I get a lot of questions from people who want to buy their first laser for engraving and cutting. Here are some of them and my responses. What I have found through the years is that my answers aren’t always what people want to hear. Sometimes reality just isn’t as interesting as the hype we create in our minds.
“What type of laser should I buy?”
There are several types of lasers on the market. They include the CO2, fiber, YAG, green, and many more. The main difference between them is the frequency (wavelength) of the laser light beam which determines what we can engrave, cut or mark with it.
Almost without exception, for general purpose work your first laser should be a CO2. Carbon dioxide lasers are by far the most versatile and the most common in our industry. They can be used on most natural materials like stone, cork and leather, and will work on most plastics, acrylic and coated metals. There are thousands of products made specifically for this type of laser. The other types of lasers have their uses but are far more specific in their applications.
It’s important to know that there are two basic types of CO2 lasers. The one most of us are familiar with is what we will call the “metal tube laser,” also known as an RF (radio frequency) laser. These are manufactured by well-known industry companies including Epilog Laser, GCC, Gravograph, Kern Laser Systems, Trotec Laser (Trotec’s tubes are actually ceramic) and Universal Laser Systems, among others.
The other type is the “glass tube laser,” also known as a DC (direct current) laser which typically comes from China, although a few of the metal tube companies are beginning to explore them for specific applications. At the time of this writing, virtually all glass laser tubes are made in China even if they are used in American or European made systems.
The differences between the two are many but for now, it is enough to know that a metal tube laser can not only cut material, it can also engrave it with superior results, including detailed raster engraving such as photo engraving. Glass tube lasers do a good job of cutting material but do not produce the same raster engraving quality. This is because of the frequency of the laser beam produced in these tubes and has nothing to do with brands. It is just the nature of the direct current tube.
So, if you want to be in the personalization business (trophies, plaques, acrylics and the like), a glass tube laser may not be the best choice for you. This fact is disappointing to those people who are in hopes of buying a very inexpensive laser. I have seen these imported glass tube lasers selling for as little as $250. If you are interested in a glass tube laser, buy it from a reputable dealer in the U.S. like Aeon Laser, Boss Laser or AP Lazers. You won’t get one for $250 but at least you should get one that works and some customer support to go with it.
Although there are many of the same considerations to take into account when purchasing either a metal tube or glass tube laser (such as size, speed, power, etc.), for the purposes of this article, I will deal with the two types separately as there are also some different things to consider. Let’s start with metal tube lasers.
METAL TUBE LASERS:
“How much wattage do I need?”
Lasers in our industry range from about 15 watts to 120 watts. Of course, the more wattage, the more it is going to cost so the short answer is it is important to buy what is right for what you want to do with it.
Of course, the problem with that answer is many first-time buyers have no idea what they are going to do with it and even those who think they know, often change their mind—which brings my second “short answer”: Buy as much wattage as you can afford.
The long answer is this: I would not recommend anyone start with less than 25 watts. A 25-35 watt laser will engrave all the coated metals on the market, and cut and engrave most of the plastics up to 1/8” thick. It can cut thicker materials but it might take multiple passes. A 25 watt laser will do a great job engraving acrylic and should cut up to about ¼” in a single pass. It will engrave most wood products although if you want a deep engraving, it might take two passes. It will mark glass, is powerful enough to use with thermal chemicals (CerMark and Enduramark) for marking some uncoated metals. A 25-35 watt laser is a good “general application” laser. This “entry level” laser also does an excellent job marking and cutting films like Rowmark LaserLIGHTS which is a self-adhesive foil that can also be engraved. More powerful lasers tend to be more difficult to control on these more delicate materials.
If possible, a 50 watt laser is more functional, especially for engraving wood or cutting acrylic, plastics and wood. Not only can it cut thicker material, it can do many things faster (time is money).
“How big should the table be?”
With lasers reaching into the 4’ x 8’ range nowadays, it can be a bit intimidating figuring how what size to buy. It is something like going to a car dealership to buy a sub-compact when there are full-size Cadillacs and SUVs sitting all around the showroom. It is easy to get distracted with the super-fancy models.
