In recent years, laser engraving has become more and more popular. As low-cost machines entered the market, products that once started as professional options have only entered the realm of hobbyists. Interest can be gained from laser engraving alone or in combination with other woodworking skills, making a laser engraver a great addition to a hobbyist's workshop.
These hobbyist laser engravers are somewhat limited compared to larger commercial units. The "table" is smaller, limiting the size of the workpiece that can be engraved, as well as the size of the engraving itself. Also, the lasers on these small machines are lower power, so they don't burn through as much material. This results in a smaller depth of cut or slower cutting speed. They will do the job for hobbyists, but not as fast as commercial units.
The main cost difference for these machines is due to the cost of the laser. Smaller, lower power laser engravers use diode lasers, which are basically stronger versions of laser pointers. Larger laser engravers use CO2 lasers, which produce brighter, more powerful beams. Lasers rated as low as 7 watts can engrave wood, but more powerful units will be able to engrave and cut wood faster.
Laser engraving is a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) process, which means it is completely computer controlled. The user creates the drawing they want to engrave into the material, then lets the software develop a route track for the laser head to follow to burn the design into the material.
The same laser engraving machine used for design work is also capable of cutting certain materials. In most cases, this requires slowing down the movement of the laser head so that the laser can stay on the same spot longer and cut deeper.
Select wood for laser engraving
Wood is one of the easier materials to engrave with a laser engraver. Even so, the type of wood chosen can have a major impact on the results received. Some woods are more evenly carved than others, some are faster than others, and some have a darker contrast between the surface of the wood and the engraved area.
One of the bigger concerns when choosing wood for laser engraving is the sap or rosin content of the wood. Wood with high sap will carve darker than wood with less sap. Softwoods (various conifers) are the best choice, along with cherry and adler, which provide a good contrast between the wood's surface color and sculpted areas. On the other hand, oak has very little contrast.
Speaking of contrast, the texture of the wood also makes a big difference. Highly grained woods such as rosewood and zebra are not good choices for laser engraving, as the grain of the wood can interfere with the design and can cause the finished product to be visually confusing. Wood with a large difference in density between dark and light grains can also be unevenly carved, with softer grains burning deeper than harder ones.
In general, it's a good idea to avoid dark woods, as there will be little color contrast between the carving and the surface of the wood. Lighter-colored woods, such as maple, are ideal, providing a fine grain and a very light finish that contrasts nicely with the carving. Adler is a favorite for those who carve wood as a hobby.
Oily woods can be a problem for carving because they don't cut well, if at all. The oil absorbs the light from the laser, preventing it from burning the wood.
The density of the wood determines how fast and easy it is to carve. Softer, less dense woods (not to be confused with cork) are easier to cut. When engraving or cutting extremely dense hardwoods such as oak, maple, or hickory, the laser needs to be turned to maximum power and cutting speed may need to be reduced by as much as 25%.
Thin plywood like Luan is popular for laser engraving, especially among novices. Thin wood is flat, easy to machine, and easy to cut with a laser engraver. Thin plywood can easily be used by the engraver if you need to let the laser engraver cut out the engraved part. Since it is plywood, the core layer has vertical grain, and the finished product has high strength and is not easy to break.
Before engraving any wood project on a laser engraving machine, it's a good idea to experiment with this type of wood to see how well it engraves. It's best to do this on a piece of scrap just in case it's completely unusable. If there are no scraps, adding your logo to a project is a good way to test that it won't damage anything and will work as a signature.
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