Introduction: How to Use a Laser Cutter

About: Matthew was previously a STEAM integrator with a private K-8 school. He loves taking things apart to see how they work, and will sometimes put those things back together. Much of his time is spent working with…

The laser cutter is one of the most useful tools in a modern shop. 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. When laser cutters are set up to etch something on the surface of a material, they operate like a printer, literally using their laser beam to etch an image onto something.

This Instructable is meant to be a resource to anyone who is looking to do some laser cutting for the first time, learn a bit more about how laser cutters work, or just explore the wonderful world of laser cutters.

Step 1: Materials - Part 1 - the Machine

The first thing you're going to need to use a laser cutter, is the laser cutter. Though, chances are if you don't have one yet, purchasing one may not be within your budget.

Epilog recently released a line of budget laser cutters that come in just under $8,000.00. With that in mind, I'm going to explore other ways of getting your hands on a laser cutter.

First, there's always local colleges. Community colleges are fairly cheap for classes, and it can't hurt to see if they offer any classes in art or engineering that involve laser engraving. Less then a hundred dollars (depending on cost per credit) for a class, and you should have access to a laser cutter for a whole semester. Going about it this way, you not only get cheap access to a laser cutter, you also get to learn some tips and tricks, plus constant hands on experience.

If you just want your design made and don't have the cash for, or want to buy, the machinery, you can do some searches in your local area for businesses that will laser cut for you. There's a lot of places that make a business of laser cutting items for other people. You can also try to find places that use laser cutters, and see if they wouldn't mind helping you out.

Another way to get your design made without buying a laser cutter is with a company like Ponoko, who will cut whatever design you send them, and send you back the finished product. There is an excellent set of Instructables on doing just that.

If you really want your own laser cutter and just don't have the money for it, there are a couple of options. You can go to manufactures websites and see if they have an option to purchase pre-owned models, or go to a site like ebay and hope that what you buy is what you get.

You could also treat it as you would a car, since it costs just about as much, and lease-to-own.

Step 2: Materials - Part 2 - the Hardware

Now that we have (or know how to go about getting access to) a laser cutter, let's move onto what materials we can cut, and basic things we can do with them.

Cast Acrylic - can be etched and cut (has a nice frosted appearance).
Extruded Acrylic - can be cut (does not frost when etched).

Laser safe plastic such as ABS and polycarbonate - can be both etched and cut.

(PVC and vinyl are not laser safe - see step 4)

Anodized Aluminum - can be etched (Black anodized aluminum provides best contrast out of all anodized aluminum)

Brass - un-coated brass can not be etched with a laser, it needs to have some kind of coating (such as paint).

Glass - can be etched. This includes bottles (both full and empty) drinking glasses, and plain flat glass. Requires a more special technique to etch well.

Wood - can be both etched and cut

Too High of a power can distort engraved images.

There are also several materials that places won't tell you you can cut, such as:
Finger Nails
Card Stock

Step 3: Materials - Part 3 - the Software

The final thing you'll need, in addition to your laser cutter and materials you plan to cut, is a computer with some form of vector graphics software loaded onto it.

For the purpose of these instructions I will assume you have CorelDraw X4.

If you prefer to use something else, there are several other Instructables that can assist you with those programs.

Laser-Cut Jewelry Using Free Software
Homemade Holiday Decorations

SketchUp & Inkscape:
SketchUp, Inkscape, and Ponoko Laser Cutting Part 1
SketchUp, Inkscape, and Ponoko Laser Cutting Part 2

Stencil Letters
Laptop Tatoo

Step 4: Cautions!

Acrylic, Wood, Paper, Plastic, Laptops, and a whole host of other things are flammable, so please don't walk away mid cut, you may come back to more then you hoped for.

Aluminum, as is true of most metals, is quite reflective. It has the potential to send the laser beam back from whence it came, damaging the laser diode. When cutting reflective things, never have the reflective side facing upwards towards you and make sure you don't use too high a power.

In addition to all the bonus things no one tells you you can cut, there are several things you should try to avoid cutting. PVC and Vinyl create a corrosive chlorine gas that will not only harm you, but could permanently damage your machine and void its warranty in the process. If you can stay away from these two materials, I would highly recommend it. If you want to check for chlorine, the folks at Burnination put together a great instructional video to help you out!

