If you’re looking to upgrade your workshop or set up a business, you’ve almost definitely run into the Glowforge vs CNC routers debate.
For the Glowforge, its strength lies in precision engraving and cutting thin materials like acrylic or leather with high accuracy.
They are pricier than other CNC machines, but offer user-friendly and reliable laser engraving and cutting for those who prioritize a smooth experience.
On the other hand, CNC routers are highly versatile, capable of deep cuts in wood, plastic, and soft metals. These machines are highly customizable, allowing for various upgrades – but require more technical knowledge to operate.
In this guide, I’ll share my hands-on experience with the Glowforge range and how they compare to CNC routers, so you can decide which is best for you.
I’ll explain how the two types of machines differ across all the important criteria – like cutting speed, accuracy, software, and work area – so you can choose the right device with confidence.
Inventables X Carve
What is Glowforge?
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Glowforge manufactures a range of popular “3D laser printers”. However, while they like printers, they are in fact just large laser cutting and engraving machines.
The Glowforge machines use an extremely thin, highly concentrated beam of light to engrave and cut a variety of different materials, from paper and glass to plastic and even wood.
There are three different Glowforge machines:
- Basic – $3,995 — Available at Glowforge here
- Plus – $4,995 — Available at Glowforge here / Dynamism here
- Pro – $6,995 — Available at Glowforge here / Dynamism here
Each of these performs the same basic functions but with different levels of speed, power, and precision. The Glowforge Pro is the best and most popular model, so we’ll use that as the main point of comparison to CNC routers throughout the rest of this article.
What is a CNC Router?
A CNC router is a very different type of machine to the Glowforge machines, because rather than using a laser to engrave and cut materials, it uses a metal tool called a bit. Bits come in all shapes and sizes for making different types of cuts in different materials.
A bit is mounted in a spindle, which in term is driven by motors controlled by the CNC router’s control board. In short, this type of machine works by rotating the bit extremely fast so that it can cut clean through materials like wood, plastic, and even soft metals like aluminum.
One similarity between the two is that the Glowforge models are still CNC machines. CNC stands for computer numerical control, and it simply means the machine is controlled by a computer using software, which the Glowforge laser cutters are.
CNC Machines vs Glowforge – Main Differences
We’ve already covered that the main difference between Glowforge and CNC routers is the cutting mechanism. So, let’s now take a look at the other differences between laser cutters and CNC machines.
Material capability & cutting depths
The Glowforge models are powerful lasers that are capable of cutting hardwood and other materials – something many cheaper laser cutters aren’t. This is partly because most cheap laser engravers use diode lasers, whereas Glowforge machines use more powerful 40/45W CO2 lasers.
However, lasers are best suited to engraving and cutting only small depths, whereas CNC routers are ideal for making deeper cuts.
A CNC router provides considerably more power for cutting wood deeper, quicker, and more effectively than with a Glowforge laser. A Glowforge would take several passes to cut relatively thin wood, which any decent CNC router can do in one.
On top of that, a Glowforge isn’t able to cut non-ferrous metals such as aluminum like some CNC routers can – it can only etch soft metals.
Plus, with a CNC router, you can easily switch between bits for engraving and cutting to different depths in different materials. So if you want to do a lot of cutting and are going to be working mostly with wood or harder materials like non-ferrous metals, you’re going to be better off with a CNC router.
On the flip side, if you are going to be mostly engraving or cutting thin, soft materials like acrylic or leather, then the Glowforge Pro is certainly worth considering.
The Glowforge machines are pretty straightforward in that the accuracy is known. It can engrave with an accuracy of 0.2mm and 1,000 DPI resolution, while the cutting accuracy varies from 0.2mm to 0.6mm depending on the settings and material you’re using.
CNC routers can vary a lot more in terms of accuracy as it all depends not just on the material you’re cutting, but the bit you’re using, the speed you’re cutting at, the torque of your stepper motors, and so on.
There’s a lot more variety when it comes to the capabilities of a router, which means more variety in accuracy, so you need to be more careful with this type of machine. CNC router bits are also fairly large in comparison so a Glowforge laser’s spot size, so for fine details, opt for a Glowforge.
