Best Wood for Laser Cutting and Engraving

Best Wood for Laser Cutting and Engraving

Best Wood for Laser Cutting and Engraving

Apart from being an easy-to-work material, wood also has a great aesthetic appeal. Different kinds of wood appear different and have properties that make them suitable for a wide variety of applications.

Many different types of wood can be cut or engraved using a laser cutter. Some are quite easy to work with while others require powerful lasers to cut through.

In this article, I'm going to give you a detailed overview of some of the best wood that you can cut and engrave with a laser for creating beautiful projects.

I also talk about the factors you need to consider while cutting or engraving wood with a laser.

Factors to Consider while Cutting or Engraving Wood on Laser

It doesn't matter if the wood you are cutting is classified as hardwood or softwood, the thickness of the wood is what makes most of the difference in laser cutting or engraving.

Resin or sap content in wood is a major parameter to look into in laser cutting. Wood with higher resin content gives darker cuts and vice versa.

You'll need to use a short-focal G2 lens for cutting wood as it gives a smaller laser spot, closer to 0.1mm - 0.15mm. It helps focus all the energy of the laser on a tiny spot making an efficient cut.

Most of the engineered wood out there is glued together to achieve a layered structure. When cut with a laser cutter the glue will melt, burn, and can cause various problems.

Moreover, engineered wood like MDF may contain sand and metal particles within them which can cause problems when cutting with a laser.

When using engineered wood try to get the ones that are specially made for laser engravers and cutters. You must also be aware of the laser safety risks, hazards, and control measures when cutting wood using lasers.

While vector cutting, it is beneficial to have an air assist attached to the laser as it's important to keep away the fumes out of the way of the laser beam, and it's more important for visible light laser cutters.

Having an air assist will also snuff out any fire generated while working with wood. I would recommend having a fire extinguisher nearby as it'll be a great help in case of any fire.

The continuous air shot onto the work surface will clear out the burned areas of the wood by removing ashes stuck deep inside the cut pocket.

Ash is a great heat insulator, so the more burned ash you remove from the cut pocket, the more of a descent cut you'll get.

There are several wood laser engravers and laser cutters that offer good performance while working with wooden workpieces.

Wood with low grain density is easy to work with. When you read through the rest of this article, you'll figure out which wood is good for your application.

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Best Wood For Beginners in Laser Cutting or Engraving

Some of the best wood for beginners to laser cutting are Alder, Balsa, and Birch laser plywood. They are fairly light in color and can be worked with ease.

These wood have less grain density and the grains are loosely packed, it'll help you cut these wood in a single pass.

I suggested Birch laser plywood because they are specially made for laser cutting and engraving, they are thin, have only less glue content, give uniform cut burns, and are one of the most affordable wood in the market.

With a 150W laser, you can cut 1/4" thick birch laser plywood at a speed of ~24 ipm utilizing 70% of the laser's power.

Alder, Balsa, and Birch laser plywood produce moderate but visible smoke when cut or engraved with a laser. You can use an air-assist and exhaust system to efficiently get rid of the smoke generated.

I'll be telling you more about these wood individually in the coming sections of this article.

Best Softwood for Laser Cutting or Engraving

Softwoods for laser
Basswood, balsa, cedar, and pinewood samples

Softwood is light in color, low in price, and weighs less. They are also widely available and easy to work with.

They are not generally weather-resistant but can be given coatings to maximize their life.

Balsa

Balsa laser cut aeroplane
Balsa laser-cut aeroplane

Balsa wood has a grain density of ~9lbs/ft3 and the grains are arranged in a straight fashion with a coarse texture.

It has a white-tan to pale reddish-brown color. They provide good sound/vibration insulation and are known to be buoyant.

Balsa wood is comparatively inexpensive and can be easily cut or engraved with laser power ranging from 30 - 100 W because of its low grain density.

A 1/8" thick piece of balsa wood can be cut at a speed of ~72 ipm on a 100W CO2 laser cutter with 70% of power utilization.

You can engrave a 1/8" thick balsa wood at a speed of ~948 ipm using the same laser with 5% of the power.

With their lightweight and high relative strength, they are a perfect choice for making surfboards, sound insulation, thermal insulation, architecture models, musical instruments, and aero models.

When used with a laser cutter, you will get high-precision engraving and cuts on balsa wood for many different applications.

Having a less grain density, they do not produce a lot of smoke/fume, but I would recommend using a ventilation system to control smoke as resin content can change in each wood.

Alder

Alder wood laser-cut and engraved
Alder wood laser-cut and engraved

Alder wood is reddish-brown and this color darkens with time. Its grains have a straight arrangement uniformly across the wood and have a grain density of ~28lbs/ft3.

