Each day, more and more barriers to entrepreneurship come tumbling down.
The rise of social media has given small businesses access to huge markets. The advent of digital marketing tools has made things like finding a target audience and building a website easier than ever before.
But until recently, one barrier still remained; the high cost of mass-producing goods.
No matter how you cut it, mass production is expensive. Dropshipping websites and print-on-demand companies offer some bespoke branding options, but what if you’re looking to produce your own products? Ones you’ve designed yourself.
Is there a viable, low-cost option for mass producing your own custom goods?
With the arrival of affordable CNC routers, the answer is yes.
First off, what is a CNC router?
A CNC router is a computer-operated cutting tool that acts as a combination panel saw, spindle moulder, and boring machine, carving complex shapes out of materials like wood, metals, plastics, and glass.
CNC stands for “computer numerical control”—a fancy way of saying the device operates using programmable automation, similar to 3D printing, allowing builders to design complex parts that can be cut cleanly, quickly, and on a massive scale.
Small-scale CNC machines can be purchased on a shoestring budget. They don’t take up too much space, there’s a ton of online resources available for people who want to learn how to use them, and they give startup entrepreneurs the ability to mass produce custom products in their garage, basement, or bedroom.
If you’re looking to build your own CNC-based business, here’s what you need to know.
Make money with your CNC machine: 26 project ideas
As CNC routers have grown more compact and affordable, interest in CNC-crafted goods has flourished on online marketplaces like Etsy, Amazon, and Facebook Marketplace, where there’s a high demand for handcrafted, one-of-a-kind products.
Since CNC routers can cut any shape out of a variety of materials, there’s an extensive list of products you can create with a CNC machine.
Here are a few ideas:
Home decor products
Home decor products make great first-time CNC businesses. Buyers tend to put more value into uniqueness and exclusivity, giving an advantage to smaller retailers. Plus, since home decor products are decorative, there’s a unique opportunity to gain repeat purchases from buyers that value aesthetic continuity in their homes.
Here are some home decor products you might consider selling:
Bookends serve the function of holding books in place on a bookshelf. They must be heavy and sturdy—aside from that, there’s no real restrictions around what shape and design could be used.
Some are complex works of sculpture art, others are more abstract shapes meant to blend in with a wide variety of decor. Bookends are perfect for entrepreneurial artists who value a high level of creative freedom.
2. Wall art
Like bookends, wall art can offer a lot of creative freedom. You could use a recognizable template, like the US flag, or something entirely new. It can be detailed or abstract, complex or minimal, and is adaptable to all kinds of branding.
Since wall art exists on a flat surface, routing designs can be made much simpler, making wall art great for entrepreneurs just getting the hang of using their CNC machines to craft goods.
You might sell individual shelves, more complex shelving systems, or even larger shelving units. Shelving might not inspire creativity right away, but unique shelving that uses less conventional designs can be a great attention grabber.
via Infinite Abyss
Furniture can be more advanced if you factor in upholstery and assembly, but even simple furniture routing designs like wooden benches, end tables, desks, and accent chairs are becoming increasingly popular.
5. Picture frames
Offer your customers a unique way to display images of their most treasured moments with a one-of-a-kind line of CNC-crafted picture frames.
Picture frames can be built from nearly any material, come in all shapes and sizes, and can be adapted to nearly any aesthetic, meaning there’s a huge volume of potential customers.
6. Candle holders
Candles can be a feature of home decor in nearly every room, and nothing accentuates the calming glow of a flickering candle like a well-crafted candle holder. From sleek candlesticks to glass lanterns, there are all kinds of candle holders you can craft and sell with a CNC machine.
via Infinite Abyss
Get inspired: Infinite Abyss
Infinite Abyss is a home-decor brand created by Wyoming-based artist Samantha Hartman. Hartman draws inspiration from nature to give her products a rustic, yet modern character that makes for a well-crafted brand.
Infinite Abyss has been profiled in HGTV magazine, on Buzzfeed, and by Etsy. Hartman is also the author of Wood Pallet Wonders, her DIY guide to building rustic home furniture from recycled wood pallets.
Infinite Abyss is a great example of how to build consistent and memorable collections out of your CNC products. Products are harmonious without being repetitive; each works both as an individual piece and in groups, regardless of the combination of products.
