21 Best CNC Software for Hobbyists and Pros
Learn more about the diffenent CNC software available for hobbyists and pros.
CNC (Computer Numerical Control) software can be broken down into CNC controller software for controlling the motion of CNC machines and CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) software for turning 3D models into machine-readable instructions. There are many different CNC software packages available for hobbyists and pros. Most of these programs can be used by hobbyists, but they also offer some features for more advanced users. The best CNC software programs are: Fusion 360® for CAM, CNC Simulator Pro for G-code generation, and Mach 4 for CNC machine control.
This article will list the top 21 CNC software packages, and describe their features, their costs, and their operating systems.
AutoCAD® is a powerful 3D CAD (Computer Aided Design) package with a wide range of features for optimizing the generation of CAD designs. While AutoCAD® does not specifically have any CAM functionality it is often used to generate standard formats (DXF, for example) that are readable by most CAM packages. AutoCAD® is available here.
Inkscape® is an open-source 2D vector graphics editor used for the creation of artistic images and technical drawings. While it is not as feature-rich as AutoCAD®, for example, it is completely free. Inkscape® does not come with built-in CAM features. However, various program extensions can be used to turn vector image paths into G-code. Using Inkscape® for G-code generation is only suitable for simple 2D profiles and may require some line cleanup for it to work properly. Inkscape® is available for Windows®, macOS®, and Linux® and is available here.
Solidworks® is a powerful 3D CAD package that does not come with any CAM capabilities off the shelf. An additional Solidworks CAM® license must be purchased to add CAM functionality. There are four Solidworks CAM® versions, namely: CAM Standard, CAM Professional, CAM Machinist Standard, and CAM Machinist Professional. For hobbyists, CAM Standard will be able to handle most requirements. Solidworks CAM® is only available on Windows. A local Solidworks® reseller must be contacted for product prices.
Fusion 360® is an all-in-one CAD, CAM, and CAE (Computer Aided Engineering) package. Fusion 360® is continuously in development, and as a consequence, its CAM functionality improves with each new product update. Fusion 360 CAM® is designed to be both user-friendly and feature-rich and can be used by both hobbyists and pros. Fusion 360® has a flexible subscription structure, with the cheapest option being a 3-year subscription for $1,555. Most of the CAM functionality is included in this cheapest option, but for more advanced features, such as 4 and 5-axis simultaneous machining control, a machining software extension must be purchased for an additional $1600 per year. Fusion 360® is available for Windows® and macOS®. Fusion 360® is available here.
Mach 3 software turns a personal computer into a CNC machine controller. It can control a CNC machine with up to four axes of motion. Mach 3 can also simulate and visualize G-code paths generated either in standalone CAM packages or using Mach 3 supported add-ons like LazyCam or Wizards. Mach 3 is a Windows®-only software and costs $175. Mach 3 is available here.
Mach 4 software also turns a personal computer into a CNC machine controller, like Mach 3. It can control a CNC machine with up to four axes of motion. It is a more modern version of Mach 3 with an improved user interface. Mach 4 can simulate and visualize G-code paths generated either in standalone CAM packages or using a built-in G-code editor that is only available in the industrial version of the software. Mach 4 is a Windows®-only software program. It costs $200 for the hobby version and $1,400 for the industrial version. Mach 4 is available here.
Carbide Create® is a CAM package initially designed to work with Shapeoko CNC routers, as such, it is limited to 2D contours. The premium Carbide Create® Pro version can be used to generate 3D tool paths. Carbide Create® comes with a tool library and is free for anyone. The Pro version, however, must be purchased either for $120 per year or $360 for a perpetual license. Carbide Create® works on Windows® and MacOs® and is available here.
VCarve Pro is a CAM package designed for CNC routers. It has a powerful set of features, including: support for 4-axis machining, simple 2D CAD, and both 2.5D and 3D toolpaths. VCarve Pro is only available for Windows®. Vcarve Pro costs $699 for a perpetual license and is available here.
NC Biewer is a basic browser-based G-code simulator that has an interactive 3D environment to simulate CNC mill and lathe toolpaths. This software can be integrated into Fusion 360®’s CAM workspace to add additional simulation functionality. NC viewer is free and is available here.
Easel is a browser-based CAM software program initially designed to work with X-Carve CNC routers. It does support some other common machines, such as the Shapeoko, as well as having the option to set up a custom CNC profile. Easel has powerful design capabilities, with standard templates, and shapes that can be dragged and dropped to create a design. Easel automatically generates the optimal CNC tool paths and has an extensive tool library. Since Easel is designed to be used as software for CNC routers, it is best suited to 2D and 2.5D machining. There are three subscription packages available, with the three-year subscription costing $599. Easel is available here.
Linux® CNCis a CNC controller software package that is capable of turning a personal computer into a CNC controller. It is capable of driving many different styles of machines, including mills, lathes, and laser cutters. Linux® CNC does not have any built-in CAM capabilities, but it can accept G-code inputs. Linux® CNC is open source and is available here.
Estlcam is a CAM software that can be used to convert 2D profiles and 3D part models into G-code. The software is designed to be intuitive and easy to use and is not bloated with too many options and settings. Estlcam is Windows®-based. The newest version costs $59 and is available here.
CamBam is CAM software that has some limited CAD functionality. CamBam can be used for 2D and 2.5D profiles, and 3D contours. CamBam can convert bitmap images to height maps, meaning that images can be machined with a 3D contour based on the original image. CamBam costs $150, and Windows® and Linux®-based versions are available here. Note that CamBam can also be purchased in a bundle with the Mach 3 CNC controller software for $315.
