Introduction: 10 Tips and Tricks for Laser Engraving and Cutting

Picture of 10 Tips and Tricks for Laser Engraving and Cutting

Hello, I'm Geordie and I currently work at ADX Portland running the Laser Cutter and Engraver. My job is to take in customer's projects, set them up and run them on the laser. As a result, I've learned a few tricks for how to set up jobs to get the best results, and in this Instructable I'm going to pass them on to you.

The laser I work with is an Epilog Helix and the program we use to run it is Corel Draw. I'm going to try to write in general terms so you can use what ever laser and program you want to.

Note: For several of these tips it is important to understand the difference between Vector files and Bitmap files. Vector files are mathematical formulas defining lines, circles etc. These are created by programs like Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, AutoCAD and Corel. Bitmap files are collections of individual pixels. This included digital photos, Adobe Photoshop files, JPGs etc. With the Epilog laser (and I'm assuming other ones) you can only cut with a vector file. You can engrave with either vector or bitmap files. For several of my tricks you need your file to be a vector file for the trick to work.

Step 1: Tip #1: Preparing for Cutting or Engraving

Picture of Tip #1: Preparing for Cutting or Engraving

Before we get to tips for cutting and engraving, lets start with some good ideas for preparing to cut or engrave.

Masking: If your going to engrave on something be aware that the smoke for the the engraving can stain the edges of the engraved surface. If you don't want that cover the surface with masking tape to protect it. The masking tape won't decrease the power of the laser much (bump up the power a bit if you feel it needs it) and the masking tape will protect the material around the engraving from the smoke. After running the engraving just peal the masking tape off. I use this a lot if I'm engraving on leather.

Presets: Your laser should have some suggested settings for cutting or engraving different materials and different thicknesses. You should also be able to load these settings into your computer or laser and save them as presets. Be sure to name them something that makes sense so you can easily find them That way the next time you need to engrave on leather or cut 1/8" thick acrylic, you can just find the preset for that material.

Test cuts: Even when I have a preset for cutting a material I usually try to run a test cut in it before I run the full job. Nothing is worse than taking the material out of the laser and finding that it didn't cut all the way through. I create a small circle or square (about 1/4" or 1/2" wide) and cut out in corner or on some scrap material. Then I can see if I need to increase or decrease the power before I run the final cut.

Step 2: Tip # 2: the Power of Layers

Picture of Tip # 2: the Power of Layers

Several of the tricks I'm going to talk about require being able to print only part of a file or design at a time. The easiest way to do this it to put different parts of you design on different layers in a file. Most graphics programs allow you to create different layers and then to turn them off and on. While you can put everything on one layer here are some advantages to using layers.

1. Controlling the order of cuts. Your laser should have some options to determine the order in which lines are cut but one way for you to control that is to put different cuts on separate layers on to turn the print of each layer on and off in the order you want.

2. Have multiple parts and designs in one file. Rather than having a separate files for each design, just put them all in one file and put them individual layers. Then just print the layers one at a time. Helps keep things organized.

3. Creating guides. You might need to create some guides for laying out out your design or maybe you'll need a target to place an object in. If you don't want these to print put them on their own layer and turn off the printing of that layer.

Step 3: Tip #3: Wood Grains and Engraving

Picture of Tip #3: Wood Grains and Engraving

So you've designed a logo or a image and you want to burn it onto a piece of wood. Wood is a great material for engraving but you need to be aware of the difference between engraving on a solid piece of wood versus a composite material like plywood or MDF. Unlike a manufactured material, natural wood is not uniform. The grains in the wood represent different types of growth in the wood (winter and summer) and they will each burn differently. Usually the darker grains are harder and the lighter parts between them is softer. As you can see from the example photo you end up with a zebra pattern in the engraving. If having a uniform look to the engraving is important to you, you'll probably get better results from a good plywood where the top layer is more uniform.

One more thing to be aware of is materials with a thin veneer of nice wood on top. The engraving will often burn through the thin veneer exposing what under neath. Make sure what's beneath the veneer looks good and that you burn all the way through the veneer so you don't have a mix of veneer and under-surface.

