If you're looking for a benchtop CNC Mill that can machine hard metals and one that is affordable to a hobbyist, then you're at the right place.
A benchtop mill is used primarily for machining of metals such as aluminum, steel and titanium.
Unlike desktop CNC routers which are used on soft (comparatively) materials like wood, a benchtop mill is much more powerful and has a lot more torque.
To write this guide I studied the different types of benchtop CNC mills available on the market in various price ranges using manufacturer information and feedback from friends in the industry.
During my research, I considered various factors like travel lengths (X and Y), cutting speeds, RPM, accuracy, drive system (ball vs screw), rigidity, and customer support among other factors.
With this data, I chose the best benchtop mills under $5,000 and the best in the range $5,000-$10,000. I have specifically avoided chinese CNC mills from brands with low reputation in this guide.
Best Benchtop CNC Mills under $5,000
Costing just less than $2,700, the Sherline 12" CNC Mill is a good option for metal milling at low speeds for hobbyists.
The Sherline benchtop mill has been the starter mill for many hobbyists since the 80s. Many of those mills are still in operation with their owners.
Sherline calls it the deluxe CNC Mill. This mill is also called as a Sherline 5400. For the $2,700 dollars, you get a 12" base benchtop mill, the full CNC control system, and a computer.
The display monitor for the computer is not part of the package.
This benchtop CNC mill is ideal for small hobbyists jobs with the stock small enough to fit on the table.
A common question everyone has is if a sherline CNC mill can cut steel or titanium. The short answer is yes.
Sherline can be used to mill titanium, stainless steel and cast iron, but you need to go slow, take light passes and use a coolant.
You will need to keep the depth of cut to around 0.030", RPM of around 500 and use a coolant like Kool Mist.
If you are a beginner, it will take some practice to get excellent results using a sherline.
But know that it is possible to do very good work on the Sherline. Just that the feed rates might be a bit low for professional machinists.
Tryally Tech is a Youtuber who does amazing work using Sherline mills.
This machine is rigid enough to work on even a 1" thick stock of steel, provided the feed rate is slow.
The maximum travel speed of this CNC mill is 22 ipm in the X,Y and Z axes.
The 12" Sherline CNC mill has a 2.75″ (70 mm) x 13.0″ (330 mm) table.
Note that the travel length in X axis is 8.65" and 5" in Y axis. This actually determines how big a piece you can mill on this benchtop CNC machine.
The weight of this mill is 40 lb., which means you can easily carry it around.
What's the electronics setup in the sherline CNC Mill? Well, the sherline uses a custom 4 axis stepper driver box, that's fitted inside the computer, three stepper motors for each axis and the linuxCNC (EMC2) control software.
The stepper drivers have a 4A peak current rating and the NEMA 23 stepper motors having a maximum holding torque of 136 oz.in.
If you wish, you can use any other stepper motor of your choice provided it is NEMA 23 as it has to fit the motor mount.
This mill uses lead screws for the drive, which is not ideal for backlash, but it will do fine for most tasks.
It's also possible in linuxCNC to compensate for backlash to reduce the backlash effect you might have due to the lead screw system.
Sherline does sell a ball screw version of the 12" CNC mill but it costs around $4,200.
In the hands of a good machinist, sherline mill can be used to make parts with a tolerance of 0.001".
The lubrication on this sherline mill is achieved through a mill oiler that sits in the corner of the mill saddle. This reservoir distributes lubricant to the X and Y leadscrews.
The spindle on this mill can run between 70-2800 RPM speed. The speed can be controlled using the electronic controller knob on the headstock.
In terms of accessories and upgrades, I can point out some bang for the buck upgrades.
If you don't have a milling vise, you can get the milling vise, Step block hold-down set and an end mill holder as a bundle which they call package A.
They also sell a tooling plate accessory, which is really useful for tramming, holding down odd parts and also protects the work table.
The accordion way cover set is a useful accessory to collect the milling chips and prevent it from falling on the lead screws. This can help substantially improve the life of the lead screws.
Getting the 15" column upgrade is something I'd really recommend you get if you can afford the extra $100. It increases the travel on Z to 10" from the original 6".
This extra space is really useful when fixing other tooling where you need more space like boring head, ER-32 chucks and several other tooling.
Contrary to expectations, the extra height has no noticeable effect on the rigidity of the whole setup.
Sherline also has an optional 18" long mill table that adds 5" of extra X travel at a cost of $200 more.
A key aspect of Sherline in my opinion, is the customizability. Sherline sells all their products to have backwards compatibility.