Never be too quick to etch something. If you assume the power and speed settings are correct, and cut straight into your project, you may cut farther then you planned (which is never good for things like laptops). If you start a little light, you can always reprint multiple times over the same area, or increase the power as you see fit. Having a sample piece to test on is always helpful.

Never lean on the honeycomb bed platform inside the machine. I can tell you from experience trying to reach stuff in the back of the machine, the honeycomb platform is not strong enough to support body weight.

Step 5: Power and Speed Settings

The Power setting determines exactly that. You can control how much power will be applied to the laser while printing. The more power- the more heat, and the more heat- the greater the chance of fire.

Experiment on whatever you have. Everything is going to be a bit different. Each type of wood is going to be slightly different then the next. A slightly thicker sheet of Acrylic might need just a hair slower speed or a smidgen higher on the power. Test each thing out, and when you find out what works for that specific thing, write it down! Whenever you use that specific thing in the future, you know exactly what to set it at.

It also doesn't help that different laser cutters have different wattage settings, varying what the same power level would do between two machines

The speed you choose, determines how fast the laser will travel while cutting. The slower the speeds, the longer the laser sits in each spot, which yields more heat...and I think you see where this is going. It also means that the slower the speed, the deeper the cut or engraving will be.

In several Epilog manuals, I've found they recommend the following balances.

Acrylic etching - high speed, low power (easy to cut) High power has the potential to distort the acrylic.

Acrylic cutting - low speed, (relatively) high power.

Anodized Aluminum etching - high speed and low power.

Painted Brass - high speed, low power (doesn't take much to get rid of paint)

Glass - medium speed, high power (experiment as there is a wide range of glass)

Plastic - experiment on your type of plastic

Wood - experiment and figure out for each type of wood separately.

Two of the following images are excepts from the instruction manuals available on epilogs website. As you can see, speed and power differ from machine to machine even when you're using the same watts. So please test your material first.

Step 6: Frequency Settings

When cutting material with vector, there is an additional setting beyond the power and speed. The frequency setting controls how many laser pulses are applied to the piece you're cutting, every inch.

When the laser cutter is working, it doesn't leave the laser on for the duration of the cut. In raster mode, it acts similar to an inkjet printer, and prints thousands and thousands of dots per inch (dpi). Depending on how dark the area you want etched is, the more dpi will be applied.

Vector however goes in a straight line, that will etch much like a knife will cut. To accomplish this, you use slower speeds at equivalent or higher powers then you would in Raster, and turn the laser on and off a bunch of times every second, to the point that your eyes can't tell it's even doing it.

The frequency can be set between 10 and 5000 pulses per inch (ppi). Since these pulses are traveling along the same line as the laser (it is the laser), they end up creating the impression of a straight cut in which the laser is on for the entire duration.

There are some reasons to change the ppi though. The higher the ppi is set, the hotter the material gets. So if you're working with wood or something else flammable/burnable, you may want to lower the ppi. This is also useful for lessening the charred/burnt look on what you're cutting (like wood).

If you're cutting acrylic, and you want sharp corners, a low ppi may be useful for you. But if you want to have nice rounded corners, and a smooth edge, a higher ppi will help achieve that look, by melting the edge of the acrylic where the laser is cutting.

Test out a few different settings on a practice piece to get a feel of how exactly the look changes your material.

Step 7: Vector Vs. Raster

There's two different cutting techniques you can employ when using a laser cutter, vector and raster.

Raster tends to be used for engraving things, while vector is much more adept at cutting things out.

Raster engraving is quite akin to a normal printer. I hope anyone intending on using a laser cutter, has used either an inkjet or laser printer sometime in the past. Printers print on a page from top to bottom, while printing from left to right. They don't start printing in the bottom right corner, then the top left and continue on to the middle of the page. Raster cutting works in the same manner. When you hit print in whatever program you decide to print from, the laser cutter will start at the top of the piece you're working on, and proceed down to the bottom, while the laser moves from left to right on whatever you're engraving. The laser turns on and off in rapid succession at whatever points a normal printer would and wouldn't shoot out ink.

Vector cutting is a little different if you've never experienced it before. It will start at a point on your image, leave the laser on (kind of, see Step 6: Frequency Settings for more info), and continue on the line, tracing the entire image before turning the laser off. This is why it tends to be used for cutting instead of etching.

