Best Wood For CNC Routing: Ultimate Guide
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- Wood types: Hardwoods, softwoods, and engineered woods. Each has different properties, prices, and availability.
- Hardwoods: Strong, durable, and attractive. Require powerful CNC routers and sharp bits. Examples: ash, birch, walnut.
- Softwoods: Cheap, easy to work with, and widely available. Good for outdoor projects and carving. Examples: cedar, pine, spruce.
- Engineered woods: Made from wood residue and resin. Very cheap and easy to cut. Lack natural beauty and strength. Examples: MDF, plywood, particleboard.
Wood is the most popular material for CNC routing, but with so many types of wood to choose from, it’s important to know which type is best suited for different projects.
In this guide, I’ll reveal the best wood for CNC routing. I’ve split this article into hardwoods, softwoods, and engineered woods to help you find the right material for whatever you want to make.
- Key Takeaways
- Best Wood in CNC Routing For Beginners
- Best Softwoods in CNC Routing
- Best Hardwoods in CNC Routing
- Best Engineered Woods in CNC Routing
- What to Consider When CNC Routing Wood
- Tips for CNC Routing Wood
Best Wood in CNC Routing For Beginners
These include birch for hardwoods, pine for softwoods, and MDF for engineered wood.
Pine – Best softwood for beginners in CNC routing
Pine is often considered the best softwood for CNC routing due to it being harder and more resistant to shrinking than other softwoods, while still being easy to work with.
It has a pale color, generally cuts well, and is cheap and widely available, so it’s a popular choice for hobbyists and beginners.
Cheap MDF – Best engineered wood for beginners in CNC routing
MDF is made up of broken down wood residue and resin, and is much easier to carve than most natural woods.
It’s also super cheap, resistant to splintering, has a very smooth surface, is dense, and offers decent strength (although it’s not as strong as natural woods).
Birch – Best hardwood for beginners in CNC routing
Birch is ideal for CNC carving due to its considerable strength and low cost.
It’s very stiff and takes screws well, making it one of the most versatile woods and suitable for everything from furniture carpentry to small craft projects.
Best Softwoods in CNC Routing
Cedar, cypress, pine, fir, and redwood are all considered to be some of the best softwoods for CNC routing.
Softwoods come from conifer trees, whereas hardwoods are deciduous. Softwoods are typically less dense than hardwoods, although some softwoods are significantly harder than others.
While each softwood is slightly different, in general they are cheaper and easier to work with than hardwoods, making them popular among CNC hobbyists.
Many CNCers favor cedar due to its distinct reddish hue and complex woody aroma. One of its main benefits is its fantastic weather resistance, which is why it’s often used for outdoor furniture such as benches, as well as for gates and fences.
Another important advantage for CNC woodworkers is that cedar has good heat resistance and, unlike many hardwoods, doesn’t burn at slow feed rates.
This means you can mill it slowly to help prevent tearing, which is important as the knots in cedar can make it difficult to mill at high speeds if you’re not careful.
Cypress is another softwood that’s widely used in furniture due to it being decay resistant, although it’s slightly weaker than cedar. However, cypress is generally less expensive, but this can vary depending on the woods’ age and knotting.
Like cedar, cypress contains knots, so you must take care especially when working on large pieces. However, as it’s slightly softer than cedar, it’s also easier to carve.
Spruce has some fairly unique benefits and limitations. On the plus side, it’s one of the harder softwoods while still being fairly lightweight and easy to work with, provided the piece you have isn’t particularly knotty.
However, it doesn’t have the best decay resistance. Spruce is widely used for paper pulp, construction lumber, and also has the unique use of soundboarding in musical instruments due to its resonant properties.
Thanks to its consistent pattern and lack of knots, fir can be a bit easier to work with than knotted wood like Cedar and Cypress.
Fir is also one of the harder and most durable softwoods. This means that it’s very versatile and is used for structural work, carpentry, joinery, boatbuilding, and transmission poles.
Like fir, pinewood is one of the harder softwoods. It’s generally fairly easy to machine, due to it being resistant to shrinking and holding its form well. You can help reduce the risk of splintering by using smaller cutting lengths.
Pine can be a bit fuzzy, so it may require some extra sanding before and after cutting, but it’s very cheap and easily available. Light and pale in color, pinewood has a huge range of uses and is found in the flooring, furniture, and structuring of many houses throughout the world.
As the name suggests, redwood is notable for its rich red coloring. It’s a popular choice with woodworkers due to this color and also for being resistant to sun decay, so it’s often used for decking and outdoor structures such as fences, gates, and patio covers.
Redwood’s softness means it’s often regarded as the best wood for carving projects. If you’re cutting, shallow cuts can help prevent splintering.
Yew is one of the hardest softwoods. It has a fine grain and smooth texture which make it an attractive finished wood, but it’s also typically very knotty, which can make it difficult to work with.
It’s also expensive and not very widely available. However, it has a unique mix of strength and flexibility, making it one of the most popular woods for archery bows. It is also used in some furniture and turned products.
