X-Carve Tutorial

There’s a strange machine in the workshop!
It’s big and interesting, but how do you make it do something useful?

This post will answer that, though it won’t make you a master machinist in one go.
I’ll assumes that you already made a design, and now you want to fabricate it.


Here’s one I prepared earlier…

Part 0: X-Carve and Easel

The X-Carve comes with some cloud-based software called “Easel”.
There’s been plenty of hate directed at it. Easel is nowhere near perfect, but it can be wrangled into submission, and it can even be useful.

If you have complex requirements you might actually need something more advanced.
It’s possible to side-step Easel entirely, but it is way more complex, and not necessary for 95% of users.
Not typically worth it. So use Easel. Grumble if you want.

Easel works in the browser. Boo. On the plus side;

  • All your projects are associated with your account, so they follow you around.
  • You can complete a lot of the work (All of Part A and Part B below) before you even get to the workshop or in front of the X-Carve PC.
  • If you login to Easel on the X-Carve PC using an “Incognito” browser tab, then you’ll see only your account, and nobody else will mess with or be confused by your stuff after you close the tab.

“I am Easel!”

Part A: Import

Easel only supports SVG import, not DXF.
Lots of scaling issues can occur when passing SVG files between programs. Blech.

Here’s a whole section just on getting your design into Easel – I have found a process that works:

  1. Get source file.
    My CAD software outputs DXF.
  2. Grumble at Easel for not supporting DXF import yet,
    and that SVG is a terrible format for parts with physical dimensions.
  3. Start a new Inkscape document.
    Import the DXF file. (Do not open the DXF file or the dimensions will be correct in Inkscape but wrong in Easel!)
  4. Import any other shapes/files you want to cut, and arrange them how you like.
  5. Go to document properties, resize drawing to selection, zero margins.
  6. Here’s the magic bit:
    This joins only the separated parts of each shape together, and allows Easel to know what “inside” and “outside” means.

    1. Select all.
    2. Ungroup.
    3. Select all.
    4. Path > Combine.
    5. Choose the ‘Edit Path By Nodes’ tool.  node_edit
    6. Drag a selection rectangle around the whole design.
    7. Join nodes. node_join
    8. Leave node editing mode.
    9. Select the design. (now a single path)
    10. Path > Break apart.
  7. Save as an Inkscape SVG.
  8. Select all, look up in the toolbar where it says height and width, set view to millimetres. Jot down what it ways the actual dimensions should be.
    Think about whether those numbers are realistic!
  9. Start a new Easel project.
    Import SVG, choose file.
    Check that the dimensions match what you expected.
    If not, swear. Try to figure out where you went wrong.

Part B: CAM
CAM stands for “computer aided manufacturing”; how to get from a model to instructions that make a physical part.
This step isn’t particularly difficult, but it’s important that you pass the correct instructions to the machine!

Steps (Summary)

  1. Import the SVG file or files.
  2. Specify tool, material, dimensions.
  3. Choose cutting settings for each path.
  4. “Carve…”

General Tips

  • The Easel interface lets you tell it what sort of material you have and its dimensions.
    (It also may need reminding about the total bed size – about 800×800 mm)
  • A 3D view of the stock and design show up in the preview window, which you can resize smaller to have more room in the working window.

Path Planning

  • Easel assumes that EVERY drawn path will have one cutting operation on it. Selecting the path shows you the options.
  • You can choose from;
    • Outline on the line, inside, or outside.
    • Fill. (Which seeing as you’re doing the opposite is an odd naming choice) 
    • There’s no specific “drill” operation; if you want a small round hole you draw a small round hole and choose “inside” outline.
  • You can specify the depth of the cut:
    • By default each cut goes to the full depth of the material.
    • You can adjust depth with the vertical slider.
    • You can have a path that does not cut at all by setting the depth to zero. (It will turn white) This can be useful when your stock is already the same size as the outline and you just want to cut inside it.
    • There’s no specific “drill” operation; if you want a small round hole you draw a small round hole and choose “inside” outline.
  • The 1/8″ bit is versatile, and a good choice for many projects.
    Plus; chances are it’ll already be mounted in the spindle. Easy!