A 1/8" thick piece of alder wood can be cut at a speed of ~66 ipm on a 70W laser cutter with 40% of power utilization.

The same piece of wood can be engraved in a 35W laser at a speed of ~150 ipm by utilizing 100% of its power.

These wood sometimes have knots, when cut or engraved on such wood pieces you may get uneven cuts and will have to do multiple passes than usual.

When laser-cut, Alder wood gives nice dark burns with a clean cut. But when engraved, they give a dark brown color that shows off. They are laser cut and engraved to make many different decorative products.

Alder wood produces moderate levels of smoke which can be disposed of with an air exhaust system.

Basswood

Laser-cut basswood catapult Kit
Laser-cut basswood catapult Kit

Basswood has a pale-white to light-brown color, it also has a straight and fine grain arrangement all across the wood.

Having a light color, when basswood is engraved, the design will have a highlighted look, and when cut, they'll have brownish smooth cuts.

It has a grain density of ~26lbs/ft3 and is easy to work with because of its softness and lightweight.

A 1/8" thick basswood can be cut using a 100W laser with 55% of power at a speed of ~60 ipm.

You can engrave on a 1/4" thick basswood at a speed of ~194 ipm when used with a 100W laser with power ranging from 5 -20%.

When cutting thin slabs (1/8") of basswood, they produce less or no visible smoke. But using much thicker pieces will produce some amount of smoke.

Poplar

Mt. Rainier topography wall art made by laser cutting poplar wood
Mt. Rainier topography wall art made by laser cutting poplar wood (Source: Design by SML)

Poplar wood has colors ranging from white, yellow, and blackish-brown. Its grains are arranged in a straight pattern with a uniform distribution and have a grain density of ~29lbs/ft3.

When cut, poplar wood has a blackish border, and when engraved, you'll get a dark brown color.

It can be used to make personalized signs, wooden toys, puzzles, furniture, and scale models of various models.

A 1/4" thick poplar wood can be cut using a 100W laser with 80% of power at a speed of ~24 ipm.

The same piece of wood can be engraved at a speed of ~60 ipm using a 40W laser using 100% of its power.

They do produce visible smoke when cut, it's better to have a smoke extractor running while cutting a piece of poplar wood.

Cedar

A snowflake design laser cut from cedar wood
A snowflake design laser-cut from cedar wood (Source: Hampshire Pewter)

Cedarwood has a special aroma and is reddish-brown. It can be used for outdoor projects as it has good weather resistance.

They have a grain density of ~33lbs/ft3 and the grain is arranged in a straight fashion with irregular knots. The knots will give the wood an aesthetic appeal and can be used on artistic projects.

Cedarwood needs to be engraved a little deep to bring out a blackish tint as its reddish color gives brown lines when engraved which don't show off with its reddish background.

A 1/4" thick cedarwood can be cut in a single pass with a 35W laser running on full power at a speed of ~24 ipm.

The same piece of wood can be raster engraved using a 40W laser with 75% of power utilization at a speed of ~235 ipm

Cedarwood does produce visible levels of smoke that can interfere in lasers operation, it's best to have an exhaust system.

Pine

Pine wood laser-cut address sign
Pinewood laser-cut address sign (Source: Houser House Creations)

Though classified as softwood, pinewood is generally hard. Sugar pine, limber pine, and white pine wood are comparatively soft and have grain density ranging from 25 - 28lbs/ft3.

Hard pines like jack pine, red pine, spruce pine, etc have an average grain density ranging from 28 - 42lbs/ft3.

They have a light pale color and the grains are arranged in a straight pattern with a coarse texture.

When cut, pinewood has a blackish border, and when engraved, you'll get dark brown lines.

With a 50W laser operated at 80% of its power can cut 1/4" thick pinewood at a speed of ~12 ipm. It can be easily engraved with a 35W laser at a speed of ~25 ipm.

You can raster engrave on a pine at a speed of ~235 ipm by using a 40W laser utilizing 50% of its power.

Hard pines generally produce a lot of smoke (compared to soft pine) when cut with a laser. You should be using a smoke extractor in such cases.

Best Hardwood for Laser Cutting or Engraving

Cherry, maple, walnut, and oak wood samples
Cherry, maple, walnut, and oak wood samples (Source: T.Y.FineFurniture)

Hardwood is heavy, expensive, and dark in color but they are weather resistant and can last for hundreds of years.

Since hardwoods are having a high grain density, there is a lot of wood material for the laser to vaporize.

They will produce thick smoke which can reduce your operational visibility and sometimes can be hazardous to your health.

