Laser Cutters are great tools offering the possibility to create many different things. From simple boxes to engraving detailed graphics into wood or building complex three-dimensional objects.
In this beginners guide, I will explain the basics of how a laser cutter works, show you some examples of things that can be made with a laser and how to create designs for laser cutting or engraving. You’ll also learn which material can be used and how to get access to a laser cutter.
What is a laser cutter?
A laser cutter is a computer controlled machine that uses a laser beam to precisely cut or engrave material. A laser is basically just highly focused, highly amplified light. The laser beam causes the material to locally burn, melt or vaporize. The kind of material that a laser can cut depends on the type of laser and the specific machine’s power.
The term “Laser” is an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”. Laser technology was developed in the 1960s.
There are different types of laser cutters. This guide will focus on gas lasers and CO2 lasers in particular, as this type is most commonly used by hobbyists and small businesses. Other types are for example fiber or crystal lasers which are mostly used for industrial applications.
CO2 laser cutters are capable of cutting and engraving a wide range of non-metallic materials such as wood, paper, acrylic, textiles, and leather. For more materials and details look here.
How does a laser cutter work?
In a CO2 laser cutter machine, the laser beam is created in a tube filled with CO2 gas. Next, with the help of mirrors and lenses, the laser beam is directed to the laser head and focused on the material surface. Electronically controlled motors move the laser head to cut or engrave the desired shape into the material of the workpiece. The shape is defined by an input file which can be a vector or raster image.
When the laser hits the material, a very small area is heated in an extremely short period, causing the material to melt, burn or vaporize.
What can you do with a laser cutter?
In general, there are three tasks that a laser cutter can perform: Cutting, Engraving and Marking.
When the laser beam goes all the way through the material of the workpiece it creates a cut. A laser cut is generally very precise and clean. The look of the cut edges depends on the material. For example, the edges of cut wood are typical of a darker brown than the original wood. The edges of acrylic do not change color and have a nice glossy finish after laser cutting.
The kerf of a laser cutter is very small. The term kerf refers to the width of the groove made while cutting. This varies from material to material and is also dependent on the specific settings of the laser. For many materials, the kerf will be somewhere between 0.05 mm (0.002 in) and 0.5 mm (0.02 in).
It is called engraving when the laser beam removes parts of the top material but does not cut all the way through the material.
Marking is when the laser does not remove material but for example, changes the color of the material. With CO2 laser cutters marking is mostly used when working with metals.
A marking solution (e.g. CerMark or Enduramark) is applied on the surface of the workpiece. After drying of the marking solution an engraving is performed. The heat from the laser bonds the solution to the metal, resulting in a permanent mark.
How to get started with laser cutting in 4 steps
So you want to laser cut your own design?Here’s a step-by-step overview of what you need to consider to make it happen.
1. Get access to a laser cutter
2. Choose a material to cut or engrave
3. Create your design
4. Cut or engrave it
1. Do I need to buy a laser cutter?
In many cases the answer will be no – you don’t need to buy a laser cutter. There are a lot of other options to get access to a laser cutter:
If you are interested in getting some hands-on experience with a laser cutter, I recommend looking for a local makerspace. Makerspaces – sometimes also called maker lab or hackerspace – are collaborative work spaces for making and learning. They offer a variety of equipment like for example 3D printers, CNC machines, soldering irons and very often also laser cutters!
The big advantage of makerspaces is that the other people there are usually very helpful and they often also offer courses on how to operate their machines. There are many different types of makerspaces some are non-profit, others operate based on memberships or charge fee for the usage of equipment. Check out if there is a makerspace nearby. The site themakermap.com is a good place to start looking.
Schools, colleges and universities
Especially if you are a student, schools, colleges anduniversities are also a good place to look for a laser cutter.
Laser cutting services
The third option is using a laser cutter service. When working with a laser cutting service you just send them your files, choose a material and then the company will do the cutting and ship the finished parts to you.
Below you can find some online laser cutting services or just look for a local laser cutting shop.
