Laser Cutting and Engraving Leather- Expert Guide

Laser Cutting and Engraving Leather- Expert Guide

Laser Cutting and Engraving Leather- Expert Guide

Laser cutting is highly popular for creating designs in leather.

With the advent of affordable laser cutters and engravers, this process has become accessible to small businesses and hobbyists as well.

Creating fine, intricate designs on leather products such as purses, briefcases, jewelry and shoes is possible by using the correct laser machine and the right technique.

This article will provide an overview of laser cutting leather including important insights if you are a beginner.

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Laser Cutting Leather-How To

Laser cutting has opened the doors for engraving and cutting delicate designs on leather with high precision, which traditional cutting techniques could not achieve.

Laser cutting leather requires a high-energy laser as leather is a tough material with good heat resistance. A CO2 laser with a power rating of over 40W is recommended for cutting leather because of its ability to perform through cuts in a single pass with minimum edge burns.

Laser cutters show the best results for cutting and engraving natural leathers like full-grain leather, top grain leather, etc.

Although it can be used for various synthetic leathers like faux leather, suede, and laserleather, it is not recommended for synthetic leathers that contain vinyl or PVC content.

Laser cutting any material with vinyl content produces fumes of hydrochloric acid that are harmful to health and can be corrosive to the machine.

The advancement in technology and introduction of desktop laser cutters has greatly improved the accessibility and ease of use.

Once you have access to a laser cutter, the process of cutting leather into any possible design just consists of a few steps.

Creating the design 

Having a good design is one of the most important aspects of laser-cutting leather. 

You can use any popular CAD/CAM software that exports vector graphics.

Some of the popular software and their file formats are:

SoftwareFile Format
Adobe IllustratorAI, DXF, SVG, and EPS
CorelDRAWCDR, DXF, SVG
Autodesk Fusion 360DXF and DWG
Affinity DesignerSVG

Popular CAD/CAM software and their vector file formats

You can also export vector files to PDF format.

Vector graphics are scalable drawings, so you can use the same design for different sizes of materials just by resizing the drawing.

While designing make sure to use as few lines as possible as this will reduce cutting time and also make sure to not make any overlapping lines.

Performing Test Runs

While working with an expensive material like leather, it is highly recommended that you perform a test run on a cheaper material to check if the resulting output is as desired or not.

This test run will also help you to understand the layout and adjust the position of your workpiece for minimum wastage.

If it is your first time working with a certain type of material, then it is also recommended to perform smaller test cuts on the material in order to set the ideal cutting parameters.

Laser cutting thickness and speed chart for leather provide a detailed overview of optimal laser parameters for different types of lasers.

Making the Cut

Artistic laser cutting on leather
Laser Cut design (Source: hewit.com)

After performing the test runs and setting the ideal parameters, cut the leather sheet in the most economical size that fits in the work area of your laser cutter.

Make sure that the leather sheet is laying flat on the work area and start the cutting process.

In some cases, there might be some burnt edges after finishing the cutting process, and you can either remove the burnt edges of the cut or leave them be to add contrast to your leather item.

However, following a proper guide helps you to learn the optimal process control to minimize issues and enhance the output quality.

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Advantages of Laser Cutting Leather

Leather Artwork
Leather Artwork (Source: Etsy)

Cutting leather using a laser cutter offers several advantages over traditional cutting techniques.

Quality

The highly focused laser beam results in a very narrow width of cut which allows you to produce intricate designs on leather.

This also reduces the overall wastage of material by getting the most out of a sheet of leather.

Non-contact Cutting

Being a non-contact machining technique, laser cutting eliminates the possibility of developing any unwanted mechanical stresses in the form of abrasion or stretching of the leather.

Since there is no contact between the tool and the workpiece, you don't need to replace tools as frequently as you do in other cutters.

Precision

With an accuracy of ±0.004" (0.1 mm) and a repeatability index of around ±0.002 (0.05mm), laser cutters are capable of producing perfect cuts with tight tolerance.

The high accuracy and repeatability ensure high precision and consistent performance on leather, every single time.

Versatility

An additional advantage that laser cutter provides is the ability to control the intensity of laser power and use the same machine for engraving, etching, and marking the leather apart from cutting.

Challenges in Laser Cutting Leather

Despite being one of the best cutting techniques in the industry, laser cutting also has some downsides to it.

High Initial Cost

Laser cutters are comparatively more costly than traditional cutting equipment for leather.

Although laser cutters provide good efficiency with a low average operational cost, the initial set-up cost is still quite high.

Need for Expertise

Laser cutting an expensive material, like leather, requires some test runs prior to starting the actual cut.

These test runs help to achieve the optimal cutting parameters and require an experienced individual with good knowledge of material and machining properties.