I would recommend cutting hardwoods in a good ventilated setup with air assist and smoke extractor running at the same time.

Oak

Sheffield solid wood laser-cut street map wooden map
Sheffield solid oak wood laser-cut street wooden map (Source: Lasaris)

Oakwood has heavily packed grains with a ring pattern which gives them a great aesthetic appeal and has a density of ~47lbs/ft3.

It can be stained to bring out different shades of darkness as per your need. Naturally, they are light to medium brown.

Oakwood gives a darker contrast when laser engraved which will be useful for making hard products with a clear design on them.

It has a fragrance that most people love. The intensity of the fragrance differs for different oak wood depending on their quality.

With a 100W laser operated at 80% of its power, you can cut 1/4" thick oak wood at a speed of ~24 ipm.

When laser engraved, the same piece of oak wood can be engraved at a speed of ~236 ipm using a 40W laser by utilizing 100% of its power.

Walnut

Walnut wood laser cut and engraved
Walnut wood laser cut and engraved

Walnut wood ranges from pale brown to dark brown. It has a straight but irregular grain pattern and has a grain density of ~40lbs/ft3.

Because of its straight grains, it can be easily cut to make thin wooden slabs. They are also resistant to fire, hence you can make deep cuts in a single go without doing multiple passes.

When engraving you have to cut a little deep to bring out a thick black color as it'll be difficult to show off your design on a dark brown background. Generally, narrow cuts look more highlighted.

A 1/4" thick piece of walnut wood can be cut in a single pass at a speed of ~36 ipm on a 70W laser cutter with 40% of power utilization.

When engraved, walnut wood can be raster engraved with a resolution of 300dpi at a speed of ~59 ipm using a 25W laser utilizing 100% of its power.

Walnut wood is generally expensive and is getting rare in the market.

Mahogany

Laser engraving on Mahogany
Laser engraving on Mahogany

Mahagony wood ranges from a pale pinkish-brown to dark reddish-brown color. It doesn't have any odor and so can be used on dining projects.

They have irregular grain patterns, can be straight, interlocked, or wavy, and have a grain density of ~37lbs/ft3.

When cut or engraved, they give a dark color that shows off and has black grain lining in irregular patches.

A 1/4" thick piece of mahogany wood can be cut in a single pass at a speed of ~13 ipm on a 100W laser cutter with 80% of power utilization.

It can be raster engraved at a speed of ~234 ipm using a 40W laser running with 50% of its power.

Mahogany wood is usually difficult to come by and is fairly expensive. However, it is a great wood for making an aesthetically appealing project and can be cut with a good finish on a laser cutter.

Cherry

Cherry wood laser-cut dog bone snowflake
Cherry wood laser-cut dog bone snowflake ornament (Source: For the Love of Dogs)

Cherry wood ranges from pale yellow to reddish-brown color and is a popular choice in furniture making.

Their grains are arranged in straight and curly patterns and have a grain density of ~35lbs/ft3.

Having a light color, when cherry wood is engraved, the design will have a highlighted look, and when cut, they'll have brownish smooth cuts.

A 1/4" thick piece of cherry wood can be cut in a single pass at a speed of ~30 ipm on a 70W laser cutter with 40% of power utilization.

It can be raster engraved at a speed of ~234 ipm using a 40W laser running at 70% of its power.

Maple

Laser engraved maple/wallnut cutting board
A cutting board made with laser engraved maple(center) wood and walnut wood (top and bottom) (Source: Lone Star Artisans)

The sapwood of the maple lumber is soft and most of the woodworkers use sapwood rather than its heartwood.

It has a brown-white color with a reddish/golden shade. They have a straight and wavy grain pattern that is spread evenly across the wood and has a grain density of ~44lbs/ ft3.

Maple wood can be easily engraved to bring out good-looking designs with a golden shade.

A 1/4" thick piece of maple wood can be cut in a single pass at a speed of ~38.4 ipm on a 70W laser cutter with 40% of power utilization.

It can be raster engraved at a speed of ~234 ipm using a 40W laser running at 75% of its power.

Birch

Laser cut solid birch wood
Laser-cut solid birch wood (Source: Footsteps in the Past)

Birchwood's color ranges from white to reddish-brown. It has a straight and wavy grain pattern that is evenly spread across the wood, it has a grain density of ~46lbs/ ft3.

You can cut a 1/4" birch wood in an 80W CO2 laser cutter at a speed of ~28.2 ipm with a power setting of 65%. It can be engraved a lot faster.

It can be engraved with a 40W laser running at a speed of ~177 ipm utilizing 100% of the laser power.

When cut or engraved, birch wood gives a dark brown burned color that shows off.