Again, the size must be determined by what you are going to do with your new laser. If all you want to do is engrave trophy plates, you don’t need a really large table.
Laser table sizes today start at 12” x 18” and go up. Although a 12” x 18” is large enough for a lot of things, I find it limiting in at least one way. Plastic engraving stock and engraving metal such as black brass comes in 12” x 24” sheet sizes. This means that if you want to engrave and cut something out of a sheet of plastic or acrylic, you will have to cut off 6” before you can fit it in the laser. This usually results in a lot of wasted material. Therefore, I recommend starting your search with a 12” x 24” laser bed. That will accept a full “quarter sheet” of plastic, metal or acrylic without having to cut it. This is great for reducing waste but also for ganging projects (sending multiple jobs at once).
Of course, if you have a need for a larger machine, they are available from all the major manufacturers. Common sizes to consider are 18” x 24”, 18” x 32”, 18” x 36”, 24” x 36” and 36” x 48”. Size availability does vary slightly from one manufacturer to another.
“What about speed?”
Some companies really hype it up about the speed of their lasers and speed is good, but it is important to understand how the potential speed of a laser actually impacts your work. For instance, if you are engraving something that can be marked at 30%-80% power and 100% speed, you can take advantage of extra speed but if what you are engraving requires a lot of power, you may well have to slow down the machine to get the mark you want. This is most evident when engraving wood. Wood requires a lot of power, especially if you want a deep engraving. Using a 50 watt laser, you might want to run the laser at 100% power and only 50% speed in order to get the depth you want. With a 25-35 watt laser, you might even have to run two passes to get the desired depth. Having all that speed is of no value unless you have a lot of power to go with it. So, speed is nice to have but there has to be a balance between the material you are processing and how much power your laser has to work with.
“Do I need air assist?”
Air assist is a small compressor (usually not included with your laser) that blows a small air stream (5-15 psi) onto the material being cut or engraved. I usually don’t recommend its use for engraving except for wood but I always use it for cutting. It reduces flame-ups which can char the material or cause smoke damage to whatever is being cut. So, my advice to most new system purchasers is to buy a system with air assist and use it on the jobs involving cutting and deep engravings.
“What about an exhaust system?”
You MUST have an adequate exhaust system for your laser. Most people use a blower like those sold by Johnson Plastics Plus, JDS Industries or some of the laser manufacturers to exhaust laser generated fumes outside of the building. I recommend 600 cfm if you can get it (the Johnson Plastics Plus unit is 720 cfm) but even that isn’t enough to exhaust the really big lasers. If you laser engrave or cut something larger than 24” x 36”, even 720 cfm isn’t enough, and you will have to search out a larger unit or use two of these units.
“Is a filtration system better than an exhaust-to-the-outside system?”
It isn’t a matter of better or worse. The objective is to get rid of as much odor and impurities as possible from the air to ensure a safe workplace. A filtration system from companies like Filtrabox or Quatro are often used when exhausting to the outside isn’t an option. When considering one of these units, be sure to meet or exceed the requirements specified by the laser manufacturer. There is a more extensive look at filtration systems in the March 2020 issue of EJ.
“What brand of laser do you recommend?”
I try to be as neutral as I can possibly be about recommending brands. The truth is, I could be happy with any of the major brands of lasers in our industry. They are all good. Granted, I prefer some over others but that is just personal preference and just because I like those better than others, doesn’t mean you will. What I will encourage is to check out the customer service each company gives to support you and care for your machine. Without good, quick service and support, your laser won’t be worth much. They only make money when they work!
To check out the service record of the laser company you are considering, ask for several customers whose machines are 3-5 years old or more. Then call and ask them what you can expect in the way of telephone support, parts and, if possible, on-site support. If the company doesn’t want to give you these referrals, buy from someone else. Remember, service is everything!
“Should I buy a cylindrical engraving device?”