Cutting speed is important to any project, but unfortunately, it’s not as easy as saying a Glowforge is quicker or slower than a CNC router. As noted on the Glowforge site, cutting speed depends on the power of the laser you choose, the material you’re cutting, the thickness, and how fast you move the laser head.
It’s a similar story with CNC routers – cutting speed varies greatly depending on the router and bit you’re using, the RPM setting, and the material you’re working with.
It’s difficult to say whether a CNC router or Glowforge would finish a job quicker as there are so many variables, but some X Carve users have stated that 40W lasers are considerably faster at cutting.
If you’re going to be working on lots of different projects and cutting speed is a priority for you, it’s best to do some research beforehand, either by contacting manufacturers’ support teams and/or seeking advice in product forums.
All CNC machines run off CNC software, including the Glowforge laser printers. Glowforge offers its own software for sending designs to your machine and then “printing” them, as well as a tool for creating 2D designs.
The Glowforge software makes printing your designs really easy and intuitive. You simply drag and drop designs onto the app, available on PC, Mac, iOS, and Android, and then adjust it to your liking and print. This makes it super easy to get started, especially if you’re a beginner.
CNC routers work in a similar way in that you need to design your projects using CAD software. However, you’ll then need to use a CAM software to convert your designs into g code, then use a control software or offline controller to send it to your machine and make it a reality, so this is a bit more complex and requires some learning.
Some CNC routers come with software packages included, while others don’t.
The three Glowforge laser cutters measure 38”x20.75”x8.25”, so they’re a fair bit larger than many cheaper laser cutting machines. However, the cutting area is just 11” deep and 19.5” wide. You can work on workpieces with a maximum width of 20”, a max height of 2”, and a max depth of 18” for the Basic and Pro models, with unlimited depth for the Plus.
CNC routers vary greatly in size, but most of the top hobbyist machines offer significantly larger working areas while being smaller overall than a Glowforge, so you can work on larger pieces.
For example, with the Shapeoko 4 CNC router you get a 33”x33”x4” working area, which allows you cut longer, wider, and thicker workpieces than you can with a Glowforge.
We’ll take a look at how the size of Glowforge machines compares to that of some other popular CNC routers further down this page to give you a better idea.
Clean up & safety
One of the best things about ordering a Glowforge is that they all come with exhaust vents and hoses. These allow you to safely use your machine in your workshop, as long as your hose is out a window, as any harmful dust or particles are removed by the vent. This also means there’s very little cleanup required.
Glowforge also offers an air filter for $1,925 that allows you to safely use your machine anywhere without needing a hose, which is ideal if you want to use it in your home or in a school.
In contrast, most CNC routers don’t come with a dust collector system included, so you need to buy one separately, otherwise things will get messy and unsafe. CNC dust collectors can range from around $200 to over $1,000 depending on the size and level of filtration.
One of the highlights of the Glowforge is how easy it is to assemble – you can get it up and running easily in an hour and there’s a detailed guide that walks you through every step.
Many CNC routers also come with most parts and preassembled and can therefore be assembled relatively quickly. However, the setup for some routers can be long and tricky, and you may need to source additional components separately like a wasteboard or frame, so this is certainly something to bear in mind.
As other people comparing Glowforge vs CNC machines have pointed out, CNCs are more complex, so they offer more potential but do require more work.
While Glowforge does offer some upgrades and accessories for its machines, they’re designed to be a complete laser cutting package and therefore have limited customizability.
On the other hand, CNC routers are highly customizable and many users like to add new parts to improve their machines.
One very popular upgrade often made to CNC routers is adding a laser module, so they can double up as both routers and laser cutters. This is possible for a wide range of popular CNC router models, including X Carve, Shapeoko, BobsCNC, Sainsmart Genmitsu, and Onefinity ranges. On the other hand, you can’t add a router module onto a Glowforge laser.
So, in this sense, CNC routers offer a far greater range of possibilities, although bear in mind that upgrades like this can be costly.
The Glowforge machines are pretty pricey compared to other hobbyist laser engravers as well as routers, with the Basic costing $3,995 and the Pro costing $6,995.
That’s not to say they’re overpriced, because they’re very well-made machines that are extremely easy for beginners to get started with. However, you can get a really good hobbyist router for a fair bit cheaper than the Glowforge Pro.