Other than that, for creating custom and unique designs, a highly-skilled CAD/CAM designer is necessary.

Edge Burns

Laser cutting leather has a tendency to produce edge burns and smudges on the workpiece.

You can reduce the edge burns by using a proper lens setup and air assist configuration for the material you are using.

Toxic Fumes

Laser cutting of the leather is accompanied by fumes generated due to the burning and vaporizing of the material.

Depending upon the type of leather, the fumes can be toxic to humans and it can also stain the workpiece and laser head.

Thus, it is necessary to operate the laser cutter in a ventilated area with a proper exhaust system.

Important Aspects of Laser Cutting Leather

Laser Power

You can use low-powered diode lasers for engraving on leather. However, a low-power laser might fail to perform a through cut in a single pass.

Whereas a high-energy CO2 laser with a power rating of over 40W can perform clean cuts on leather in a single pass.

High-powered lasers are a laser safety hazard. Make sure to wear safety glasses or goggles that are appropriate for the wavelength of your laser.

Cutting Speed

Apart from producing clean cuts, a high-power laser can also perform rapid cuts (higher the power, faster the cutting speed), thereby significantly reducing the cycle time.

Cutting speed also depends upon the thickness of the leather you're cutting cut, and as the thickness increases, the cutting speed decreases.

Laser cutting leather at a very low speed will result in charred edges, therefore a few test runs are recommended to find the optimal speed that produces no or minimum charr.

Generally, a cutting speed of around 2 inches/sec (50mm/sec) is recommended for a 40W laser against a smooth leather of medium thickness.

Whereas for laser engraving, a cutting speed of 14 inches/sec (355mm/sec) at 15 to 20% power setting of a 40W laser is recommended.

Work Area

The size of the laser cutter depends upon your needs and the size of the raw material. 

For a small-scale business, working with small sheets of leather, a commercial desktop laser cutter is a good choice. 

Whereas for large-scale businesses, the optimal choice would be an industrial laser cutter that provides a larger work area for maximum throughput. 

Work Holding

Leather is a difficult material to place on the work table. Its tiny curvatures along the surface make it troublesome to place the leather flat on the surface.

A good way to hold the leather in place is by using magnets. These magnets will hold the leather above the surface of the work table.

These magnets will also create an outward pull on the leather, thereby making the surface flat for laser cutting and engraving.

Air Assist

A low-pressure air assist with a small-size laser nozzle is recommended for laser processing leather.

This low air pressure enables to keep the lens from overheating while enabling the smoke from the laser-cut leather to move away from the workpiece.

Whereas, using a high-pressure air assist will force the smoke onto the workpiece and cause black smudges on the workpiece.

Lenses

Generally, a 2" lens with a low-pressure air assist and a small spot size (under 0.2mm) will give satisfactory results with a few edge burns.

But a compound lens with a spot size of around 0.1mm will give the best results with no charr and minimum edge burn.

Similarly, for the engraving process, a universal engraving nozzle with a compound lens will drastically improve the quality of the output.

Tricks to Improve the Quality of Cut

Fix masking tape or use transfer paper on the surface of the leather to be cut and minimize the smudges caused by the smoke.

Turning over the material to perform the laser cutting from the back will also help to attain a cleaner finish on the leather.

Other than following the proper guide and reducing the edge burns to a minimum, wiping the workpiece with soapy water will help to clean off the smudges from the surface.

Exhaust System

Although the fumes produced while laser cutting natural leather might not be harmful to humans.

There are imitation leathers, like faux leather, that produce toxic fumes which are harmful to your health and can also damage the laser head.

A laser cutter with a proper ventilation system will evacuate the fumes from the cutting area and vent it outside the laser cutter, preventing damage to the laser head.

Best Laser Cutters for Leather

Depending upon the laser power, performance, and material capability, here are some of the best laser cutters suitable for leather.

Glowforge Plus

Glowforge Plus
Glowforge Plus

The Glowforge Plus offers a work area of 19.5” x 11” with a 40W CO2 laser that can engrave and cut through a variety of leathers.

The two inbuilt cameras of Glowforge allow you to scan the workpiece and set the layout of the design for maximum utilization of raw material.

It has a high precision of 0.001 inches which makes it ideal for cutting complex and intricate designs.

Another important feature of the Glowforge laser cutter is that it comes with an inbuilt air-assist that can be very useful while laser-cutting leather.

Trotec Speedy 100

Trotec speedy 100
Trotec speedy 100

Trotec Speedy 100 offers a comparatively larger work area of 24" x 12" that is suitable for most leather accessories.

It comes with a high-energy CO2 laser with power output options of 40W to 60W.

Trotec also provides an optional add-on of the honeycomb cutting table that can be included in your kit at the time of purchase.

