Laser cutting is a technique that pre-dates 3D printing by almost 10 years, with the earliest practical laser cutters appearing in the early 1970s. Despite arriving on the scene almost forty years ago, laser cutting is still widely used to precisely cut objects out of flat sheets of material, and can be used to cut metal, plastic, wood and many other materials.
Inside a laser cutter, a laser beam is generated using a special carbon dioxide-filled tube and channelled to a movable laser head via a series of collimators, mirrors and other optical components. This laser head is moved across a flat sheet of material to make deep, precise cuts, similar to an extruder of a 3D printer or the spindle of a CNC router. Laser cutters can cleanly cut through material up to 3/4″ (20 mm) thick, although the effective thickness depends on the material and the laser cutter itself.
Unlike a 3D printer head or CNC router, laser cutters typically don’t have any kind of Z axis, as they’re usually only used to cut flat sheets of material. Also, laser cutters usually have extra fans and exhaust systems for eliminating the harmful fumes that a material can give off.
There are many advantages to laser cutting wood over other materials like acrylic or metal. Acrylic cuts extremely well under a laser, and clear acrylic laser-cut projects can be as beautiful as they are precise. However, acrylic is very brittle, and can catastrophically snap under moderate strain.
Metal is strong, durable, and perfect for projects that need to endure a lot of punishment. On the other hand, metal is very expensive, and only a few types of laser cutters can slice through thicker metal sheets.
Wood provides a good balance between strength and ease of cutting. Projects cut from thicker wood can be just as strong as projects cut from thinner metal, and can be sliced by even the most basic of laser cutters. One downside is that flat sheets of wood can warp or bend over time, especially under high strain or in a moist environment. However, clever design can compensate for potential warpage, and treating the final surfaces with chemical sealants can prevent moisture-related issues.
Wood is also generally easy to source and much less expensive than acrylic or metal, which makes is a top contender for your next laser cutting project!
Unlike designs for 3D printing, laser designs are ultimately a collection of 2D components. So if you’re used to making designs for 3D printing, the process of designing a laser cutting project can feel a bit alien. However, just like with 3D printing design, there are lots of tools available for playing around and familiarizing yourself with the process.
If you’re new to making laser cutter designs, start with a flat project, like a puzzle, a sign, or something decorative. This way, you don’t need to worry about designing appropriate joinery, accounting for laser kerf or other complicated concepts.
To design a project for laser cutting, all you need is software that can create 2D vector graphics (i.e. DXF, SVG, EPS, PDF and others). Many different programs are used to make laser cutting designs, all the way from paid professional programs to open-source freeware.
Formal CAD programs like AutoCAD, SolidWorks or Fusion 360 are great for making precise, complex designs, Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw are great for artistic and decorative designs, and Inkscape is great for just trying things out. Try lots of different programs and see what fits you best!
Once you have your design, it’s time to get it cut! There are many different ways to get your wood laser cutting project pulled from the computer screen, each with its associated pros and cons. The main issues are accessibility — i.e. the ease of placing an order and collecting the finished results — the relative prices and the availability of materials. We’ll discuss the following general types of laser cutting services:
Makerspaces (or Hackerspaces) are wonderful for working on complicated projects, sharing your ideas and getting to know other tinkerers. They maintain a wide library of tools, many of which include a laser cutter. If you live near a makerspace, try dropping in and chatting with them about your project. In most cases you’ll have to be a member to use workshop resources. However, if your project seems interesting, there’s a good chance they’ll help you out anyways. (You could also just join them as a member and have access anytime!)
You’ll probably need to supply your own wood, but as long as a makerspace is nearby, this is probably the easiest way to get your project done.
If you live in North America, Europe or Australia, there are many smaller companies that provide laser cutting services for small to moderate-sized projects. Companies offer more services and support than hobbyist-oriented makerspaces, which is especially useful when you’re just starting out with laser cutting. Smaller companies also usually stock various materials on-site, preventing you from having to purchase the material and transport it to the laser cutter. However, many smaller companies do not offer much (or any) shipping for sending you the finished project. Also, many of them have minimum fees and order sizes, which can make it difficult to make smaller hobby projects.
A simple Google search with “laser cutting” + will probably bring up multiple results, all of which have their own unique pros and cons. If they have an online order form, submit your files for a quote. Otherwise, send them an email with your files and a description of what you want.
If there’s no makerspace nearby, and if you couldn’t work anything out with more local companies, it’s time to hit up one of the big international services! International companies can have multiple locations around the world, have a very streamlined process for submitting projects and getting quotes and stock a wide variety of materials. However, all of these amenities come with a relatively steep price tag, and you typically lose the personalized support you get with smaller firms. Here are three of the largest laser cutting firms:
Ponoko was one of the first laser cutting companies on the market, and it has grown to become an international firm with a huge number of materials and capabilities for scaling production from a single prototype to a full production run. Much of the process is automated, which makes for great turnaround times and a lower cost overall, but it means you need to be extra careful when preparing your files.
Pololu Laser Cutting Service
If you’re into RepRap 3D printing, you might’ve already heard of Pololu from their stepper drivers. But you might not have known they also have an international laser cutting service! Pololu stands out with its diversity in wood thicknesses. They can even cut 1/2″ MDF, which makes them perfect for manufacturing your sturdier and bigger projects. They also offer custom design support and special requests. Each order is inspected by an engineer before being run, which gives a little wiggle room for mistakes in your files, but a longer turnaround time.
The only major company operating out of Europe, Sculpteo can cut various thicknesses of plywood and MDF. Sculpteo also provides colored MDF in its European branch, which has the added benefits of greater strength and water resistance. Scupteo also offers flexibility in its uploaded file format, which makes it a bit more forgiving for new designers. One thing to be wary of is that its US office stocks a much smaller inventory than its EU office, so Sculpteo is probably a better pick for European makers than those in North America.
License: The text of "Laser Cutting Wood – How to Get Started" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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