Introduction: Tips for Buying a Laser Cutter/engraver

Hello this is Geordie and I wrote the "10 Tips and Tricks for Laser Cutting and Engraving" instructable. For close to 2 years I ran the laser cutter/engraver at my local maker space, ADX Portland and I continue to use their laser to make my own artwork and designs.

One of the most common questions I've received since posting the "Tips and Tricks" instructable, is people asking me for advice on buying their own laser. So I've decided to write a quick instructable about that.

Disclaimer:
I’ve only ever used one machine and that is the Epilog Helix laser at ADX Portland. So that is the only machine I can talk about directly. So rather than reviewing specific companies and machines this article is going to be more about what to look for and think about when buying a laser.

Step 1: The First Issue Is Support.

There are a lot of cheap imports, mostly from China, on the market. But lasers are complicated machines and they do break and need to be repaired. Make sure the company you buy from is reliable and offers good support for you and their machine after you buy it.

Here are some questions to think about:

How hard or easy is it to get replacement parts?

Do they have tech support?

How easy is it to get a question answered?

Do they have a good website?

Are there tutorials on how to use and/or fix the machine?

Can it be upgraded?

Step 2: Choosing a Machine. Size and Power.

The two main issues I would focus on when it comes to picking a machine are the size of the bed and the power of the laser.

The machines bed size will determine how big a piece of material you can fit in the machine to cut or engrave. A bigger bed will allow you to cut or engrave larger pieces and even if your doing something small, like laser cut jewelry, a bigger bed will allow to cut out multiple pieces at once rather than one at a time. Also some machines have a fixed bed and some have a bed that can go up and down. A bed that goes up and down allows you to engrave different sized objects. The cutting depth doesn’t change but if you want to engrave a logo on a leather shoe rather than on a flat piece of leather, having a bed that you can lower to get the shoe in the machine is important.

The next issue is the power of the laser. The strength of the laser is measured in Watts. The more watts the more powerful the laser is. The laser, I used, started out with a 30 watt laser and was then upgraded to a 50 watt. The strength of the laser is most important for cutting. Remember the thickness of material that a laser can cut is determined by the focal point of the lens and not the power of the laser. So adding a more powerful laser won’t allow you to cut thicker material. But it will allow you to cut faster and more reliably. A weaker laser will mean having slow the laser down to be able to make good cut.

I would suggest getting the largest machine you can and starting with a weaker laser. A bigger bed will allow you to work on bigger designs or cut and engrave multiple pieces at once. You can upgrade the laser in it to a more powerful one later.

Hope this information helps out. If you can’t afford your own laser I would suggest looking for Maker space where you can use their laser or find a shop that will engrave and cut for you at a good price.

Geordie

Comments

author
JimH29 (author)2017-01-16

Great advice, Geordie. The same for your Tips and Tricks article. I'm just starting to consider using laser etching on wood, and not quite grasping the line width capabilities of laser etching. I will be mainly doing vectorized portraits, and up to now I've been routing them with a trim router loaded with a 12 degree carving bit. I need to know if a laser engraves various widths (according to the vector you're copying) by making more passes until it fills out a wider area in some parts of the image. For example, for the carved image I'm including, would the wider lines ( like the throat and mouth area) be done, or just a thin line for each part ( like the whiskers)? The image is about 6 inches high, and 4 inches wide. Thanks for your help.

twain close up.jpg
author
MarcH88 (author)JimH292017-01-19

Hi JimH29,

Generally speaking a CO2 laser works in two modes:

1.Vector

2. Raster

. . . . . or a combination of both.

Vector mode is usually used for cutting and raster mode is used for engraving. Vector mode can also be used for engraving fine lines by using lower power. With an engraving/routing system the cutting tool needs to follow a path and this path is generated as vector lines. With this method, an area which has an outline that then needs to be 'filled' has to have additional lines inbetween the outlines set with an appropriate offset that is equal to or less than the cutter width to ensure full removal of the material you are engraving.

With a laser system such as the Epilog Helix used by Geordie_h, any line within the artwork set to 'hairline width' or <0.005" will be treated by the laser as a vector line and will work in 'cut' mode. Line widths above this will then be treated as raster mode which can be set to different dpi settings.

With your vector portraits, I assume that you are creating the artwork in Adobe Illustrator or something similar using the 'pen tool' to generate vector shapes that when the points are closed, create 'filled shapes'. When that image is 'printed' to the laser, unless it is told otherwise, the resulting output will be a 'rasterised' image.

The image below is a vectorised graphic - it is the same image but the one on the left will be 'rastered' by the laser whereas the one on the right will be 'cut'. I hope this helps.

vector-graphic-example.jpg
author
JimH29 (author)MarcH882017-01-19

Wow! Thanks for this thorough and detailed explanation (you told me what I wanted to hear)! And thanks for the example photo. I forgot to mention in my question that I will be engraving in soft wood, like cedar, pine, and fir. The deepest I would need to go would be 3/32", 1/8" max. What wattage module could I use for that depth? Again, thanks a million for your help. Jim

author
MarcH88 (author)JimH292017-01-22

Hi Jim,

I can only comment on my experience with an Epilog laser, but even the entry level 30 Watt system is capable of cutting through 6mm woods in a single pass using 100% power and 20% speed. Cutting through 3mm woods would be around 60% power and 70% speed. The Epilog website is very informative and you can download the user manuals. Take a look at the entry level Zing manual:

https://www.epiloglaser.com/assets/downloads/manua...

Page 147 & 148 show suggested material settings for common materials and there are some great tips on how to get the best engraving results. If you want a professional machine it is worth paying the extra for an Epilog system - It's made in the USA and have metal 'waveguide' tubes with ceramic components manufactured by Epilog themselves (standard 2 year tube warranty with typical lifespans of 3 - 5 years). The desktop machines are all air-cooled requiring no water chiller.