Western red cedar
Western red cedar is distinct from other cedar species due to its wide grain, as well as its darker coloring. The wide grains make it a good wood to work with for routing and it’s typically less knotty, but is also one of the more expensive softwoods.
Best Hardwoods in CNC Routing
Ash is widely regarded as the best hardwood for CNC routing, with beech, cherry, mahogany, and cherry being other popular options.
Whereas softwoods are cheaper and generally easier to mill, hardwoods are more expensive and difficult to work with, but also the strongest, the most durable, and often the most visually appealing.
Hardwoods are more demanding on a CNC machine – you need one that’s capable of milling these materials rather than a flimsy beginner router. On top of that, hardwoods will blunt your tools, so they’ll need to be replaced more often.
Birch is a very strong hardwood that’s notable for being one of the easiest to work with, due to not denting or nicking as much as others.
It has a light color with a wavy grain, and is one of the cheapest and most accessible woods. Due to its wavy grain, you should use a test piece and cut from different directions to find the one that causes the least splintering.
Thanks to its stiffness and ability to take screws well, birch is widely used as a brace and structural component in carpentry. It’s one of the most commonly used woods, and as well as furniture it can be seen in everything from toys and crafts to broom handles and skateboards.
The incredible strength and stiffness of ash make it one of the most durable of all wood types. It’s very dense and is used in products like staircases, moldings, doors, and flooring.
Ash also has an impressive mix of shock resistance and elasticity, which is why it’s often used for sporting equipment like baseballs and tennis racquets, drum casings, and also for wooden tool handles.
Ash is one of the lighter hardwoods in color and has lots of rings within its grain.
Beech is arguably the most versatile hardwood, rivaling ash and birch in strength but with more elasticity, making it a popular choice for the routing and milling of tables, chairs, and similar products. It also turns well.
As it’s odorless, beech is also widely used for making wooden cutlery and kitchen equipment, although it’s not as suitable for carving due to chipping that can result from its hardness.
On the downside, beech is not as durable as some other hardwoods, which is why it’s not the best choice for outdoor products.
One of the most expensive woods, walnut boasts not only fantastic strength but also a very distinct dark brown coloring, making it a good alternative to the many lighter-colored hardwoods.
As it has straight grains away from the roots, walnut is easier to carve than many hardwoods and takes shocks very well. It’s also very burn resistant.
For these reasons, it’s typically the favored choice of wood sculptures, but is also widely used in carpentry and is particularly common in gunstocks.
Cherry is one of the easier hardwoods to work with due to it being slightly softer than the likes of ash and beech. This, along with the fact that it doesn’t warp, makes it easier to cut and carve, but you still need to use sharp tools to avoid burn marks.
It’s also often considered one of the most beautiful woods to use in furniture and other products due to its light reddish hue and smooth finishing.
Cherry is a very versatile wood, being resistant to rot and shock, while also having good bending properties. It’s a popular choice for making musical instruments, such as guitars and drums, but is expensive.
Elm is another of the softer hardwoods. It has a pleasant medium tone and is very stress-resistant with a tight-twisted grain, making it a popular choice for making chairs, baskets, coffins, and sports equipment like hockey sticks and archery bows.
However, due to its course grain and open pores, it’s prone to tearing when you cut across the grain and so is requires a powerful spindle
Mahogany is widely considered one of the most luxurious woods due to its rich color and vibrant appearance, which also makes it among the most expensive. It’s used in premium furniture and also in musical instruments such as guitars, violins, and pianos, among many other applications.
It’s also a popular choice in boat-making due to its high water resistance. Mahogany is very strong and resistant to warping, swelling, and shrinking, and is relatively easy to work with as it rarely tears out.
Maple ranks among the hardest of all woods, requiring a high-strength CNC router and very sharp bits which will still be dulled after cutting. It’s also one of the more expensive woods, but is favored by many woodworkers due to its toughness and the fact that it stains easily.
Maple also has a uniform grain distribution, making it a popular choice for 3D wood carving.
Paduak’s straight grains make it another good hardwood for CNC carving as long as you’re using a sharp bit, although it is one of the dustier woods. It stands out for its dark coloring and distinctive grainy appearance, making it a popular choice in high-end furniture, knife and tool handles, and musical instruments.
Although not as expensive as the likes of mahogany, padauk is still pricier than most other woods.
Another extremely hard wood, oak requires careful cutting with multiple short passes and you need to watch out for burning. However, it’s also one of the cheaper hardwoods. Both red oak and white oak are commonly used in CNC routing.
Oak’s strength, durability, and moisture resistance make it a popular choice in boat building. It’s also favored in joinery, decking, flooring, furniture, and veneers for its long-lasting durability and distinctive ring grain.
Poplar is a cheap, widely available hardwood that’s known for taking paint well, making it widely used in furniture, fencing, and all types of other products and applications, including joinery and wood turning.
This is one of the softer and easier-to-work-with hardwoods, but it does require a lot of sanding.
Alder is another of the softer hardwoods. It has straight fibers with an even structure and is very pliable, so it’s commonly used in carpentry. It’s also one of the better hardwoods for carving, even if it can be a bit stringy, and is a fairly popular choice in woodturning and decorative products.
