Laser Cutting and Engraving – Tips and Tricks for Newbies
Laser cutters, or printers as they are sometimes referred to, have come out of the giant manufacturing warehouses and into homes, schools and big box craft stores across the world. Some people want to add to their craft arsenal, enhance their business posture, start a hobby or just be able to make and customize items for themselves or others. If you are new to laser cutting or just curious, here are a few tips to help you understand laser cutters or to get you started on your way to making!
The laser I use is the Glowforge laser and the image editing software I use is Inkscape, which is free to all users. I started with this program as a newbie and I have stayed with it for its ease of use, wide range of capabilities and of course, the cost. There are other programs out there like Adobe Illustrator, Corel Draw, AutoCad, etc. No use in trying them and see what works for use. You will need one of these to edit and transform your files.
Cutting and engraving
Since I am going skiing this weekend, I decided to use a skier as my laser model. I used two popular types and thicknesses of wood. The top two are Baltic Birch, ordered online, and the bottom two are Oak plywood, bought at a local home improvement big box store and cut down to the size of my laser bed. The left side skiers have been masked, covered with tape, more on this subject below.
The boards on the right side, there was no tape applied.
The cuts took 45 seconds for each skier and word. If you look closely, you can tell it is a cut because the pieces have fallen into the bed of the laser. Engraving took about 4.5 minutes each.
In my previous article about using ‘Acrylic in a Laser’, I talked about smoky, burn marks when cutting or engraving in a laser. Here is where MASKING comes in, it helps eliminate the burn, scorchy, smoke marks and leaves you with a cleaner, crisp project. IF you still have some scorch marks, you can sand them down, use baby wipes, magic eraser or alcohol to clean them off.
This happens after MASKING. Weeding is the process of getting all the tape off your design. Tape needs to come off but no one has time for this! The fix for this is heavy duty tape such as Gorilla Tape, Duct tape, clear packing tape etc. Place it over the design, press down a bit and pull off the tape slowly. Lint rollers can also be used!
Placement of the design is also important. Since the laser goes back and forth on the x axis, it is best to have your designs where the laser head will hit and go over it with the greatest efficiency.
WARRIOR in this horizontal fashion will print faster than this vertical layout:
because the laser would have to go back and forth so many more times.
If wasting material irritates the HECK out of you, this tip will make your day! When compiling a design with multiple components, considering using an open source, FREE, nesting application. This will take the items from the design and make them all fit together to maximize space and limit waste of whatever you are printing/cutting on. I personally use Deepnest and not only does it save you material, but laser time as well. In staying with the skiing theme, I downloaded this mountain scene from Creative Fabrica. The pink color is all the wasted space, or material, you could be saving. The “nice nest” is all the pieces effectively placed together. No wasted material here!
No, don’t break out the crayons. When using the image editing program, start with, and stay with, the same colors for your stroke paint for each action. For example- use RED lines for cutting, BLUE lines for engraving and GREEN lines for scoring. This will help eliminate mistakes, printing errors, frustration and enable a wonderful project the first time, every time.
Practice saves money
Use cardboard to practice on before using precious wood resources. This can also come in handy when doing lettering and words. Here is an example; cut out the word you want on cardboard. Make sure to check the machine setting first. Then use the Deepnest I talked about to group the letters in a space-saving way. When the letters are cut out, use the cardboard template you cut to place the letters in and VIOLA!!! YOU ARE A GENIUS! And your letters all lineup correctly, are spaced evenly and look very professional.
Practice safe cutting
Get to know your laser and its capabilities and specifications. Talk to others in a social media group that has the same machine as you. Makes LOVE to help and share what they know. When in doubt, ASK. Non-metal items such as paper, wood, acrylic and vegetable tanned leather are the cornerstone materials for lasers. Natural stone like agates and slate as well as tile can all be used safely.
Items not to be used are those that give off hazardous fumes or particles, endangering you and your machine. PVC and vinyl are definite no-no’s. PVC can release chlorine gas which is bad for anyone or anything.
Always use protective equipment like goggles, gloves, proper air filters and always check your manufacturer instructions about the materials that can and cannot be used.
A little more safety never hurt
Most importantly, never leave the laser unattended, they get lonely. And when they are lonely, they can jam up on loose material or worst of all, start a fire. Don’t give in to complacency and buy a camera or baby monitor to watch the laser, that is the users job as a responsible laser owner.
The last part was not to scare anyone off, but machines can do what they want but when used safely, they provide an abundant amount of safe cutting hours and an endless number of extraordinary projects.
I hope that these common and not-too-common tips can help ease the understanding and use of a laser. Familiarity, practice, flubs and fails all lead to improved use and excelling in this magnificent craft. Take the time to use these tips and let me know how they worked for you. And better yet, pass them on to others! That’s how we all become better makers. Craft on!