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A Small CNC Mill - A Huge Education

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Bob La Londe

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#1
I posted this on another forum, but then thought some here might enjoy reading it.

October 2006 - 11 years ago - I really knew nothing about machining. I had a small manual lathe my wife gave me for Christmas, a bench grinder I wallowed out parts with, and a drill press I wallowed out holes with. I thought I knew how to use them, but I was wrong. That's when I ordered a mill. I ordered something I could afford and I thought would be easier to use. A Taig 2019-CRER.

I was wrong.

It was sold as turn key. "That's for me," I thought. "I can just plug it in and start learning how to use it." Boy that was a mistaken assumption. It arrived in two boxes. One from the factory containing the basic mill, and one from the reseller containing the stepper motors and all the electronics. That's sure not turn key in my opinion.

After several days of cussing swearing and assembly in between doing my day job I finally got it assembled and set it on a work bench. There it sat for a couple weeks until I ponied up for Mach 3 to run the machine and picked up a used computer to run it. I was starting to understand that "turn key" was just sales puffery at best. "Finally I can start cranking out parts," I thought. I was wrong.

At first I tried to use the Wizards. A sort of short cut conversational programming macro capability in Mach 3. I thought it was me or my machine at first, but some of them are quite bad. I had circles come out like lemons and had people tell me it was the machine. The thing is the tool path on the screen looked like a lemon as well. I started to think I had a lemon. I was wrong.

It turned out the wizards were made by a variety of people learning as they went and with varying degrees of knowledge. The parameter inputs standards weren't consistent from one to the next making them harder to learn, but once you did some of them were quite good. There is one that is really a group of tools called NFS Wizard. It allows you set setup multiple operations and string them together.

Then there was my machine. In a lot of ways it was quite good, and in others it was quite bad. Its a kind of confusing Frankenstein's monster. The Z axis ways are a sort of box clamping mechanism with a square tapered brass gib that pushes the head to one side on the ways. The Y axis ways are two square rods with half squares on the saddle that engage them. The X axis has the only "normal" ways with a dovetail and a tapered brass gibb. I didn't have a clue about any of that, and because everything was different I was a bit afraid of it. All the axis have 1/2-20 "precision" v-lead screws with brass pinch nuts. Learning how to adjust all of that, knowing nothing, and thinking that machines had to be "perfect" left me struggling for months. The seller wasn't much help. Taig was responsive to questions however. Eventually I learned how to tear it down and put it back together... because I had done it so many times. I could take one apart and put it back together easily now. Probably less than an hour. Maybe a little more if I adjust everything how I want it as I do. Adjusting a Taig is a balance between speed and precision. I eventually I came to accept what it was and what it could and could not do.

The electronics and control were another story. The reseller left me thinking it was my computer so I upgrade it.. a couple times. The breakout board and drives looked suspiciously like a knockoff of an old Xylotek control. Of course I didn't learn that until years later. It was slow. 20 inches per minute max and even after I had the machine dialed to the best of my abilities it still would flake out.

I cut parts like that. My first parts were more a matter or turning perfectly good material into piles of chips and broken end mills. I'm sure my wife got quite tired of me showing her some really ****ty parts or engraving on a piece trash, and expecting validation of my prowess as a machinist. LOL. Eventually I started to find a balance between what it could do and what I wanted it to do.

One day I was reading a tackle making forum and a machine shop owner who made molds went on a long winded rant about what was involved in making molds for rubber worms. It just sort of rubbed me the wrong way. I went out to the shop and started working on a Friday night and didn't stop until I had produced my very first mold. I didn't have any real CAD software. I didn't have CAM software. I did get ripped off for $75 for LazyCAM, but if you can produce anything other than the most rudimentary parts with it my hat is off to you. Of course knowing nothing I thought it was my lack of knowledge, not the software. I coded most of it by hand. Simple engraving type operations. I used Excell and some macros to write iterative incremental code. I learned how to write simple code for cutting arcs and then learned how to change the plane so I could cut arcs in X & Z instead of X&Y. It was very much hand coding, but atleast I had a computer to do the drudge work. 3 days later I had a mold I thought would work. It was a total piece of crap compared to the work I do today, but it would produce usable baits. I caught fish with them.

Over the ensuing months I learned to make other molds, discovered CamBam, and wrote bigger and bigger programs. All the while I fought with my machine and my crappy controller thinking I was really just asking to much of it. I would hover over it ready to hit the e-stop when things went wrong... and they did. I would weld up holes in a piece of aluminum right there on the table and start over, because I didn't want to waste metal over and over again.

The best thing I ever did for the machine was spend $600 on a package of steppers, cables, controller from Ahren Johnson over at CNC Router Parts. I bolted it on and it was like a different machine. I was screaming along at 30-40 IPM with the machine adjusted tight, and with it loosened up bit I could cut parts at 60 IPM. No kidding.