Machining Limitations

  • The milling bit can’t reach into corners smaller than its diameter – you may need to file the corners out later, design your thing to have smooth curves, or be fancy and make your own “dog bones“.
    (Easel doesn’t know how to do them)
  • When cutting holes, the diameter has to be larger than the bit – or Easel will ignore it. Using the 1/8″ bit, the holes should be at least 3.3mm.
    (Pressing the “simulate” button will show whether a hole will end up being cut)
  • The bed and the material are never perfectly flat. You should overstate the material’s thickness slightly – to ensure that cuts go all the way through.
    An extra 0.2 mm is often plenty.
  • If a piece is completely cut away, it could jump up and get in the way of the bit. This can be dangerous, noisy and embarrassing, not to mention ruin your piece!
    • Easel supports tabs. Tabs are little bits that don’t get cut out, so that the pieces stay put until you cut the last bits by hand.
    • There are some small hand-held saws with a hacksaw blade that are perfect for removing tabs – check in the blue tool chest.
    • To edit tabs on a path; Click on the path. In the cut menu enable tabs, and choose how many and how large to make them.
This is what >300 holes looks like in 'simulate'

This is what >300 holes looks like in ‘simulate’

Part C: Machining

In order,

  1. Spoil Board – Find some material about the same size to go underneath and catch when the bit goes too deep. It’s best if it’s the same material or softer.
    Yes, the MDF bed could cope with some abuse, but better to take care of it!
  2. Material Alignment – be sure the cuts go where you want them to!
    You’ll usually want to align your material so that it’s perpendicular to the board.
    One method I like is;

    1. Drive two identical screws into the horizontally separated bed holes, leaving them sticking up.
    2. Put the spoil board behind them, then pull a straight edge back onto the screws – perpendicular!
    3. Place the material on top, and align the edge of the material with the spoil board – now it’s perpendicular too.
  3. Clamping – got to stop the material from moving!
    This takes some time, be patient and do it properly.

    1. Make sure you have plenty of clamping spots.
      Especially if the material was a bit warped – it may shift up/down a bit as parts are cut out and mess up your depths or tabs.
    2. Make sure the clamps are tightened down well.
      If the material moves, the work will be ruined, you’re going to have a bad day, and the machine could be damaged.
    3. Make sure the clamps are away from where the cuts will go!
      This is important – running into even the wooden part of a clamp might damage the machine or break a bit.
  4. Insert Bitskip if already the right size.
    1. There are two spanners in the middle drawer.
      Place both on the spindle and turn the lower one left, the upper one right.
      Carefully loosen until you can get the old bit out.
    2. Place the new bit in the spindle, with plenty of shaft inside.
      If the shaft is a different diameter too, then the collet (inside the spindle) will need to be changed as well.
    3. Tighten back up again until the bit is firmly seated.
  5. Head Alignment – set up the head in the right place.
    With the machine off (push the big red button) gently pull/push the gantry and the head until the bit is right on the bottom-left corner of your work.

    1. If cutting shapes from inside the material, maybe position the head away from the edge. (to avoid the clamps)
      If cutting inside an entire piece of material you’ll use, ensure the head is right on the corner of the material.
    2. The gantry should be pulled/pushed from the center, so that one side isn’t stressed.
    3. The head can be moved up and down by twisting the pulleys on top.
  6. Carve… – noise time!
    1. Switch the machine back on. (twist the big red button)
    2. Check one more time that you’ve got exactly what you want in Easel, then press “Carve…”.
    3. You’ll see a series of final checks – go through them one by one.
      “Yes, I have clamped down the material…”
    4. When asked to start the spindle motor;
      1. Click the button on-screen to raise the head, then
      2. Flick the spindle switch next to the read button to ‘On’, then
      3. Close the lid, then
      4. Click the button on-screen to acknowledge that the spindle is now running.
    5. Then it will start moving! Hooray!
      The initial speed may be alarming, but as long as you have set up the design and stock correctly, it will stop in just the right place to start the first cut.
    6. Once started, you can fold the PC screen down and close the drawer.
  7. Watch – closely, like you’re babysitting a dozen toddlers in a knife shop.
    1. The X-Carve is not like a 3D printer or a laser cutter!
      If something goes wrong, it can go wrong badly, quickly.
      Here’s some interesting reading on just one kind of failure: http://blog.cnccookbook.com/2014/11/19/survive-first-cnc-router-fire/
    2. Stand right there, don’t go back to your seat, don’t go to the bathroom. 
      Cross your legs if you have to.
    3. Know where the big red button is. 
      Ensure you have a hand free to hit it, if you need to.
    4. If you have not selected to use tabs on your cuts, 
      Be especially wary when the machine finishes cutting a piece completely away. It can jump out and get trapped between the bit and the material. I won’t tell you to reach in there and grab it… use tabs?
  8. Cleanup
    1. Job done, the head will return to the start.
      1. Move the spindle switch to “Off”.
      2. Push the big red button to shut down the controller.
      3. Now the machine can be considered ‘safe’.
        The bit, the spindle motor, or the steppers could still be quite hot.
    2. Loosen the clamps.
    3. Dust! Everywhere! Shop-vac time.
    4. If you used tabs, take a
    5. Marvel at your lovely design…