Devices for engraving cups, travel mugs and other cylindrical items are expensive. I suggest holding off on this purchase until you know you are going to need it. A more extensive look at cylindrical engraving devices can be found in the March 2020 issue of EJ.
“Is there anything I shouldn’t engrave?”
Yes. You should never engrave or cut PVC or anything that contains PVC. Poly vinyl chloride emits a poisonous gas when lasered. The gas will not only harm you, it is highly corrosive to your machine. Engraving PVC will void most laser warranties.
“Is a laser a fire danger?”
When used properly, your laser is far safer than your coffee pot. When used improperly, however, they can cause fires occasionally when you are cutting or engraving combustible materials. If you follow some simple common-sense rules, however, you should never have any trouble.
- Don’t leave the laser unattended when it is working.
- Don’t engrave flammable materials.
- Always ensure your exhaust system is working properly.
- Keep an ABC type fire extinguisher nearby just in case.
The only time I have ever seen a laser catch on fire was when I forgot to turn on the exhaust and engraved a piece of rubber stamp material while I went across the street for a cup of coffee. When I got back, the rubber was on fire. I opened the lid and blew it out. The laser wasn’t a fire danger, I was! There are fire suppression and fire-monitoring devices available for some lasers that can be nice safety features.
“How long will the metal laser tube last?”
Most metal tubes last about 5 years before they need recharging or replacing. I have had them hold up for as long as 10 years. Most new metal (or ceramic) tubes come with a warranty of 2 years or more. Metal tubes usually fade out slowly. After a few years, you will notice it takes more power to do the jobs you did when it was new. This is a sign of age and it can’t be linked to how much you use the laser so much as how old it is. Tubes begin deteriorating the day you put them in, but it should take several years before you actually notice a change. This gives you plenty of time to plan for a replacement. Metal tubes rarely just stop working suddenly. They die over time.
“What kind of software do I need?”
The metal tube lasers in our industry are generally “plug-and-play” systems meaning they will work with most third-party graphic design programs so there is a variety of software to choose from. Most people use CorelDRAW to drive their lasers. Gravograph offers their own engraving software called Gravostyle and a company called CADLink also offers a software package for lasers called EngraveLab. Ask your laser representative about other software packages you can use. Also, check out the feature article in this issue which discusses various software options for laser engraving.
“What about is a cutting grid?”
Through-cutting combustible materials can create problems. When the material is laid flat on a metal table and the laser beam penetrates through the bottom, it is reflected back upwards and causes burning and smoke damage around the cut. To eliminate this, every laser manufacturer offers a cutting grid for their machines. Some come standard and there are at least a couple of generic tables available (Rowmark’s Rack Star and CuttingGrid.com). These are not inexpensive but if you are going to do much cutting, you really need a cutting grid. When buying a grid, make sure it sits up off the table so smoke can escape from underneath the grid.
“Should I buy new or used?”
First, there are two types of used lasers. There is the used laser from the guy down the street and there is the used laser from a dealer who has refurbished the laser. If you are thinking of buying a used laser from the guy down the street, it is probably not a good idea, especially if it is more than a few years old. If you are thinking about buying a fully refurbished laser with a new tube in it, maybe.
For your first laser, I strongly suggest you buy a new laser from the manufacturer or the manufacturer’s representative. There is too much you don’t know yet about lasers and what can go wrong. With a new laser, any problems that show up (and it’s rare) is the manufacturer’s problem. With a used laser, it’s probably going to be in your lap and more often than not, the repair will cost more than the laser did. Unless you have extraordinary circumstances, buy new.
GLASS TUBE LASERS:
We have already established that glass tube lasers shine when they are called upon to cut stuff—mostly plastic, wood and acrylic. Although the information you see on eBay and Amazon tout being able to cut anything, these lasers essentially have the same basic physics as the metal tube lasers. Neither glass nor metal tube lasers of 120 watts or less can cut metal.
When buying a glass tube laser, you must decide on the same things you have to decide on with the metal tubes: speed, power and size. Here are some other considerations.
