What can I cut or engrave with a laser?
Customers often ask if I can cut or engrave an item with my laser, and sometimes it takes a bit of research to answer the question. The short list is that a CO2 laser cannot cut or mark metal, and any plastics with Chlorine are not safe. Paper, wood, acrylics (Plexiglas) and leather can all be cut and engraved, glass can be engraved. Some plastics make a huge mess in the laser and others, especially those containing chlorine are not safe.
I have a CO2 laser from Epilog which does a great job for typical engraving jobs.
While a CO2 laser cannot mark metal directly, many engraving materials are coated so you can see the mark. Anodized aluminum is a great example – it engraves beautifully! Cermark is another coating for metal that turns into black ceramic coating where the laser hits it, and the rest washes off with water.
A CO2 laser will cut and engrave wood. Each species of wood is a bit different in how it reacts to a laser, and different pieces of the same species will behave differently. When engraved, some woods darken giving good contrast, other woods have a very light mark. Cutting wood often leaves a charred edge with a residue near the cut line. Charring and residue while engraving can be removed with a light sanding or by applying a mask before putting in the laser. For thicker pieces, cutting using traditional woodworking methods is more practical before engraving. For example, I would not try to cut out a cutting board with the laser but the laser will do an excellent job of engraving it. Baltic birch is a commonly lasered plywood up to about 1/4 inch on my laser. It is available as thin as 1/64 inch which could easily be mistaken for paper.
Lasers do a great job on acrylic plastics – cutting and engraving. The laser when cutting gives a flame polished edge. Engraving looks great on it’s own or it can be colour filled with acrylic paints for added effect. Most laser engraving sheet materials for plaques and signage are based on acrylic materials. When edge lit with LED lights the engraving on acrylic signs really stand out.
Lasers can engrave glass, but it can be tricky to get high quality results. Sometimes less expensive glass engraves better than more expensive types. For example I would not recommend using a laser on an optical crystal glass. For a high quality result on glass or crystal I prefer to sandcarve the item.
Rubber can be processed with a laser. Rubber stamps are made from a special low odour laserable sheet rubber which is engraved first then cut to size. You can also engrave a hockey puck, but so far I have not found a low odour puck.
Lasers can be used to cut paper. With a nice card stock a laser can produce very intricate designs for such things as wedding invitations or cut outs for scrapbooking.
Stuff that shouldn’t be lasered
Any plastic with chlorine should not be lasered, for example PVC or vinyl or polycarbonate. The heat from the laser causes poisonous gases to be released. What is not harmful to people is harmful to the machine.
There are several great charts of materials out there of what can and can’t be lasered – I use this list for example.