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Troubleshooting 5 Common Home Laser Issues

Troubleshooting 5 Common Home Laser Issues main article image
Posted on December 8, 2022 by Christy Madokoro

Home lasers are meant to be an all-in-one solution to laser cutting.  The ease of use is the highlight of the machine, with features that can allow anyone to get started right away.  However, without experience or training, when issues arise, a new user can be overwhelmed and stuck from moving forward in their projects.  Luckily, common issues can be troubleshot and corrected at home.

Here are a few common home laser issues (Glowforge specific) and ways to troubleshoot them:

Print head of a Glowforge

  1. Laser not cutting through material
  2. Machine looks like it’s engraving but it’s not
  3. A line engraves across artwork
  4. Smoke isn’t venting properly
  5. Connection Issues

Laser Not Cutting Though Material

Why doesn’t the laser cut through the material?  This is one of the most common issues I see when I read through community forums. There are several possibilities as to why, but the first one you should check first is your material you are attempting to cut.

Here are some questions to help you through identifying if the material is the issue:

Where did you buy this material?

Using a strong flashlight, move the light over the surface of the back of the wood to find voids.

Plywood is a sturdy and versatile material that is common in laser cutting.  While you’d think that all plywood is created equal, people find that the cheaper cuts of plywood they find at big box stores do not cut as easily as the woods being sold at a higher price through other companies specializing in laser and wood crafts.  This is because the materials sold at big box stores cater to construction, so the plywood is processed with a different cutting and usage method in mind.

So, what can you check if you still want to use it?  First, check the thickness.  Is it too thick for your laser to cut?  If not, the check for the next most common issue:  Voids and glue pockets.  Even the best quality Baltic birch will still have these areas.  A 40–45-Watt CO2 laser will not cut through these pockets.  This is where many people complain that their machine cut through every other spot besides “this one.”  In this case, you’ll need to use a craft knife to finish removing the project from the wood.

The voids that cannot be cut with a CO2 laser will glow when a bright flashlight illuminates it from behind, even through masking on this 1/8" Baltic birch.

There is a way to check for these voids prior to cutting.  You will need a bright flashlight and a pencil.  Before using the wood, press the flashlight against the backside of the material, with the light pointed towards you.  Like how you’d shine a flashlight through your hand as a kid, you’re looking to see if you can see the light through the wood.  While some glowing is expected depending on the thickness, a void will light up like a spotlight is being shined in that location.  Take your pencil and circle the void.  When you cut the material later, make sure to position your file so that no cut lines will need to cross into those circled voids.

Another issue with veneered plywood, like maple or walnut, is that most often than not, it will have an MDF core.  While MDF is relatively easy to cut with a laser, the biggest thing to keep in mind is that it is wood fibers held together with wax and resin.  Each board can vary greatly from each other in density, even coming from the same distributor.  Some are denser than others, and this can make the plywood very difficult to cut through.

If you find that the laser almost cut through the material, but did not go through on the entire cut, you may find it easier to take an orbital sander rather than a craft knife and evenly sand the back until the small fibers holding the cuts in place break apart and the pieces are released.

Are you using the correct settings?

Not just for cutting, settings tests for different materials are a useful way to see the most effective settings for the materials you are using.

While you may think that the settings you’ve used before should work all the time, this is only the case if you are using a material and settings certified by your laser manufacturer (with Glowforge, this would be their “Proofgrade” materials and settings).  Because of the difference between boards during the manufacturing process, you may have to test each new piece by running a small test cut prior to using it for a larger project.

To adjust your settings correctly, consider the following information.  You will need to adjust either speed, power, or both.  Remember that the laser is like a fire.  The longer is stays in one location, the more likely that area will burn.  The faster it moves across an area, the less likely it will have time to burn the surface.  For example, if you were to quickly run a lighter across a loose thread, you can get rid of the loose thread without burning your entire garment.  However, if you held that lighter in place for too long, you’ll not only burn your thread, but the rest of your clothing will also catch fire.

