What is the Difference Between CNC Routers and CNC Mills?

cnc mill vs cnc router

CNC routers and mills are two common devices for performing CNC operations. While these machines possess unique characteristics and functionalities, they both suit part manufacturing for different industries.

This article explores the differences between CNC router vs CNC mill operations and applications. Let’s get right into

What is a CNC Router?

A CNC router is a subtractive manufacturing device using a rotary cutting tool to cut through wood, composites, soft metals, and plastics. Like every CNC machining process, its operations are computer-controlled, ensuring it creates high precision and accurate cuts.

Unlike other CNC machines, like CNC mills and lathes, CNC routers are not equipped for high-cutting operations. Consequently, they are often restricted to cutting softer materials. In addition, the spindles typically move along the X and Y axes, with less rotational movement in the Z-axis. This feature makes them less pliable for creating deep-hole features, undercuts, and slots.

cnc router

How Do CNC Routers Work?

Like all CNC machining devices, CNC routers interpret computer-generated designs and act upon them for precise cutting and shaping. All CNC operations begin with the engineers creating the design using CAD software, which could be in the form of a 2D drawing or a 3D model.

Then, the CAD file is converted into a CAM file, which entails the tool paths and other parameters, such as depth of cutting, feed rates and cutting speed, which the CNC routers will follow to work.

components of a cnc router

Afterward, the machinist uploads the CAM file to the CNC router’s control software and then sets up the material on the router’s worktable, securing it to prevent movement during cutting.

The following action configures the machine parameters to ensure the device precisely and accurately cuts the material to suit the intended specification. Once this is set, the CNC router is activated and follows the programmed toolpaths as it machines the material to fit the desired outcome.

What is a CNC Mill?

A CNC mill is the standard CNC machining device because of its vast capabilities. CNC milling centers use a series of rotatory milling cutting tools to gradually cut pieces of a solid block material until the intended shape, dimension, and structure are achieved. The device can perform various operations, including drilling, taping, and milling machining.

A standard CNC milling machine is a three-axis device capable of simultaneously cutting along three axes – X, Y, and Z. However, there are even more sophisticated CNC milling centers, like the 5-axis CNC milling machine that suit creating parts with complex features and intricate geometries that are challenging for the traditional CNC mills. Therefore, CNC milling are very common process in various industries, particularly those dealing in high-precise parts like aerospace.

cnc milling machining

How Do CNC Mills Work?

As mentioned earlier, all CNC machining processes follow the same operational principle. Therefore, the operations of CNC mills are similar to those of CNC routers described above. It starts with design creation using appropriate CAD software before converting it to CAM files, including customized machining parameters.

Next, the machinist set up the device and clamped the workpiece to prevent movement during machining. The device then begins to machine the workpiece after setting the necessary parameters, such as the spindle speed, cutting depth, feed rates, etc. Again, the machinist may subject the machined parts to further processing and finishing operations to enhance their surface property.

Differences Between CNC Routers vs CNC Mills

This section will focus on the differences between CNC routers vs CNC mills based on the following:

Software Used

While the software used in CNC routers and mills offers CAM/CAD capabilities, they differ. The software in CNC routers is often tailored for more straightforward applications like engraving and sign-making.

In contrast, CNC milling software is equipped with precision engineering functionalities. In light of this, CNC router software is more user-friendly, making it easier for hobbyists to work with, while those of CNC mills are more advanced, requiring technical know-how.

Cutting Operation

Since both machines operate under the influence of computer programs and codes, they create parts, maintaining the intended accuracy and tolerance standards.

However, CNC routers typically struggle with deep cuts, limiting their use in applications requiring deeper cuts or complex geometries. At the same time, CNC mills are specifically known for their ability to make intricate cuts, making them an excellent choice for parts with tight tolerance specifications.

3 axis cnc milling machine

Tooling Selection

CNC routers and CNC Mills are different machines, utilizing distinct tools and equipment for cutting operations. While CNC routers commonly use router bits with cutting, shaping, and engraving profiles, milling centers employ drills, end mills, ball mills, etc., for more specialized metal cutting, milling, and drilling operations.

In addition, because of the vast applications of CNC milling centers, they are compatible with more diverse tooling options than CNC routers.

drill holes with cnc routing

Material Capabilities

In fact, we already hinted at the material capabilities of both devices. CNC routers suit machining softer materials like plastics, resin, composites, and wood. In addition, they may also suit cutting soft metals, particularly non-ferrous ones, like aluminum and magnesium.

In contrast, CNC mills have more machining material options, cutting softer materials and even tougher metals like steel, stainless steel, copper, and titanium. They can ensure high-speed cutting without compromising precision and accuracy when machining these hard materials.

However, we must mention that CNC mills are, in fact, not the best choice for machine-burdensome metals like tungsten carbide and reinforced steel.

Cutting Speed and Feed Rate

Both CNC devices can operate at higher cutting speeds and feed rates, but as we mentioned earlier, CNC routers are faster.

However, the CNC mill’s reduced speed compared to routers may be attributed to the increased design complexities and material hardness they often have to deal with. Moreover, these devices must ensure high precision, regardless of the parts’ intricacies.


CNC machining devices are generally expensive, requiring an initial investment when acquiring one. However, the costs of these machines may vary depending on sizes, precision standards, and overall capabilities. Therefore, CNC mills are generally more expensive since they offer more robust applications.

Besides, CNC routers are usually cheaper and have lower maintenance and servicing costs, including replacement parts. In fact, there are hobbyist models for individuals who like to engage in DIYs. Therefore, CNC routers may be better for small-scale CNC machine shops, mainly if they focus on simpler and flexible manufacturing.

