Curious about how laser cutting works? Our Electronics Technician Derrick Andrews is here to answer your questions in this edition of #AskAnExpert.

A laser cutter shooting a purple beam

What materials can you laser cut?

Almost any thin material that doesn’t release toxic gases or risk damaging the laser cutter, due to ignition of the material. Metals that don’t reflect infra-red light back onto the laser mechanism may be engraved. Preferably use materials that don’t release significant amounts of smoke, causing premature clogging of filters, or contaminating the laser cutter. Typical laser cutting materials would include safe plastics like Acrylic, unfinished woods (i.e., Birch plywood), or unfinished leather. Typically, ‘banned’ materials would include materials that tend to ignite or emit heavy or toxic smoke.

What should I be aware of?

  • Eye safety. Though not visible to the human eye, concentrated beams of infrared laser light can cause vision loss. Reflective metals such as raw aluminum or polished copper, can reflect laser light back towards eyes or machinery, causing damage.
  • Some materials (i.e., plastics such as ABS), release highly toxic gas when lasered. Don’t laser cut any material unless confirmed laser safe.

How do you create a laser cut design?

Most laser cut designs originate from vector drawing apps such Adobe Illustrator, Corel Draw, or free open-source software such as Inkscape. Typically, the artwork will then be exported as a .pdf or .dxf file. The export files will then be transferred to the controller PC for the laser cutter. The laser controller may run proprietary software, or commercial versions such as LightBurn. Free and open-source alternatives, such as LaserGRBL, are also available.

What can you do with a laser cutter?

Laser cutting is frequently used for engraving wooden boxes or frames, lettering signs, or cutting leather to make wallets or bags. Engraving art and identifications onto laptop computers is also possible. You can find some devices in our library that use laser cutting.

I have some engraving projects and I’m looking for a home machine. What would you recommend?

Laser cutters and engravers can vary considerably in capabilities and price. Entry level engraving systems can be had for around $500. The popular xTool D1 From Makeblock is typical of such units. However, these usually require assembly, and don’t come equipped with a cabinet (for eye safety), or an air filtration system to handle the smoke inevitably produced. Fully assembled mid-range laser cutters, with cabinets and filters cost appreciably more, starting around $1,000 for a basic system without filtration (i.e. the OMTech 40W CO2 laser).  Finally, rugged turnkey industrial lasers in the $5,000 to $10,000 range, are available for those who want higher power and reliability. These are desirable by those running a home enterprise workshop, or sign business.