The same applies to power.  Adjusting power is like turning up or down the heat on your stove.  Does your dish need to simmer or boil?  If you need a simmer, but you have the heat to the max, you’ll burn your food.  Adjusting your power and speed to find the mixture and balance needed to cut through the material without damaging it or extending cut time is about making minor adjustments until it works.  Many people use a small sample test when receiving a new batch of materials to find the settings perfect to that batch.

Did you clean your machine lenses recently?

Dirty lenses can interfere with laser operations, creating issues while cutting.

The lenses need to be clear of spots and smoke to move the laser beam through properly.  Using Zeiss Lens Wipes when needed will help alleviate any issues with a dirty lens.  On a Glowforge, there is a lens on the left side of the machine under the glass, a lens window and a lens in the print head.  There is also a mirror in the print head that will need to be cleaned.  Also make sure the camera lens is clean, and the areas on the bottom of the print head, since these are all used to focus your material height to aid in cutting and engraving properly.

Make sure to reinstall the lens in the proper direction.

If you recently cleaned your lens and are now finding that the machine cuts worse, as in thick, unfocused lines, go back to your print head and make sure you reinstalled the lens properly.  If put in upside-down (my lenses have an arrow showing which direction needs to go in first), you’ll get those big, unfocused lines.  You’ll also get those same issues if you forgot to put the lens back in.

Is there smoke?

This will be covered later, but if there is smoke, it will interfere with the laser beam’s effectiveness.

Still having issues?

If you are using your laser manufacturer’s materials and find that their settings are not cutting through, contact their technical support team.  As your laser starts to age or you’ve used it often, the laser tube could need replacing.  If the machine is new, companies like Glowforge can adjust their standard settings on their end to better fit the laser.  Or if another issue exists, they will be able to help you from that point.

Machine Looks Like It’s Engraving, But Nothing Is There

You’ve waited for hours while your machine’s laser head moves back and forth across your material.  While you sneak a peak at your work, you realize that nothing is there!  Is your machine broken?  Do you need a tube replacement?  Before you start to panic, this common issue has a very simple solution.

Go back to your artwork and check for a duplicate image.  It’s not so easy to see, and if you created it in a software, go back to the file you loaded, select the entire file, and ungroup it as many times as you can.  It may be more helpful to do this in your software’s “outline” viewing mode, in case you had a layer of white stacked in there that you would not be able to see.

Once the file is ungrouped, select the suspect area by clicking it with your mouse.  Do not drag to select since you may end up grabbing that duplicate layer also.  Once you’ve done this, either move it to the side or hit delete.  If you hit delete and it looks like the object is still there, then a duplicate layer was the culprit, and just to be on the safe side, do this until your object disappears completely and then undo it to bring back the single object or image you were trying to engrave.

If there was no duplicate, check to see if you have an unseen white rectangle or other white shape on your image.  This sometimes happens in design software when you’re trying to create a shape and use the color white to help create the look you are going for.  To a laser cutter, white is not a color to be ignored, but another layer to read as something to do.

If your laser’s user interface allows grouping and ungrouping, a lot of this can be done directly in the interface so that you will not have to move your artwork and can reprint without having to move your material or file.  This is especially important if the rest of the job was complete except for the engrave, as you don’t want to waste the material you were using.  Do not move the material or the file in the interface.  Just select the image, ungroup as many times as you can, and click the suspect area and hit delete.  If it looks like it’s still there, you had a duplicate.  Chances are, you may have duplicate cuts and scores too, but the machine will cut or score those areas twice.

A Line Engraves Across Your Artwork

Line engraved across a vector artwork due to an open path.

Another frustrating, but common issue is that a singular line will engrave across your artwork.  You’ll double check your file and see nothing out of the ordinary.  This issue is due to engraving a vector image that may have an open path.  For a beginner, this may sound like a foreign language, but a vector file uses math to create an image:  lines and curves that can be edited by moving nodes.  A vector does not use pixels to create an image.  Your cut and score lines will be vectors, and vector engraves are usually very crisp and clean.

On the other hand, a raster image uses pixels, which are tiny squares of color, to make an image.  If you’ve ever engraved a photo and noticed that there is a lot of “noise” around your image, it’s because the laser will recreate all those pixels, even if we can’t clearly see them with our eyes.  Therefore, it is very important to start engraves with a high-quality image.

