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Laser Etching: All You Need to Know

by Winnie Li Posted on May 11, 2023

At times, the process of laser engraving may not be the ideal choice for marking or designing objects. This can be due to its propensity to engrave deeply, physically altering the surface of the materials it interacts with. In such scenarios, a superior alternative is Laser Etching. This method, conducted at lower power levels and higher speeds, ensures permanet marks wherever the laser reacts with the material. If you're new to laser etching, no worries. We will explore what laser etching is, the common materials you can etch, the types of laser etching machines you can go with, and everything you need to know as a beginner. We will also share some important factors to help you pick the best laser etching machine easily.

In This Article

  • What is Laser Etching? How Does Laser Etching Work?
  • Common Materials for Laser Etching
  • Applications of Laser Etching
  • Types of Lasers Used in Etching
  • Factors to Consider When Buying a Laser Etching Machine
  • Best Laser Etching Machine
  • Conclusion

What is Laser Etching? How Does Laser Etching Work?

The process of creating a mark on an object by melting the surface with a laser is called laser etching.

laser etching on wood

In the process, high energy laser beams are used to increase the temperature of the material abruptly. When these beams fall on the surface, the beams are absorbed by the material instantly, which have a very high energy per unit of surface area. As a result, the material starts to melt from the surface and then, within a fraction of a second, the material cools down, and a permanent mark is left over the surface.

Laser etching is done at the micro surface, so it does not affect the whole object. You will not see any depth in the marking; however, sometimes, there is a minimal depth of around 0.001 inches. With that being said, it does not create a greater change on the surface. The color of the etching depends on the metal and the settings of the laser. It is usually black, white, or gray. These marks can last for a very long time.

Laser Etching vs Laser Marking vs Laser Engraving

Laser Etching, Laser Marking, and Laser Engraving are completely different processes that have distinct requirements, conditions, results, and applications. Beginners and some laser enthusiasts might use them interchangeably or consider them the same, but they differ a lot in multiple aspects.

Laser Engraving refers to removing the material from the surface of the material by using laser beams. If you closely look at the engraving, you will see deep cuts that you can sense through touch. It gives a 3D appearance to the object. The depth can be 0.001-0.125 inches, depending on the material. Engraving requires very high-power laser beams, more powerful than laser etching and laser marking. These beams fall on the material and raise its temperature instantly. In no time, the surface of the materials converts from the solid phase to gaseous, which is called Sublimation. The material vaporizes and leaves a cavity that acts like a dark 3D mark. Due to deep engraving, the marks stay for a very long time on the material.

Laser Etching is considered a subset of laser engraving because it also involves the removal of the material but only at the micro-surface level. Most of the time, there is no removal of particles from the surface. The energy of laser beams is less than engraving, and it is a faster process. The laser beams melt the material from the surface. Due to high temperature, the surface of the material starts to melt. Upon cooling, a dark mark appears on the surface, which is almost no or minimal depth of the marks.

Laser Marking is the fastest process among these. It requires low-energy beams for decolorizing the material. Therefore, it can be used to process bulk materials for creating permanent marks. There is no removal of the particles from the surface; it only deals with the reaction of particles after getting in touch with the laser beams. When the laser beams fall on the surface of the material, there are some chemical and physical changes due to heat. The marks have a high contrast, which is why they are visible and clear. Laser Marking has several types, such as Laser Annealing, Laser Forming, Laser Carbonizing, Laser Coloration, etc. Some experts also consider Laser Engraving as a subset of Laser Marking. All these types of Laser Marking have different procedures or phenomena for changing the color of the material. There could be oxidation, melting, migration of carbon particles, etc. In the end, you get permanent marks without harming or changing the surface of the material.

Common Materials for Laser Etching

Laser Etching can be performed on a wide range of materials. However, it depends on the type of laser you are using and its compatibility with the materials.

Laser Etching Glass

Glass is a very delicate material, and it can’t be etched by any physical tool. Even there can be cracks if you use CNC routers. Therefore, a laser etching machine is the best option for etching glass. If you are using clear glass, you will see frosted etches after applying laser beams. The laser creates small cracks through heat, which makes the design or pattern more visible and look more appealing. 

laser etched glass

The best options for etching glass are Diode Lasers and CO2 Lasers. If you are using a CO2 laser, you can etch glass directly without using laser marking paper or other pretreatments. You will see a white frosted look after etching. With a diode laser, you need to use laser marking paper.