A cheap wood, alder has an even honey-like tone and can be finished to resemble more expensive types, making it a good budget option.
Best Engineered Woods in CNC Routing
MDF, plywood, and particleboard are engineered woods that are widely used in CNC routing.
Engineered woods are derivative wood products typically made by using synthetic adhesives. The main benefit of engineered woods is their low price, wide availability, and that they’re typically easy to cut.
The main benefit of MDF is that, while natural wood has good strength in one direction, MDF is equally strong in all directions.
This is because its structure isn’t patterned. This means MDF cuts much easier than most wood types and doesn’t break or splinter easily. It’s also very cheap and readily available.
However, this also means MDF doesn’t provide the nice natural colors, patterns, and knots you get with natural wood, so most MDF products are painted. On top of that, MDF is not as strong as solid wood, so you wouldn’t want to use it for a chair, for example. It is, though, widely used in affordable furniture like cabinets.
Another thing to bear in mind is that because it’s partly composed of adhesive resin, MDF burns easier than most other woods, so you need to be careful with feed rates. You also need a mask and dust collection system in place to prevent you from inhaling the particles that are produced when you cut MDF.
Plywood is made from thin sheets of wood veneer that are glued together, with the sheets’ wood grains rotated up to 90 degrees to each other. Plywood can be made from various wood types, such as birch plywood and pine plywood. You can have both hardwood and softwood plywood.
It’s very inexpensive and is lighter than natural woods, while also retaining good stress and weather resistances, Plywood is used in many different products, one of the best known being its use in structural applications, such as sheathing, partitions, floors, and interior vehicle bodywork.
While MDF is good for carving, plywood is less so as it’s more prone to splintering.
Also known as chipboard, particleboard is similar to MDF in that it’s made of wood and synthetic resin, but particleboard is made up of chips rather than wood residue. This makes it less smooth and dense, but particleboard is cheaper.
What to Consider When CNC Routing Wood
First off, you need to find the right wood for what you want to do. It needs to be strong enough for what you want to make and suitable for your CNC router to handle – some budget CNC routers will struggle with some hardwoods, for example.
You can check out our guide on the best CNC routers for wood to see the top machines for working with hard and softwoods.
You also need to consider the knotting and risk of splintering, as these impact how difficult the carving process will be. For example, redwood and MDF are easier to 3D carve than beech and plywood as they’re less likely to splinter. Other factors, such as color and aroma, don’t impact the cutting process but are important to consider for your end product.
It’s important to have the right size and shaped router bit for the type of cutting and carving you want to achieve. For example, spiral bits are better for straight cuts, ball nose bits are best for 3D carving and contouring, while v-bits are preferred for lettering.
You also need to make sure the bit is sharp. If you use an old tool that’s blunted, you’re not going to achieve clean or fast cutting, particularly on hardwood. For the hardest woods, you should consider using a carbide-tipped bit for the best results and the most resistance to dulling.
Cutting speed & feed rate
It’s important to determine the right feed rate as when woodworking, low feeds can risk burn marks while high feeds can increase the risk of splintering.
Some CNC machine manufacturers state the suitable feeds for different materials in their documentation, but you can also use online forums and feed calculators to get a better understanding.
It’s always advisable to do a test run on a scrap piece of the wood you’re using to help determine a suitable feed rate.
Depth of cut
Cutting too deep in a single pass can cause wood to splinter, so it’s best to start with shallow cuts to help prevent this. Different wood types are more susceptible to splintering than others, so it’s important to be aware of this.
CNC routing causes small chips and dust to emit from your workpiece, so you need to have a suitable dust collection in place to keep your workpiece and workplace tidy, and also to prevent you breathing in any particles.
You should also consider wearing goggles and a mask. The latter is particularly important if you’re cutting MDF and other engineered woods, as they can produce very fine particles and fumes that can be harmful if breathed in.
If your wood isn’t securely clamped down, it may move during the cutting process and mess up your work.
Tips for CNC Routing Wood
Choose the right wood
To start with, make sure you choose the right type of wood for the project you’re making, taking into account its strength, density, knotting, and risk of splintering.
Use a sharp bit
If your bit isn’t sharp, it will take longer to cut the wood and you may also end up with rough and undesirable results – this is particularly important if you’re working with hardwood.
Make sure the wood is secure
Securing your wood with a clamp will help to prevent it moving when you’re cutting and carving.
Sand and finish your wood
Sanding your wood helps to smooth out surfaces after cutting, although some woods are fuzzier than others and require more sanding. Once you’ve sanded, you can then finish your wood, which both improves its appearance and protects its surface from decay.
Can you make money with a CNC wood router?
Yes. With CNC routers more widely available than ever before and the ability to sell products on sites like Etsy and Amazon, you can certainly make money with a wood router.
How thick of wood can a CNC machine cut?
This varies a lot depending on the power of your CNC machine, the hardness of the wood, and the tool and cutting speed you’re using. However, most CNC routers can cut at least a few inches deep into softwoods.
What is the spindle power requirement for machining wood?
Generally you want at least 1kW (1.3HP) of spindle power for machining wood, but a more powerful spindle can make cutting hardwoods easier.