This means an accessory that's released in the future will mostly be compatible with the mill you have right now. This lets you upgrade without replacing the entire mill.
If you want to build the CNC electronics and control on your own, Sherline sells "CNC ready" mills which have the handwheels removed and replaced with stepper motors.
You can install custom controls to this "CNC ready" mill quite easily.
If you already have a sherline benchtop mill, then sherline also sells the mechanical and electronic components to convert into a benchtop CNC mill.
This CNC mill comes as a kit and needs to be assembled before you can use it. Of course, the manual on the Sherline is as detailed as they come.
The company Sherline products inc is based in Vista, CA, and has been in operation since 1974 and all their products are designed, manufactured, and assembled in their factory in California.
Sherline offers a 1 year warranty on their product, provided it's not used for production work. Sherline has a reputation for excellent customer service and prompt communication.
All in all this Sherline mill is an excellent, affordable and reliable option for hobbyists who want to do metal milling for their personal projects and are not looking for quick milling work.
TAIG tools is a company based in Chandler, Arizona that makes benchtop CNC mills in the hobbyist category similar to Sherline.
The number 2019 is just a model number and has nothing to with the year 2019.
This benchtop mill, which TAIG calls as a "micro mill" is priced at $2,495.00.
Weighing in at 105 lbs, this mill is significantly heavier than the sherline mill which is only 33 lbs.
The travel length of this mill is 12" in X axis and 5.5" in Y axis, which is higher than the sherline mill.
TAIG table size is 3-½ x 18.4 inches, which is larger compared to the 2.75″ x 13.0″ table size on the Sherline.
Unlike the Sherline, this mill does not ship with a computer, so you need to factor that into the price.
But this also means, you can use a computer of your choice to run this mill.
Like the sherline, the TAIG 2019 uses lead screws on X, Y and Z axes. TAIG does sell a ball screw version called TAIG 5019 CNC which costs around $500 more.
You can minimize the backlash a lot more with the ballscrew version, however even with the TAIG 2019 CNC, you can compensate for the backlash by adjusting the software.
Mach3 is the control software used by the TAIG 2019 CNC, unlike the Sherline mill above which uses LinuxCNC.
Some people prefer LinuxCNC over Mach3. The best option in that case is to buy the "CNC ready" version of the TAIG 2019 mill and use your custom control system.
Just like the Sherline, with some experience you can mill metal with a 0.001" tolerance on the TAIG mill.
The NEMA 23 stepper motors on the TAIG have a 200 oz.in holding torque compared to 130 oz.in on the Sherline.
The traverse speed on the TAIG is 30 ipm, whereas the Sherline has a speed of 22 ipm on the X, Y and Z axes.
This is again not significant as you are generally going to operate the machine at a low speed.
TAIG offers a 2019 DSLS version of this CNC mill, which costs $500 more.
What you get with the extra $500 is closed loop stepper motors instead of open loop stepper motors as in the cheaper version.
The closed loop version alerts you in case there are missed steps and you can start over.
Also the DSLS version has a higher rapid traverse speed of 60 ipm compared to 30 ipm on the normal version.
In my view, this upgrade is unnecessary as you are probably going to run the mill very slowly and the stepper motors that are used these days have excellent mid-band compensation minimizing missed steps significantly.
If you are doing critical work with expensive stock materials, then the DSLS version might be worth it to you. Also, make sure to maintain the ways of the mill with proper lubrication.
If you have the extra budget, I suggest you choose the ball screw version, i.e, TAIG 5019 CNC mill which costs $500 more than the TAIG 2019 CNC mill.
The TAIG 2019 can cut aluminum, steel and titanium among other materials.
A typical safe depth of cut you can use on steel would be 0.030" although TAIG claims you can do a 0.125" single pass cut in mild steel using this machine.
With small benchtop mills like TAIG and Sherline, if you are a beginner, you should start with a shallow depth of cut and increase the depth slowly.
This mill comes as a kit and needs to be assembled. Although TAIG sends a manual with the kit, documentation on the Sherline is magnitudes better.
TAIG offers a 2 year warranty on it's machine. Similar to Sherline, TAIG is also known for providing good support to their customers.
Overall, the TAIG is a machine with bigger travel lengths and lower in cost compared to Sherline mills with similar specs.
Sherline 12" CNC Mill v/s TAIG 2019 CNC Mill
I'd still give a slight edge to the Sherline mill due to the better customer support, documentation, and continued compatibility with even old models of theirs.
The larger X travel on the TAIG can be matched by buying the extended 18" mill table from Sherline.
