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Laser Cutting: The Ultimate Guide

by Winnie Li Updated on March 03, 2023

Laser cutting is a highly precise and versatile method of cutting various materials, from wood to plastics to metals. Laser cutting is widely used in industries such as manufacturing, aerospace, and automotive, as well as in DIY projects

In this blog post, we will explore the world of laser cutting, including how it works, the types of materials it can cut, its applications, and an ideal laser cutting machine for crafting and small business alike . We will also dive into the advantages of laser cutting, as well as some tips for getting started with laser cutting.

Whether you're a seasoned professional or just curious about this fascinating technology, this post will provide a comprehensive introduction to laser cutting.

In This Article

  • What is Laser Cutting? How Does a Laser Cutter Machine Work?
  • How to Design Laser Cut Files?
  • What Materials Can a Laser Cutter Cut?
  • Compatible Materials for Different Laser Cutting Machines
  • Materials That Can Not Be Cut with Laser Cutting
  • Advantages of Laser Cutting
  • Laser Cutting Applications
  • Types of Laser Cutting Machines
  • Best Laser Cutting Machine
  • Laser Cutting FAQs

What is Laser Cutting? How Does a Laser Cutter Machine Work?

Laser Cutting refers to the process that is used to cut materials and objects using a high-powered and extremely focused laser beam. With lasers, different processes are carried out, including laser engraving, laser marking, laser cutting, laser etching, and other processes that include alteration of materials. But cutting is a quite different process that cuts the materials into pieces. 

a laser cutter machine cutting through a piece of wood

The laser beams with intense power are encapsulated in the laser module and consist of electromagnetic radiation of a certain wavelength which can be visible or invisible to the naked eye, depending on the light spectrum of the wavelenght. 

The beams are then passed through several mirrors and reflectors before converging at a single spot having a diameter in fractions of a millimeter through a convex lens.

laser module principle of laser cutting machines

Accompanied by a fast-moving gas, usually Nitrogen or Oxygen, the highly focused laser beams come out from a nozzle and are directed by computer numerical control (CNC), which makes the process also known as CNC laser cutting. The laser cutter software moves the laser head/module according to the design file and machine settings provided.

When the laser beams land on the material, the temperature of the material increases within milliseconds, causing sublimation, a process in which a material changes from a solid to a gaseous state without passing through the liquid state. The material then vaporizes, and the laser beams penetrate the object to cut it into the desired shape. The process can be completed in one pass if the laser beams are powerful enough; otherwise, several passes are needed.

laser cutting wood in one pass

In summary, laser cutting is a highly precise and efficient process that utilizes a focused laser beam to cut materials. The process involves the use of a highly-focused laser beam and computer numerical control (CNC), which work together to achieve the desired result.

How to Design Laser Cut Files?

Choosing laser cut files design software

Before we get into the steps to create your laser cut files, let's understand the design software first. There are many design software for designing laser cut files, with the popular ones including Adobe Illustrator, CorelDRAW, Inkscape (which is free), and AutoCAD. You can choose one based on your skill level and preference. Moreover, you can buy ready-to-go laser cut files from sites like Etsy and other design resources websites, and there are many free laser cut files availabe as well, some popular sites offering free laser cut files are Ponoko, Laser Ready Templates, 3axis and Design Bundles. 

Create your design using vector format

Laser cutting machines follow the lines typically you draw to cut, so you should use vector graphics for laser cutting because they consist of precise path and shapes that the laser cutter can follow to cut the material exactly as you intended. Common vector file formats include SVG, DXF, and AI. Laser cutters can also engrave raster files, such as BMP, JPG, or PNG. Raster files are made up of pixels, so they can't create the precise paths and shapes that vector files can. However, they are useful for creating shading and other effects in engravings.

Use Colors to Indicate Actions

Some laser cutters use different colors to indicate different actions. For example, you might use red lines to indicate cuts and black for engraving. Check your laser cutter's manual to see if specific colors are required for different actions.

Convert Text to Outlines

If your design includes text, make sure to convert it to outlines (also known as paths or curves). This ensures that the laser cutter sees the text as shapes to be cut.

convert text to outlines for laser cutting

Save Your File Correctly

Once your design is complete, you'll need to save it in a format your laser cutter can read. This is often a DXF, SVG, or AI file, but check your laser cutter's manual to be sure.

What Materials Can a Laser Cutter Cut?

