Free Radical Labs X-Carve Review

Full Disclosure:  Free Radical Labs purchased our X-Carve outright.  Although we think the folks at Inventables are great to do business with, we have zero financial or material incentive to write this review.  We've done this because we believe in what they are providing - which is much more than a CNC router.  The views and opinions expressed in this review are for the betterment of the Maker community and to help Inventables grow as a company.  Jason's not just writing this review as a customer but as ASQ-Certified Quality Engineer with years in the business of manufacturing and assembly in the hopes that it can be used by everyone to help spread the word about how you can make and do for yourself.

It was a long journey, but in the end it was completely worth it.  From opening the first box to finishing the first cut it took us just under 14 hours to complete our assembly of our Inventables X-Carve.  We had done our research and many of the online reviews said it took them between 6 - 8 hours which is reasonable.  I could not completely lock myself away from everything to work on this.  I also made some mistakes that cost me 4 hours of troubleshooting which required help from the Inventables forums as well as just putting it down and getting some sleep.

I ordered the 1000mm x 1000mm X-Carve, fully loaded.  Actually, I ordered the 500mm x 500mm and then had buyer's remorse and called Inventables to upgrade (I'm glad I spent the money to upgrade).  They handled the upgrade smoothly and that was really the first time I got to deal with their top notch "customer success" folks.  The X-Carve shipped within the projected lead time of 3-4 weeks and arrived at my doorstep two days after it shipped.  It arrived in 3 boxes:  the wasteboard, the rails and the main components.  Many of the sub-components were boxed individually which is great.  You will need plenty of room to work, so it helps that you don't have to open everything at once.  The fasteners and hardware are individually bagged for ease of identification.  My only suggestion to Inventables would be to give each of the smaller, more frequently used fasteners/nuts an arbitrary letter designation like you find when assembling furniture.  If the bags were labelled with a letter designation it would make finding the right fastener much easier towards the end.

Another item that I ordered was the toolkit.  It comes with everything you need to assemble the X-Carve, but as the young folks would say, "I feel some type of way" about the toolkit.  In the end, I would have been better off using T-handle hex keys instead of the hex keys provided (I went to the orange big box store and bought a shiny new set mid-build).  I cannot count how many times the hex driver flipped out of my hand while I was attempting to tighten something.  There a few tiny set screws for which the provided hex key works great for.  You get a set of wrenches which work perfectly and I didn't have any issues with them.  You also get a torx head screw driver to install what are essentially self-tapping screws and for that I would also recommend T-handles to help begin tapping the aluminum.  Additional tools you will probably want to have are pliers, wire strippers (good ones), a basic multimeter (checking for continuity with a DMM will save you hassle of using tape to label wiring), a tape measure, some WD-40 (I used cooking spray), a soldering iron, and some heat shrink.

I built a basic table out of 2x4s and half-inch plywood.  You can go fancier or not, but I build mine with the intention of adding more later and to keep my space flexible.  I also put casters on the legs of my table so I could spin it around while I was building.  The casters lock when necessary, but being able to sit down and work at eye-level was very helpful especially during some of the frustrating moments of the build.  Being able to spin the assembly as I was building was great.  You will absolutely need to have a laptop and/or desktop handy as well because you will do quite a bit of reading as well as watching the build instruction videos.

The instructions are my biggest issue with the assembly of the X-Carve.  As I said previously, they are not bad.  The instructions are hampered by the fact that there are several variations of the X-Carve available.  The pictures are nice, but sometimes the pictures are taken after the steps they are outlining so confusion sets in because what they are showing is not what you see.  If you are a visual learner this will continually frustrate you throughout the build.  I really like the fact that Inventables has opened the instructions to collaboration for the community.  I believe that best practices will help improve the instructions and get them to the point where everything will flow much more smoothly.

The instructions themselves are divided up into about 15 or so sections with approximations of how long they should take you.  By and large, the approximations are good - but I would warn against using the sum as an approximate time to completion.  You will mess something up, but the joy of this whole experience is fixing your mistakes and this means you have a deeper understanding of how the machine works.  It is however painfully frustrating when you realize you've made an error.  The X-carriage and Y-plates assembly went very smoothly.  The only issue I had was the terminal block on the X-carriage did not match up exactly to the holes in the plate.  I checked the forums and ended up using a drill to oblong one of the holes slightly to get it to fit.

The rest of the mechanical assembly was pretty straight forward.  Assembling the gantry, belting and the Z-axis are not terribly difficult but you need to keep your head in the game.  Applying the right amount of tension to the belts is not overly difficult, but one you set it - do not mess with it until you are ready to start your wiring check.  Also, when it comes to belting, I would suggest using heat shrink on the end of the belts to help ensure they grip together and do not get in the way.

To be honest, mechanical assembly is not where I am the best but I am competent.  I thought that the electrical assembly part is where I would shine - however I made a huge mistake which would send me down a path of false troubleshooting.  Wiring the X-Carve is about the 10th step if you follow Inventables directions.  I would suggest completely assembling everything, then do your wiring and then installing your drag chain.  This will help you find our exactly how much excess wire you need to route stuff around motors and stuff and gives you good starting point on how to keep your wires under control.  The wire color coding is straight forward and if you hold the wiring convention you will be fine.  There is of course one spot where you will intentionally cross two wires (spoiler alert: Y-axis) however I glossed over the wiring diagram and this cost me an afternoon of chasing ghosts.  Once I got the X-Carve all wired up, the Y-axis responded to commands, but one side moved before the other.  I thought it had to do with the gantry being loose, but it eventually dawned on me that the shafts were not spinning in the correct direction as the same time which lead me to realize I literally had two wires crossed.  That one mistake cost me a lot of time.

Once I literally uncrossed my wires the rest was downhill.  The test print worked out fine, but I ran into a slight logistical issue surrounding my router.  The 24V spindle that comes with the X-Carve is having some issues.  Inventables made no effort to hide the issue and is keeping folks abreast of their efforts to correct the issue.  I applaud them for their transparency and their willingness to make things right - not just gloss over known issues.  I updgraded to the DeWalt 611 router mainly because it meant my X-Carve would ship faster but it also meant that I would need a collet adapter to go down from 1/4 to 1/8 of an inch shank on the bits.  I neglected to get the collet adapter on time, however I was able to find a router bit at my trusty orange big box store.  I did have to take a Dremel to my DeWalt's housing to trim back a little overmolding to let the router enjoy full Z-axis travel - but again from here it was all down hill.


My test cut ran smoothly and I'm getting familiar with Easel.  I just threw some stuff onto the workspace to cut out my first print and it came out just fine.  Once I unclamped my first cut, it hit me.  All of this was completely worth it.  I'd joked that the X-Carve had eaten my weekend - and it did.  In return, I got a true sense of owning it.  Not just that I had purchased it, but having spent the time to learn its ins and outs - I truly owned this X-Carve.

The X-Carve is not ready for mass market - however the mass market is not ready for the X-Carve.  This is truly a piece of equipment for the intermediate to advanced maker.  I'd be carving on mine right now if it weren't for the fact that a. I only have one large bit and b. I told myself I'd do a decent review of my experience.  I'm not kidding or overstating the elation I felt when I completed my X-Carve.  I'm already getting carves lined up in my head and thinking ahead about how I'm going to improve things like dust collection.  The community support is great and I really cannot wait until my new bits come on Wednesday so I can start doing some more fine carving.