Laser cutters are great tools that offer the possibility to create many different things. From simple boxes to carving detailed graphics into wood or building complex 3D objects.
In this beginner's guide, I'll explain how a laser cutter works, show you some examples of things you can make with a laser, and how to create designs for laser cutting or engraving. You will also learn what materials are available and how to use a laser cutter.
What is a laser cutting machine?
A laser cutter is a computer-controlled machine that uses a laser beam to precisely cut or engrave material. Lasers are basically just highly focused, highly amplified light. The laser beam locally burns, melts or vaporizes the material. The kinds of materials the laser can cut depends on the type of laser and the power of the specific machine.
The term "laser" is an acronym for "optical amplification of stimulated emission". Laser technology was developed in the 1960s.
There are different types of laser cutting machines. This guide will specifically focus on gas lasers and CO2 lasers, as this type of laser is most commonly used by hobbyists and small businesses. Other types such as fiber or crystal lasers are mainly used in industrial applications.
CO2 laser cutters are capable of cutting and engraving a variety of non-metallic materials such as wood, paper, acrylic, textiles and leather. See here for more materials and details.
How does a laser cutter work?
In a CO2 laser cutter, a laser beam is generated 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. An electronically controlled motor moves the laser head to cut or engrave the desired shape into the workpiece material. Shapes are defined by input files, which can be vector or raster images.
When the laser hits the material, a very small area is heated up in a very short time, causing the material to melt, burn or vaporize.
What can you do with a laser cutter?
Generally speaking, a laser cutter can perform three tasks: engraving, cutting and marking.
When the laser beam removes a portion of the top material but does not completely cut the material, it is called engraving.
As the laser beam travels all the way through the workpiece material, it creates a kerf. Laser cutting is usually very precise and clean. The appearance of the cut edge depends on the material. For example, the edges of cut wood are typically darker brown than virgin wood. The edges of acrylic do not discolor after laser cutting and have a great gloss.
Laser cutters make very small cuts. The kerf refers to the width of the groove formed when cutting. This varies from material to material and also depends on the specific settings of the laser. For many materials, the cut will be between 0.05 mm (0.002 in) and 0.5 mm (0.02 in).
Marking refers to situations where the laser does not remove material but eg changes the color of the material. CO2 laser cutting machine marking is mainly used for metal processing.
Apply a marking solution such as CerMark or Enduramark to the workpiece surface. Engraving is performed after the marking solution has dried. The heat from the laser bonds the solution to the metal, creating a permanent mark.