- Formulor (Germany/Europe)
- Cut Laser Cut (UK)
Buying a Laser Cutter
If you are just starting with laser cutting I recommend trying one of the options above before looking into buying a laser cutter to get some experience and find out which features are most important for you.
Even when looking only at CO2 lasers, there is a wide variety of different laser machines available and the selection is continuously growing. The price range is big, with entry-level Chinese imports starting at about 500 EUR/USD and professional grade machines costing several 10,000 EUR/USD.
In this guide, I won’t go into more details, but I plan to write an overview of the different types available on the market and the most important features to consider when buying a laser cutter, in a future post.
2. What materials can be cut or engraved with a laser?
CO2 laser machines are capable of cutting and engraving a variety of materials. However, there are also materials which cannot be processed. This may be because the laser can not cut through the material, or because toxic gases would form. Also, very flammable materials cannot be used.
Depending on the power and other specifications of the machine you are using, the maximal material thickness that can be cut will vary. The power of laser cutters is measured in Watt. Typical power levels range between 30 Watt and 120 Watt. Lasers with higher power are mostly used in industrial applications only.
|Plywood||x||x||Lasers can struggle to cut plywood sheets with exterior glue. Use plywood with interior glue.|
|Leather||x||x||Use vegetable-tanned for best results|
|Delrin (POM, acetal)||x||x|
|High-density polyethylene (HDPE)||(x)||(x)||Edges melt badly. Watch closely – easily catches fire.|
|Polypropylene (PP)||x||x||Melts somewhat|
|Stainless Steel||(x)||Can be marked|
|Aluminum||(x)||Can be marked|
Materials that should not be cut or engraved with a laser
There are materials that should never be processed with a laser because this will lead to the creation of toxic gases or dust which can also damage the machine.
Thesematerials include (but are not limited to):
- Leather and artificial leather that contains chromium (VI)
- Carbon fibers (Carbon)
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
- Polytetrafluoroethylenes (PTFE /Teflon)
- Beryllium oxide
- Any material containing halogens (fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine
andastatine), epoxy or phenolic resins
3. How to create a design for laser cutting or engraving?
Most CO2 laser cutters work very much like your everyday inkjet printer. The laser cutter comes with specific drivers which convert an image from a computer into a format that the laser cutter can read.
When working with laser cutters it is important to know the difference between vector images and raster images. Both image file types can be processed but raster images can only be used for engraving and not for cutting.
A vector image stores all the lines and colors as mathematical formulas. Raster images are pixel based. Which means that the image is made up of many small squares. Vector images can be scaled up without any loss in quality whereas raster images will start to “pixelate” at a certain enlargement.
Vector file types: SVG, EPS, PDF, DXF, DWG, CDR (CorelDRAW), AI (Adobe Illustrator)
Raster file types: JPG, PNG, GIF
You can use the software of your choice as long as you export your file in a suitable format. Below are some examples of graphic design software.
- Inkscape (free, open source)
- QCAD (free, open source)
- Adobe Illustrator
- Autodesk Fusion 360 (free for hobbyists and small businesses)
- Blender (free, open-source)
- FreeCAD (free open-source)
- Tinkercad (free)
The first thing that should be considered is the size of your material / the maximal size that the laser bed can accommodate. This defines the maximum size of your design. In general, it is a good idea to set the work area to this size.
The color mode should be set to RGB. Different colors are usually used to specify different processes. For example, red could be used for all the parts that will be cut and black will be used for engraving.
Creating a file for laser cutting
As explained before, during a cutting operation, the laser fires a continuous beam at the material to slice through it. To know where to cut the laser machine needs a vector path as the input file.
Only vector graphics with the smallest possible line thickness (this depends on the software you are using) will be cut by the laser. All other graphics, like solid shapes or thicker lines, won’t be cut.
When cutting out text or other complex shapes you to consider that unconnected middle parts – like the inside of an “O” – will fall out. Depending on your desired design you may want to prevent this. For text you could, for instance, use a stencil font where all the inside parts of the letters are connected to the outside parts.