Laser cutting is a popular technique for cutting and engraving various materials, such as wood, acrylic, metal, leather, and more. However, not all materials are suitable for laser cutting, and some may require specific types of laser cutting machines. Here are some materials that are suitable for laser cutting:

1. Wood: Laser cutting is an excellent technique for cutting wood, including plywood, MDF, and solid wood. With a wood laser cutter, you can create intricate designs, patterns, and shapes with precision and speed. Wood laser engraving is also possible with a laser, allowing for custom artwork and personalized wood gifts.

laser cutting wood projects

2. Acrylic: Acrylic is a popular material for laser cutting due to its versatility, durability, and aesthetic appeal, making it a popular choice for applications that require an attractive and aesthetically pleasing finish, such as awards, trophies, sinage, display, and decorative items.

laser cutting acrylic projects

3. Leather: Laser cutting can produce intricate and precise designs on leather with minimal waste. It is commonly used in the fashion industry for cutting leather patterns, bags, and accessories.

laser cutting leather projects

4. Plastic: Laser cutting is suitable for various plastic materials, including acrylic (PMMA), polystyrene (PS), polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), etc. It is essential to note that different types of plastic have varying melting points and react differently to laser cutting. Therefore, it is essential to consult with the laser cutting machine's manufacturer or supplier to ensure the plastic material is suitable for laser cutting. Additionally, it is crucial to take precautions when laser cutting plastics as they can release harmful fumes when exposed to high temperatures.

5. Paper and cardboard: Laser cutting is perfect for creating paper and cardboard prototypes, pop-up cards, invitation cards and decorative paper arts.

laser cutting paper lamp

6. Fabric: Laser cutting can create clean cuts and precise shapes on various types of fabric, including cotton, silk, polyester, and leather. It can be used for fashion, upholstery, and decorative items.

laser cutting fabric projects

7. Metals: Metal is a hard materials that requires a specific laser cutter to cut it. A fiber laser is the best option for metal laser cutting as it produces higher power laser beam than other lasers. Metals such as stainless steel, aluminum, brass, and copper can be easily laser cut with them.

8. Rubber: Laser cutting is ideal for cutting rubber materials, including silicone rubber, neoprene rubber, and natural rubber. It is used in the automotive, industrial, and medical industries.

9. Foam: Laser cutting is perfect for cutting foam materials, including foam rubber, EVA foam, and polyurethane foam. It can create precise shapes and designs for packaging, cosplay costumes, and props.

Also, different types of laser cutting machines are suitable for specific materials due to their specific characteristics, including the material's thickness, density,boiling point, and reflectivity. The following are some examples:

Compatible Materials for Different Laser Cutting Machines

What materials can a diode laser cut?

Diode lasers are commonly used for cutting wood, MDF, paper, leather, felt, and some opaque acrylic. Diode lasers have a wavelength of around 455-1064 nm, which is efficient at cutting these materials. They are often used in small and compact laser cutting machines that are suitable for hobbyists or small businesses.

start a laser cutting business

What materials can a CO2 laser cut?

CO2 lasers are commonly used for cutting non-metallic materials such as wood, acrylic, paper, leather, and fabric. CO2 lasers have a wavelength of 10.6 micrometers, which is well-suited for these materials as it is efficiently absorbed, resulting in clean and precise cuts. The power of CO2 lasers ranges from 30 watts to 400 watts, making them suitable for cutting various thicknesses of non-metallic materials.

What materials can a fiber laser cut?

Fiber lasers are ideal for cutting metals such as stainless steel, aluminum, copper, and brass. Fiber lasers ususally have a wavelength of 1.06 microns, which is efficiently absorbed by metal, resulting in a clean cut. Fiber lasers have high power, making them suitable for cutting thicker metal sheets.

What materials can a UV laser cut?

UV lasers are suitable for cutting materials that are difficult to cut with other laser types, such as glass, ceramics, and certain plastics. UV lasers have a shorter wavelength of 355 nanometers, which is efficient at cutting these materials.

While laser cutting is a highly versatile and efficient method of material cutting, there are some materials that are not suitable for laser cutting due to either their harmful fumes emissions or poor cutting results.

Materials That Can Not Be Cut with Laser Cutting

Here are some examples of such materials to be cautious of when considering laser cutting:

1. PVC and Vinyl: Cutting PVC with a laser cutter machine produces hydrochloric acid gas, which can damage the laser and pose a health risk to those nearby. PVC and vinyl should be avoided to laser cut, cut them using a vinyl cutter machine instead.

2. Polycarbonate: While polycarbonate is impact-resistant, it tends to melt and produce rough edges when cut with a laser. Other cutting methods, such as sawing or routing, are better suited for this material. 

3. Glass: Glass is difficult to cut with a laser cutting machine as it requires a lot of power, and it can shatter during the process.

