, anti-backlash lead screws, and is guided by adjustable linear bearings on heavy steel shafts. I found the overall construction to be very stiff; I could not force it to flex at all. The lead screw drive is more accurate and durable than belt driven systems. And the linear bearings are a dramatic improvement, both in terms of accuracy and in longevity. This is simply a very heavy, very well built machine.
SPINDLE OPTIONS: The spindle is the workhorse of any CNC machine, and as such, it should be a major factor when you make your purchase. Neither the X-Carve nor the CNC Shark come with a spindle (or a router) in their most basic form. They do differ, however, in that you can only use certain spindles on each machine.
The X-Carve provides two spindle options. You can use their light duty spindle motor or attach a trim router like the Bosch Colt. A trim router will give you more power and a larger, ¼ inch collet for using standard router bits. But the machine’s light duty frame and underpowered stepper motors will prevent you from taking advantage of the router’s extra power. The machine simply can’t remove much material in a single pass without the spindle mount deflecting, especially in hardwoods.
The CNC Shark HD3 is designed to fit a standard Porter Cable or a similar full sized router motor. This allows you to up the power to 2 ¼ horses and attach both ¼ and ½ inch shank bits. The heavy frame makes it possible to use every bit of that power, taking a deeper cut with each pass. (They offer a collet adapter that also allows you to use 1/8" shank bits for very fine work.) Another HUGE feature found on the CNC Shark HD3 is the ability to add a water cooled spindle. And they are working on a laser engraving attachment as well as a 3D printing option!
WORK AREA: This is where a lot of people go wrong when they are shopping for a CNC machine. They see the extra cost that comes with a large bed capacity, and they convince themselves that they can get by with less. Inevitably they regret that decision when they find that they can’t do half the projects they want with the machine they got. Size matters BIG TIME when it comes to CNC machines. You may think you only want to cut tiny parts, but when you start seeing all the possibilities that these machines open up to you, you’re bound to wish you had waited until you could afford the larger unit.
The X-Carve comes with a 12 X 12 inch work area (upgradable for another $230). That’s tiny. Really, really tiny. I can almost guarantee that you will be frustrated with such a small capacity unless you only make very specific projects and never dream of anything else. The MDF bed and light duty aluminum supports also proved to be a problem for me when it came to keeping it flat. I found it to be a full 1/8 inch low in the center, which had to be corrected with shims and by mounting the machine permanently on a very flat bench surface. Others have reported fewer problems in this area.
The CNC Shark HD3 has a work area of 25 X 25 inches, more than four times the size as the standard X-Carve. But the true difference is nearly unmeasurable. It means more parts can be cut from larger work pieces, full size signs and carved panels can be completed a single session. I can’t stress enough the benefit of a larger work area. (In fact, it’s nearly unlimited when you consider the software tiling feature. More about that later.) And the thick aluminum bed is not only very flat, but the machine has a bed mapping feature which scans the surface and makes adjustments in the software to cancel out imperfections.
SOFTWARE: This is the biggest of all potential CNC pitfalls. The software can be the difference between a great machine, and an expensive piece of junk. Here, more than anywhere else, you get what you pay for. If your machine isn’t equipped with the right software, you are going to be spending big bucks to upgrade it.
The X-Carve comes with no software. You do get access to their free, web browser based Easel software online- which is remarkably easy to use and feature rich for the price. Because it is “open source” software, ambitious users with programming skills can upgrade it over time. But it is really made for cutting on a single plane. That means you can cut out a flat part, or engrave a shape. But it will not cut steps or relief carvings. As of the time of this writing there are rumors of a new 2.5D capability coming to Easel. But for now you will have to be creative if you wish to cut to different depths on the same workpiece. (For example, run multiple sessions as if they are separate projects without switching the material.) Or, you can purchase new software that will give you those capabilities for several hundred dollars more. The point is, the machine itself may be capable of cutting along all three axis, but the software severely limits those abilities.
The CNC Shark HD3 comes packaged with a software suite that includes a controller program and the extremely popular VCarve Desktop software. VCarve is created by a company that specializes in professional CNC systems and it has more features than the average user will ever need. For one thing, it allows the machine to cut in both 2D and 3D. You can design a project from scratch right within the software using the powerful drawing tools or the hundreds of clip art files. It’s compatible with numerous other 3D modeling programs, including Sketchup. And it is fully customizable. You can even modify the the numerous router bit profiles or create your own to match any bit you want to use. Another feature I love allows you to tile a project automatically. That means you can divide a workpiece of any size into sections so you can fit them on your machine. All of these features do come with a learning curve, but a series of instructional videos is provided to get you going.
OTHER FEATURES: The X-Carve is a basic, entry level system. To keep it simple (and inexpensive) they didn’t add any features beyond those mentioned above. Since the CNC Shark HD3 is a significantly more expensive machine, you would expect it to have more features. Some of these features are add-on accessories and they aren’t always cheap. But many are unique to this machine and they allow it to grow with you as you take on more complex projects.
Virtual Zero- This included feature maps the surface of your work piece and uses the data to automatically make adjustments in the software to compensate for warps and twists in the material. This is a fantastic feature for woodworking as perfectly flat stock is hard to find. The manufacturer also boasts an untold capacity for creative potential that this opens up when working with 3D work pieces.
Touch Plate- This accessory is designed to make it very fast, easy and accurate to set up your router bits. I really found it to be essential when setting the zero point of a newly installed bit. You lower the spindle until the very moment the bit contacts the touch plate, which senses the contact and stops advancing. It sure beats trying to gauge when the bit contacts the work piece by eye. Thousandths of an inch are very important in CNC routing!
Dust Collection- This is an essential feature in my mind. My X-Carve doesn’t have any dust collection attachment at all, and it makes a huge mess every time I use it. The CNC Shark doesn’t come with any either but an attachment is available for purchase. I found it to be over-priced at $90, but it does make a big difference. I only wish it allowed for attaching a 4” dust collector hose rather than a shop vacuum. But it was still a big factor in my decision to get a CNC Shark.
4TH Axis- This is a pricey accessory ($800) but it attaches to the bed of your CNC machine and works just like a lathe, giving you a fourth axis. It has its own motor, a chuck and a tail stock with a live center. This opens up a whole new world of CNC routing. I haven’t tried it yet, but I would like to.
Touch Probe- This digital “finger” slips into the collet of your router and can be used to trace objects in 3D with amazing accuracy and detail. You can use it to make copies of existing objects!
Water Cooled Spindle- This 2HP spindle can replace your router as the primary cutter on your machine. It is liquid cooled, making it a great option for long projects that may overheat a standard router.
ALL IN ONE OPTIONS- This past year the company that makes the CNC Shark (Next Wave Automation) released a new version of their bench top CNC Piranha which can cut metals, laser engrave and even 3D print! I am told that these upgrades will also be available for the CNC Shark in the near future. That was a HUGE selling point for me!
CONCLUSION- The CNC Shark HD3 costs about four times as much as the X-Carve. (NOTE- They also offer a smaller model for $1600, which has the same software and build quality as the CNC Shark HD3, but is considerably smaller.) But it is clearly in a totally different class. Even if you upgrade the X-Carve to the “loaded” version (larger bed capacity, better stepper motors, etc.), which brings its price up to about a third of the CNC Shark’s price, it still doesn’t even come close. The Shark is vastly better built, more powerful, and feature rich. It comes with hundreds of dollars in high end software, enabling it to do a lot more right out of the box. And with the available accessories, it is massively upgradable. Like I said at the outset, it is unfair to compare the two, apples to apples. But dollar for dollar, you’ll get a lot more for your money with the CNC Shark HD3.
As a confirmed tightwad myself, I understand the desire to save some cash. And I have no gripes about the X-Carve beyond what is mentioned above. If all I was going to make was little signs and maybe cut out a few small project parts now and then, I would stick with just the X-Carve. But I know myself. I would soon wish I had more capacity, more power, and more functionality. I would eventually want to work faster with harder materials. I would wish I could carve furniture parts, or make really big signs. I would covet the feature packed software the better systems have. I would want the ability to upgrade to a water cooled spindle, or a 3D printer. Bottom line is, the list of projects I wanted to do, but my X-Carve couldn’t handle, would grow. And I would soon wish I had set that thousand bucks aside and waited until it grew into enough to buy the CNC Shark HD3 instead.
Watch a video of the CNC Shark in action as we build a unique project!
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