OMTech 40W

OM Tech 40W
OM Tech 40W

Orion Motor Tech (OMTech) 40W has a comparatively smaller work area of 12” x 8” and weighs around 51 lbs.

It offers a 40W CO2 laser with a water cooling system and has a dedicated exhaust system.

Depending upon the type of leather, it offers a maximum engraving speed of 1000 ipm and can work on workpieces with a maximum thickness of 2.5”.

Laser Cutting Services

If you don't have expertise in designing or don't want to invest in getting your own laser cutter, you can always use the option of outsourcing.

There are several online businesses that provide laser cutting services for leather at reasonable prices.

You can either select from the pre-designed templates available on their website or request a custom design cutout.

Here is a list of some popular websites that offer laser cutting services for leather in the US.

Types of Leather for Laser Cutting

There are many types of leather available in the market and knowing the right type of leather for your application is important.

Based on the process of splitting and surface treatment, leather has been categorized in the following grades:

Full Grain Leather

Full-grain leather is the highest quality of leather available in the market.

This is the thickest type of leather available as it contains even the outer layer of the hide, which is called 'grain'.

Having the outer layer intact means that it can contain many imperfections caused by various wounds and scratches suffered over the lifetime of the animal.

This type of leather offers good water-resistant quality and is most suitable for making saddlery, weapon holsters, utility belts, safety shoes, etc.

Top Grain Leather

This type of leather is similar to full-grain leather except the top layer is removed by sanding to attain a smooth surface with no irregularities.

Although it makes the leather softer and smoother, the removal of the outer layer of leather results in loss of strength and water-resistant properties.

This type of leather can be polished and dyed into various colors and is most suitable for making handbags, wallets, and shoes.

Genuine Leather

Genuine leather, also known as Corrected leather, is made from any layer of the hide and is comparatively less durable than full-grain and top-grain leather.

It undergoes various processes to attain a smooth surface that can be dyed and embossed or cut to make various accessories.

This type of leather is generally used for making belts, duffle bags, etc.

Split Grain Leather

Split grain leather is one of the lowest grades of leather that is obtained from the layer just above the flesh.

It is a soft leather with a less-dense structure and is generally used as a finish-leather placed on top of some other material to give it a leathery look.

It is generally used for making work gloves, shoes, or handbags.

Bonded Leather

Bonded leather, also known as Reconstituted Leather, is made of layers of scrap leather bonded together.

This type of leather includes mixtures of some polymers and is also known as artificial leather.

Based upon the type of bonded leather, it can contain a leather content of around 10-90%.

It is embossed or pressed to have a grainy texture of leather and is available in a variety of colors.

Final Thoughts

Laser cutting is gaining popularity in the leather industry because of its high speed, good quality, and cost-efficient operation.

Its remarkable precision and repeatability make it a far better technique than any traditional cutting technique.

With good designing skills and a desktop laser cutter, DIY enthusiasts can step into the small-scale leather industry and make customized products for customers.

Laser Cutting and Engraving other Materials

Check out these guides on laser cutting some popular materials.

MaterialLink to Guide
PaperLaser Cutting Paper
AcrylicLaser Cutting and Engraving Acrylic
AluminumLaser Cutting and Engraving Aluminum
PlasticLaser Cutting and Engraving Plastic
PolypropyleneLaser cutting polypropylene
BrassLaser Engraving Brass
FabricLaser Cutting Fabric
FoamLaser Cutting Foam
PlywoodLaser Cutting Plywood
GlassLaser Cutting Glass
VinylLaser Cutting Vinyl

Laser Cutting Guides for other Materials

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Which leather is best suitable for laser cutting?

All the natural leathers and some synthetic leathers, like suede, are suitable for laser cutting as they don't produce any harmful fumes during the process. Whereas synthetic leathers that contain some type of vinyl or PVC produce toxic fumes that are harmful to your health and can also damage the machine.

So, it is always recommended to ensure that the material does not contain any vinyl or PVC content.

Can a diode laser be used to cut leather?

Yes, a diode laser can be used to cut leather.

Although diode lasers are usually low-power lasers that are suitable for engraving on leather, you can also use them to cut a thin sheet of leather in multiple passes.

Does engraving affect the strength of leather?

Yes, engraving leather reduces the strength of leather. Engraving a raster image on leather removes a layer from it, which weakens the material. Thus, it is recommended to perform engraving on thick leather whose durability won't be significantly affected by engraving.

Which leather is best suitable for laser engraving?

LaserLeather is the best suitable leather for laser engraving. It is a type of synthetic leather that is made specifically for laser cutting and engraving. It usually consists of two different colored layers with one layer on top of the other. When engraving LaserLeather, the top layer is removed and the bottom layer is exposed, which adds beautiful color contrast to the design.

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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