Customers often ask if I can laser cut or laser engrave an item or material 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 laser cut and laser engraved, glass can be engraved. Some plastics make a huge mess in the laser and others, especially those containing chlorine are not safe. Finally there is a list of items that you shouldn't laser engrave such as food items. Food items can be contaminated by residue from the previous materials used in the laser. Pumpkin Pie lasers very nicely which is great as a display piece but not for the dinner table.
I have a CO2 laser from Epilog which does a great job for typical engraving jobs. I often ask customers to send me a sample of the material to be laser engraved or laser cut so that I can test it and determine the option settings for this material. The customer can then see exactly what the laser engraving or laser cutting will look like with their material.
Plates for trophies, awards and plaques are specially prepared with a coating that reacts with the laser beam. The most common example are black trophy plates that engrave gold or silver - the laser removes the black finish to expose the metal underneath. A CO2 laser cannot mark metal directly so many engraving materials are coated so you can see the mark. Anodized aluminum is a great example - it engraves beautifully! For stainless steel items a coating called Cermark is applied that turns into a 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.
I find I can cut Baltic Birch plywood up to about 1/4 inch on my laser. I can get Baltic Birch as thin as 1/64 inch, which is about the same as thick 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 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. I can get acrylic in various thicknesses and colours, including glow in the dark and florescent colours.
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 award. For a high quality result on glass or crystal I prefer to sandcarve the item.
A laser can engrave many kinds of rubber and cut thinner sheets. I make rubber stamps 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 do a great job at cutting paper. With a nice card stock a laser can produce very intricate designs for such things as wedding invitations or cut outs for scrap booking.
Leather items can be laser engraved if they are flat. The laser removes the top layer of the leather leaving the raw leather exposed. Colour and contrast depend on the type of leather, the finish and how it was treated.
Stuff that shouldn't be lasered
You should not laser any plastic with chlorine, for example PVC or vinyl or polycarbonate. The heat from the laser releases poisonous gases from the material. 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 from ATX Hackerspace for example.
Saving materials from the landfill is always good. Sometimes when a single special trophy is needed for an organization with a lean budget, using recycled components can save money and make your budget go farther! Companies commission some very fine corporate awards, and when the company is sold or re-branded these pieces become surplus. They can see new life in the hands of clubs and organizations that would not otherwise be able to afford a larger trophy or award.
Plaques can be created in a multitude of sizes, materials and colors. This plaque has a black colored brass plate which has been Diamond Drag engraved. The logo creation takes more effort than with Laser Engraving, but the results look fantastic as the engraved lines sparkle in the room light.
A conservation organization wished to honour a local citizen for a lifetime of community service in the environment by dedicating a walking trail to him. A cast architectural brass plaque was ordered and would be affixed to a large rock at the entrance to the trail.
For the unveiling of the new plaque, the guest of honour and and family members were invited as well as dignitaries for speeches and the press. Tents and podiums and refreshments were all booked, the press releases has been issued. Only one problem: the brass plaque would not be ready for at least a week after the dedication ceremony, and the ceremony is only 72 hours away! What to do?
A substitute plaque was needed for the unveiling. Due to the time constraints, there was not a lot of time for experimenting and testing various methods to duplicate the plaque. The stand-in needed to look like the real plaque from a viewing distance of several feet so the audience and the press could enjoy the unveiling.
Using Vectric's V-Carve Pro software, the proof provided by the foundry was scanned in and scaled to the 12 inch X 12 inch size of the final plaque. Letters were sized and stretched to fit the final product and the flourish at the bottom was vector traced. The area around the brushed gold letters was then machined away revealing the black plastic substrate. Two different tool sizes were used 0.020 and 0.060. The finer bit was needed to pass through some letter areas such as the top of an 'a'. The larger bit was used to clear away the larger areas of the background. As it turned out the larger bit should have been larger - it took too long to clear the background in 0.060 passes. The machining time for the plastic stand-in took nearly six hours to cut!
I only had one piece of the material in stock, which meant that it had to be right the first time. There was not time to re-order materials nor time to re-cut it. The resulting plastic plaque was glued to 10mm FoamCore which had been spray painted black. From a viewing distance of say 10 feet, it made a very respectable imitation!
The speeches were made, the plaque was unveiled, and the dedication ceremony proceeded with out further complications. Most of all a very dedicated community member was honoured in front of friends and family, and it is satisfying to know that I had a small part to play.
The Nines Clock - each position on the clock face is made up of three nines in a mathematical formula. This particular custom made for a high school math classroom. The face is 10 inches square and made of black on white engraving material backed with 1/4 inch MDF. The clock mechanism is a continuous sweep model which means when the room is quiet and all you hear is the sweat dripping from the student's brow onto the floor, there is no click-click-click coming from this clock. The frame is walnut.
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