Step 4: Tip #4: Overlapping Lines.

Picture of Tip #4: Overlapping Lines.

Often when cutting out multiple parts at once, the temptation is but them up against each other so similar lines overlap. This is a good idea, but there is a good way to do this and a bad way.

Let's say for example you have a bunch of squares to cut out. If you draw 2 squares (4 sides each) and then but them up against each other it will look like there is only one line between them. The trouble with this is that although it looks like there in only one line on the overlapping side, the computer still sees 2. The end result is that lines will get cut one on top of the other. This can lead to that edge getting burnt, rather than a clean cut. It also waste time on a unnecessary cut.

The way to fix this is to eliminate one of the doubled up lines. Draw one of the squares with 3 sides and but it up against the one with 4 sides.

Step 5: Tip #5: Lines - Raster Versus Vector

Picture of Tip #5: Lines - Raster Versus Vector

The main difference between a raster engraving and a vector cut, is that for the engraving the laser head travels left to right across the print area and then moves down a hair and repeats until it has engraved the image. With the vector cut the laser just traces the lines of the cut. As a result raster engraving take a lot longer than vector cuts.

So what if you have art work, like a Celtic knot, or a design, like a map, that is mostly lines. You can run it as a raster engraving. The advantage of this is that you can set you line thickness to what ever you want and have different lines be different thickness. The disadvantage is it is going to take a lot longer to engrave.

If your design or art work is a vector file (this doesn't work with bitmap images) there is a faster way to create your lines. Set your file up as a vector cut but turn the power down and increase the speed. For example to cut through 1/8" plywood I would have the laser power at 100% and the speed at 20%, but to just score the wood I would set the power to 30% and the speed to 95%. So rather than cutting through the material the laser just burns a thin line into it. The advantage is it is going to be much faster than engraving. The disadvantage is that the line is going to be very thin and you can't vary the thickness of it.

See my next tip for a way to get thicker vector lines.

Step 6: Tip #6: Defocus the Laser for Thicker Vector Lines.

Picture of Tip #6: Defocus the Laser for Thicker Vector Lines.

In my last tip I covered how to use the vector setting to just score lines into material to produce line art work or designs. But the disadvantage of this trick is that the line is very thin. But there is a way to tick the laser and get thicker lines. The laser has a very tight focus so if lower your material a bit the laser will lose focus and spread out. The way I do this is to put a small piece of wood that is about 3/8" thick on top of the material I an using and have the laser focus on the wood. Then I run the laser on a vector setting (with a lower power setting and a higher speed). The result is a much thicker line than if the laser was correctly focused.

There are 2 disadvantages to be aware of with this technique. One is the line is a little soft and not as crisp as a raster engraving. Second, in the corners of the lines the laser pauses just a little as it changes direction so the corners get burned a little deeper. The corners look like they have little dots in them.

I discovered this trick when a client wanted a large order of wooden coasters with a Celtic knot designed burned into them, but they had a limited budget. To do the art work as an engraving would have taken to long and cost too much (about 5 to 7 minutes each). But by doing the art work as a defocused vector score, I cut the time to about a minute each and meet the budget.

Step 7: Tip #7: Adding a Vector Score to the Edge of Type or Engravings

Picture of Tip #7: Adding a Vector Score to the Edge of Type or Engravings

Normally you should get nice edges to any engraving your laser makes (if not check your lens and focus). But if you want to give the edges of your engraving a little extra sharpness here's a good trick. Add a light vector score to the edge of the engraving.

Once again you will need to have your image as a vector file. Select your image and add a thin stroke to the edge. When you set up the laser set the stroke for a vector cut but turn the power down and increase the speed so it burns but doesn't cut through the edge. After the laser does the engraving it will come back and burn a thin line around the very edge.

This is a great effect for type.