Flat glasses can be etched without any hassle, but if you want to etch drinking glasses, mugs, or wine glasses, you need to use a rotary attachment. You can etch almost any glass using a laser etcher. It offers perfect results and can work on fine details. You can even etch a logo or photo.

laser etched glass photo

Laser Etching Metal

Metals are quite hard, which is why their boiling and melting temperatures are too high. It is not possible for a small desktop laser machine to engrave marks on them. However, etching is possible and the best option.

You etch stainless steel, aluminum, copper, gold, silver, platinum, titanium, and other metals using a laser etcher. The laser-affected area will offer a dark or light contrast, depending on the material and laser settings. Some metals can also offer multiple colors at different powers and speeds of the laser machines.

color laser etching on metal

You can etch bare metals, anodized metals, coated metals, etc. The best option for metal etching is a Fiber Laser. All you need to do is place the metal directly under the laser machine, and you are good to go. There is no need for any coating or marking spray in most cases. It can even etch bare metals. Fiber lasers are quite expensive, so not everyone would be able to afford them. The next option could be an infrared laser. The beams emitted by this laser are easily absorbed by various metals, including precious metals. You can etch Gold, Silver, etc. It also does not require any coating on the surface of the bare metal. The laser machine is quite affordable, and you get excellent results.

If you are using a CO2 laser or diode laser, you need to coat the bare metals with a metal marking spray. However, the coated metals and products will not require any coating. Some powerful diode lasers can directly work on some bare metals and offer multiple colors. But using a marking spray gives better results.

Laser Etching Wood

A piece of wood is usually engraved using a laser machine. But at very low power settings, there will be minimal or no depth, just like etching a material. Etching wood is quite easy and fast, and you can use a simple diode or CO2 laser. Even low-power laser machines can work perfectly well. You can etch images, designs, patterns, or anything you like. The etching can be done on solid wood, plywood, wooden products, wood gifts, home décor items, etc.

laser etched wood coasters

Laser Etching Plastic

A laser etcher is the best way to etch plastic, especially acrylic. It will offer fine marks that are not possible to achieve through any other methods, like CNC routing and manual chiseling. You can etch all kinds of acrylic using a laser machine. Etching clear acrylics will result in a frosted look. Other than acrylic, you can etch other plastics that are not harmful or toxic when processed with a laser machine. The best laser machine for plastic etching is a CO2 laser. It is the ideal laser for cutting, engraving, and etching non-metals, including a wide variety of plastics. The next option could be a diode laser, but it is only suitable for processing opaque acrylics.

laser etched plastic earrings

Laser Etching Leather

Leather gives exceptional high-contrast marks when processed using a laser machine. The etching on leather is done for making personalized products, such as purses, caps, belts, and wallets. Due to the high precision and accuracy of laser machines, you can observe fine details of the graphics. The results are impeccable. For leather, the best laser machine is CO2 because. You can also use diode lasers for leather laser etching. Keep in mind that when you process leather using a laser machine, the smell is unbearable in most cases. Make sure you have a proper ventilation system.

laser etched leather items

Applications of Laser Etching

Personalization and Customization

Personalized and customized items are quite trending these days because people want to have something unique and according to their liking. Using laser etching machines, you can make personalized and customized items through laser etching. You can make personalized keychains, tumblers, wallets, pens, photo frames, and hundreds of other things. The laser machine will etch these objects and materials and offer a high-contrast color. Usually, people have their names, special dates, important quotes, favorite characters, or designs on the items. There is a wide variety of personalized products you can make.

Personalized items are great for gifting. Things can be personalized according to the person, event, day, or occasion. For instance, you can make an etched photo of a wedding couple. Similarly, baubles can be etched for Christmas.

laser etched christmas ornament

Wall hangings, patterns, wall art pieces, and other décor items can be made through etching. There are various home and office décor ideas that require laser machines.

laser etched wood door hanging

You can sell your products online because personalized products are in great demand. Start your own website or sell on online marketplaces like Etsy. The best way is to collaborate with some location businesses and make their promotional items.

Security and Traceability

Laser Etching can be used to make barcodes, QR codes, serial numbers, and identification numbers on products and entities. It is a great way to do the permanent marking quickly. The identification marks are quite helpful for security purposes. They help in the traceability and identification of the objects. By using a handheld or portable laser engraver, it is quite easy and quick to etch materials and leave the desired ID.

a man etching a mailbox using a portable laser etching machine

As laser etching does not harm the material or create deep marks, it is good for barcodes, QR codes, and numbers on the material. The marking is done only at the minor surface level so it does not harm the object in any way. It is much better than printing and chiseling.

