Plans, projects and how-to's for home machinists

StickFont – Free software for engraving

StickFont v1.1 is a free Windows program you can use to create single-stroke text for engraving.  It’s very similar to another free program we’ve written about called DeskEngrave.  Both programs will take a line of text and generate the g-code you’ll need to engrave it using a CNC mill, router or similar machine.

Some of StickFont’s features

  • You can engrave text on an angle or around an arc
  • You can mirror text in the X or Y axis
  • You can easily adjust the character spacing and height
  • If you want, you can easily set parameters such as z depth, retract, plunge and feed rate, etc.
  • You can save the output as a DXF file

StickFont can create text using any font installed on your PC.  But working with Windows fonts is not as easy as it is with DeskEngrave because you have to convert them to a “CHR font file” first.  It’s easy, but it’s an extra step.  If you don’t like any of the fonts on your computer then check out the 14 good-looking free fonts you can download from their web site.

I’ve played with StickFont on my laptop but I haven’t been able to try it out because I have a 400-pound jump shear parked in front of my mill while I reorganize my workshop.  If you could try it out and let us all know how well it works I’d appreciate it.  By the way, there’s an older version of StickFont with fewer features floating around the net.

CNC Fusion Z-axis Modification

This photo shows the modification I made to my CNC Fusion z-axis mounting bracket so I could adjust my top gib screw with a shortened hex wrench

Here’s a modification I made to the Z-axis ball screw mounting bracket on my Sieg X2 (Harbor Freight) mini-mill.  My CNC conversion kit was made by CNC Fusion and their design does not allow you to adjust the top gib screw without removing the column from the base and sliding the head half way off of it, which is necessary to get at a large 10mm bolt that holds it from the inside of the spindle head (along with 2 smaller bolts on the outside).  My post about removing the X2’s intermediate gear has some photographs that will show you how much work it takes.

The bracket actually covers up the top two gib screws and there’s not much you can do about the second one except to adjust it properly before you install the ball screw and then hope you never need to adjust it again.  To make it accessible you’d have to remove metal near where the ball screw nut is attached and I don’t think you can do that.  But there’s nothing to prevent you from making a bigger opening so you can adjust the top gib screw with a shortened 3mm hex wrench.  I also made it big enough so I could get a wrench or at least some needle-nose pliers in there to loosen or tighten the lock nut.  If I’d been able to wait a week or so I would have eliminated the lock nuts altogether by ordering self-locking ones from

I have two mills, which made it possible for me to make this modification.   If you don’t have that luxury you might want to consider doing it before you begin converting your mill to CNC.  The original opening was about .60 wide and .38-inches deep.  It’s now .94-inches wide and .55-inches deep.

I’m not sure, but there may also be another solution and that would be to eliminate the internal bolt by replacing it with more external ones.  That would allow you to quickly and easily remove the Z-axis ball screw so you could have full access to all the gib screws.  I think CNC Fusion did it the way they did so their customers would not have to drill and tap any holes in the spindle head.  Their design avoids that by reusing the holes used by the height adjusting wheel and mechanism.  Of course if you used more external bolts you’d have to put them where they wouldn’t interfere with the gears inside the head.  You’d also have to make certain they could handle the weight of the head, which I think is about 12 pounds.  That’s one advantage the big internal bolt has.

I know this is a boring post for most of you.  But I”m hoping it will help others who also have one of these CNC conversions kits.

More Photos Continue reading CNC Fusion Z-axis Modification

CNC: Automatically find edges, hole centers and more with Mach 3

This article describes how you can use Mach 3, the popular CNC controller software, to automatically

  • Find the edges of your work piece (and therefore the corners)
  • Find the centers of holes and their diameter
  • Set your cutting tool at a known height above your work piece or table

What’s involved

This feature is very easy to implement and use and it will cost you almost nothing.  You don’t even need a licensed copy of Mach 3.  Here’s what you’ll need to do:

  • Download and install a free screenset for Mach 3 that has the buttons you’ll need to operate these features.  There are a number you can choose from.  Keep reading to find some of them.
  • Connect a wire to an unused input on your CNC controller board.  This is the circuit board your steppers motors are hooked up to.  You probably have a spare input unless you’ve used them all up for home or limit switches.  If so there is probably an inexpensive way to add more.  You may also have to add an inexpensive and easy-to-find capacitor if have a problem with electrical “noise.”  I didn’t have to.
  • Go into Mach 3 configuration menu for ports and pins and enable the “probe” and assign the pin you hooked your wire up to.  You might have to also change the “active low” setting from its default but that’s easy to determine and do.
  • Connect the other end of your wire to a touch plate.  If you’re working with wood or other non-conductive materials you’ll just need a flat straight piece of metal for finding edges.  There’s at least a few different kinds of probes and touch plates you can use to find the center of holes and their diameters.  One is simply a short straight piece of metal rod mounted in your spindle.  If you’re working with metal then your touch plate or probe will need to be electrically insulated from your work piece.  So it will require a little more effort to make one.

It took me only about 40 minutes to get it working on my mill, although that doesn’t include all the research I did first.  I also made a quick-and-dirty touch plate and I still need to make a couple of better ones.  I’ll be writing more about that later.

More details

“Erniebro” on CNCZone didn’t come up with the idea for an auto edge finder, but he deserves an enormous amount of thanks for publicizing this method and making it easy for others to start using it.  He designed the first screenset for adding this feature to Mach 3, made the video above, posted excellent instructions on CNCZone describing how to install it and patiently provided help and support for those who needed it.  Others have built upon his work and made improvements, but if you want to try this I suggest you start with ErnieBro’s instructions.

  • One of the first things you’re going to want to do is download Erniebro’s Mach 3 screenset.  I just want to let you know that if you’re NOT a registered member of CNCZone and logged in, you’ll get an error message that might make you think the file is no longer available.
  • There’s a very good chance you won’t have any problems getting your machine to work properly.  If you do there’s also a very good chance that someone else has had the same problem and you’ll find the solution in Erniebro’s forum thread.  Unfortunately, the thread has grown to almost 400 posts and it takes a lot of time to read them all (trust me, I’ve done it).  So I suggest you take advantage of the “Search this thread” link you’ll find near the top of each page, just above the messages on it. You’ll need to be logged in to use it.

Inexpensive and easy-to-make CNC scanner for duplicating parts

This is a very cool and extremely easy-to-make accessory that can turn a a CNC mill into a scanner which can be used to duplicate parts.  It uses an inexpensive USB webcam and some free software.  The camera mount is also super simple.  The video shows them simply taping the camera to a rod held in a collet.

The Bad News

You can test Tormach’s software for free but it’s pretty useless unless you buy the full version for $335.   The “shareware” version won’t let you save anything, so you can’t export your scan into a CAM program.  Which means you can’t actually use it to make a duplicate part or do anything else that is very useful.   Also, the video says your accuracy and resolution will depend on the web cam you use.  That sounds like you could use a $20 web cam but your results might not be very good.  Tormach describes the camera they sell, for $513 with a mount, as a USB microscope.  As you can see in the video, the camera is only a few inches from the part it’s scanning, so it appears you may need a camera that can focus at close distances.

I really wanted to try this out until I learned how crippled Tormach’s free software is and how unaffordable the full version is.  I even found a $12 web that would be easy to mount on my mill.  I don’t know how well it will work, but it has a focusing ring and it gets good reviews on Newegg (where it costs more).

This would be a nice accessory to have, but it’s not affordable and don’t see how I would use it much.

Random Quote

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

— Thomas Alva Edison