What is a laser cutter?
A laser cutter is a machine that uses a high-power laser to cut through or mark the surface of materials. The kind of laser and the specific machine’s power determine the thickness and kind of materials it can cut. Most laser cutters found in schools, makerspaces, and laser service centers use CO2 lasers. CO2 laser cutters are capable of cutting and engraving a wide range of non-metallic materials including wood, paper, acrylic, textiles and leather. Read more about about what materials can be used here.
A laser cutter allows operators to very accurately adjust the power and speed at which it runs. In this way, laser cutters can be used in a wide range of applications. A single machine can replace a table saw, a utility knife, a hole punch, a branding iron or even a bone folder.
Laser cutters are very powerful machines, but they are not magic! Running a successful file depends on developing a proper file and fine tuning the settings of the machine to achieve the desired results. Always incorporate tests as part of your process. You can also use a material test sample to better understand the parameters of the machine and materials you will be working with. You can find one here.
How does a laser cutter work?
Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation or LASER technology was first developed in the 1960s. The first laser cutter, which combined high a powered laser with targeted airflow, was designed in 1970.
A laser cutter works by emitting a laser from a laser tube. This laser beam is reflected through a series of mirrors and finally passes through a lens in the machine head to the material surface below. Before running a file, the machine operator focuses the lens to the surface of the material being used. Much like finding the perfect distance to light some paper on fire using a magnifying glass, focusing the lens to the surface of the material concentrates the laser's power to the material being cut.
The machine head sits on a CNC gantry that moves the laser around the bed of the machine- the bed is the flat area of the machine that you lay materials on. Most laser cutters have a 3-axis gantry, accommodating movement along the x, y and z axis. Laser cutters are controlled with a computer driver, sometimes also referred to as CAM software. This software interprets vector files as a series of ordered instructions for either cutting or engraving - a process also known as rastering. It is with this driver or software that operators are able to fine tune the specific speed and power settings of a laser cutter.
What materials can be laser cut?
A CO2 laser is capable of cutting and raserting a variety of flat materials, some machines are able to accommodate round or irregular shaped objects. Unfortunately, not all materials can be cut. This may be because the laser is not strong enough to cut through a particularly dense material, because the material releases toxic gases when it is heated up or because some materials are very flammable. The precise capabilities of what materials and what thicknesses can be processed will vary depending on the brand and power of the machine you are using. This chart shows just a few material examples.
Materials that SHOULD NOT be Laser Cut
When working with a new material, it is important to find out what it is made of first. If it is safe to run, it may then be helpful to do some tests to better understand how different processes will turn out. This is especially helpful if you are working directly with the laser cutter as you will be able to fine tune power and speed settings for the specific material you are working with.
Here is a file that you can use to test materials:
How do I set up a file for laser cutting?
Files that will be used for laser cutting need to be vector files. These can be prepared in Auto CAD, Corel Draw, Inkscape or Adobe Illustrator. For the purposes of this guide, we will be looking at preparing your file using Adobe Illustrator Creative Cloud 2017.
If you need help getting started with Adobe Illustrator for the first time, take a look at these Online Illustrator Tutorials.
1. When starting a new file in Illustrator for laser cutting, you want to make sure that the colour settings for your file are set to RGB. You can check your file's colour settings in the File menu:
2. As a general rule, you want to set up your artboard to be the same size as the material you will be using. You will be creating artwork that is true to size, and so by matching your artboard to your material you will ensure that your pieces fit on the material you are working with. If you do not have your material yet- set up your artboard to the maximum size that the laser bed can accommodate. This will help you plan your project within the parameters of the laser cutter you will be working with.
If you are sending your file to be processed at a laser cutting service centre, and will not be providing your own material, check to see if there are specific requirements for the artboard set-up.
You can set up the size of the artboard when opening up a new file or by clicking on the Artboard editor, which will allow you to resize manually or enter in the dimensions of the arboard you are looking to set up.
3. Laser cutters interpret vector lines and fills as a series of ordered tasks. Different laser cutter drivers have different rules for this interpretation but the basics are very similar. The machine I used in developing this guide is a Trotec speedy 500. These are the basics used in setting up for Trotec machines:
For a step-by-step guide to preparing a file for laser cutting, and an overview of techniques that are possible, you can follow along the Joy of Laser Cutting recipe guides.
Where can I find a laser cutter?
Laser cutters have been used in industrial manufacturing for decades, but in the last 15 years have found a home in makerspaces, schools and workshops around the world. There is also a growing number of independent businesses that offer laser cutting services to the public. If you are interested in getting some hands-on experience with a laser cutter, your best bet is to look for a local makerspace.
If you are simply looking to have your materials laser cut, without doing it yourself, you can look for a local laser cutting shop or you can work with an online laser cutting service centre like Ponoko, Pololu or Cut Laser Cut.
Be sure to review the specific guidelines that these businesses have for submitting your files.