Learn more: 12 Woodworking Projects You Can Sell Online
Kitchen and BBQ tools
The global cookware market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6.9% from 2021 to 2028, meaning there will likely be a huge demand for kitchen and barbecue products over the next decade.
And don’t be intimidated by the prospect of competing with big box stores—much of the growth in the industry is attributed to millennials, who tend to value one-of-a-kind products from smaller retailers.
Here are some kitchen and barbecue tools that can be crafted with a CNC machine:
7. Cutting boards
Cutting boards (sometimes called chopping blocks) are used by chefs every day, in kitchens all over the world. Due to its natural antiseptic qualities, wood has been the material of choice for cutting boards for centuries, but cutting boards can be made from plastics as well.
Since their function is quite basic, cutting boards are commonly customized by chefs who like to add a personal touch to the tools they use, opening up a lot of niching possibilities.
8. Wooden serving utensils and bowls
Wooden spoons and salad-serving forks are common household items and it’s relatively easy to find CNC woodworking designs for them that can be altered to fit your own branding. Since buyers usually want these items to match, you could even sell whole utensil sets.
Coasters are great products to make and sell with a CNC machine. Buyers are often looking for one-of-a-kind items, giving an edge to newer brands. On top of this, coasters can be crafted from a wide range of materials, giving designers a lot of creative freedom.
While they’re often made from wood, coasters are also crafted from cork, bamboo, plastics, clay, marble, concrete, and even leather and fabrics. You might even consider crafting unique coasters made from multiple materials.
10. Kitchen wall decals
Chefs spend a lot of time in their kitchens, so it’s no surprise that they’d want to add visual flair to their decor. Depending on your branding, your kitchen wall decals might inlay funny slogans, inspiring quotes, or just really cool imagery.
11. Wooden serving trays
Wooden serving trays are typically used to transport food and drinks, but even when stationary, they can add a distinct accent to one’s dining room decor. This dual purpose has made them a great gift idea for people that often host guests.
12. Wood-mounted bottle openers
Wood-mounted bottle openers perform a very simple function, meaning they offer a lot of template possibilities. They come in all sizes. They can be sleek and functional, or more ornate and decorative. Some stand on their own, while others are mounted to walls.
When placed indoors, they can add a rustic feel to any room. Outdoors, they might bring a sense of modernity to an isolated campground.
Get inspired: Avocrafts
Avocrafts is a San Diego–based retailer of wood-crafted kitchen goods and home decor products. It has a lot of interesting pieces, but the highlight for us is its handcrafted wooden coasters.
Made from cedar wood and epoxy resin, Avocraft’s coasters are crafted in such a way that each and every piece is unique—with the exact placement of the materials determined randomly during the cutting process.
Stylistically, the coasters are perfectly harmonious, but the extra level of uniqueness gives the product a one-of-a-kind feel that resonates with buyers who value exclusivity. Avocraft makes good use of customer testimonials as well, inviting buyers to share the unique patterns they received.
Learn more: 10 Trending Crafts to Make and Sell
With more people working from home, the demand for home office supplies has skyrocketed. Office supplies tend to be in demand year round, and since items often need replacing, repeat purchases are common.
Here are some CNC-crafted office supplies you might make and sell:
13. Pencil holders
A decorative pencil holder can be a great way for home office workers to showcase their personality. Pencil holders don’t have a lot of design requirements, which means they offer a ton of stylistic possibilities.
You might create pencil holders that are more utilitarian, maybe containing a simple engraving, accented with a detailed pattern. Or you might go big, fixing a holding mechanism into an extravagant desktop sculpture.
14. Charging docks
Even if you’re not an office worker, you probably have a lot of devices that need to be charged. Charging docks are small structures designed to help organize all of your charging cables and accessories in one easy-to-use place.
15. Craft supply boxes
Craft supply boxes are very versatile when it comes to how they’re used. Painters and sculptors might use larger ones to organize tools in their studio. Smaller boxes are commonly used to store sewing supplies.
Other times, supply boxes are more decorative—not built for any specific purpose, but just meant to give buyers a more stylish storage option. The type of boxes you build should depend on your audience and what their primary needs are.
16. Desk organizers
Desk organizers are small boxes, usually kept atop a desk or table, consisting of divided compartments for storing things like notebooks, charging cables, writing utensils, and, occasionally, easy-to-lose items like keys and loose change.