Ultimately, which machine provides better value for money for you depends on your own individual needs. If you’re looking for a really user-friendly, reliable laser engraver and cutter, the Glowforge is a good option. If you’re looking for a machine that offers a wider range of cutting possibilities, you may be best off with a CNC router.
Inventables X Carve
Glowforge vs CNC Routers Compared: Some popular models
Now you know the broad differences between Glowforge lasers and CNC routers, let’s take a closer look at how the Glowforge Pro directly matches up to some popular hobbyist routers.
Glowforge vs Shapeoko 4
- Shapeoko 4 price: $2,300 — Available at Matterhackers here
Large working area.
Sturdy and capable of tackling demanding work.
Wide range of upgrades, including a laser module.
No dust collection plate.
Carbide 3D’s Shapeoko 4 is a well-known, widely used hobbyist CNC machine. One of the best things about this machine is the large 33”x33”x4” working area, which is even bigger than the Onefinity CNC Woodworker X-35.
It’s also one of the finest cheap CNC machines for cutting aluminum, as exemplified by the many aluminum cutting videos on the Carbide 3D YouTube channel.
This is largely thanks to the Shapeoko 4’s solid aluminum frame with large 85x55x5mm extrusions that make it really sturdy and capable of tackling demanding work.
Another benefit of this CNC machine is that all the parts come preassembled, so it’s really easy to put together and you can get up and running in a few hours. However, bear in mind that you’ll buy a router separately to attach to your Shapeoko 4 – Carbide recommends a Makita or its own compact router
Finally, there is a wide range of upgrades you can make to the Shapeoko 4. These include a laser module and a Z-axis upgrade kit that both improves the strength of the Z-axis and increases the length of travel on it so you can work on thicker workpieces.
Glowforge vs X Carve
- X Carve price: $2,599 — Available at Matterhackers here
Can work on considerably large pieces than you can with Glowforge.
Comes with a three-year subscription to Easel Pro.
Comes with everything you’ll need to get started with.
Takes time to assemble.
The X Carve, manufactured by Inventables, is another of the most popular hobbyist routers out there and is perhaps the router that’s most often pitted against the Glowforge by potential buyers.
This CNC router has a working area of 29.5”x29.5”x4.5”, so you can work on considerably larger pieces than you can with a Glowforge, although the area is a bit smaller than that provided by the Onefinity CNC and Shapeoko 4 routers.
One of the best things about the X Carve is that it comes with a three year subscription to Easel Pro, Inventables’ own CAD/CAM software. It’s one of the most intuitive CNC programs out there – Inventables actually refers to it as “the world’s easiest CAD/CAM software” – which makes the X Carve ideal for beginners.
The X Carve comes with everything you needed to get started, including a router, controller, Z probe, bits, a tool kit, clamps, and a dust control system, which isn’t something you always get included, so that’s a bonus.
However, while the X Carve is really user-friendly once it’s set up, it does take a fair few hours to put together due to the parts coming unassembled. So, you won’t be able to get it up and running in an hour like you can with the Glowforge Pro.
Glowforge vs Onefinity CNC
- Onefinity CNC price: $1,564 for Woodworker X-35
Good value for money.
Super stable and rigid.
Laser module available.
Doesn’t come with any CAD/CAM software.
The Onefinity Woodworker X-35 is a quality CNC router that represents good value for money. It’s available in four different sizes but the price we’ve quoted is for the Woodworker X-35, which provides a really generous 32”x32” working area, more than double that provided by the Glowforge.
This CNC router is made of hollow steel shafts, which means it’s super stable and rigid, which in turn allows you to achieve very precise cutting.
It’s suitable for cutting all the usual suspects like wood, plastics, and foam, but the Onefinity CNC is also great at cutting non-ferrous metals like aluminum and copper, as shown here. It’s even been used to cut steel, something that’s not possible with a Glowforge laser.
If you go for a Onefinity CNC machine, I recommend adding the Buildbotics controller for an extra few hundred dollars. This is a really intuitive Raspberry Pi controller that allows you to operate the router without even needing a PC.
Like many popular CNC routers, there is a laser module available for the Onefinity CNC that allows you to add laser cutting and engraving capabilities.
On the downside, Onefinity CNC machines don’t come with any CAD/CAM software, so it may not be ideal if you don’t have experience using third-party programs.
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