Step 8: Tip #8: Hitting the Target

Picture of Tip #8: Hitting the Target

Some times you need to hit a target area that is not a the lasers origin. For example a piece of scrap plastic that you've already cut several shapes out of, but there is enough room between some of the old cuts to do a new cut out. How can you accurately get your new cut out into the left over space?

First measure the target area and get its rough dimensions. Make sure there is enough room for what you want to cut out. Then place the scarp material in the laser and measure down and across from the laser's origin to the target area. For example a 1" by 2" rectangle located 2.5" down from the top and 1.75" over from the left edge. Then in you file use guides to mark out the target area and position in the distance from the origin as the area on the scrap material. Place your design or cut out in the target area. Make sure your guides won't print out and run the file. If you've measured everything correctly your cut out should be in the target area.

Step 9: Tip #9: Engraving Multiple Objects

Picture of Tip #9: Engraving Multiple Objects

Lets say you have a bunch of wooded coasters that you want to engrave your logo on. You could put them one at a time at the origin of the laser and engrave them one by one. But wouldn't it be nicer to layout several at once and have the laser engrave them all?

The trick is to create a grid that you can lay the pieces out on and accurately have the laser engrave on them. Create a new vector file the size of your laser bed. Then measure one of your shapes/items. If you can get its exact shape great, but if not just figure out a nice geometrical shape, like a circle or square, that it will fit snugly into. This will be your target shape. Create the target and position your design (engraving or cut) in the target. Now copy both the target and your design and paste as many copies as you can fit in the space of your laser bed.

Tip : Leave a little space between the targets so you can set them down without bumping the ones around them.

Before you print the file, move the targets to one layer and your design to another layer. Then turn off the printing for the layer with your design on it.

Cut a piece of cardboard to the size of your laser bed and put it in the laser. Now make sure just the layer with targets is set to print. Engrave, score or cut the target shapes into the card board. This creates a grid on the cardboard that matches the one in the file. Now place the items you are going to engrave on the targets marked on the cardboard. Don't forget to refocus the laser on the tops of what you are engraving on. Now you can turn off the printing of the target layer and turn on the printing of the design layer.

As long as you don't move the cardboard you can just keep laying out new parts, hitting engrave and repeating until you have all your parts done.

Step 10: Tip #10: Using the Red Dot to Figure Out Where to Cut or Engrave

Picture of Tip #10: Using the Red Dot to Figure Out Where to Cut or Engrave

The laser I use has the option to turn on a laser pointer that projects a red dot where the cutting/engraving laser will fire. This is helpful for figuring out where the laser will cut before you run your job on your material. Simply turn off the power to the laser and turn on the red dot. Then run the file and watch where the red dot goes.

One thing to be aware of is this works well with vector lines, where the laser/red dot traces the lines, but not so well with engravings where the laser pass back and for over the whole area of the engraving. If I need to use the red dot to figure out where an engraving will end up, what I often do is to draw a vector square or circle around the engraving and then just having the red dot trace the square. Or draw horizontal and vertical center lines.

Comments

ThomasPersonC (author)2017-11-15

nice

andrea biffi (author)2017-09-23

cool, thanks for the tips!

Gemini35 (author)2016-11-09

I love the masking tape but I am finding it takes forever to pull the tiny pieces of masking tape off small detailed pieces off the places I want to paint. Can you set the laser low enough to just raster off the masking tape in certain places without really affecting the wood underneath ?

ChrisB864 (author)Gemini352017-05-16

I haven't done this a lot, but I put mineral spirits on my unfinished wood, let it sit for a few seconds, then scrape it off with a putty knife. My only issue with the tape is that the lines are obvious after engraving, where the tape edges meet, even if I'm extremely careful.

geordie_h (author)Gemini352016-11-09

Hypothetically yes. It would take a lot of testing to find the right setting. I'm also not sure what would happen with the adhesive on the tape. It would either burn or be left behind when the paper burned off.It is pain to peal of small bits of tape.

Another idea (I haven't tried this) would be to use some sandpaper or maybe steel wool to remove the small pieces.

If you find a good solution, post an Instructable about it.