Birchwood is readily available in the market. One disadvantage of them is, they will easily rot if not surfaced with an added coating.

Best Engineered Wood for Laser Cutting or Engraving

Laserply
Laser plywood (Source: Plyco)

Engineered wood is artificially made wood, they are specially crafted to bring out the best properties in wood that a woodworker is looking for.

Laser Plywood

Palm tree replica laser-cut on a baltic birch plywood
Palm tree replica laser-cut on baltic birch plywood (Source: Etsy)

Laser plywood is a specially crafted wood for laser cutters, they come with a smooth and thick veneer. Laser cutters can smoothly cut through them and are easy to work with.

It has a uniform grain distribution which helps in getting effective cuts across the material. When engraved they give pretty neat designs, especially when engraving letters.

Some of the widely used laser plywood are, bamboo, birch, beech, hoop, and jarrah laser plywood.

With a 150W laser, you can cut 1/4" thick birch plywood at a speed of ~48 ipm utilizing 70% of the laser's power.

The same piece of birch plywood can be raster engraved at a speed of ~174 ipm using a 40W laser utilizing 100% of its power.

Plywood has the potential to produce gaseous and particulate laser-generated air contaminants that can cause breathing problems.

Being made from artificial processing, plywood may contain chemicals that are hazardous when burned. Always use an exhaust system when working with such wood.

In addition, make sure to always wear laser safety glasses when doing cutting or engraving with a laser.

Laser MDF

Damask Personalized Laser Cut MDF Wine Gift Box
Damask personalized laser-cut MDF wine gift box (Source: The Steady Hand)

They are specially crafted to be cut with a laser. It can be colored, glued, and surfaced for many different applications.

MDF will emit a lot of fumes when cut with a laser, though they are harmless you'll have to supply it with an exhaust system for its proper operation.

With a 150W laser operated at 50% of power, it can cut 1/4" thick MDF in a single pass at a speed of 36 ipm.

Using a 100W laser you can engrave on 5/8" thick MDF at a speed of ~236 ipm by utilizing 4 - 7% of its power.

Laser MDFs can be engraved pretty easily, they generally give dark brown color when engraved, and when deep cut they give black cut planes.

Being engineered wood, general-purpose MDFs commonly uses urea-formaldehyde to glue together different layers of materials.

When such MDFs are burned, there is a high chance of releasing formaldehyde gas which is hazardous if exposed for a long time(~2 hours).

Laser MDF's are made to be laser burned, so they mostly contain less or none of such harmful chemicals. The levels of these chemicals will vary for different manufacturers.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What I shouldn't cut with a laser?

You should not laser-cut materials like Fiberglass, PVC, ABS, HDPE, and foams with a laser cutter. PVC (Poly Vinyl Chloride) emits chlorine gas when cut with lasers. This gives a boost to corrosion and damages the optics, motion control, and the metal parts of the machine.

Fiberglass is mainly made of glass, hence it can't be cut with a laser but can only be etched. ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) is a widely used thermoplastic polymer. When cut with a laser it'll emit cyanide gas and melts. Breathing in cyanide gas will be extremely hazardous.

HDPE (High-Density Poly Ethylene) can easily catch fire and also melts very fast when cut with a laser.

Can a laser cutter cut plywood?

Yes, laser cutters can cut plywood and other composite wood but because of their glue content, they can't give proper cuts like the one you get from solid wood. There are specially crafted laser plywoods available in the market which can be laser cut evenly and smoothly.

Will laser cutters cut through human skin?

Yes, laser cutters can cut through your skin. Lasers work by concentrating a large amount of energy on a narrow path. If you are directly exposed to the focal point of a high-powered laser it can cut through your skin. Lasers are even used in the medical field to cut through human skin for various applications. These lasers are specially designed and have well-calibrated power so that they only cut the skin.

There are laser cutters that are used to cut thick steel, such powerful cutters are dangerous and you'll have to be well-disciplined to work with such machines. The damage caused by these machines will depend on the intensity and the amount of time you're exposed to the laser.

About John

Hey I'm John. I talk about CNCs and Power Tools at Mellowpine. I'm a CNC hobbyist who has been making CNCs and writing about CNCs for a while. I currently also work as a consultant for business owners and hobbyists setting up their own CNCs. If you have any questions related to CNC, I'd be happy to answer them. Reach me at john@mellowpine.com

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John

Hey I'm John. I talk about CNCs and Power Tools at Mellowpine. I'm a CNC hobbyist who has been making CNCs and writing about CNCs for a while. I currently also work as a consultant for business owners and hobbyists setting up their own CNCs. If you have any questions related to CNC, I'd be happy to answer them. Reach me at john@mellowpine.com

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