“Why not buy directly from China?”
There are several reasons. The first is support and service. It is highly unlikely you will get any kind of support for a laser ordered from China. You will pay more by buying from a U.S. based distributor of glass tube lasers, but it is money well spent. By the way, buying a Chinese laser from eBay or Amazon is the same as buying directly from China and will bring about the same problems.
Beyond the issue of service and support, there are the shipping problems from the other side of the globe. A good laser is mounted in a very strong metal cabinet. These cabinets must be perfectly square for the gantry system to work properly. If the cabinet gets knocked out of square during shipping (and they often do when coming from China), you will encounter problems unless or until a repair is made. A reputable dealer located in the U.S. will ensure the cabinet and gantry are square and properly aligned before delivery.
“Why does a glass tube laser need a separate cooling system?”
All laser tubes generate heat—so much heat they can self-destruct. To prevent this, metal tube lasers typically use banks of cooling fans to cool the tube, but this is not adequate for glass tube lasers. They require a special water-cooling system, usually referred to as a “chiller.” Some distributors/manufacturers of glass tube lasers recommend making your own cooling system with a water pump (like the one in a fish tank) and a five-gallon bucket. This is totally unacceptable. It is dangerous and if the water gets low by evaporation or other reasons, the lack of cooling will very quickly destroy the laser tube. Legitimate distributors of these lasers offer a self-contained cooling system. For the more powerful lasers, they add refrigeration to the system. Of course, this adds to the price of the laser but is imperative for those who are serious about working with a laser.
“I have been told glass lasers are dangerous. Are they?”
Probably what they are talking about is the fact that the water-cooling system connects directly to the laser tube along with the power source which is usually 120 volts AC. Getting tangled up with these can be extremely dangerous. This is another reason to invest in a good/safe self-contained water circulation system and to insure it is always in good working condition.
“How long will a glass tube laser last?”
That’s a good question. Nobody really knows. I have talked to people who have been running one for years and never changed a laser tube. On the other hand, there are people less fortunate who have had to replace several per year. It somewhat depends on where the tubes are manufactured. Some discounted tubes just aren’t much good while others perform much better. The good news is glass tubes are far less expensive than metal tubes. A good 50 watt glass tube costs about $500 and carries a warranty of up to six months. A 50 watt metal tube costs around $2,000 but most carry a warranty of at least two years. I have had metal tubes hold up for as long as ten years, but five years is probably average. Most tubes can be replaced by the user in 30 minutes or less. One difference between a glass and metal laser tube is that when a glass tube goes out, it goes out like a lightbulb. For this reason, it is always wise to have a replacement on hand—just in case.
“Is the exhaust system any different with a glass laser?”
No. Although some Chinese “hobby” lasers come with a tiny little blower fan, it should never be used. All lasers produce the same dangerous gases. Don’t play games with the exhaust system. Buy an adequate exhaust and/or filtration system before you install your new laser.
“Does a glass tube laser use the same software as the metal tube machines?”
Yes, it can, but for the most part, that is overkill. Because these machines are mostly used for cutting, a special vector design program has been developed called LightBurn. It sells for about $80 rather than the $450 price tag for CorelDRAW and is included free with some lasers. There are other design programs for Chinese lasers that can be downloaded free.
Hopefully, I have answered some of your questions about buying your first laser. There is a lot to consider, especially if you haven’t had any firsthand experience with them. The hype in ads and online is sometimes very misleading and confusing. Keep in mind that all that publicity is written by the company selling the machine and it is always slanted their way. Most representatives try to be honest, I think, but their livelihood depends on them selling machines.
If you live in an area where you can, take a little trip to towns and cities 50 miles or so from where you live and visit any shops that have laser engravers. So long as you aren’t going to set up shop in their backyard, most shop owners are happy to help someone get started in the business. Ask them what laser(s) they have and what they like and don’t like about it.
I’ll close with one final question: “Should you buy a laser?” For years my answer to that question has been the same. “If you can’t make money with a laser, there is something seriously wrong!”