MD Edwards (author)geordie_h2017-02-03

You could print a raster check file in one image that will show you what each shade will do .

Nick369 (author)MD Edwards2017-04-17

Here's a free raster check file we use... instructions on webpage.

http://laser101.fslaser.com/materialtest

DarthM1 (author)geordie_h2017-03-04

There's a product called Goo Gone.It will take the small bits of tape of easily without damage to the wood. It;s made for removing stuff like tape etc.

locastan (author)geordie_h2016-12-11

My simple solution would be ducttape or another bit of the masking paper (can also be the rest of the used one if bigger bits are left in one piece). Put it on the isolated cut pieces and pull off. Repeat until clean.

DarthM1 (author)Gemini352017-03-04

There's a product called Goo Gone.It will take the small bits of tape off easily without damage to the wood. It;s made for removing stuff like tape etc.

BeqwaamB (author)Gemini352017-02-22

Take a thin piece of metal, ie a ruler, and scrape over the material.

Re. www.BeQwaam.nl

richypro (author)Gemini352017-02-17

You may want to try using application tape used in the sign making industry. It is used to apply cut vinyl letters to a substrate. It comes in various "tac" or adhesion. For example, Low-tac, Standard tac or high tack. Usually high tac would have a less agressive adhesive than your standard masking tapes. "r-Tape" is a common brand used in the sign industry. You may be able to get some from such suppliers such as "Grimco", Tubelight or NGlantz.

geordie_h (author)richypro2017-02-17

Good idea.
As always I would suggest running a test on some scape material to see how it behaves under the laser.

GeordieH2 (author)Gemini352016-11-09

Hypothetically yes. It would take a lot of testing to find the right setting. I'm also not sure what would happen with the adhesive on the tape. It would either burn or be left behind when the paper burned off.

It is pain to peal of small bits of tape. Another idea (I haven't tried this) would be to use some sandpaper or maybe steel wool to remove the small pieces.

If you find a good solution, post an Instructable about it.

arkypita (author)2016-11-15

Dear Geordie

Congratulations for this guide, unique in its kind, which can be found on the web.
I really appreciate the "masking tape" hint.

I have a DIY laser engraver with 2.5W blue laser diode.Controller is arduino UNO + grbl + grbl shield.

All is fine with my setup, but when engraving i have a strongest burn (sometimes up to drill the material) in correspondence with changes of direction.

Apparently the movement has very small pauses between running the command,

as well as you say "in the corners of the lines the laser pauses just a little as it changes direction so the corners get burned a little deeper".

Do you have any hint to prevent this problem?

Regards, Diego - ITALY

geordie_h (author)arkypita2016-11-15

I don't have anyway to fix that. The change in direction obviously slows the laser's movement down and it burns longer at that spot.

Sorry

Nick369 (author)geordie_h2017-04-17

New RE2 software accounts for his...

arkypita (author)geordie_h2016-11-22

Ddear Geordie, thank to your quick reply

Doing some searches i read that if the G-code path has a sharp turn coming up and the machine is moving at full speed, the machine needs to slow down to safely go through the corner without losing steps (as you say).

Luckly grbl allow me to control how much to slow down with "$11 - Junction deviation" config param.

I am trying some different configuration to obtain a better performance.
I also can write some code to proportionally power down laser when decreasing speed at corners

etchworx (author)arkypita2017-02-24

For the corners try making them slightly rounded , say 0.5mm. The laser wont see the corner as a stop point then and you should have less of a difference at the corners

NelsonQ5 (author)2016-10-16

I have a ? what kind of laser engraver or cutting machine can put a print inside glass or crytal iam new to this and don't have big money but thought it be cool to make something like this the photo not mine but I like to make this for girl friend is there any machines around $500 that can do this thanks for the info

jabenoit (author)NelsonQ52016-12-28

Here's a video on YouTube showing one way - looks like it's special laser + custom glass/crystal material. No idea on price of system, but I doubt it's under $500.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUpkZxisWzo

Dr Pool (author)jabenoit2017-03-14

You can find one here

http://cerionlaser.com/

They do 2D and 3D sub-surface laser engraving machines

geordie_h (author)NelsonQ52016-10-17

Lasers can engrave the surface of glass but not inside it. I don't know how the photo was made, but probably not with a laser.

