CNC Router Substrates

If you own a CNC router, or have recently acquired one, you likely already know that some substrates are a better match than others when it comes to cutting and routing. Some cut like butter, others create a big, costly mess. Here is a brief rundown of the most useful substrates that your CNC router will love.

  • Solid Wood—Good old-fashioned, beautiful, natural wood is a great routing material. Great hardwoods include: ash, oak, cherry, mahogany, hard maple, etc. Routable softer woods include pine, soft maple, fir, spruce, hemlock, cedar and redwood.
  • MDF—Medium density fiberboard (MDF) is a wood product that is uniform throughout, including the edges. MDF edges are smooth and beautiful straight off of the router.
  • Plywood, HDO and MDO—An excellent candidate for routing, plywood has a high strength-to-weight ratio and dimensional stability. Other routable wood-based composites include OSB, LDF, particle board and Masonite.
  • PVC—Strong and inexpensive, PVC can be routed and used to build all sorts of things.
  • Expanded PVC—Expanded PVC sheet products like Sintra, Komatex, Komacel and Celtec are light, tough, stable and routers cut through it like butter, leaving perfectly finished edges.
  • Acrylics—Plastic acrylic sheet is beautiful, versatile, and durable, and is easy to fabricate. Special router bits for plastic can polish and finish the edges as well.
  • Polycarbonates—Polycarbonates have excellent impact-, heat-, cold-, stain-, UV- and chemical-resistance. They represent a very long-term, outdoor-durable and flame-resistant solution. Polycarbonates cut easily on a CNC, but the edge finishes are not as clean as acrylics.
  • Sign Foam—Sign foams are used quite differently than other materials in this category. Rather than just be used as substrates to carry graphics, they come in thick, easily routed slabs that are ideal for 3-D sculptural signage.
  • Other Routable Plastics—There are a number of other plastics that are router-friendly and useful to sign makers. They include ABS, polyethylene, PVC, polypropylene, polystyrene, HDPE and PETG.
  • Aluminum—Most metals don’t fit into the “easy to CNC” category, but aluminum is a very durable outdoor material and works great for CNC routed cut lettering.
  • Aluminum-Plastic Composites—Layered composites with aluminum exterior and plastic interior are widely used in the sign industry and are exceptionally router friendly. Brands such as Alupanel, AlumaCorr, Dibond, Graphic-Al and KomaAlu are easy to work with.

Duane Fast for Sign & Digital Graphics magazine