Industry

Many industries use Laser Etching for marking their products. For instance, automotive industries use it to mark parts, chassis, engines, etc. Similarly, metals are marked for quick identification. It is a great asset for the metal fabrication industry. Medical industries also used laser etching as well as laser marking for marking medical equipment and tools. With laser etching, it is possible to make logos, barcodes, identification marks, images, and almost anything you want. Therefore, industries prefer it for marking purposes

Types of Lasers Used in Etching

Diode Laser

The most affordable option for etching materials is a diode laser. It is ideal for starting a small business from home or a small shop. You can easily get it in the range of $600-$1,500, depending on the features and specifications.

Diode lasers are generally blue lasers having a wavelength of around 455nm. The wavelength of the laser beams can be absorbed by various materials, including wood, acrylic (except clear and blue acrylic), stone, leather, ceramics, glass, some metals, etc. With that being said, you can etch various materials using an affordable machine. A low-power diode laser having an optical power of 5-10W is good for engraving and etching. You will get fine details due to the small dimensions of the laser spot. But if you want to etch metals in different colors, it is better to get at least a 20W diode laser.

CO2 Laser

CO2 lasers have wavelengths in the range of 10,000nm, which is perfect for covering a wide variety of non-metals. It can work on wood, acrylic, stone, glass, rubber, plastics, ceramics, and some metals as well. These lasers are more versatile than diode lasers. They are also more powerful because of the CO2 laser tube. Therefore, they can quickly engrave and etch materials and offer exceptional results. You will find extraordinary features in CO2 lasers, such as cameras, enclosed structures, and safety features. There is no doubt that CO2 laser machines are exceptional, but they come along with a hefty price tag. They are 3-4 times more expensive than a diode laser. If you need a reliable option that can work on various non-metals, a CO2 laser is the right choice. It costs a bit more, but it is worth it.

Infrared Laser

An infrared laser is an affordable option for etching metals. It is also a kind of diode laser as it uses diode laser sources, but the wavelength is usually 1064nm. This wavelength is perfect for etching metals and plastics. For plastics and metals, it could be a good option. But do not go for it if you want to etch non-metals other than plastics.

Fiber Laser

Fiber lasers have no comparison when it comes to working on metals. These are specifically designed for the purpose of etching, cutting, and engraving metals.Fiber lasers are quite powerful. The laser pulses have immense power, which is why they can easily work on metals. They etch metals faster than any other laser machine. But the problem is the upfront cost of these machines. They are very expensive, and the price can be in the range of $10,000 to $100,000, depending on the features, specifications, and requirements.

Factors to Consider When Buying a Laser Etching Machine

While purchasing a laser machine for etching different materials, you need to consider a few important factors. These will help you narrow down the best machines easily.

Type of the Material

We have discussed different types of laser machines. All of them work on certain materials, so you need to ensure the laser is compatible with the material you want to etch. Make a list of the materials you would like to etch using a laser machine, and then decide which machine is the most suitable option. Diode lasers are good for etching non-metals and some metals. CO2 lasers can work with a wide range of non-metals and some metals. But if you only need to etch metals at a fast pace, do not go for a diode or CO2 laser; get a fiber laser or infrared laser instead. Therefore, choose the right laser machine according to the material you want to etch.

Power and Speed

The power and speed of a laser machine are important specifications. The power defines the capability of the laser machine to etch, engrave, and cut materials.

For etching non-metals, low power can do the job. But for etching metals, it is better to get high-powered laser machines. If you want a diode laser, you can choose a 10-20W laser. 20W is a better option for metals as well as non-metals. CO2 lasers are more powerful. They are usually available above 30-40 watts. Infrared lasers can etch metals at low power. A 1-2W infrared module is more than enough for the job. Fiber lasers have high power ratings; however, you can get a small machine having an optical power of 20-50W. You need to look at the optical power of the laser machine. It defines the effective power of the laser. You will also see the machine power and module electric power in the speciation, but you need to make a decision based on the optical power of the machine.

The speed of the laser machine is also an important factor to consider. The higher the speed, the better it is. You can check the engraving/etching speed of the laser machine to get an idea of the work you can do in a given time period.