I don't know of any lasers that are in the $500 range. Most start in the thousand dollar range.

Good luck

1tortadon (author)geordie_h2016-10-27

Enjoying your knowledge here and thought I would try to help A little. There is A type of laser that focus's to the center and works with corel. Don't know the brands but have a friend that dos this for A living.

cochoyX (author)2017-01-24

As they are called the points of attachment left by the laser cutter between the cut figure and the surplus material, I need to reduce it, but I can not find it in the menu of the machine. Thanks

ppatry99 (author)2016-12-26

Bonjour Geordie,

I am not a PRO for carpentry but I am undecided between a Laser or a CNC router.

As part of a small family business, we want to cut out Russian birch (1/16, 1/8 and 1/2) to do different projects (door hanger, key ring, 6x6 box, hole a 24X24 panel Inch small size holes 2X2 inches, small key rings etc).

What we like less with the Laser is the black burned finish that is left on the pieces of wood. But I think it's more accurate than the Laser. Do you have suggestions for CNC and Laser rotors near Montreal? I have a budget of about $ 12,000. We looked for a Laser Thunder nova 35 which is Chinese of which there is a distributor in Montreal. Have you ever used this device? Do you have suggestions of reliable machines that can make cuts in the wood 1/2 maximum whose maximum size is 2X2 feet (24X24 inches)? Does a top make a clean job that requires little or no sanding? Are there any marks to avoid? What software is easy to use?

Thank you

geordie_h (author)ppatry992016-12-27

I only have experience with an Epilog laser cutter.
A laser cutter cuts with heat so the burnt edge can't be avoided. Also for most laser cutters 1/4" is the maximum depth (until you get to more industrial lasers). Since you want to cut 1/2" material a CNC sounds line the better option. The biggest difference is going to be the cutting line. On the laser it will be hair thin but on the CNC the size of the cutting bit will be the smallest detail you can cut. Be aware that long thin bits have a tendency to snap if you cut to quickly with them.
Hope this helps.

Louisiana cutter (author)2016-11-13

We purchased a red sail cm1290 laser engraver from China. It uses auto laser software. We are having an issue getting auto laser and coreldraw graphic suite x7 to communicate. Any suggestions?

I think it has to do with the simple fact that your vectors aren't be recognised by the software. If you are using LaserCut 6.1 software I imagine then you need to save your files as "dxf. before you import them into your laser software program. The other obvious issue is that your using corel draw. It is not considered a professional tool for vector related artworks. If you use CAD then its easy to export your files to dxf format before you import.

geordie_h (author)yammymyyammy2016-12-21

Not off hand. Since you know the company that made the laser I would see if they have a tech support or at least a recommend software for using with the laser.

Corel Draw works well with the Epilog laser I use. I prefer Adobe Illustrator for creating drawings.

Good luck

Not familiar with that laser. I would try contacting the manufacturer or seeing if there is an online blog for people using it.

Good luck

We have had very little luck with the manufacturer. I went on a chat and have yet to hear back and that was 4 weeks ago and I haven't found anyone else. Thank you for the reply though.

NateT9 (author)Louisiana cutter2016-12-02

Hello,

I also have that issue with my CM1490, and hence i have to normally use 2 or 3 programs to get the job done properly.... and i totally feel your pain about not getting anything in terms of communication from Redsail.
Good luck, and if you do manage to workout a solution can you please post it up for us?

Thanks

yammymyyammy (author)2016-12-20

I Georgie,

Do you have any advice on cutting thicker acrylic like 10mm in pass. I don't use a top of the line laser cutter but it's something I can't seem to solve. Additionally what cleaner do you purchase for your lenses. I have been trying a few out but I find that some are better than others, however all in all I feel like I'm being duped every time I need to purchase more cleaner...

geordie_h (author)yammymyyammy2016-12-21

I don't have any tips on cutting thick acrylic.