So then, what are the stray engraved lines?  Those stray lines are open paths in your vector engrave.  They will be a single node in a sea of nodes making up your image that is not connected to anything to complete a path.  If you’ve just used your software to trace a complicated image to make a vector file, chances are, you’ll have open nodes in there that could cause this issue.

Possible open paths that can cause random lines to be engraved

The simplest prevention and fix for this issue would be to create a high-resolution bitmap copy of your artwork before engraving.  Because a bitmap is a raster file, any open paths will be converted to pixels and engrave the way that you see the image on the screen.  Just remember to remove the original vector file from that location so that it is not under the bitmap copy you create.  This is a good practice to continue so that you won’t ever have to worry about open paths on engrave functions causing strange lines on your finished work.

If using Inkscape, make sure your resolution for bitmap copies are at least 350 dots per inch (DPI)

Making a bitmap copy of a vector image can reduce the hassle of trying to determine if there are any open paths in your image.

Smoke is Not Venting Properly

While cutting with a laser will generate a certain amount of smoke, excessive smoke building up in the bed of the laser or even spewing from the front is not a normal occurrence.  The smoke is not only irritating to the senses, but the smoke itself will diffuse the laser beam, making it less effective. If there is smoke building up, it could be a sign that a fan isn’t working properly, which could increase the risk of fire.

So what causes is, and what can you do to solve this?  First, check to make sure your exhaust is not blocked.  This can be caused by build-up of debris and ash on both the fan and the vent area.  Clean the exhaust fan so that the blades are not covered in excessive gunk to ensure they spin freely and allow for smooth airflow.  Check that the vent itself is not clogged.  A common issue when living with pets is that their fine fur will create an extra screen that is difficult to see over the vent, blocking airflow.  Make sure that vent is clear of any obstructions.

Make certain the air assist fan in the print head is also clean and spinning in the correct direction (this is Glowforge specific, other manufacturers may vary).  The air assist helps move the smoke and put out the tiny flames that the laser creates when the beam hits the material.  A properly operating air assist fan is important to mitigate the risk of fire.  Follow your manufacturer’s guidelines when removing and cleaning fans to prevent injury and damage.  Glowforge’s instruction can be found here.

If your fans are clean and you are still finding smoke where there shouldn’t be, check to see if your exhaust blocked in another location.  If venting out a window, see if you have a screen that looks dirty.  The glues and debris get trapped in the screen, and rather than the smoke moving around the blockage, it gets trapped and builds up in your home.  Use a brush or other cleaning utensil to clear the debris.  If you are using an air filter, smoke build up is a sign that your filter cartridge has reached its capacity and needs to be changed.  Some materials, like MDF, can fill an air filter cartridge in minutes, which is why such operations are recommended only for venting outside and not for use with an air filter.

Screen blocking the exit exhaust is dirty and can cause smoke back-up into the machine

Wi-Fi Connection Issues

This will not apply to all laser users, only users whose machines are cloud-based.  If your machine is having difficulties connecting with your computer or is showing that it’s offline when it is turned on, then you could be having an issue with its Wi-Fi connection.  Wi-Fi signal in the home is not an even blanket.  Even though your phone or computer can pick up a signal, it doesn’t mean the signal strength is strong enough to transmit to the laser with stability.

A way to test any connection issues with your home Wi-Fi is to use your cellphone hotspot next to your laser to see if it connects to the hotspot.  If it does, then the connection issue is in your home Wi-Fi connection and not the laser.  If the laser cannot connect to the hotspot after going through the proper set up, then you will need to contact support for your laser to see if there is an issue with the machine that needs to be addressed.

Mirror in the print head can also get dirty

Owning a home laser comes with many advantages in expanding your craft.  However, it can be frustrating for a user when there are issues with such an expensive piece of equipment.  If you are faced with one of these problems, troubleshooting with the ways listed above will either help solve your issue, or help narrow down the possibilities when contacting technical support for your machine.

Have you had any issues with your laser that were a simple fix?  What was the issue, and how did you correct it?  Are there common issues not listed for other laser brands?  Share your thoughts and solutions in the comments!

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