By being aware of these limitations, you can avoid potential safety hazards and ensure optimal cutting results. It's always important to consult with a professional or the material manufacturer to determine the most appropriate cutting method for a specific material.

Advantages of Laser Cutting

As explained above, laser cutting uses a high-powered laser beam to cut various materials and is directed by computer numerical control software, which achieve numerous advantages over traditional cutting methods.

Laser Cutting Produces High-qualtiy Resutls

Due to the small size of the laser spot, high energy density, and fast cutting speed, laser cutting can achieve good cutting quality - precise and clean cuts.

The highly-powered and focused laser beam produces a very narrow kerf (cutting width) that vaporizes the material being cut, resulting in minimal material waste and producing a clean and smooth edge, with a surface roughness of only a few tens of micrometers.

Laser cutting can even be used as the final process without the need for mechanical processing, and the parts can be used directly. Additionaly, the width of the heat-affected zone is very small, the properties of the material near the cutting edge are almost unaffected, and the deformation of the workpiece is small.

Laser Cutting Machines Process Automatically and Quickly

Laser cutting is an automated process. After you upload the design to the laser cutter software and adjust the optimal laser beam's power, speed and focus settings based on the material being cut, guided by the software, the laser beam moves quickly and efficiently, which can make thousands of cuts per minute.

Laser Cutting is Incredibly Versatile

Compared to other conventional cutting methods, laser cutting has greater adaptability. 

First, compared to other thermal cutting methods, as a thermal cutting process, other methods cannot act on a very small area like a laser beam, resulting in wide cuts, large heat-affected zones, and significant workpiece deformation. In addition, laser can cut non-metallic materials, while other thermal cutting methods cannot.  Besides, the laser beam can be adjusted to suit different thicknesses, making it a flexible process that can be used for a variety of applications. 

Additionally, laser cutters can be used to create complex shapes and designs, engrave logos or designs, and even create 3D objects. 

engraved signs and 3d objects made by laser cutting machines

This versatility makes laser cutting a popular choice in many industries, from automotive and aerospace to jewelry making and gift making, you can even start a laser engraving business

start a laser cutting business

Laser Cutting is an Non-contact Process

When laser cutting, the material being cut is not touched by the laser cutting machine, which means there is little risk of deformation or damage to the material, making it ideal for applications where precision and quality are critical.

Laser Cutting Applications

As a highly accurate and efficient technology, laser cutting has been applied to various industries such as manufacturing, automotive, aerospace, construction, medical, and textiles. With the advent of compact and affordable laser cutting machines, this technology has become increasingly popular among DIYers, hobbyists, artists, and designers as well.

It is being used for crafting, DIY projects, and even for running small businesses. Here are some examples of the diverse applications of compact and desktop laser cutting machines in various industries:

Arts and Crafts 

Laser cutting has become a favorite tool of many artists and crafters due to its precision and versatility. Laser cutting machines can be used to create intricate designs on a variety of materials. From jewelry making to paper crafting, laser cutting can produce stunning and unique designs.

laser cutting crafts

Home and Decor

Laser cutting machines are also being used by homeowners and interior designers to create unique home decor and furnishings. From laser cut wooden wall art to personalized wooden signs, laser cutting machines allow for the creation of custom decor and furnishings that reflect the homeowner's personal style.

laser cutting wall art

Fashion and Textiles

Laser cutting machines are becoming increasingly popular in the fashion and textiles industry. They can be used to cut and engrave a variety of fabrics and textiles, creating intricate designs and patterns. Laser cutting can be used to produce custom clothing, accessories, and even footwear.

laser cutting wall art

Signage and Branding

Laser cutting is an effective way to create custom signage and branding materials for businesses. This technology allows for the creation of intricate designs and letters that would be impossible to achieve with traditional methods. Laser cutting is used to produce signage, lettering, logos, and branding materials such as business cards, brochures, and packaging.

Jewelry Making

Jewelry designers can use laser cutting machines to create intricate and precise designs on a variety of materials such as metal, acrylic, and wood. The technology also enables the production of custom jewelry pieces with personalized designs for wedding rings, necklaces, bracelets, and more.

laser cutting jewelry

Wedding Decor

Laser cut designs on table settings, wedding invitations, and decorative pieces can give a unique and personalized touch to the wedding decor. The technology can also be used to create custom laser cut wedding favors for guests and personalized wedding gifts for the newlywed.

laser cutting wedding decor

Gift Making

For gift making, laser cutting machines allow for the creation of custom designs on a variety of materials such as wood, leather, and acrylic. From personalized keychains to custom wooden plaques, laser cutting can help create unique and memorable gifts for any occasion.

laser cutting wooden gift

Types of Laser Cutting Machines

Understanding the different types of laser cutters is crucial because each type is suitable for specific materials. There are three main types of laser cutters: CO2 laser cutters, fiber laser cutter, and diode laser cutters.