I started pushing the machine to see what I could do. If I had settled for less I could have probably stopped there, but I was learning about HSM. Something a Taig is best at, but not really suited for. Its got a 10K 1/4HP spindle, but as documented the feeds didn't match that. So again it was a balancing act between over powering the spindle, pushing the steppers to hard, and adjusting the machine for precision or speed.

The whole time I was cutting parts. More and more often I was getting finished parts that looked ok. I still sometimes had issues with the machine, but it was because I was asking more and more out of it. One Taig owner and reseller in a group all but called me a liar when I told him how many hours I had on my machine. I experimented. I ran wood routers as spindles for more power and less weight so I didn't have to worry about the spindle when pushing the machine. I easily burned up a dozen of them. Some failed because they got packed with aluminum chips and shorted out. Others got so hot the plastic spindle noses that held the bearings would melt. Some I actually went through brushes on. I started rating them by how many hundred hours I would get out of one.

Somewhere in all of that I wrote code file for a mold that was 1.3 million lines of code and took over 30 hrs to run. I hovered over the machine as long as I could, and then I slept on the floor next to it while it ran. I was startled awake at any odd sound from the machine, and I was startled awake a lot. I wound up cutting that job twice because I made a mistake and ruined the first run. That 1.3 million lines of code was one half of a mold. I spent a solid week in the shop doing that one job. I only went in the house to grab something to eat, and to use the restroom. I still have that mold, and I still use it. People keep asking me to reproduce it and sell it, but I am pretty attached to the design.

A couple months ago I ran 5.6 million lines of code for a mold program. 2.3 million lines per side. I ran each side on a different machine at the same time and it took a little over 8 hours. It was done right the first time. The next day after a little hand finish work deburring, pressing in alignment pins, and tapping clamping screw holes it shipped out. I spent all the time the job was running in the office doing CAD and CAM for other jobs and ignored the machines until they needed a tool change. (Sorry no ATC machines in my shop... yet.)

Now instead of knowing nothing I feel like I know a little bit.

That Taig taught me to machine, rebuild machines, design machines, and understand that there is no such thing as perfect. If two parts are a "pefect" fit they become one part. I retrofit a KMB1 from a non-working Randtronics control to a modern PC based control. The first time it took me a year. When I upgrade my controls it took me a day. I repaired everything that was wrong or went wrong it it. Mechanical, electrical, electronic, setup... I took a cheap flimsy Chinese noodle router and retrofit it with a robust control system and motors in a day. I redesigned the leads, motors and control system on a MaxNC and cut the first mold I was really really proud of on it. One I consider a kind of work of art. A mold I reproduce and sell today. I made parts with my Taig for several of my other machines. The Hurco KMB1 has a companion spindle mount, and an encoder cover made on the Taig. The spindle mount on the noddle route was made on the Taig. Bidirectionally adjustable captive bearing carriers for the MaxNC were made on the Taig, and its saddle was modified for spring loaded anti backlash nuts on the Taig.

I have the Taig all apart on a shelf in the shop because I am to busy to mess with it, but I plan to put it back together again. When I do it will be a fully functional and usable display piece in my office.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

If you have read all of that and think that a Taig may be more trouble than its worth... then you would be wrong.

The knowledge to do everything I had to do or learn is out there. Nobody currently sells it with as crappy of a controller as my first one. People will gladly guide you with software choices and control software to get started. Its not a production machine and it was never intended to be one but I used it like one. Its intended to be a hobby machine for a guy piddling around with it for a few hours on a weekend or in the evening. It would last and run for years and years like that. Maybe a lifetime. I got years of actual run time out of mine running way beyond what it was designed for. I literally made (and sold) tens of thousands of dollars worth of parts with mine. It paid for three other machines and their retrofits, and it made parts for them before I put it on the shelf.
 

RJSakowski

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#2
A great story! It should serve well as an inspiration thinking about diving in to CNC milling but fearing failure. Well done!
 

Karl_T

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#3
Good read. Bob, I remember your posts about this machine from the old Rec.crafts.metalworking usenet group.

I've been through the controls as well. Started with a mill Bandit with a whole 30K of memory, very obscure and criptic to code. Went to one of the first DOS PC controls - AHHA but had to loose the servos and went to steppers. Better control but the steppers were total wimps. went to huge steppers, a bit better. Then I went to mach 2, slightly better control but still the steppers were a huge issue - I'd push the mill too hard and loose steps - ruining a part.

Then i bought a huge lathe with a Camsoft control- thought I'd died and went to heaven after the other controls. . So, I refit that old mill to Camsoft in 2005. I've never looked back. It also let me go back to servos and gives position feedback

Now, this mill is just plain wore out. So i bought a much better mill with a Fanuc 0M control last summer. After a few weeks use, i do not like this control at all. i will be re-ftting it to camsoft.

over the years, I've spent more time improving and re-fitting than i have making parts.

Karl
 

Bob La Londe

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#4
Hey Karl,

I'm running Mach3 on all my machines right now. With modern PCs and decent motion controllers it does pretty good. I'm running three Speedmasters, the Chinese noodle router, and my Hurco KMB1 on various Windows PCs with Mach 3 and SmoothSteppers. Most are Ethernet, but the noodle router still has a USB Smooth Stepper. I did a brief stint of playing with EMC2 (now LinuxCNC) and decided I was happier with Linux as an OS, but I was happier with Mach3 as a controller. Well that and LinuxCNC doesn't support the Smoothstepper. I was very happy to get away from the parallel connection.

P.S. I still hang out in RCM, but the SNR has gotten really bad. I have to keep the squelch turned way up.
 

Boswell

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#5
Nice story with a great ending!

BTW, what is a noodle router?
 

[X]Outlaw

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#7
Great story Bob! The Taig CNC mill was also my introduction to machining five years ago. Before that mill I never touched a machine tool in my life. I've recently upgraded to bigger manual machines but I still have the Taig running and use her almost everyday. Unless I get something like a Tormach 770 my Taig mill will always have a place in my shop. I'm even considering getting a second one, especially that they now come with ball screws.
 

Bob La Londe

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#8
Great story Bob! The Taig CNC mill was also my introduction to machining five years ago. Before that mill I never touched a machine tool in my life. I've recently upgraded to bigger manual machines but I still have the Taig running and use her almost everyday. Unless I get something like a Tormach 770 my Taig mill will always have a place in my shop. I'm even considering getting a second one, especially that they now come with ball screws.

The PCNC770 has often been on my consideration list. My main money makers right now actually have a slightly smaller working envelope than my Taig.

I too considered multiple Taig mills. They are pretty inexpensive for what they can do. I was almost inspried to it by a video I saw a while back of a shop with a whole row of Taigs cranking out parts. I looked for the video to post it, but I think they were actually showing off a different machine they had just bought, and the row of Taigs around their shop was incidental to the video. I don't remember what to look for.
 

MontanaAardvark

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#9
Great story, Bob. I may be the only person around here that doesn't know your products or what they look like, so I'd like to see an example. You could PM me if that's more acceptable.

In a lot of ways, your story is similar to mine, except I never went pro. Also, I started with a Sherline, not a Taig. I could add the story here, but this is your thread. Besides, your story is cooler than mine. ;)


Another Bob
(which is why I don't usually use my name on forums)
 

Bob La Londe

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#10
Great story, Bob. I may be the only person around here that doesn't know your products or what they look like, so I'd like to see an example. You could PM me if that's more acceptable.

In a lot of ways, your story is similar to mine, except I never went pro. Also, I started with a Sherline, not a Taig. I could add the story here, but this is your thread. Besides, your story is cooler than mine. ;)


Another Bob
(which is why I don't usually use my name on forums)
This is a mold I developed years ago. It was the first mold I was really proud of. It originally took a little over 4 hours to machine on the MaxNC I modified. I simplied the design a little and improved the tool paths so it cuts a little quicker. You can watch the video to find out how much quicker. I can probably get that down to even less, but I only sell a few per year off this mold so I haven't spent any more time on it. Feel free to "me too" your story on here if you like. This is just a feel good thread. I don't mind.

 

Bob La Londe

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#11
P.S. I spent about a year off and on originally developing that mold. I learned a LOT from making it, and it was originally made just for my own use.
 

MontanaAardvark

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#12
OK. Set your clocks back to 2003. I was one of those guys who always kept saying "one of these days" I wanted to get a lathe and into metal working. My wife solved that for me and gifted me a Sherline 4400 micro lathe for Christmas. I had never actually touched any machine tools at all at that point, so to say I didn't know jack is an understatement. After playing with that lathe for 6 months, learning how to make some chips, and reading the Yahoo Sherline group regularly, an ad appeared for a CNC Sherline mill surplussed from a school system across the state in Tampa. After a 350 mile round trip drive, and handing the guy $300, I moved a CNC Sherline mill into my garage. The only problem was that nothing about it worked, except that the spindle motor turned. Like my lathe on its first day, this was the first time I had ever touched a milling machine.