I've never compared lens cleaners. So again can't help out.

Good luck.

fwenderoth (author)2016-12-20

Geordie,

Want to say "thank you"! I have been driving an Epilog Helix for over ten years both in my job (Tech Ed/Industrial Arts teacher) and my personal Epilog I bought 8 years ago for a small engraving/cutting business. Several of your tips were very useful! It goes to show that you can always learn some new tricks!

geordie_h (author)fwenderoth2016-12-21

Glad you liked it and if you have any tips you've learned you should create your own instructable.

StacyL10 (author)2016-11-02

I have a Chinese laser with a roller "rotary" attachment. I have issues engraving stemless glass due to it being wobbly on the rollers. Any suggestions?

locastan (author)StacyL102016-12-11

I have cut circular O shaped adapter pieces from plywood sometimes if the bottom and top of a glass differ too much in diameter. This way the overall slope is at least halfed.

DocLaser (author)StacyL102016-11-05

Hi Stacy, the easiest way is with some rubber bands. Make sure that the part of the glass that you want to engrave is level by adding rubber bands at either end. This will also ensure that the glass does not slip on your rotary attachment.

geordie_h (author)StacyL102016-11-02

glasses can be tricky when they are oddly shaped or weighted. See how much you and adjust the location of the rotary wheels and if there are different ways to position the glass on it. I did one glass "upside down" to get it to stay on the rotary wheels.
Also plan on 2 or 3 getting messed up. If you need 10 buy at least 12 glasses.

Sion Corn (author)2016-12-10

Hi I want to buy My first laser engraver/cutter to use as a hobby which laser would you suggest I buy for ease of use and not expensive, thanks

geordie_h (author)Sion Corn2016-12-10

I've only used an Epilog laser so I can't personally review different models. I wrote this Instructable with so advice on what to look for when buying:
https://www.instructables.com/id/Tips-for-buying-a-laser-cutterengraver/

Lee-AnnG1 (author)2016-11-30

Hello

I had a logo engraved on Leather, long story short i need to have it corrected. Is there anyway to correct/fill or do something to the leather and or engraving to have it fixed?

Any advise will be appreciated

geordie_h (author)Lee-AnnG12016-12-01

Sorry not that I know of.

madams93 (author)2016-11-29

Hello,

I use a laser cutter for cutting and engraving various leathers. The problem I am experiencing is not only with burn marks around the edges, but the smell of the leather once it has been cut. Do you have any tips for getting rid of the burnt smell?

Thank you!

geordie_h (author)madams932016-11-30

Sorry no help with the smell. Good venting.
As for burns around the edges try putting some masking tape over the leather.
Good luck

HPLW (author)2016-11-20

Hi Geordie

I wonder if you can offer any advice as to where I'm going wrong with my project.

I did some small test circles on 3mm Mirror Acrylic which were fine, I then started a bigger project that was roughly A4 size and quite intricate, so took quite a while to cut. However, I couldn't get the two parts apart as it had sort of re-welded itself back together again.

I'm using a Epilog Helix 40 w and although I don't have the pin table I did raise the acrylic up on level blocks and it was mirror side down. I have extraction on and also air assist.

I did read somewhere about putting a sheet of damp paper on top to help cool it but not sure if this is the answer and maybe just need to adjust settings but as they were ok on the test cuts, not sure what to change them to for a larger piece?

Regards

Carol

geordie_h (author)HPLW2016-11-23

Interesting problem. I've never had trouble with plastic re-welding but I can see how it would happen.
You could try slowing the cut down. That might give it more time to cool and for the air assist to blow air into the cut. The damp paper might work or you could try masking tape. Last idea, do the cut in 2 passes. The second pass would hopefully recut anything that had re-welded from the first.

Good luck and if you find any good ideas post your own instructable.
Geordie

mavigogun (author)geordie_h2016-11-25

My understanding is that 'slowing down the cut' results in more char- not less; the tool pumps more energy into the part when passing over it slowly.

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