Best Benchtop CNC Mills between $5,000-$10,000
At this price range, you have the option of either opting for a big brand CNC benchtop mill like the Tormach PCNC 440 or a retrofitted benchtop mill from Precision Matthews or Grizzly.
Although big brand, the Tormach is really only an entry level mill among the CNCs used for commercial production. I talk more about it here- How much do CNC machines cost?
The Tormach PCNC 440 is the entry-level benchtop mill of the well known brand Tormach Inc, based in Waunakee, WI.
There are several packages offered within the PCNC 440 by Tormach, and the starter package for $8041 + Shipping is a good choice for many.
Although you can get the entry-level package which is cheaper by around $3,000, you miss out on the high-quality mill stand, the chip tray, tooling, and vise from Tormach.
This benchtop mill weighs almost 600 pounds and you do need a strong cast iron stand for operating it.
Cast Iron is especially helpful for dampening vibrations which can affect the cut quality.
If you decide to skip the stand, you could probably get a strong enough stand from any local shop for under $500 or buy a stand like this one from amazon.
The PCNC 440 mill ships pre-assembled and you only need to place it on the stand after putting the chip tray on the stand.
Since this weighs 600 pounds, you definitely need an engine hoist or something similar to place this machine on the stand.
You need a space of at least 42 in. × 36 in. for this mill in your shop and a bit more for accessing the mill from the back and the front.
The PCNC 440 uses ball screws for all the three axes, which prevents backlash and improves accuracy.
Like most machines at this price level, the Tormach uses dovetail ways for slides which makes for easy movement provided lubrication is done properly.
The cutting area or the work envelope that you get with this mill is 10" x 6.25", which is actually a bit lesser than the TAIG mill.
The Z axis travel that you get is 10" which is quite good.
This Tormach mill has a sophisticated lubrication system with metal braided oil lines running to each axis for lubricating the ball screws and a manual oil pump as well.
The Accordion way covers on this mill helps protect the ball screws from chips.
So how does the electronics of this machine look?
All the electronics (except the controller) of this mill is placed on the top right of the mill in a safe and classy metallic enclosure.
The PCNC 440 uses NEMA 34 stepper motors for all three axes, unlike the TAIG and Sherline mills which use NEMA 23 stepper motors. This makes this machine much more powerful.
Of course the TAIG and Sherline cannot use the NEMA 34 as the frame is not rigid enough to sustain that kind of torque. This also speaks to how powerful the frame of the Tormach is.
The spindle motors on this mill can reach up to 10,000 RPM at a power of 0.75 HP. The spindles uses an R8 collet.
The pathpilot controller is what the Tormach uses for all its entry level mills and the PCNC 440 uses it as well.
Pathpilot software is loved by most of its users due to its ease of use, safety stop buttons, and excellent integration with Tormach machines.
Pathpilot is also compatible most CAD/CAM programs as well.
The PCNC 440 mill is capable of cutting almost anything be it steel, titanium, stainless steel, cast iron or aluminum.
The premium package of the Tormach PCNC 440 ships with an enclosure and a power drawbar but at an additional cost of around $3,000.
The enclosure is made of steel and well designed. There are openable transparent windows on the enclosure to give easy access to the mill.
The power drawbar is a nifty add-on that allows quick change of tools by pressing a power button instead of changing it manually using two wrenches.
If you want mix features from various packages, Tormach allows that using their "build your own" package option.
Although this machine is manufactured by Tormach in China, the quality control at Tormach is good enough to ensure a quality mill.
Tormach offers a one year repair or replacement warranty on all its machines and accessories.
Tormach also has a reputation for next day spare part deliveries, being very responsive to customer queries and overall excellent customer support.
The Tormach PCNC 440 is overall a much bigger, heavier and rigid machine compared to the Sherlines and the TAIGs.
Tormach is bought by hobbyists looking for high performance even for their personal projects without having to tinker with their machine too much for metal milling.
Also note that the Tormach comes pre-assembled and not as a kit like the Sherline or TAIG.
It is also for professionals who want to get started with entry-level commercial work without risking too much money into a big mill.
Costing $6,285.00, this CNC converted Precision Matthews mill from Procut CNC is a good option for those who prefer the bulk and rigidity of a good old benchtop mill.
The PM-728VT mill without the CNC conversion costs $3,000 to buy from precision matthews.
The extra $3,285 you pay will get you a converted CNC mill with ball screw drives instead of the lead screw drives on the original machine and a plexiglass enclosure.
You also get the complete electronics to run the CNC mill except the computer.
Firstly, the PM-728VT weighs 350 lbs., and is a highly popular mill by Precision Matthews. Although this mill is manufactured in China, the quality was always there.