The CNC Sherline was a Paxton Patterson CNC Training Center used in the VoTech programs there. It was in a cabinet with the electronics inside the box. From the outside, I could see that Mr. Cutter had been introduced to Mr. Table a few times, and it had a lot of machinable wax residue on it. I quickly found the major problem, though, and maybe why it was sold as surplus. The interface looked like a printer port but it wasn't. It only plugged into a special matching card made by the people who made the controller electronics. When a standard printer port was hooked up to the port, it blew a fuse on the power supply, and that's the way I got it. Once I figured that out, and wired a special connector, I found that two out of three axes didn't work. The Y-axis wasn't moving right and Z didn't move at all. The motor mounts on X were pretty barfed up, too. I had found the old DOS program TurboCNC and used that to issue commands to move the mill around.

The next several months were spent learning how CNC worked. Fixing electronics is my "home field", but I didn't have documentation on that motor controller. The motor mounts were threaded 1/2" aluminum bar, and I could make those. I eventually got it working, but I had to replace the controller with a Xylotex 3-axis board. A new Sherline CNC mill was close to $2000, and I only put another $200 into it to get it working right, so I had a CNC mill for $500. By this time, it was looking like this.

CNC-mill.jpg

As the years went by, I expanded its capability. You can see that I added a fourth axis (rotary) pretty early on (upper left on the angle bracket), and then upgraded the basic machine with the A2ZCNC extended X/Y axes and a longer (15") Sherline Z axis. The stepper motors were upgraded in torque substantially, from 75 in-oz to almost 400. It no longer fit in the little red box, so I built a plywood enclosure for it, to contain chips somewhat. The current mill looks like this:

MillingEnc.JPG

In 2008, I decided to build a CNC lathe. I bought the Sherline CNC-ready lathe, added motors, controllers, made cables; did all that stuff. I had gotten used to using the manual lathe by just walking up to it, chucking up a piece of work and doing what I needed to do. I told my wife that I'd leave both lathes on the bench for a while and whichever got used more would be the one we keep. We ended up keeping both. I wanted to use the CNC lathe to thread and that was a bit difficult, but it eventually did. I hardly used the CNC lathe once I got it to thread. I do virtually everything on the manual lathe. (I've got to admit, though, power feed is a pretty nice thing to have.) I have some pens I want to make, and the CNC lathe power feed will be handy for that.

My mill has always been CNC. I've never used it in a fully manual mode like I have the lathe. CNC is fantastic for never losing count of where it is, although it sure can get lost if the motor drops steps. It never loses concentration and goes too far. CNC has two main uses: first, running many copies of the same part, rather than one part made one time, and second, it's absolutely indispensable for really complex shapes even if it's just one thing. CNC mills have become the standard way the jewelry industry carves waxes to cast in the lost wax casting process and that was my original interest. I carved a lot of waxes with it, but never cast any.

I quickly found that some of the waxes I wanted to carve would take hundreds of thousands of lines of code. They choked TurboCNC and that's when I found Mach3. Been using Mach3 since '07. Today, I have a Warp9 Ethernet Smooth Stepper connected to the G0704, Sherline Mill and Sherline Lathe. I haven't run any Gcode files that long since '08 or '09, though.

I built all the parts for my G0704 conversion on the Sherline, including milling the oil grooves in the cast iron table. I think that 10 pound chunk of metal was too big for it, because right after that it started losing steps and I had to rebuild the X-axis leadscrew mount. I've built a ton of little metal odds and ends on the Sherline and have more accessories for it than the big 0704. Still, though, it's a good little mill when you stay in its envelope.
 

MontanaAardvark

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#13
P.S. I spent about a year off and on originally developing that mold. I learned a LOT from making it, and it was originally made just for my own use.
It's a cool looking little shad mold. I could see using that in the saltwater lagoon here for trout or snook.
 

cs900

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#14
...and expecting validation of my prowess as a machinist. LOL.
isn't that what the internet if for? :applause 2:

I'll also get in on this bandwagon....I also started out with a Taig 2019ER originally just to learn, but ended up manufacturing a dual headlight kit for 2nd generation RX7s ('86-'89) which more than paid for the mill. I had caught the bug. I ended up selling the Taig to a friend (who still has it) and my cnc arsenal now includes a converted PM45 mill, a converted 8X14 lathe, a little shapoko based wood router (18" x 24" work area), and I'm currently building a 4'x4' plasma table. Oh...and a Denford (sherline) learners mill which now runs on mach3

can't stop...won't stop!

But to affirm pretty much everything you said, the Taig was the perfect learners mill. Any mistakes made weren't too bad, and really helped my programming game. Sometimes you have to get a bit creative working with small machines like this. And also, it's a pretty bad-ass little machine. I filled my base and column with epoxy granite and upgraded the spindle to a 2hp treadmill motor. I'm still impressed with the performance I got out of it.
 

Bob La Londe

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#15
Great stories guys. My wife actually gave me the bug when she gave me a Harbor Freight 7x10 for Christmas 2005.
 
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