CO2 Laser Cutting Machines

In the CO2 laser, the laser beam is produced inside a sealed gas tube that contains a mixture of gas. The higher proportion of the gas is CO2. The tube has two electrodes connected at the ends. When a high potential difference is created between the electrodes, the positive nucleus and electrons start to move in particular directions. Due to the release of high energy from atoms, laser beams are produced from the tube. The beams are then reflected using mirrors and reflectors and converged using a convex lens. The radiation emitted from CO2 lasers is invisible as it is in the infrared region. It is ideal for cutting and engraving non-metals, such as wood, leather, plastic, paper, and fabric. 

Fiber Laser Cutting Machines

Fiber laser cutting machines are more advanced than CO2 laser cutters as they are newer and equipped with the latest technology. Consequently, they are very expensive. Fiber lasers are based on seed lasers, in which a laser is generated using a bank of diodes and then amplified. For amplification, fiber lasers use glass fibers that convert 75% of the power into laser beams and reduce the power lose, so the resultant laser beams are much more intense than CO2 laser beams of the same rated optical power. They also cut materials at a faster rate. Due to the intense and high energy of the laser beams, they can easily cut metals, such as stainless steel, copper, and aluminum.

Diode Laser Cutting Machines

Diode lasers are also called semiconductor lasers because diodes are made of semiconductors. As the name suggests, diodes are used to create laser beams in this type of laser. The diodes used for producing lasers are a bit different from common diodes. They have a special intrinsic layer that gives off high-energy photons, which are then amplified into a laser.

The working of these lasers is pretty simple. The diode banks emit laser beams which are then reflected using a reflector. If there are multiple diode lasers in a module, all the beams are converged using a convex lens. Once they pass from the convex lens, they are highly directional and focused, then they are ready to cut and engrave objects.

Diode lasers are quite popular and widely used these days. They are widely used for DIY projects and creating various products. 

They are excellent for cutting wood, opaque acrylic, and a few other materials. They can engrave wood, steel, leather, glass, rubber, acrylic, cardboard, ceramics, etc.

The materials for cutting are limited because these are not as powerful as other laser types. Usually, the laser optical power is 10W or lower; however, we have introduced a 40W diode laser module, which is the world’s most powerful diode laser module.

Typically, these are not suitable for translucent and reflective materials, such as metals. You cannot use them for metal cutting. However, they are excellent for cutting wood and acrylic for small projects. Due to low power, the speed is also lower than other laser types.

Diode lasers are very compact and lightweight. They are much more affordable and have a longer lifetime than other types of lasers, which is why they are quite common and preferred for startups and small businesses.

Best Laser Cutting Machine

If you're looking for a high-quality and versatile laser cutting and engraving machine for crafts making or small business, xTool D1 Pro is an excellent choice.

This compact and powerful device is ideal for hobbyists, DIY enthusiasts, professionals, and small business owners who need to cut and engrave various materials with precision and accuracy.

This machine comes with 5W, 10W, 20W and 40W modules to choose from. The 40W module can cut 18mm hardwood and 15mm black acrylic in one pass, and it's compatible with more than 300 materials, so you have a wide range of options for engraving and cutting.

With a diameter of only 0.06 x 0.06mm to 0.1 x 0.15mm , the laser beams produced by the xTool D1 pro are ultra-fine, which translates into high accuracy and precision.

xtool d1 pro laser beam diameter

On top of that, xTool D1 Pro is easy to use, even if you have no previous experience with laser cutting and engraving. The machine runs on a user-friendly software and is also  compatible with LightBurn, a professional laser cutter software that gives you more advanced features and controls.

For small business owners, the xTool D1 is an excellent investment. It's affordable, and you can add various attachments to expand its capabilities. The laser module can be easily changed and upgraded as needed, which makes it a long-term investment. 

With the xTool D1, you can create your own products, customize existing ones, and offer laser cutting and engraving services to your customers, which can be a source of additional revenue for your business.

xtool d1 pro and its projects

Laser Cutting FAQs

Q1: What is a laser kerf, and should I be worried about it?

A laser kerf is the width of the cut made by the laser beam. It is produced as a result of the laser beam melting and vaporizing the material as it cuts through it. When the laser beam melts and vaporizes the material, it creates a narrow channel or groove that is slightly wider than the diameter of the laser beam itself.