Creating a file for laser engraving
When engraving with a laser one can distinguish between vector engraving and raster engraving. Vector engraving is basically the same as cutting with the only difference that for the engraving the power is lower so that the laser just removes parts of the material and does not cut through.
For raster engraving, the input file can either be a vector file or a raster image. During raster engraving, the image is engraved by the laser line by line, pixel by pixel. The process is similar to the way in which an inkjet printer applies ink, but instead of ink being applied, material is removed by the laser beam.
Engraving works for simple shapes as well as for complex images. Photos need to be turned into grayscale images to be engraved.
4. How to use a laser cutter?
Once you have your design ready, it is time for the final step – the cutting on the laser. Laser cutters are very powerful machines. You can create great things with them but they are also potentially dangerous, so first a word of warning.
Before using a laser cutter always first make sure you read and understand all the safety instructions that come with it. In addition be aware that that wavelength of a CO2 laser is in the Infra-Red part of the light spectrum, so it is invisible to the human eye ye. The red dot you see with many machines on the material surface is only a positioning aid and not the laser beam that actually doing the cutting.
First of all, check that your material fits inside the work area of the laser cutter and cut it to size if necessary. Also, be prepared to make some test cuts or engravings and bring some spare material with you.
You don’t necessarily need any extra tools when working with a laser cutter but in my experience, the following tool might come in handy:
- Utility Knife: For cutting material that wasn’t cut all the way through by the laser cutter or to cut paper and cardboard to size.
- Painter’s Tape/Masking Tape: Use it for masking the surface of your material to prevent burn stains and to tape down light materials.
- Measurement Tape/Calipers: For measuring dimensions and making sure your final objects have the right size.
The four most important settings of a laser cutter are power, speed, frequency and for focus distance.
- Power: Defines the output power of the laser. Typically can be set from 0 to 100% (maximum power). High power is used for cutting thick materials and lower power is used for engraving and cutting of thin materials such as paper.
- Speed: Determines the movement speed of the laser head. For engraving and cutting of thin material, the speed is usually set (close) to the maximum.
- Frequency (Hz, PPI): The frequency parameter specifies the number of laser pulses per second. Frequency depends completely on the material used. For example wood cuts best at around 500 to 1000 Hz and for acrylic 5000 to 20000Hz are recommended to achieve a smooth edge.
- Focus: As previously explained, there is a focusing lens inside the laser head. The focus point (where the laser beam is thinnest) should be on the material surface or slightly below, for most applications. To ensure this the material needs to be a certain distance away from the lens. The exact distance depends on the type of focusing lens that is used.
Many laser machines have a motorized bed which can be moved up and down to set the focus distance. Alternatively the position of the material surface a has to be manually adjusted.
So now that you have a basic understanding of the available settings you might ask yourself how to find the right settings for your projects? A good starting point is the laser cutter manual. Often you will find suggested settings for many materials. If you are working on a shared laser in a makerspace there are usually lists with recommended settings available.
Time to Cut!
Finally, you should be prepared to make your first cuts. It can take a few tries to find the ideal settings for your material.
Always change only one parameter in a test process. For example, start with the power by testing different values in 5-10% increments. Once your are happy with your results, don’t forget to write down your settings for future reference.