It has a table size of 7" x 28". The Travel length with full way support is 8.5" (Y axis) x 17-¾" (X axis). This is much larger than the PCNC 440 mill.
The vertical travel height is 16", which is almost double that of the other mills in this list.
This mill uses a brushless DC motor for the spindle with a smooth belt drive system that's much quieter than other converted benchtop CNC mills like the Grizzly G0704 CNC Mill.
The spindle has an R8 taper with a 75-4000 RPM speed. There is a control knob for varying the RPM of the spindle on this benchtop mill.
Note that the RPM is much less than the 10,000 on the Tormach PCNC 400 mill.
So what are the parts used for converting this benchtop mill to a CNC benchtop mill?
On the hardware end, the lead screws have been replaced with double ball screw nuts.
The double ball nuts result in steadier torques, lesser friction, and longer life cycle compared to single ball nut systems.
On the electronics end, the Z-axis handles on the manual mill have been replaced by NEMA 34 stepper motors while the X and Y axes have NEMA 23 stepper motors.
In the standard version of the CNC benchtop mill supplied by procutCNC for $6,285.00, the Ethernet SmoothStepper controller for Mach3 software has been used.
However, you can choose to have the Acorn CNC controller (from centroid CNC) which runs on the Acorn software at an added cost of around $390.
The accuracy promised by procut CNC on this converted mill is .0015".
You can cut almost anything on this CNC including aluminum, stainless steel and titanium.
Procut CNC is based in Minneapolis, MN and they offer a 1 year repair or replace warranty on all their supplied parts.
If you find this price too steep, you can opt for a DIY CNC retrofit kit instead and do the conversion yourself.
But you need to consider if the extra time that you spend on it would be worth the difference in cost between buying this readymade CNC v/s DIY conversion.
However, if the conversion is not successful, expect perpetual tinkering with the machine instead of doing milling.
If you wish to do the conversion yourself, this might be useful to you- Mini Mill CNC Conversion using a kit for Your Garage Shop.
Procut CNC currently sells conversion kits for Precision Matthews PM-728VT, PM-25MV, PM-30MV, and the Grizzly G0704 CNC benchtop mills.
Arizona CNC currently offers kits for Precision Matthews PM-25MV, PM-30MV and PM-940 CNC mills.
Note that Procut CNC also sells converted, ready-to-use PM-25MV (~$4795), PM-30MV (~$5195), and Grizzly G0704 benchtop CNC mills but if you can afford it, I recommend you choose the PM-728VT CNC mill.
Tormach PCNC 440 v/s PM-728VT Converted CNC
Overall, if you need the much larger workspace offered by the PM-728VT compared to the PCNC 440, you should opt for this benchtop mill.
However, you miss out on the excellent customer support, the much higher RPM which you need if you do detailed parts, and future upgrades (in case you want) such as auto tool changers and power drawbars available for Tormach if you choose this converted mill.
Also the Tormach has a much better resale value if you ever decide to buy a better mill. The converted CNC, not so much.
If you are someone who can find your way around things, then this converted mill will be a good choice, if you are a beginner, then probably not as you won't get much hand-holding.
Buyers Guide: Things to Consider When Choosing a Benchtop CNC Mill
1. Table Size and Travel Distance
You need to choose a table that's large enough to place your intended stock on it.
However, the X and Y travel distance is the most important factor that determines how big a piece you can mill on the CNC.
For any CNC machine, the rigidity could be a major limiting factor in terms of what it can mill.
For milling steel, you need your mill to have the required rigidity. The heavier the better in a way.
3. RPM and Drive on the Spindle System
For milling small detailed parts on steel, you generally need an RPM of 6,000 or higher.
It is possible to manage with less, but it will slow you down.
A brushless DC motor and belt drive are the best options for the Spindle system.
4. Ball Screw v/s Lead Screw
A good quality ball screw drive can eliminate backlash that could be present in screw drive systems.
Make sure the software that you choose has good support, documentation and a community around it. LinuxCNC, Pathpilot and Mach3 are good choices here.
Choose the upgrades carefully considering your future requirements as well. Power drawbars and Tool changers are highly useful upgrades while servos might not really be necessary.
Also enclosures and chip trays save a lot of time in cleanup.
A 0.001 precision is considered standard for most benchtop CNC mills used on metals.
If the manufacturer promises accuracy higher than that, take it with a grain of salt as there too many factors involved in determining this number on a machine.
8. New CNC mill v/s Retrofitted CNC Mill
Retrofitted mills typically come with larger work area compared to new CNC mills.
However Retrofit mills can lack in customer support and have little resale value.