Laser cutting is a technique that uses a focused laser beam to either etch patterns or cut through materials including wood, plastic, rubber, paper, or glass. Because of the small size of the focused laser beam and its CNC system, laser cutters can provide extremely accurate and precise cuts.
Images designed for the laser cutter can be created using any vector graphics software, such as Inkscape, Adobe Illustrator, CorelDraw, and even Microsoft Powerpoint. The image interpretation is rather simple, designated lines or paths are cut while everything else is etched into the material. Designating cut paths can differ from software to software, but generally any line which has a "hairline" width is cut (in Inkscape this is a line-width of 0.001"). It is often simplest to save your design as a .pdf file in order to print to the laser cutter.
Different cut and etch settings can optimize the performance of the laser cutter depending on the material being used. A general table of speed and power recommendations serves as a useful starting point for these settings.
The Tulane MakerSpace uses an Epilog Helix 24, 50 watt CO2 laser system. This system can cut through materials up to 3/8" thick, though some thicker materials require multiple passes.
- Epilog Helix User's Manual (.pdf)
- Speed and Power Recommendations (.pdf)
- Material Engraving Techniques (.pdf)
- Using the Rotary Attachment to work with cylindrical objects (.pdf)
- Basic Training Video 1 ()
- Basic Training Video 2 ()
- Basic Training Video 3 ()
- MAKE SURE YOUR MATERIAL IS LASER SAFE, some materials (such as PVC) release toxic gases when used in a laser cutter, some are prone to starting fires. A helpful, but not complete, list of laser materials can be found here.
- Never leave a running laser cutter unattended, the heat from the laser can ignite some materials and start a fire.
- Always make sure the laser cutter is properly vented, otherwise smoke and fumes can damage the machine or injure people.
- The laser cutter is connected to a computer, and receives instructions via a USB connection, just like a printer. We recommend that your drawings be in .pdf format before you send them to the cutter.
- Each computer has Corel Draw, Inkscape, Acrobat, and the Epilog printer driver installed. The password for the computer is epilog
- A tutorial on the interaction between Inkscape, Acrobat, and the laser cutter is here (.pdf)
Tips and Tricks
- When cutting through wood, the laser will often leave a sticky residue on the material. It can often be wiped off with a damp rag, but ways to avoid this residue include (1) etching your image from the bottom up (the laser will clear previous residue as it etches), (2) either painting or coating the wood before it is cut/etched so that the residue simply wipes off of the finished wood, or (3) covering the wood with masking tape and then removing the tape after the cut has finished (don't overlap tape, the change in depth WILL affect the laser).
- Making a Tabbed Box using the Laser Cutter
- Creating Stacked 3d Models using the Laser Cutter
- Transferring SolidWorks Drawings to the Laser Cutter (.pdf)
- Welding Acrylic
- Some tips and tutorials from the experts at Ponoko
- A great article on Joinery using CNC/Laser cutting tools
- SVGnest is a simple program that arranges your objects to be cut into the most efficient use of space