- Instructables – Laser Cutting Class
- Laser Cutting Subreddit
- Great Youtube series about starting-up and using a laser cutter
- Collection of Online File Generators for Laser Cutting
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How does a laser cutter work step by step? ›
Laser cutters work by directing a very powerful laser beam, at a precise focal length, onto a material which they either cut or etch, depending on how the laser cutter has been set up. Laser cutters cut materials similarly to other computer controlled tools, only they do so using a beam of light as opposed to a blade.Is there money in laser cutting? ›
Laser engraving businesses can be very lucrative, provided you're willing to work hard and go through the due process. Just like any business, the laser engraving industry isn't giving money away.What software is used for laser cutting? ›
Adobe Illustrator is the gold standard against which all other design software is measured. One feature that makes Adobe Illustrator shine as a program for laser cutting is its Artboards setup. This is where you lay out your designs on one screen to see how they'll fit onto your sheets of material.Can you make a living with a laser cutter? ›
Undoubtedly, you can make money with a laser engraver. Nowadays, laser engraving is in great demand and being used for multiple purposes. It is an excellent business idea that beginners can start with low investment. There is a massive market for laser engraving.Which material should you never cut in the laser cutter? ›
Polycarbonate is a poor choice for laser cutting. ABS Emits cyanide gas and tends to melt ABS does not cut well in a laser cutter. It tends to melt rather than vaporize, and has a higher chance of catching on fire and leaving behind melted gooey deposits on the vector cutting grid.What materials Cannot be cut on a laser cutter? ›
- Leather and artificial leather that contains chromium (VI)
- Carbon fibers (Carbon)
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
- Polyvinyl butyrale (PVB)
- Polytetrafluoroethylenes (PTFE /Teflon)
- Beryllium oxide.
A laser cutter generally cuts more quickly than a waterjet cutter. A laser cutter can cut at speeds of 20-70 inches per minute, while a waterjet is generally restricted to 1-20 inches per minute.Can you use SVG for laser cutting? ›
One of the benefits of SVG graphics is that it is quite easy to edit, which is great when you start a project. Using laser cutting can be a great advantage for your business, this manufacturing technique can help you to get accurate and innovative parts.Does Cricut do laser cutting? ›
Is Cricut a Laser Cutter? No, a Cricut is not a laser cutter. However, the two cutting machines work in similar ways. A Cricut machine is a cutting plotter that uses a computer-controlled blade to cut shapes out of thin materials.How do you price laser cutting? ›
- Materials X Profit Markup + Labor + Overhead + Shipping Supplies = Retail Price.
- What are your material costs? ...
- Consider your labor costs. ...
- Some crafters will use a $12 to $20 hourly rate to calculate, but figure out what works for you.
What is a disadvantage of laser cutting? ›
Laser cutting disadvantages include: limitations on material thickness, harmful gases and fumes, high energy consumption, and upfront costs.What file is best for laser cutting? ›
Vector files are the most popular type of file for laser cutting because they can be scaled to any size without losing quality. Raster files are also popular because they can be easily converted into vector files.Can I get LightBurn for free? ›
If you're new here, we want to be sure that LightBurn will work for you, so to give you a chance to really use it, we offer a 30 day trial period, with no restrictions. Make some things on us. Have fun - this is the full deal, no watermarks, no limits.Is a laser cutter CAD or CAM? ›
Laser cutter - A laser is directed from a precise length on to a material to either cut or etch. The laser is controlled from a computer using a computer aided design (CAD) drawing.What can I make to sell with a laser cutter? ›
Low power lasers can work on textile and leather materials, which opens possibilities for projects like wallets, cardholders, bracelets, and luggage tags. Natural and faux leather is stylish. It also comes in different hardness/thicknesses, so you can create flexible projects.What two things can a laser cutter do? ›
Common laser cutters are primarily used to cut materials like wood, some plastics, and paper and cardboard, although there are more powerful laser cutters that can cut through metals and much thicker materials. Laser cutters can be very quick, and can churn out designed parts in just a few minutes.Can a laser cut everything? ›
Laser cutters can cut a wide variety of materials – anything from paper, wood, cork, acrylic and foam to different types of metals. Still, there are some materials that would seemingly fit well into this list but should never be cut using a laser cutter.What is the best wood to laser cut? ›
Birch, maple, cherry, mahogany, walnut, and oak are beautiful materials to work with and are favorites for laser cutters. They require more powerful lasers because of their density, but thick sheets can still be cut with the right power.Can a laser cut glass? ›
In general, glass can be cut by applying a high-energy laser to melt it. Two other methods of cutting glass include engraving and etching. Laser cutting works best with thin glass (when using specialized cooling processes). Stained glass can be cut at high wattage (400 W).What material can stop a laser? ›
Visible laser light can be blocked by anything that also blocks conventional light, such as a solid curtain, a wall, or even a sheet of paper.
