Choosing the right hobby CNC plasma cutter table
You no longer need a lot of money to buy a high-quality CNC machine. Today, retirees, artists, hot rod gearheads, welding job shops, and hobbyists have plenty of great yet affordable CNC table options.
Often referred to as a hobby-class or entry level table, this option delivers the same cut quality and cut process as the larger, industrial CNC plasma cutting machines in use by manufacturers worldwide. The difference though is the footprint. The most popular entry level CNC plasma table sizes or cutting bed dimensions are 4′ x 4′, 4′ x 8′, and 5′ x 10′. You can buy a 2′ x 2′ CNC plasma machine as well but we don’t recommend it because you can’t buy steel plates or sheet metal narrow enough to fit.
These tables use an off the shelf personal computer or laptop, combined with a relatively small, low-cost stepper motor or servo drive packages. Normally, the table arrives disassembled in a crate and takes a few hours to put together using common hand tools. The difficulty is similar to assembling a gas grill from a big box store.
In addition to the CNC table, you will want to consider the following:
- Plasma Cutter / Power Supply
Air plasma systems, like our Powermax® systems, are nearly always used because this is the most economical option for an entry level table. Make sure the plasma uses a “blowback” start (nearly all newer ones do) and not a high frequency start which will interfere with the PC based machine control and electronics.
- Metal thickness
Beyond just choosing the type of plasma, consider the thickness of metal you want to cut and the amount of cutting you need to do. Most systems have a 50% duty cycle. While this is more than enough for most people, if you plan to cut for a good portion of the day, Hypertherm recommends you buy a system rated above the thickness you plan to cut. That way, the system won’t need to work as hard and you can exceed the stated duty cycle.
- Torch options
The item that differentiates a hand plasma cutter from a CNC plasma cutter is the torch. Look at all available torch options. Though some table manufacturers offer a design that allows you to mount a hand torch to the table and cut with that, we do not recommend it. It is so much easier to mount a machine torch square to the plate. Hypertherm plasma cutters come with a quick disconnect torch feature that allows you to quickly switch between a hand and mechanized CNC torch.
- Height control
Some tables come without a height control to hit a lower price point. Don’t go this route. A good height control is non-negotiable as it is critical to plasma cutting in terms of cut edge angularity and consumable life.
- CAD Software / CAM Software
Most of these entry level tables come with CAD drawing software, as well as post processor or CAM software that takes the drawing file from the CAD and turns it into machine code. Look carefully at the software offered by each table manufacturer before buying as the learning curve can differ greatly.
- Fume control
You will need some sort of fume control system. The two options here are a downdraft system or a water table. A downdraft system uses a fan or blower to pull the smoke down below the cutting bed slats. A water system involves filling your table with water to trap the fumes. Each has advantages and disadvantages.