Perhaps videos of each would help make sense of it all.
Raster Cutting Your Skin
Vector Cutting A Bansky

When using Raster, you can try any type of image you like, and see how it comes out.

When using Vector, you should make the outline of whatever you're cutting 0.001-inch (0.025mm) so the laser has a clean line to trace.

Step 8: CorelDraw X4 - Part 1

(Warning! I am skipping the test cut! I all ready know the settings for what I'm cutting. If you're cutting on a new material, use the following instructions on a test piece of material. Just make whatever your printing small enough to fit on your test piece of material.)

Get on a computer and start up CorelDraw X4. (If you want to learn CorelDraw in more depth, I would suggest you search Google for tutorials. There are a lot of sites out there that offer really useful techniques and tips.)

Open a file that you would like to print. (It could be a picture from a camera, a painting or anything else you want to etch/cut)

Resize your image area to fit the bed of the laser cutter (This will help in placement of your materials later).

Move what you want to print to an easy location to get to. (I placed my image eight inches down and twelve inches over)

(There's a step that can help with the above. If you grab the top left of the image, where the rulers meet (there's a corner there), and drag the dotted lines down to the corner of the printable image area, the rulers will reset to your image area, making it easy to place things. (see the fifth image notes below for slightly more info))

Once everything is in place and ready: File -> Print

In the print dialogue, we're going to click properties. Choose either Raster or Vector depending on what you plan to cut and set the speeds accordingly. If you're doing a test cut, you can take the Resolution down to much less DPI, for much faster printing. (Do not print in Vector unless your image is formatted correctly! See next step.)

Step 9: CorelDraw X4 - Part 2

For printing Vector image, you need to make sure all of the lines you're going to print are a hairline thick.

I used the add text function to type "INSTRUCTABLES" in the program. It was auto set to vertical and since it fit well, I opted not to rotate it to horizontal.

INSTRUCTABLES is way to thick to print in vector as is, so there are some things we're going to do to edit it.

First, right click on the text, and select "Convert to Curves".

Then, after it's been converted, select the trace tool (in the upper right of the menu bar on my screen), and click "Hairline".

Finally, on the right side of the page, where the color swatches are, are the fill settings. Click on the white box with an X through it, which means no fill, and behold, your letters are ready to cut!

Once again, go to Print, and select Preferences, and adjust as needed.

Step 10: Placing Materials

Once you're ready to print, it's time to prep the Laser Cutter. So lets turn it on!

Once on, open the case, place your material where ever you plan to cut. This is where the rulers from the image come in handy, hopefully the laser cutter you're using has built in rulers to help you situate things. (If you're placing something in the upper left corner, and the bed is raised to high, do the following step first).

Once everything is placed (or before if you're feeling frisky), you may need to adjust the bed. If you look on the front control panel of the Laser Cutter, there should be a focus button. If you push that, and then the down arrow, you should see the bed lower. Keep lowering the bed until you have enough space that the laser will not come into contact with your materials. Extra space here is fine, we're going to let the machine focus itself later.

Every laser cutter I've used, won't print with the lid open, so it's a good way to do a test run on your piece.

Step 11: Focusing the Laser Cutter

Now that everything is placed, let's do a test run.

Leave the lid open! If you close the lid, you may get more then a test. If you're unsure whether or not it'll cut with the lid open, try it first on your test piece.

Set the preferences of the File -> Print to 100% speed, and a low power (it shouldn't matter, it's not printing. If you want to double ensure, you can set it to 0 power).

Also in the Print Preferences, click the "Auto Focus" button. This will ensure the laser is the proper distance away from whatever you're cutting to get the most accurate cuts.

Save your preferences and print the file. The status screen on the laser cutter should update that it's received a new job. Push the "Go" button when you're ready, and the printing should start.

On the control panel there is also a "Pointer" button. If you click this, a red laser will turn on, and show you were the laser cutter would be at any given time. It's a useful way of seeing around where the cuts would be.

Before the printer starts the printing, it should hover over your material, and adjust the height of the bed to be in proper focus. If it doesn't, double check that you had "Auto Focus" selected in File->Print ---> Preferences.