Can a laser cut a human? ›
A powerful enough laser could cut through the retina and burn through the person's brain tissue. However, it would take a while, and you'd have to focus the laser on a specific point. So basically, you'd have to strap the person down or immobilize them in some fashion.Do laser cutters give off toxic fumes? ›
Are fumes from laser cutting toxic? Yes, laser cutter fumes and even the smoke produced by CO₂ laser engravers can be toxic to your health. Even laser engraving and cutting the basic materials like wood and acrylic produces noxious fumes and carbon monoxide.Can I laser cut PVC? ›
Although polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can in fact be cut with laser, the thermal process produces hydrochloric acid and toxic fumes. For this reason, we advise you not to use laser for cutting PVC in order to prevent corrosion of your laser system and to ensure the safety of the machine operator.What is better laser cutter fiber or CO2? ›
Fiber can cut copper, brass and aluminum much better and more safely than CO2 because the beam is more readily absorbed and not reflected. Fiber laser operating costs are typically half of what a CO2 system can offer due to the lower electrical consumption and high electrical efficiency of Fiber lasers.How do you calculate laser cutting time? ›
- Total Piercing Time = Number of Pieces * Part Pierce Time.
- Total Cutting Time = (Inches of Cut / Part Cut Time) * 60.
- Run = 3600 / ((Total Pierce Time + Total Cutting Time) * Material Multiplier)
- Run Type = PCS/HR.
Laser cutting cost: Our rate is $120/hr. Many companies are charging $150, $180 and higher.What is the difference between a laser engraver and a laser cutter? ›
Trotec laser machines, like most lasers, can engrave as well as cut. They are just called laser cutters or laser engravers based on what their main use is. If the laser is largely used for cutting, it is usually referred to as a laser cutter. If engraving is the main application, it is called a laser engraver.What do I need to know before buying a laser engraver? ›
- The Type of Materials for Engraving. The materials you work with will determine the laser engraver to buy. ...
- The Level of Accuracy. ...
- Maintenance. ...
- The Replacement Parts. ...
- Your Budget. ...
- It is Reliable. ...
- It is Safe. ...
- It is Eco-Friendly.
To get started with your laser machine, you'll also need a computer, a graphics software program, an exhaust setup, and any machine accessories you choose. Laser cutting/engraving systems range from $9,995 to around $73,000 (U.S. pricing) based on the size of the engraving table and wattage of the laser.When should you not use SVG? ›
Because SVG is vector-based, it does not work well for images with lots of fine details and textures like photographs. SVG is best suited for logos, icons, and other “flat” graphics that use simpler colors and shapes. Also, while most modern browsers support SVG, older browsers may not work with them properly.
What are the most popular laser files? ›
The two most common files for producing laser engravings and cuts are DXF and BMP.Can you turn any image into an SVG? ›
Absolutely. Upload any JPG image from your desktop or mobile device to convert to an SVG file.Which is better Cricut or Glowforge? ›
Final Thoughts. It seems like Glowforge is more versatile and better for designing wood projects. The Cricut Maker can also cut through wood, but it's not as easy to use for this purpose. If you're looking to make intricate designs with a professional finish, Glowforge Plus will be your best bet.What is better than a Cricut? ›
The best alternative to Cricut Maker is the Silhouette Cameo 4. There are plenty of similarities between to two machines. In terms of speed, it's pretty on par with the Cricut Maker 3, with both being very fast, and like the Maker 3, the Cameo 4 has an integrated roller feeder.Can a Cricut laser engrave wood? ›
What Materials Can You Engrave with a Cricut Maker? This machine can engrave plastic, wood, metal, glass, and more. Each material has different settings you will need to use to get the best results.Is laser cutting cheaper than CNC? ›
One of the main reasons why people choose CNC cutting over laser cutting is that it is more affordable. Not only are CNC cutting machines cheaper to purchase, but their power consumption costs are also lower.Is laser cutting cheaper than 3D printing? ›
Laser cutting, especially with metals, is far cheaper than 3D printing metals. Laser cutting is significantly quicker than 3D printing.How much does it cost to run a laser cutting machine? ›
Operating costs vary, but according to available industry data, the average cost to run a 4kW CO2 laser cutter is about $12.73 per hour. Compare that to a 4kW fiber laser system, which has an average per-hour cost of $6.24, and you'll see why the latter may be more worth it for some facilities.