Precision Standards

CNC routers typically offer lower precision standards than CNC mills. Since they are optimized for fast cutting of softer materials, this results in less accurate dimensional tolerances and surface finishing.

CNC routers’ cutting speeds and feed rates prioritize rapid material removal over achieving tight tolerances. On the other hand, CNC milling centers are known for ensuring high precision and dimensional accuracy when machining challenging materials.

In addition, CNC mills utilize more sophisticated control systems, making it easier for the cutters to navigate rigid structures and ensure accuracy. For example, multi-axis milling devices, like 5-axis milling centers, can simultaneously cut a workpiece in multiple directions.

Summarize Table for CNC Routers and CNC Mills Differences

The table below summarizes the differences between the operations and functionalities of a CNC router vs a CNC mill.

InformationCNC RouterCNC Mill
OperationCutting relatively soft materialPrecision machining of hard materials and complex geometries
SoftwareUser friendlyAdvanced and more sophisticated
ToolingRouter bitsDrills, end mills, ball mills, etc.
Material OptionsPlastics, wood and softer metalsPlastics, polymers, metals, alloys, etc
Cutting Speed and Feed RatesHigh cutting speed and feed rates, ensuring rapid material removalSlower cutting speed and feed rates to get more controlled and precise cutting
CostLess expensive than CNC millsExpensive

Applications of CNC Router

The applications of CNC routers include the following:

cnc routing wood workpiece

  • Woodworking and Cabinetry: This device is suitable for making furniture, cabinets, and intricate wood designs for household and office use, decorative purposes, and even custom furniture.
  • Sign Making: CNC routers offer applications in the signage industry, creating detailed signs and lettering from materials like wood, acrylic, and aluminum. They suit precision cutting and engraving logos, texts, and intricate patterns on these materials.
  • Plastic Fabrication: As we have emphasized, CNC routers are specifically for working on soft materials, including plastics and polymers. This device allows the manufacture of some simple plastic structures and components.
  • Model Making and Prototyping: Machinists use CNC routers to create detailed models and prototypes from wood and plastic. Their high machining speed makes them an ideal choice for rapid prototyping.
  • Architecture: Architects use CNC routers to create custom architectural elements such as moldings, panels, and decorative features. The ability to produce custom detailed designs makes CNC routers ideal for adding unique and customized elements to buildings and structures.

Applications of CNC Mill

While CNC milling centers can suit most routers’ applications, they are often restricted to more sophisticated machining operations.

  • Aerospace Industry: CNC milling centers are a mainstay in the aerospace industry, offering vast applications in manufacturing high-precision aircraft components such as engine parts, turbine blades, and structural components.
  • Automotive Industry: CNC mills produce engine components, transmission, and custom car parts. The precision and accuracy of CNC milling ensure that parts meet design specifications and safety standards, supporting the production of high-quality automotive components.
  • Medical Industry: The medical industry values precision engineering, considering that a slight deviation from set standards may be detrimental. Therefore, CNC mills are among the most used for fabricating medical devices and components, including surgical instruments, implants, and prosthetics.
  • Tool and Die Making: CNC is the go-to process for creating tools like molds and dies for other manufacturing processes like die casting and injection molding.

How Do You Choose Between CNC Milling vs Routing?

Choosing between CNC mills vs routers requires you to take cognizance of specific characteristics of your project and juxtapose them with the capabilities of both machines. Below, we discuss factors you need to consider to allow you to make an informed decision between CNC milling vs routing for your project.

Precision and Tolerances

CNC mills are among the best manufacturing devices for creating parts with high precision and tight tolerance specifications. While CNC routers, being a CNC process, offer precision specifications, CNC mills are more detailed and deliver more accurate and precise machining applications.

cnc cutting plastic sheet

Design Complexity

When dealing with complex machining needs, CNC mills are the better choice. They are better for manufacturing complex parts with intricate shapes and geometries, including special features like slots, undercuts, and contours. On the other hand, CNC routers are better suited for simple cutting operations.

Cost Considerations

We mentioned earlier that CNC routers are less expensive in terms of initial cost, maintenance needs, and operational costs. Therefore, you should opt for a CNC router over milling centers if you are on a strict budget and know you won’t have to deal with overly complex designs or work with rigid and tough materials.

In addition, maintenance costs are another factor that requires consideration. Indeed, even with an effective extraction system, CNC routers produce residual dust and swarf, particularly when cutting wood. However, CNC mills operate more cutting tools and deal with high-precision parts; therefore, they require more stringent maintenance practices.

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Both CNC routers and CNC mills offer vast applications in machining and parts manufacturing for various industries. However, they provide distinct applications to suit different projects. Therefore, the choice of device between a CNC router vs CNC mills depends on the manufacturing needs, material choice, precision requirements, and project complexity.


Which is better, a CNC router or a CNC mill?

The choice depends on your machining needs. CNC routers are ideal for high-speed cutting of softer materials, while CNC mills are better for precision machining more rigid materials and complex geometries. Therefore, assess your project requirements to decide which is more suitable.

Where is a CNC router used?

The CNC router is used in woodworking, sign making, furniture production, plastic fabrication, and model making. They excel in creating different cuts, and high-speed production for wood, composites, and plastics.

What materials can a CNC mill machine?

CNC mills can machine an extensive range of materials, including metals like steel, aluminum, and titanium. They can also machine softer materials like plastics, polymers, and composites.

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