Object Shape and Size

Laser machines have a limited working area to define the size of the objects they can etch. Your object should be smaller than the specified dimensions. You can choose a suitable machine based on the size of the object you want to work on. The next important thing is the shape of the object. Flat objects can be processed by any laser machine. But for spherical and cylindrical objects, you need a special rotary attachment. It is a must to know whether the machine is compatible with the attachment or not.

etching a mug with a laser etcher with a rotary attachment

Accuracy and Precision

Laser etching machines offer exceptional accuracy and precision, and there is no question about it. However, there is a specified limit for these. If the laser machines offer good accuracy, the etching result will be great. You will be able to notice the fine details after etching. It is usually a fraction of inches in most laser machines. For instance, xTool D1 Pro offers accuracy near 0.0004 inches, which is incredible. Make sure the machine you are buying offers good accuracy and precision. Otherwise, the result will be poor.

laser etching with high precision

Safety Features

Safety features play a very important role in keeping the user safe and preventing accidents. The laser machine should be equipped with basic safety features, such as a light filtering lid, enclosed body, fire alarm, and automatic shutdown. Some advanced machines also have their own fire safety kits, air purifying systems, and warning mechanisms. You should set up the machine in a well-ventilated area. Otherwise, connect an exhaust system if it is not built-in. You also need an air purifier to remove the particles, smell, and fumes from the exhaust air. Otherwise, the working area will get polluted.

Best Laser Etching Machine

The best laser etching machine would be a machine that can cover a wide range of materials, etch them at an excellent speed, and offer exceptional results. Most importantly, it should be under your budget. If you are looking for such a machine, then xTool F1 could be the best choice.

xTool F1 contains a diode laser and an infrared laser in one module. It is a great merger of two technologies that can cover a wide range of metals and non-metals. Using the 10W diode laser, you can etch wood, glass, leather, stone, ceramics, acrylic, etc. You can also cut wood, acrylic, plywood, and some other materials. The 2W infrared laser can work on metals, including gold, silver, platinum, copper, aluminum, stainless steel, titanium, etc. It also works great with plastics, such as acrylic.

xtool f1 has two laser included
xtool f1's compatible materials

It is a handheld machine with a compact design, so you can carry it anywhere easily. Secondly, you only need to place it on the object, and it will etch it in no time. The engraving/etching speed of the laser can reach up to 4,000mm/s, which is incredible. Within a few seconds, intricate graphics will be etched on the material. Even at this high speed, the machine does not compromise on the accuracy. Its accuracy is 0.00199mm, so there is no way you will see any defect in the result.

how fast xtool f1 engraves

You can also etch cylindrical and spherical objects because the machine is compatible with RA2 Pro rotary attachment. You can engrave drinking glasses, balls, mugs, rings, or anything you want. And its slide extension is a preassembled, plug-and-play accessory that quadruples the working area of the xTool F1. The extension comes with 5 clamps for secure material placement, and features scale rulers for perfect alignment. It's designed to facilitate larger projects and batch processing, enhancing the overall laser etching experience. Another incredible feature of the machine is the preview. You get a live preview to position the object perfectly. Plus, there is no need to adjust the focus manually; the machine will do it on its own.

xtool f1's frame preview
xtool f1's graphic outline preview

The machine is completely safe and equipped with advanced safety features. It is completely enclosed to prevent the escape of the smoke and laser beams. The built-in exhaust fan takes out the debris and smokes quickly. You can attach the air purifier system to clean the exhaust air and use the machine indoors without any worries.

xTool F1 is an affordable, easy-to-use, portable, and versatile etching/engraving machine. You can’t find such wide compatibility of materials in one laser technology. It is a one-of-a-kind laser machine with lightning speed and extraordinary features. You can use it for small business, hobby, side hustle, or any professional job. It is worth every penny.

xTool F1 Portable Laser Etching Machine

portable laser etching machine

Price:

$1,599.00
$1,999.00
Learn More

Conclusion

Laser etching can make permanent marks on materials without harming the surface. We have discussed how it works and its applications in depth. You can etch almost all common materials and make different products and designs on objects. But the most important thing is choosing the right machine according to the material. You can consider the factors we have discussed to choose the right machine without any hassle. For your ease, we have also shared xTool F1, which is a diode + infrared laser perfect for etching a wide range of materials. It is portable, easy to use, affordable, and an ideal option for starting a small business or side hustle.

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