The Future of Laser Cutting
The global laser market continues to grow with the fiber laser market poised to grow by $8.33 billion during 2020-2024, progressing at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 11%,4 with gas lasers expected to have a CAGR of 9.4% over the next decade.
Laser tubes manufactured by reputable suppliers, such as the EFR or RECI tubes used on the Lightblade, typically have a minimum life of 18 months.
How harmful is laser dust? ›
However, the dust created by laser cutting is a serious inhalation hazard. The intense heat involved in the process creates particulates in the sub-micron size; the smaller the particulate, the easier it is inhaled and absorbed into the body.Do lasers give off radiation? ›
Some lasers emit radiation in the form of light. Others emit radiation that is invisible to the eye, such as ultraviolet or infrared radiation. In general, laser radiation is not in itself harmful, and behaves much like ordinary light in its interaction with the body.What are the disadvantages of a laser cutter? ›
Laser cutting disadvantages include: limitations on material thickness, harmful gases and fumes, high energy consumption, and upfront costs.What is the average cost of a laser cutter? ›
|Type of Laser Cutting Machine||Price Range ($)|
|Type of Laser Cutting Machine CO2 / Gas||Price Range ($) $2,000 to $1,000,000|
|Type of Laser Cutting Machine Diode||Price Range ($) $350 to $2,000|
|Type of Laser Cutting Machine Fiber||Price Range ($) $30,000 to $600,000|
- 1) The price. ...
- 2) The type of laser cutter. ...
- 3) Laser software. ...
- 4) The type of material. ...
- 5) The company. ...
- 6) Laser cutter warranty. ...
- 7) The size and power of the laser.
Exposure to laser beam can cause severe eye damage or skin burns. Sharp edges could result in lacerations, and puncture wounds.Which are the three basic hazards from laser equipment? ›
Sources of laser hazards include: Unintentional eye exposure during alignment. Misaligned laser beam. Lack of eye protection.What is the best surface for laser cutting? ›
Wood is the best laser cutting material for those that are new to the process. Laser cutting works with all types of wood. However, the thickness is also an important factor to note. Common types of woods used in laser cutting are Plywood, bamboo, and MDF (medium-density fiberboard).What is the best laser cutter for small business? ›
The best laser cutters available now
- Glowforge Pro. ...
- xTools M1 laser cutter. ...
- Glowforge Basic. ...
- LaserPecker 2 Laser Engraver. ...
- xTool D1 Pro Laser Engraver. ...
- Ten-High Upgraded Version CO2.
Is Cricut a Laser Cutter? No, a Cricut is not a laser cutter. However, the two cutting machines work in similar ways. A Cricut machine is a cutting plotter that uses a computer-controlled blade to cut shapes out of thin materials.
How many types of laser cutting are there? ›
There are three major varieties of laser cutting: fusion cutting, flame cutting and remote cutting. In fusion cutting, an inert gas (typically nitrogen) is used to expel molten material out of the kerf.What materials are best used in a laser cutter? ›
- 1) Wood for Laser Cutting.
- 2) Plastic and Acrylic for Laser Cutting.
- 3) Foam for Laser Cutting.
- 4) Metal for Laser Cutting.
- 5) Leather for Laser Cutting.
- 6) Cardboard for Laser Cutting.
- 7) Cork for Laser Cutting.
- 8) Fabric for Laser Cutting.