What Can A CO2 Laser Cut, Etch, Or Mark?
There are a whole host of materials that a CO2 laser cutter can cut, etch or mark – but some – due to the material surface reflection – just won’t work (aluminum is an example).
While other materials can be extremely hazardous to either humans or the machine itself (like PVC and ABS). Therefore, for your own safety it’s vital that you check this list of approved and not so approved materials before attempting to laser cut stuff you’ve never worked with before.
It is not always obviously apparent as to which materials will work – for example, both Polycarbonate/Lexan produce flames and lethal chlorine gas which will rapidly corrode your $30,000-plus machine into uselessness. Not to mention the fact that the fumes are hazardous to your health and that of people nearby. Yet Acrylic – which looks, smells, feels and tastes just like Lexan – cuts smoothly and cleanly and is one of the best materials to use with the laser. So check and then double-check what you’re laser cutting to avoid lens, laser or health-related problems.
The perfect depth, machine power level and feed speed all depend on the thickness and type of material being cut. If not specified below, it’s best to consult with material manufacturers or locate scrap materials to ‘test’ various laser cutter settings against your material.
Where to Find Materials
There is a fairly good supply of materials sold at home supply stores, lumber yards and through commercial supply channels. Manufacturers tend to procure their materials from specific providers since they’ll receive their desired thickness right off the truck.
Here’s a few popular sources for finding laserable materials:
laserbits.com, johnsonplastics.com, burlane.com, idplates.com, thermark.com, ebay.com
The versatility of laser cutters is remarkable, considering they can cut, mark and etch. The laser cutter has the ability to accurately cut or etch numerous materials such as wood, paper, cork, and some kinds of plastics. Laser etching can produce great results on almost any organic material. The main materials shops will process will include wood, cardboard, aluminum, stainless steel, plastic, tile, marble, anodized aluminum, stone, and glass. Most reflective materials, such as raw aluminum, silver, copper may require a different wavelength and precision beyond some CO2 machinery’s capacity.
Laser cutting materials offers craftsmen and manufacturers precision results utilizing the power of lasers and the strength of CO2. Before beginning any cutting project, always inspect your machine, observe the chiller temperature and gauge your interior temperature to meet the wattage demands of your cutter. For an 80 watt CO2 laser that will be used in warmer climates as an example, make sure your chiller is adjusted to handle the heat load. Temperatures above 75 degrees F can reduce laser power significantly.
Clean your laser lenses often as well. Built-up residues will cause a dramatic decrease in cutting power and accuracy, with an eventual lens cracking imminent.
Below you’ll find a plethora of materials suitable for laser cutting on most any machine:
Cuts extremely well leaving a beautifully polished edge. You should cut clear acrylics at 1/8” @ 39-41% power, while doubling the power for ¼”. By far, acrylic is the cheapest material to laser cut.
As aluminum contains high thermal conductivity and is reflective, a higher concentration of laser power is needed to initiate cuts, compared to steel’s less reflective composition.
Reflective – may harm laser if improperly guarded.
At slightly under ¼” thick, Aspen cuts much like balsa. This softwood is perfect for projects which require contrast.
Balsa can be cut easily due to its soft hardwood nature, leaving the edges with an amber discoloration. ¼” or less works best.
One of few interior glue woods that are laser cutter friendly. Low feed rate and roughly 65% power work best to avoid charring.
Although slightly heavier than some woods, Basswood will cut cleanly and without excessive scorching.
Although rare, some laser cutters (i.e. Mitsubishi) can only cut through .030” or less of brass due to its reflective nature, which can destroy the lens. The issue is compromising the beam reflection. There are different types of brass that are engraveable and markable.
Not suggested if unfamiliar with laser cutting machines and proper settings.
Carbon fiber mats/weave
that has not had epoxy applied
Can be cut, very slowly. Cutting carbon fiber too quickly will cause material to melt and emit a nasty odor.
You must not cut carbon fiber that has been coated!!
Cuts well but may catch fire unless the material is flame-retardant.
Watch for fire.
Ceramic (e.g. decorative tile)
Must cut at low speeds due to potential striation, loss of flatness and dross. Reduction of in-cut times may reduce most post-cut problems such as micro-cracks.
They all typically cut easily.
Not plastic coated or impregnated cloth!
Cuts nicely, but the quality of the cut depends on the thickness and quality of the cork. Engineered cork has a lot of glue in it, and may not cut as well.
Avoid thicker cork.