Get inspired: Neoletex
Neoletex is an environmentally minded seller of handcrafted office supplies built from sustainable bamboo. Neoletex donates 10% of its online sales to environmental projects and charitable organizations dedicated to building a more environmentally friendly future.
Neoletex’s bamboo desktop organizers have a sleek, minimalistic design that works with almost any aesthetic—but what’s most important here isn’t the design, but the message behind their products.
Neoletex describes itself as efficient, effective, and environmentally sustainable—and it shows in its products. Everything from the materials used to the unembellished practical design of their products seems to harmonize around its message of effective, efficient sustainability.
Speciality signage is a great way to give your customers a unique product that still emphasizes the stylistic peculiarities of your brand.
Custom signage might be used for special events, to give directions on hiking trails, or to add decorative labels to exquisite home gardens. They also just make a nice piece of personalized lawn decor.
Here are a couple of different types of signage you could sell:
17. Name signs
Name signs make great gifts. They’re a staple of souvenir shops and one of the most popular novelty items people buy. With a CNC machine, you can create personalized name signs for bedrooms, offices, or any other place your customers want to label as their own.
And it’s not just people that have names; signs built for dog houses, horse stables, or cat trees can make great gift ideas for animal lovers.
18. Rustic wood signs for outdoors
Whether it’s for the cottage, the barn, or just your backyard, wooden signage can be both a helpful instructional tool and an accent piece that adds a pastoral touch to any location.
19. Changeable letter signs
Why not give your customers the option to craft their own signs? Changeable letter signs can be a fun addition to any room in the house, with family members and housemates leaving fun, custom messages for each other.
Get inspired: Southern Accent Woodcrafting
Southern Accent Woodcrafting started with the purchase of two CNC machines by owner and operator Dan Berry—who decided to turn his passion for wood carving and wood crafting into a full-time woodworking business.
Southern Accent Woodcrafting sells custom signs for businesses, farms, horse stables, dog houses, and just about any other place that might benefit from the aesthetics of handcrafted signage.
Southern Accent Woodcrafting provides its customers with an easy-to-use product page that makes for a great personalized shopping experience. The form is accessible and easily understood, making sure nothing gets in the way of providing buyers with their own custom products.
Toys and games
There’s a huge variety of toys and games you might build and sell with a CNC machine. You could sell educational toys for young children that help promote intellectual development. Or you might think about crafting your own line of dolls or action figures.
Here are a couple of toy ideas to consider:
20. Children’s letter blocks
Learning the basics of spelling and grammar is crucial for young children, which might be the reason alphabet blocks are such a timeless, popular children’s toy.
And wooden blocks don’t just have to be a learning aid for the alphabet. You could inlay blocks with numbers, shapes, or animals as well.
21. Board games
Popular board games like chess, checkers, cribbage, and backgammon are all in the public domain, meaning anyone can build and sell pieces for them. Boards for common games like this also tend to be decorative, giving you the opportunity to add your own artistic flair.
And since your CNC machine gives you the ability to mass produce board game parts, why not invent your own game? Building a community of fans around your very own game might take some time, but it can be incredibly profitable.
22. Dollhouses and accessories
Dollhouses are a timeless children’s toy, but they can be a popular hobby for adults too. Collectors of dollhouse accessories (often called “miniatures”) have robust online communities where you’ll be able to find a lot of potential customers.
Plus, if you’ve already created CNC designs for furniture and home decor products, you can re-use them. Just remember to make them much smaller.
Puzzles had a huge resurgence in popularity at the start of the pandemic, and they’re still going strong. CNC machines are perfect for carving out your own, custom puzzles. There are a couple of approaches you could take here. You could carve a flat design into pieces or even craft your own 3D puzzles.
Get inspired: Michaud Toys
Michaud Toys is a family business rooted in the traditions of woodworking and fine crafts passed down through four generations. Michaud specializes in traditional wooden game boards, creating heirlooms it hopes to be shared among family.
Michaud’s products include classic games like checkers and chess, alongside board game versions of classic sports like baseball and horse racing.
Michaud’s products are obviously great for gaming, but they double as stunning pieces of home decor. The detailed crafting on each piece gives them a classical, homespun aesthetic reminiscent of turn-of-the-century gaming parlours.
Other CNC products to sell
We’re not done yet! Some CNC ideas are harder to categorize, but they make great products all the same. Here’s a few more products that are perfect for making and selling with a CNC machine:
Jewelry buyers on online marketplaces are always on the lookout for unique pieces that bring out their personality. Why not use your CNC machine to start a jewelry making business? You could sell wooden earrings, necklaces, bracelets, or pendants.
And a CNC router gives you a lot of options in terms of the material you use. While you could use your CNC machine to make luxury pieces from high value metals, there’s actually big demand for affordable, handcrafted wooden jewelry.
25. Tree ornaments
In the lead-up to the holiday season, there’s a huge demand for unique tree ornaments. While it might be easy for buyers to find standard bulbs and angels, originality is hard to come by, meaning there are a ton of niching possibilities.
Do your customers share a common hobby? Is there a particular aesthetic that resonates with them? Considering what your audience has in common might provide clues as to how to find a niche that’s perfect for your brand.
On the downside, this product is mostly seasonal, so you’ll want to sell other products as well, to help supplement sales in the off-season.
26. DIY project kits
Whether you’re looking for something to occupy the little ones on a rainy afternoon or just something to occupy yourself—DIY project kits make for a fun and creative afternoon.
DIY CNC project kits typically come with an assortment of parts and a step-by-step guide for building all sorts of cool stuff: toys, birdhouses, garden planters, home decor, model cars, miniature architecture, and all kinds of playsets.
Get inspired: The Wooden Wear
The Wooden Wear sells stylish, handcrafted wooden jewelry for both men and women—offering earrings, bracelets, necklaces, sunglasses, watches, and pendants for special occasions and everyday use.
The Wooden Wear’s branding portrays a sense of calmness that makes for a relaxing shopping experience. It stands out to visitors, because it contrasts with the high-pressure sales environment that can come with shopping for luxury jewelry.
Pieces are affordable, yet crafted with a radiant elegance that allows them to be worn for all kinds of special occasions. Each piece is unique, yet the Wooden Wear’s strong branding makes it easy for shoppers to stylishly mix and match their favourite items.
From hobbyist to full time: How to start a CNC business
How do you go from tinkering with a CNC machine in your garage or basement to owning a successful CNC business? It might seem daunting now, but remember that every successful entrepreneur started in the exact same place.
Building a brand from your CNC wood projects won’t happen overnight, but the satisfaction that comes with creating something unique (not to mention the money that can be made), will be very rewarding down the road.
Here’s where to start:
1. Purchase a CNC router
Choosing the right CNC router will be the first step in building your CNC business.
There are a lot of CNC routers on the market, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Some CNC routers require assembly, others don’t. Some are more expensive, but include larger work areas. Still, many offer payment-plan options that make them more affordable.
Consider the size of the projects you’re making, the complexity of your template designs, and whether your router can work with your selected materials.
Also note that while most CNC routers can cut along the X and Y axis, some require additional spindle attachments for Z axis cutting (depth). If you’re planning on doing a lot of deep cuts, make sure to pick up a Z axis CNC router.
Let’s go through some of the more common models:
- Materials: The Carbide 3D Shapeoko 4 is able to cut through medium density fiberboard (MDF) and soft metals (such as aluminium).
- Work area: The Carbide 3D Shapeoko 4 comes in three different cutting area sizes: Standard (444 x 444 x 101 mm), XL (838 x 444 x 101 mm), and XXL (838 x 838 x 101 mm).
- Price: $1,700, or $154/month
- Materials: The Inventables X-Carve is able to cut through a variety of materials, like wood, plastics, acrylics, corian, urethane foam, wax, and aluminium.
- Work area: The Inventables X-Carve is 1,250 x 1,000 x 350 mm in size, with a cutting area of 750 x 750 x 65 mm.
- Price: $1,842, or $52/month
- Materials: The Sain Smart Genmitsu 3018 Pro cuts through plastics, soft aluminum, woods, MDF, and acrylics.
- Work area: The Sain Smart Genmitsu 3018 Pro has a 300 x 180 mm work area, plus a spindle that can cut a depth of 45 mm.
- Price: $316, or $29/month
- Materials: The BobsCNC Evolution 4 is used to cut wood, plastics, foam, and acrylic non-metals.
- Work area: The BobsCNC Evolution 4 has cutting area of 610 x 610 mm, with a depth of 85 mm.
- Price: $1,534
- Materials: The Ooznest Original Workbee Z1+ is used to cut wood, plastics, foam and acrylic non-metals.