It's important to take the laser kerf into account when designing your project because it can affect the fit of your pieces. If your design requires precise fits or interlocking pieces, the laser kerf may be a concern.

However, most laser cutters have a very small kerf, typically less than 0.1mm, so it's not usually a major concern. If you're unsure about the kerf of your laser cutter, you can test it by cutting a small sample piece and measuring the width of the cut.

Q2: How are laser cutting settings set?

Laser cutting settings, such as power and speed, are set based on the material being cut and the desired outcome. Different materials require different settings to achieve the best results.

For example, cutting through thicker materials will require more power and a slower speed, while engraving or etching may require a lower power setting and a higher speed.

The settings are usually adjusted using the control software that comes with the laser cutter. The software will allow you to adjust the power of the laser, the speed at which it moves, and the frequency of the laser pulses.

The best way to determine the ideal laser cutting settings for your project is to test different settings on a small piece of the material you plan to use. Start with a low power and speed setting and gradually increase them until you achieve the desired outcome. Keep in mind that different materials will require different settings, so you may need to adjust the settings for each new material you work with.

Q3: How thick can a laser cutter machine cut?

The thickness of the material that a laser cutter can cut will depend on several factors, including the power and speed of the laser, the type of material and the focal length of the laser beam.

Keep in mind that the thicker the material, the slower the cutting speed will be, and the more power the laser will require.  It's important to check the specifications of your laser cutter to determine its cutting capabilities.

Q4: How to focus a laser cutter?

Before your laser cutting projects, it is important to focus your laser cutter first. The laser beam is concentrated into a single point, and if this point is not precisely on the surface of the material being cut, the laser cutting effectiveness will be reduced. To focus your laser cutter, you need to know the focal length first. The focal length of your laser cutter is the distance from the laser's lens to the surface of the material when the laser is in focus. The focal length you choose will depend on the material's thickness.

Many laser cutters come with a focus tool. This tool is designed to help you set the correct distance between the laser's lens and the material's surface. Below is a guide on focusing xTool D1 pro laser cutter using its focus lever.

Some advanced laser cutters such as xTool P2 laser cutting machine have an auto-focus feature. They use a sensor to automatically adjust the height of the laser head to the correct focus point.

Q5: How long does laser cutting take?

The duration of a laser cutting project varies based on several factors including design complexity, material type and thickness, laser power, cutting speed, and number of passes. For example,  simple design on medium-thickness acrylic with a moderately powered laser might take a few minutes, while a complex design on thick steel could take an hour or more.

Q6: What laser can cut metal?

To cut metal, you'll typically need a fiber laser cutter. Fiber lasers are powerful enough to cut through metals such as stainless steel, aluminum, brass, and copper. 

Q7: Can xTool D1 Pro cut metal?

The xTool D1 Pro is a doide laser cutting and engraving machine that is  excellent for engraving and cutting materials like wood, leather, acrylic, and some other materials. However, diode lasers typically do not have the power necessary to cut through metal. But xTool D1 pro can engrave some plated and coated metals.

Q8: Can you laser cut vinyl?

Laser cutting vinyl is generally not recommended due to safety concerns. When vinyl is cut using a laser, it produces fumes that are harmful to human health.

Q9: What is the difference between cnc cutting and laser cutting?

CNC (Computer Numerical Control) cutting and laser cutting are both subtractive manufacturing processes used to cut and shape materials. CNC cutting uses a computer-controlled machine moving a tool (like a drill or router) to cut materials. Laser cutting is also a type of CNC cutting, however it uses a high-powered laser to cut materials.

Q10: Is laser cutting profitable?

Yes, laser cutting can be profitable. Laser cutting allows you to create unique, custom products that can't be easily replicated by other methods. This can give you a competitive edge and help you charge a premium for your services. 

start a laser cutting business

Q11: What are some tips for good laser cutting results?

1. Choose the right material for your project. Different materials will require different laser cutting settings and may have different limitations in terms of thickness and cutting speed.

2. Use high-quality design software to create your designs. Vector files are preferred for laser cutting because they allow for precise shapes and paths that the laser cutter can follow accurately.

3. Test your laser cutting settings on a small sample piece before cutting your final design. This will help you achieve the best possible results.

4. Keep your laser cutter clean and well-maintained. Regular cleaning and maintenance can help prolong the life of your equipment and ensure consistent results.

5. Experiment with different techniques, such as engraving and etching, to create unique and custom designs that can set you apart from the competition.

6. Practice safety precautions when working with laser cutters, such as wearing appropriate eye protection and ensuring that the laser cutter is properly ventilated.

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