Coroplast (‘corrugated plastic’)
Difficult because of the vertical strips. Three passes at 80% power, 7% speed, and it will be slightly connected still at the bottom from the vertical strips.
Delrin comes in a number of shore strengths (hardness) and the harder Delrin tends to work better. Great for gears!
Used a lot for hobby, RC aircraft, architectural models, and toys. 1/4″ cuts nicely, with a smooth edge.
Foam core will burn and tends get eaten away as opposed to the hard exterior paper shell.
Not a particularly easy material to laser cut. If you do keep a close watch
Kapton tape (Polyimide)
Works well, in thin sheets and strips like tape.
Leather is very hard to cut, but can be if it’s thinner than a belt (call it 1/8″). Our “Advanced” laser training class covers this.
Real leather only. Not‘pleather’ or other imitations.
Cuts beautifully at 1/16” to 1/8” thickness without edge rounding or excessive odor. Optimal for refrigerator magnets and similar products.
Avoid oily/resinous woods or woods with glue-lam composition, such as oriented strand board (OSB, CDX).
Be very careful about cutting oily woods, or very resinous woods as they also may catch fire.
These are okay to use but may experience a higher amount of charring when cut. Pressure treated lumbers may experience some blackening and burning smells due to thicknesses.
Works well if it’s thin. Thick Mylar has a tendency to warp, bubble, and curl, which is why 1/8” or below is the optimal cutting thickness.
Gold coated Mylar will not work.
Non-chlorine containing rubber
Fine for cutting.
Beware chlorine-containing rubber!
Although laser cutters can easily cut through nylon, the material may come out messy.
Paper, card stock
Cuts very well on the laser cutter, and also very quickly
PETG (polyethylene terephthalate glycol)
Up to 3/16” PETG is optimal cutting thickness. Material may emit a slight smell, yet will not crack or snap when bent.
These contain glue, and may not laser cut as well as solid wood. Oriented strand board and similar glue-lam materials may melt or emit an undesirable odor. CDX cuts rather nicely with minimal edge dross.
Cuts beautifully at 70% machine speed and ¼” thickness. Popular contains no resins or glues, meaning dross and bad smells are non-existent. Green heartwood and white sapwood combine to make an elegant looking Yellow Poplar, which is perfect for signs.
Thinner rubber sheets may be cut to produce stamps, whereas thicker sheets may be engraved.
Thin works best.
Silver Birch Plywood
Excellent material for wood jewelry and other intricate projects that require material maintains strength. 1/8” to 1/4” are optimal cutting thicknesses.
Smokes a lot when cut, but can be cut. Material tends to produce black soot when cut, so extra precautions are necessary. May cause rounded brown edges but can be sanded down.
Keep it thin.
Cuts OK in thin sheets but can release a deadly gas; ample PPE will be necessary to avoid inhalation.
Cutting Ti at high frequencies yet with low-duty cycles will produce beautiful, dross-free cuts. Thicknesses at or around ¼” are optimal.
Thin Polycarbonate Sheeting (<1mm)
Very thin polycarbonate can be cut, but tends to discolor badly. Extremely thin sheets (0.5mm and less) may cut with yellowed/discolored edges. Polycarbonate absorbs IR strongly, and is a poor material to use in the laser cutter.
Watch for smoking/burning
All the aforementioned laser “cuttable” materials can also be etched – in some cases – very deeply. It’s best to work with scrap materials to test thickness, machine speed and cutting depth while taking notes for future cutting projects. In addition to the above products, you can etch:
Vaporizes the anodization away, yet is extremely easy to engrave. The thinner the material, the higher the cutting rate per second.
Depending on color, may setoff fumes or leave edges with discoloration.
Green seems to work best…looks sandblasted.
Only FLAT GLASS can be engraved in many cutters. No round or cylindrical items. Amber glass may easily fracture.
Vaporizes the paint away.
Marble, Stone, Soap stone, Granite, Onyx.
Etching produces a white “textured” appearance
In general 100% power at 50% speed tends to generate the best etchings. It depends on the materials sensitivity. Note that thickness of stone substrate will determine etching finished quality, and ability to cut.
Labeling components or parts prior to cutting, or ‘marking’, can be accomplished with metals, plastics, laminates, packaging, and paints. You can also treat the surface with Thermark which leaves a permanent, high resolution and high contrast black mark. Although, a 6 ounce can of this treatment can set up back $65
Prior to making your mark, it’s best to consult with this material list since cutter settings must be optimal to avoid accidental cuts or excessive blackening.
If you have any experience with laser cutting, etching, or marking with these or other materials feel free to fill us in below…