Pew! Pew! 5 things you need to know to start laser cutting

12 Sep 2016

Some of the examples of laser cutting at the Tog hackerspace in Dublin. Photo by Connor McKenna

Ever dreamed of running your very own laser cutter? Here are five tips to get you started cutting shapes into everyday items like wood or paper.

Laser cutting – sometimes called etching or engraving – is not only one of the coolest ways of bringing a design to life but also, by far, the most accurate.

While it might be easy to design and cut out a small sign by hand, a laser cutter can do so much more, such as the kind of multi-layered lettering and design that even a skilled artist would struggle to execute.

With so many possibilities, you might be wondering: how does the average person get involved in laser cutting and, more importantly, is it prohibitively expensive?

After all, when it comes to laser cutting, my first thoughts usually veer towards the famous scene in the James Bond film, Goldfinger, in which a giant laser gradually edges towards the groin of the British spy.

In reality, laser cutters are far less powerful – and a lot more realistic. Yet they still have enough power to burn through most thin wood, paper or plastic to create a design you need.

To get a look at one in action, popped down to the impressive Tog hackerspace in Dublin where its CEO, Jeffrey Roe, was on hand to take us through what you need to get started.

What laser should I get?

In the case of Tog, Roe showed us what can be considered a typical laser cutter used by designers and engineers consisting of a 100W laser.

Between the laser, extractor fan and sourced materials used to build the rig, Roe said that it cost somewhere in the region of €8,000 to construct, whereas store-bought laser cutters from places like Epilog will set you back somewhere in the region of €20,000.

This might seem like a cost the average beginner would baulk at, but fear not as cheaper alternatives exist. Starting out a little smaller, there are a number of 40W laser cutters available straight from eBay.

While not having the cutting power of the 100W machine at Tog, a 40W laser will be capable of etching the designs you want right on to a thin piece of birch plywood.

You could also use acrylic material if you want to create something with some cool opaque effects.

If you’re more of a tinkerer, Roe said it is even possible to retrofit an old DVD player’s 5W laser into a working laser cutter, with some additional parts acquired online.

A 5W laser cutter will do little more than etch a design on to a piece of paper, however, so perhaps this should be considered as more of an experimental pursuit.

Laser cutter Tog

The 100W laser used by Tog. Photo by Connor McKenna

Where do I source the equipment to build one?

Following Tog’s example, your one-stop shop is a website called Lasersaur that offers people an open-source shopping list for building your very own laser cutter.

It also includes a step-by-step guide in how to build one if you are starting from scratch with little-to-no experience.

It is then just a case of putting in the hours into sourcing the necessary parts. In this case, eBay will be your go-to place where parts can be shipped in for a fraction of the cost of buying locally, in many cases.

What materials do I use for laser cutting?

It might seem obvious, but you can’t just pick any old material and starting blasting it with a laser.

Roe stressed that there are a number of no-go materials, particularly polycarbonate sheets that can produce a thick, acrid smoke when coming into contact with the laser.

Also, it is advised to stay away from cardboard as the focused, intense heat can cause it to catch fire pretty easily and, when dealing with electrical equipment, trying to put it out becomes that bit more complicated.

Some of the best materials to use include the cheap and readily available birch plywood just a few millimetres thick. With this, a simple design can be etched out in just over a minute.

SR sign

A gift from our visit to Tog. Photo by Connor McKenna

What should I make first?

When it comes to sourcing some cool designs to start with, the internet is your friend. It is as simple as typing ‘SVG designs’ into Google and finding one you really like.

Along with SVG files, the other laser cutter-friendly file type is DXF, which can also be put into a laser cutter software programme to print as is, or added to if you are feeling creative.

Other websites for inspiration and sourcing of previously drawn designs include Thingiverse and Instructables, offering a range from the simplest of designs to ones that are restricted to only the most expensive of laser cutters.

The simplest thing, Roe said, is to start off with a vanity plate of your own name which you could hang in your cubicle or on your wall at home.

Is there anywhere I can get some guidance?

As a matter of fact, there is.

While there are a number of handy tutorials on YouTube, Tog itself offers a hands-on experience with its laser cutter every second Monday at its facility in Blackpitts, Dublin 8 as part of CAD Night. There, you can learn how to use the Inkspace software to edit and design blueprints for your creations.

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Updated 12/09

This article was amended to show that Tog’s CAD Night is on Monday, not Tuesday.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic