A laser cutter is a fantastic tool. It can cut and engrave all kinds of materials. And, if you've decided to add one to your set of tools, here's a guide to help you through the decision making process.
In this guide, I'll be focused on CO2 lasers, which are the more common and widely used type of lasers. The other type of laser is YAG, which is technology used in more powerful, industrial lasers. It is used to cut metal and in industrial settings. So YAG machines are an order of magnitude more expensive.
There is a wide variety in choice of CO2 laser cutters out there. And the selection is continuously growing. As such, I won't be discussing specific brands or models. I'll walking you through the factors to consider and decisions to make during the selection process.
Do You Really Need to Buy a Laser Cutter Now?
Of course, we all want our very own laser cutter. But do you need to own one now? There are other options to having your own laser cutter.
One option to consider is getting access to local shared laser. This could be at a FabLab, Hacker Space, Maker Space, library or community college. Many of these places provide access to a laser and other tools on a monthly subscription fee or by the hour.
Pros of a shared laser
- This is, in my mind, the biggest benefit of a shared machine. Not only do you get access to the tools, but you get access to like minded people. These people can help you learn new tips and tricks.
- You don't have to come up with the large initial capital investment.
- You don't need to maintain the machine.
- The shared laser may have more capabilities/power than you can afford in a machine of your own.
Cons of a shared laser
- You need to share the machine. That may require reserving it ahead of time or only being able to book it a limited number of times per week.
- Shared equipment general gets more abuse, so be prepared for more issues with the machine.
- Access is usually not 24x7.
- You may have to cut a project short when your reservation time is expired.
The shared laser at Urban Workshop in California
Determine Your Needs
Before you start looking at laser cutters, you should be clear about what you are going to use the laser for.
Type of material
Lasers can be used on a wide variety of materials. You can learn more about those materials in the eBook linked at the bottom of this article. The type of material that you will be using will direct your choice of lasers. For example, you'll need a much more powerful laser for wood than you would for cardboard.
Size of material
The size of the raw material that you will be putting into the laser will affect the size of the bed that you need. Now, I buy my 1/4" plywood in 4'x8' sheets, but I don't have a 4'x8' laser. I cut the sheets into thirds so they fit into my 3'x4' laser.
Also the height of your material is important. If you want to engrave bricks, you'll need to fit those bricks under your laser.
Size of finished product
Your laser is going to need a bed that is bigger than the final size of the products.
Shape of the material
Most laser work is done on sheet material. But some work also involves tubular materials. Think about wine bottles, glasses, rolling pins, etc. If you want to work with round cylinders, you'll need a laser cutter that supports a rotary tool. A rotary tool is an add on that holds cylinders in the laser and rotates them so that the whole surface can be engraved.
Cutting, engraving or both
The type of work you will be doing on the laser will have an impact on the power that you need. So for each material that you'll be using, decide if you will be cutting and/or engraving it.
Desktop Laser Cutter
Factors of a Laser Cutter to Consider
There are number of factors to consider when selecting a laser cutter. Unless your funds are unlimited, you'll need to make some trade offs between these. I've put the more important criteria at the top of this list and less important at the bottom.
The purchase price of laser cutters varies widely based on all of the variations of the criteria discussed in this section. There are entry level lasers available for under $1,000. And the biggest, most powerful and highest quality laser cutters quickly go over the $100,000 price points. Your budget will probably be the biggest deciding factor on which laser you buy.
Power refers to the power output of the laser. The more powerful the laser, the denser the material it can cut and engrave. And more power also means that work can be done more quickly. CO2 lasers go up to 180 watts. Here's a guide on what capabilities are available at different powers:
Under 40 Watts
100 Watts or More
Quality in machines across product lines and manufacturers varies greatly. A poorer quality machine will require more frequent maintenance and repair.
One of the big drivers in quality (and price) is the type of tube that the laser uses. Tubes come in glass, metal and ceramic. Here’s a comparison of them:
Comparison of CO2 Laser Tube Types
The bed size is the maximum X-Y dimensions of material that can be placed in the laser. A larger bed size allows the cutting of a higher quantity of parts in a single run or of larger parts.
The bed of a laser is adjustable in the z-axis to accommodate different thicknesses of material. So, if you want to engrave bricks, you'll need to ensure the laser's bed moves low enough in the Z direction to fit the brick under the laser at the right focus distance.
Some lasers come with accessories that increase its functionality. For example, a rotary tool is used when engraving round objects like bottles. So if you want to engrave round objects, you'll need to select a laser cutter that allows for rotary tools.
Laser cutters do require regular maintenance. Make sure that you have the skill needed to perform the required maintenance and can commit to doing it on schedule.
Cooling and ventilation
Some laser cutters require dedicated cooling and/or ventilation systems. These systems add complexity to the installation and maintenance of the machine. Also, the machine may come bundled with these systems or the may be additional purchases.
Speed refers to how fast the lens in moved in the X and Y direction over the material. The higher the speed of the machine, the more quickly it can complete projects.
The software requirements of machines varies. Some use a printer driver to have a computer communicate with the machine while others have dedicated CAM software that you will have to learn how to use. Some only work on Windows. Some software only works in metric units.
Floor Space Consumed
Laser cutters can take up a lot of space. First you have the machine itself. Then you may also have cooling equipment, ventilation equipment and a dedicated computer to control it. You need to factor in all of these things when determining if you have adequate space the laser cuter.
Large bed laser cutter
Here’s the 2014 Laser Engraving Buyer’s Guide from Engravers Journal.
Learn More about the Laser Cutter
We've created a free eBook to help you get started on the Laser Cutter. It has a lot of information that will accelerate your learning and improve the quality of your products from the laser.