I hope this helps.

Marc

author
JimH29 (author)MarcH882017-01-22

Yes, it does. You've been a great help to me, Marc. I'll start looking now. Thanks.

author
geordie_h (author)MarcH882017-01-22

Good advice.

Thanks

author
geordie_h (author)JimH292017-01-19

The important thing to realize about most lasers is they can't vary the thickness of the beam. You can fill in areas but this is done in the engraving settings. Basically the laser goes back and forth over an area, moving down the width of the beam until it has covered the whole area. Vector art work is great for this. Any area with a fill will be engraved and any line that is thicker than the cutting line will also be engraved.
Engraving does take longer than cutting so if your paying based on time it is more expensive. But I would stress worth the money. The look is great.

author
JimH29 (author)geordie_h2017-01-19
Thanks,
Geordie. That's what I wasn't quite getting. So I'll be able to do what
I'm planning. I don't know if you saw the example I was showing in the
instructable comments. It's a portrait I router carved, and am wondering
what wattage laser module or tube I can use for only doing that. It
will be in soft wood, and only about 3/32" to 1/8". Thanks a lot for
your help. Jim
author
geordie_h (author)JimH292017-01-20

Another thing to know about lasers and engraving is that they are designed to burn the wood not remove it like a router. The engraving is deeper than the surface but you really can't control the depth.

Most lasers are in the 30 to 50 watt range. The higher wattage will burn things faster.

Before you buy a laser you might want to rent time on one or have someone run some samples for you so you can see what a laser will do.

Have fun.

author
JimH29 (author)geordie_h2017-01-20

More good info. Thanks for taking the time to help.

author
geordie_h (author)2015-11-19

A laser does get more powerful with increased wattage but for the average laser cutter/engraver its not going have any effect on what materials it can cut. Industrial laser cutters can cut metal but they are on the order of 1,000 watts not the 30 to 50 watts of a commercial cutter.

You can't control the width of beam. Its a fixed width. Also you can't really set the depth of the engraving. Engravings are designed to be more of a picture. To remove material to a set depth you need a router.

Hope this helps.

Also check out my 10 Tips for lasers Instructables for more info:

https://www.instructables.com/id/10-Tips-and-Tricks-for-Laser-Engraving-and-Cutting/

author
MarcH88 (author)geordie_h2017-01-13

Great information Geordie_h and can I say what a great resource your website is for the laser user.

That said I'd like to just add a few points.

To some degree your are correct about the beam being of a fixed width, but by changing the focussing optics you can influence the width of the beam. Most CO2 lasers of the Gantry type use a standard 2" focal lens. Epilog lasers also have the option of using a 1 1/2" lens as well as a 4" lens. This will result in a smaller spot size for the 1 1/2" lens and a larger spot size with the 4" lens. Also by adjusting the focal height of the lens, you can alter the resulting 'track width' generated on the surface of the material you are working on (material dependant) and still achieve an acceptable result.

Epilog lasers also have a '3D' feature that can create some fantastic results, particualrly on wood. The way this works is that the image you are looking to engrave is created so that it is made up of various 'greyscales' that the laser intelligently converts into various power settings 'on the fly'. The darker the shade of grey, the deeper the laser will engrave and vice versa.

Take a look at this link for a great example and more information:

https://www.epiloglaser.com/products/legend-laser/...

Keep up the good work . . . .

3d wood engraving.jpg
author
geordie_h (author)MarcH882017-01-13

Thanks for the great information. The laser I have access to only has one lens so I've never experimented with changing the focal depth. Good to know.
I will also have to check out the 3D feature.
Always more to learn.

author
jason1225520113 (author)2016-03-28

hi Geordie. can you tell me why the thickness of materialthe laser can cut is determined by the focal point of the lens? and how it works? thanks

author

The focal point is very shallow so it loses focus quickly. The other thing that determines cut depth is the power (wattage) of the laser. A more powerful laser can cut thicker material.

author
Yonatan24 (author)geordie_h2016-04-12

Probably also by operating it slower, Right?

author

so you mean the slower the deeper?

author

I have 0 experience in Laser-Cutting, But I think that if you cut slower, The Laser would stay more time on a specific point, And it would make it Engrave deeper...

Just my guess,..

author
geordie_h (author)Yonatan242016-04-13

slowing the speed does mean more time spent on a point, but remember you are burning the material (laser = heat). To much heat and your material will char or get burnt rather than just cut or engraved. Or worst case... catch on fire.

Make sure you use the correct settings for the material you are cutting/engraving.

author

get it! tks

author
FoxThreeWoodworking (author)2015-12-20

Geordie, I've got kind of a loaded question for you: did you like the Epilog laser you used? If given the opportunity, would you choose something else (assuming the same general specs, i.e. not making a massive upgrade)? How's the maintenance/lifespan of these machines?

author

Given that I have only worked with the Epilog I can't compare it other machines, but its a great machine and I still use it for my art work.
The machine I use is several years old and is showing signs of wear. Its in a maker spaces and gets lots of use by lots of people. When it has broken getting parts from Epilog has be pretty easy and we've been able to do all the repairs ourselves.
I have no complaints about Epilog.

I will say that I have been watching all the info on the Glowforge and it looks like a great machine and has the potential to be a game changer. But I haven't used one so I can't talk from personal experience.

author
bejawo (author)2015-11-19

Very good information, but I have a few more questions. Does the wattage of the laser determine what materials you can cut? Can you control the depth of engraving? Can you control the width of the cut or engraving, and does this depend on wattage? Also, do these machine vary in precision (number of steps on the xy axes)?

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Bio: Mad scientist, graphic designer, mechanical drafter, sci-fi geek.
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