Step 12: Test Cut

Before the actual cut, you may want to ensure that your print area is contained within the space you're hoping for. There are a couple of easy ways to do this.

If you tape over your print area, or tape a sheet of paper over the area you intend to print (make sure you cover more then just intended print area, in case you're measurements are off, this is what makes a test cut useful), you can etch into the paper or tape, and make sure the laser is only going to cut the areas you plan.

Print at a high speed, and a low power. It doesn't take much to cut through paper, I think I've used between 10-15% at full speed. With tape I use around the same.

If you plan to use tape, I recommend blue painters tape. It doesn't tend to stick as much when pealing off, and it doesn't leave sticky tape backing on whatever it was stuck to. But again, I would highly recommend you try it for yourself on whatever material you plan to use it on first. Always test first!

When test cutting, ensure you have the exhaust fan turned on, you wouldn't want to start a paper fire.

The images I'm using for this step are from an older project I did, etching a laptop. I'm using these for obvious reasons, even though it goes away from the acrylic I'm using for all the other steps.

Step 13: Laser Cutter - Printing

When you're all ready to cut, it's time to take off the tape or paper, close the lid, and hope everything turns out okay.

Go back onto the computer, in the File -> Print ---> Preferences menu, select Raster or Vector depending on what you plan to cut.

Once that's selected you can, choose the Power and Speed settings that would be most suitable for your piece. If you're cutting in Vector, don't forget the Hertz setting. Hopefully you wrote these down from when you did your test cut.

Once everything is selected, and properly placed, click OK to start printing from the computer.

On the laser cutter, make sure all of your tape/paper/anything else is removed. Make sure whatever your cutting hasn't been moved. Ensure the lid is closed, and make sure a new print dialogue has come up on the print window of the forward control panel of the laser cutter.

If everything looks okay, turn on the exhaust fan.

If you're doing a Vector cut, turn on the air compressor.

One final check to make sure everything is set right, and click GO on the laser cutter control panel.

Now sit back and watch it print. You want to hang around while it prints to make sure nothing catches fire, and nothing weird comes up that would require you to halt everything.

Step 14: Laser Cutting Cleaning

For cleaning, ensure you have all the proper cleaning materials:
Lens Cleaning Paper
Cotton Swab
Liquid Lens Cleaner
Something to hold your Lens Cleaning Paper (we have plastic scissor crimps)

There are two mirrors and one lens that direct the laser beam. One of the mirrors and the lens are located on the part that moves around and cuts your material, the other mirror is on the far right end of that arm. (See the second photo notes below)

You need to clean all of these after each use or your laser will not keep in good condition, and won't cut as well each consecutive time you have to use it.

To clean the lens, fold some Lens Cleaning Paper carefully. Ensure that whatever part of the paper you intend to clean the lens with, you never touch. Crimp in into your holding tool (we use plastic scissor crimps). Drop one or two drops of your liquid lens cleaner on it, and wipe the lens off. If the paper comes out dirty, get a new piece of paper and repeat the process. When your paper is no longer dirty, your lens is clean.

You can use the cotton swab for your mirrors. Just brush off your mirrors with it, and check the swab for dirt. If you see dirt, the mirror isn't clean, you need to get a new swab (or rotate the one you're using) and repeat the wiping until no more dirt/dust comes off.

The mirror that's far away from the lens doesn't need to be cleaned as often, as it's not in direct line of the cloud of material smoke being created by the laser.

Whenever needed, you can remove the honeycomb bed and vacuum out any scraps that have fallen below.

Step 15: You're Finished

Hopefully now you have your very own laser cut (or etched) thing.

Whether you decided to etch into clear Plexiglas to make an LED Sign, your computer so it looks that much more awesome, or your hopefully these directions where helpful.

If, on your journey to etch and cut things with laser, you find anything here confusing, or you think I'm missing something important, please let me know, and I'll add it right away!

Some interesting sites I found in my quest for laser cutter knowledge, that I wasn't really able to include in the step-by-step:
Adding Perspective to Text
3d Text Effects
Sample Club (provides many different examples on different surfaces, most of which provide speed and power settings)
Technical Library (Lots of useful information)
Wikipedia Entry for Laser Cutting (tons if info on exactly how it all works)

If you have any really useful links that have good technical/helpful information on laser cutter, feel free to leave a comment, I'd love to check it out!