- Work area: The Ooznest Original Workbee comes in six sizes, with workspaces available at 300 x 270 mm, 550 x 520 mm, 550 x 770 mm, 800 x 770 mm, 800 x 1,270 mm and 1,300 x 1,270 mm.
- Price: Starting at $1,335 for the smallest size and topping off at $1,595 for the largest.
Once you’ve found the CNC router that’s right for you, you’ll want to start thinking about which CNC software you’ll be using. Some come with built-in routing software, but if your CNC router doesn’t, check out these software options:
If you’re not ready to create your own woodworking plans and just want to get used to using your CNC machine, there are a ton of free DXF files available online. DXF files are the most common file type for CNC project designs.
2. Decide on your first woodworking project
Once you’ve got your equipment ready, you’ll want to start validating your product ideas to make sure there’s a market for the types of products you plan on selling. There are a couple of ways to check on the demand for your products:
- Sell on demand. Since your new CNC router is at the ready, you don’t necessarily need to manufacture stock ahead of time. If you’ve got a product idea, why not test it out directly?
- Conduct a competitive analysis. Explore the current market and research your competitors. What are they selling? What types of audiences are attracted to their products?
- Perform keyword research. Having a good keyword research strategy is great for unearthing customer pain-points, spotting available niches, and gaining hard knowledge about how interested audiences might be in your brand.
- Start a crowdfunding campaign. Equity crowdfunding helps you know how likely your audience is to support your brand, and how willing they are to pay for your products.
- Meet customers directly. Go to trade shows and events where potential customers are likely to gather. Meeting customers in person might provide crucial clues as to what products are especially popular.
3. Come up with a business plan
Set yourself up for success by crafting a solid business plan. Business plans are crucial to identifying potential issues and making sure you have the resources to be able to scale your woodworking business.
A good business plan will help you prioritize your time, understand how to achieve your goals, and make your vision for your business clear to potential investors. If you’re not sure where to start, get inspired by checking out these business plan examples.
4. Build your online store
When you’re done developing your business plan, you’ll have a much better idea of what products you’ll be selling, the characteristics of your brand, and how to target the right audiences.
At this point, you should have all the info you need to start building your online store. Here you’ll be able to add your DIY CNC products, sort them into collections, and begin developing the visual aspects of your brand.
5. Market your products
Digital marketing gives you access to a wide range of audiences, which is perfect if you’re working on a shoestring budget. Which channels you choose to market on should depend on the audiences you want to reach.
Since you’ll be selling CNC products, it might be a good idea to consider marketing your product to Etsy users. Etsy has a reputation for hand-made goods and one-of-a-kind products, so selling on Etsy might be perfect for an upstart CNC brand.
Etsy isn’t always the best for scaling your business though, so make sure you’re directing potential customers to an email marketing list or social media profile so they have the opportunity to keep up with your brand.
6. Launch your store
With your website set up, your products added, and your CNC mill at the ready, it’s time to launch your online store. Launching is one of the most exciting moments of starting a business, but it can turn stressful quickly if you don’t have a solid launch plan.
Review your business plan, make a test purchase in your store to be sure it’s functional, and review our store launch checklist so you know you haven’t missed anything in your planning.
Start making money with your very own CNC router projects
With the arrival of affordable CNC machines, one-person businesses are able to mass-produce custom items faster than ever before. Whether it’s home decor, kitchen tools, or one-of-a-kind children’s toys—crafting a product that’s all your own is within reach.
Learning a new skill takes time, and you may not be crafting complex structures right away, but learning how to utilize these tools has the potential to be game changing for small businesses.
With CNC machines becoming more and more affordable, it’s likely that they’re here to stay—and suddenly, one more barrier to entrepreneurship has come crashing down.
Illustration by Chris Gash
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CNC Projects that Sell FAQ
How do you use a CNC machine?
Not every CNC router operates in the same way, so the specifics of how you use your CNC machine will depend on which one you choose. In general, it’s best to start by designing your product, cutting it out, sanding it down, testing your design, and refining it until your products look and function how they’re supposed to. You could also download some free CNC project files first, if you just want to get used to using your new CNC machine.
Can you make money with a CNC machine?
Yes! There’s a whole host of CNC-based businesses that make money online by creating and selling custom-made products with their CNC router.
What can I make and sell with a CNC machine?
You can sell kitchen tools like cutting boards and wooden utensils, decor like coasters, wall art, and shelving—plus a whole lot more. Check out our list above for more CNC product ideas.