PlanetCNC is a CNC controller software program capable of driving many different styles of machines, such as mills, lathes, and plasma cutters. PlanetCNC can be run on Windows, Linux®, macOS®, and Raspberry Pi operating systems. Its ability to run on Raspberry Pi means that the controller can be integrated into the CNC machine without the need for a standalone personal computer. Planet CNC costs $84 and is available here.
OpenBuilds® Control is open-source CNC controller software that is capable of driving many different styles of machines, such as CNC routers, laser cutters, and drag knife cutters. It is also known as a “one-stop shop” for various CNC-related hardware but is limited to 2D machining operations. OpenBuilds® Control can work with Windows®, macOS®, and Linux® systems. This software is free and is available here.
GRBL Candle is an open-source CNC controller software program for use with DIY CNC routers or mills. It is designed to be easy for beginners to use. This software can import, view and edit G-code. It also has a G-code visualizer to confirm that the toolpaths are correct. GRBL Candle is available on Windows® and Linux®. GRBL Candle is free and is available here.
G-Wizard Editor is a powerful G-code editor that has a very useful error-checking function. It also incorporates conversational G-code which means that a process like face milling or tapping can be created using a simple interface, without having to write G-code from scratch. G-Wizard is Windows®-based and can be purchased as a perpetual license for $240 or $79 for a one-year license. It is available here.
CNC Simulator Pro is a G-code editor and visualization tool designed to work with CNC turning, milling, laser cutting, and routing machines. CNC Simulator Pro also includes basic CAD and CAM functionality with its built-in SimCam package. The visualization capabilities of this software make it stand out by enabling G-code testing on a virtual version of a CNC machine before running it on an expensive physical machine. This software is Windows®-based. It can be purchased as a perpetual license for $535 or at $99 for a one-year license and is available here.
OpenBuilds® CAM is a browser-based, open-source CAM program with limited CAD functionality. It can generate G-code for CNC routers, laser cutters, and drag knife cutters. The software is limited to 2D operations and can only import 2D file formats. OpenBuilds® CAM is free and is available here.
MeshCAM is a powerful, easy-to-use CAM software package that supports standard open-source 2D and 3D CAD formats. MeshCAM can also import standard image files and can convert them into G-code for machining. MeshCAM is designed to be used by beginners with little to no CAM knowledge, while still offering advanced features for experienced users. MeshCAM is available in a standard version for $250, and in a Pro version for $500. The Pro version offers additional features like 3D toolpath simulation and 2D contour toolpaths. MeshCAM is available for Windows® and macOS® and is available here.
UGS is a free CNC controller program that is compatible with a range of firmware options. UGS has a toolpath visualizer that can be used to inspect imported G-codes. There are two versions of the software: classic and platform. Platform is the new version and is generally preferred over the classic version. UGS is available for Windows®, macOS®, and Linux®, and is available here.
CNC (Computer Numerical Control) software creates program instructions and codes that control CNC machines. CNC software can be broken into CAM software and CNC controller software. CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) refers to software that can be used to generate and simulate G-code for CNC machining operations. CNC controllers, on the other hand, refer to software that can be used to control CNC machines.
For more information, see our guide on All About CNC Machining.
When deciding on the best CNC software to use, it is important to first understand the application and the type of software required, i.e. CAM or CNC controller software. If you are using an entry-level CNC router, then a basic free CAM package can be used, as there is no need for all the additional features that come with more advanced CAM packages like Solidworks CAM®. Most off-the-shelf hobbyist and professional CNC machines already have built-in CNC controllers, and thus do not need CNC controller software.
The cost of the software must also be considered. While there are many free CNC software packages, these are often not as easy to use as available commercial software like Fusion 360®, for example. Most commercial CNC software packages have different performance tiers available at different price points. These different tiers help save costs by not forcing you to buy advanced CAM software when all the additional features are not required.
The best CAD software for use at no cost is the free version of Fusion 360®. Fusion 360® is a free, limited hobbyist version of the program that is very easy to learn as there are thousands of free, online tutorials to explain how to make use of the software. Open-source CAD software like FreeCAD has a much steeper learning curve but even the full-featured version is completely free.
Yes, CNC software is necessary for CNC machines. Without CNC controller software, the machine cannot perform any cutting operations, and without CAM software, there is no way to translate a CAD model into a set of machine-executable instructions to make a part.
CAD (Computer Aided Design) software is used by designers and engineers to create 3D models that are then converted into machine-readable instructions in CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) software for actual machining.
To learn more about the best CNC software for your unique application, contact a Xometry expert today or use our quoting tool.
This article presented the best CNC software for hobbyists and pros, explained what they are, and discussed the differences among each of them. To learn more about CNC software, contact a Xometry representative.
Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities, including CNC machining and other value-added services for all of your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to learn more or to request a free, no-obligation quote.
- SolidWorks® is a registered trademark of Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp.
- Autodesk®, and Fusion 360®, are trademarks of Autodesk, Inc.
- Inkscape® is a registered trademark of Software Freedom Conservancy, Inc.
- Carbide Create® is a registered trademark of Carbide 3D LLC.
- Openbuilds® is a registered trademark of Openbuilds, LLC.
- Windows® is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation.
- Linux® is a registered trademark owned by Linus Torvalds.
- macOS® is a registered trademark of Apple Inc.
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