It’s easy to get caught up in all the hype surrounding 3D printers. But are they really as groundbreaking as everyone says they are? And how do they compare to CNC machines?

Tom Owad, in a recent article in Make:, gives us a good overview of the pros and cons of each fabrication tool. The truth is CNC machining is still the preferred choice for many types of jobs.

While 3D printers are ‘additive’, CNC milling machines are ‘subtractive’. 3D printers start from nothing to produce a detailed part, while CNC machines start with a bulk piece of material and shape it, like a sculptor, into something useful. The subtractive method is still far more common, especially when working with wood and metal (3D printers typically use plastic).

If you’re a hobbyist, a 3D printer might be your best choice. CNC mills cause a lot more waste and dust, so you need proper ventilation to use them safely. And thanks to a blade that spins at 20,000 RPM, there’s also a risk parts can go flying. The software requirements for CNC mills are more complicated too: you’ll need to learn how to use CAD and CAM software to make custom parts.

If you want to make large, structural components, go with a CNC machine. If you want to make small, complex 3D objects, a 3D printer is your best bet. You can even use free design tools like SketchUp and Inventor Fusion to get started quickly.

Click here to read the entire Make: article, which includes tips for DIY CNC milling.