Buying a CNC: The Probotix Nebula   10 comments

Time to up my game.

I’m a one man shop, and I’m slowly being overwhelmed by the amount of things I’m wanting to make. Being asked to make. Have to make.

Hiring help is not an option: I am committed to doing this myself. I say it at every event: “It’s just me in the shop.” So how do I get more efficient?

I get a better machine.

A CNC router (CNC = Computer Numerically Controlled) will allow me to have one machine making something while I’m working on something else. I’ll essentially become a two man shop.

That’s the plan, anyway.

I started shopping for a CNC last year. When you start crowd sourcing information, you find a lot of people will talk about building your own CNC. I heard “Make it just like you want it,” and “Save money.” I’m sure those statements are true, but I wasn’t interested in a DIY project. I wanted to save TIME, and buy a machine that would essentially be plug & play.

The next decision was budget. I considered less expensive, hobbyist-level machines, and quickly rejected them. Reviews are good for many, but I needed a machine that would keep up with my burgeoning, out-of-control hobby. I wanted a machine capable of working long hours with high reliability. You know, like me. High reliability means the price will go up, of course.

Size of the table (how big an item you can work on) is the next factor. The idea I seized upon here is that you should buy your second machine first. Don’t get a machine that’s “just big enough” for current needs, but get one that will do the projects you will want to do in a year or three. Good tools last a long time, after all, so buy the tool that is big enough for the future.

OK, go.

The first machines I looked at seriously were those sold by my favorite woodworking store, Rockler. Rockler is geared towards the hobbyist (red flag!), and they sell several models of CNC machines. Their “affordable” models are smaller, hobbyist machines. I wanted more.

Their most expensive model is by a traditional woodworking tool manufacturer, Powermatic. They have a good reputation, but I wondered what a manufacturer of table saws and drill presses would know about a computer-driven routing system. Their CNC machine was a relatively new offering; they’re late to the party. I moved on.

A person I’ve hired to do some CNC work for me recommended ShopBot exclusively. They make great machines, I’m sure, but were simply out of my price range. I’m not a corporate buyer; I needed a machine to fit in my budget.

I got very interested in Legacy machines; they had a great reputation and great training, I was told … and some totally bad transactions, too. They either had the best customer service, or were awful. And, in the end, they were out of my budget.

Finally, some people I respect in the group highly recommended Probotix. Great customer service, I was told. Interestingly, they used Linux for their operating system, and were a family owned company that started in Illinois. That sounded very similar to the company I work for, Smarts Broadcast Systems, that is a family owned company based in Iowa; we use Linux for our operating system.

Probotix was my choice. I determined I would buy their largest machine, the Probotix Nebula. The work space is a massive 45″ x 61″ … far beyond the minimum 24″ x 36″ that was what I needed today. I totally respect their use of Linux … and they provided a plug & play solution for me. On the other hand, I know the style of company that they are.

Clearly, Probotix is quirky. They are very personal, but they are not polished. The materials they have online are hardly impressive. However, I went with the recommendations of people who I respect, and selected a large machine that was within Mrs M’s stretched budget.Options had to be decided:

  • You need to specify the mount for whatever router you want. I chose an air-cooled spindle, after research told me that spindles – that require 220v – are tireless workers. Routers will wear out quickly when used in cuts that may go 30 minutes without stopping. Go for the spindle.
  • A “Z Touch off Puck” allows you to easily establish the height of the workpiece – so your machine knows what height to send the router bit when it begins. Sold.
  • And ATLaS Tool Length Sensor is supposed to speed up bit changes, so you don’t have to touch off every time when you change bits. Sold.
  • They offered an 8 piece router bit “starter set,” but I decided to buy my own bits based on my research into the kinds of bits I would need for the kinds of work I anticipate doing. So, no to their set.
  • They sell a 4th axis rotary so you can carve in 3 dimensions by rotating your work piece automatically. I thought about doing this, but didn’t to save money. I can always add it later.
  • Choose your spindle … and I chose to have them install an air-cooled spindle for me. Not the most expensive, but it was still more than twice what I paid for my last 3-1/4 horsepower router.
  • The machine only does what it’s told, so you need software. The program they offer is by Vectric, and I elected to buy the upgraded software directly from that company. It’s called Aspire, and the people I was consulting on this purchase told me I would not regret buying the best CAM software out there for CNC routing. OK, so no to the CAM software from Probotix and yes to the upgraded purchase from Vectric.
  • Dust collection is an option, and I know that I MUST have it, but I already have the powerful V3000 from Oneida. I don’t need a baby system just for the CNC, so no to their system, but yes to the dust boot that my system will attach to.
  • The table itself is commonly referred to as the spoil board (as it’s going to be cut up on occasion). You can get it with a grid and threaded inserts installed, which I seriously considered … and did not do to save money. I’ll do my own mounting jigs to hold work pieces in place.
  • Want to make dovetail joinery? It can be configured to do that. I like being fancy. Sold.
  • Want a rolling stand to hold it all? I could build my own, but … I am trying to save time here. Sold.
  • A keyboard/mouse/monitor arm was offered that would attach to the CNC’s stand. Probotix supplies the computer setup, along with the software they’ve developed to run the machine. You’ve got to put it somewhere, so yes, please.

I ordered my Nebula, and was told it would be 2-3 weeks before the unit would ship (they build each unit as ordered for each buyer … just like my company). Unfortunately, it was almost 4 weeks before it would ship. I got a call on a Friday morning, and was told that a Nebula they had just built for another customer (in front of me in line) could be mine if I was OK that it was configured for a 110v router as well as for the 220v air-cooled spindle that I selected. All I had to do was say yes, and the unit would ship on Friday.

Yes. Of course. YES. Ship it.

I paid extra for quick shipping. I was told it would be delivered in 3-4 days, but this would be a residential delivery that required special handling. It took 5 days to get to me, and only delivered that day because I proactively followed the shipment, and called the shipper when the website noted that the crate would be arriving in Los Angeles on a Thursday. I scheduled my delivery before the shipper even received the crate.

Delivery was last Friday.

Next up: Installing the Probotix Nebula

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Installing Oneida’s V3000 Dust Collection System

The Big Install

10 responses to “Buying a CNC: The Probotix Nebula

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  1. Have fun with your new toy, sounds like it may make life a little easier

  2. Pingback: Installing The Probotix Nebula |

  3. Pingback: Troubleshooting & Tips For Setting Up Your Probotix Nebula |

  4. you suck… just kidding..I would love to own a CNC machine. My friend and I talked about building one a couple of years ago, but it never happened. Doubtful it ever will.

    • It is a major challenge, no doubt. I’ve glimpsed how wonderful it will be to have the machine cutting while I’m doing other tasks in the shop … but I am nowhere close to doing that on anywhere near a regular basis!

  5. Have been speaking with len for about two weeks, getting ready to order nebula my self and found your post most helpful. Thanks

  6. Got my Nebula assembled. Now to learn G code….

    • Yeah, that’s a bridge too far for me. I’ve found I don’t need it, though I know it would make some operations better. Meanwhile, I’m using the CNC just fine with an extremely limited understanding of G-code.

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