Laser Cutting Plywood Perfectly: Hobbyist Guide

Laser Cutting Plywood Perfectly: Hobbyist Guide

Laser Cutting Plywood Perfectly: Hobbyist Guide

When you're looking to create intricate cuts on plywood for your craft or art project, laser cutting should be your go-to method.

While lasers can help create stunning art on plywood, there are challenges to be overcome as well.

The hardness of plywood, generation of heavy smoke, and overburnt edges are possible challenges that could come up.

Ensuring optimal parameters and establishing effective process control can help overcome these challenges and produce excellent results when laser cutting plywood.

This article discusses the process of laser cutting plywood and various ways to overcome the challenges faced during the process.

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Laser Cutting Plywood: Everything You Need to Know

Laser cut plywood
Laser cut plywood

Plywood requires high laser power to perform clean cuts with minimal burns along the edge of the cut. Generally, a CO2 laser with a power rating of around 60-100W is recommended for laser cutting plywood of various thicknesses. It is also recommended to use multiple passes at high cutting speed.

Laser cutting is a fast and precise technique that can be used to cut intricate designs on plywood.

There are various parameters that influence the quality of cut produced when laser cutting plywood.

ParameterRecommendation
Type of laserCO2 or diode laser
Laser powerHigh power (60 - 100 W CO2 laser)
Cutting SpeedAs high as possible (Preferable to use multi-pass)
Spot sizeAs small as possible
Air assistStrongly recommended (High pressure)
Work tableHoneycomb or Pin table
Exhaust systemNeeded to reduce the accumulation of smoke

Recommended parameters for laser cutting plywood

What Laser to use for Cutting Plywood

Plywood is an organic material that shows good absorbability for wavelengths of CO2 lasers (9500 - 10600nm) and diode lasers (450-950nm).

This means the energy of CO2 and diode lasers is readily absorbed by plywood and are thus recommended for laser cutting plywood.

On the other hand, the wavelength of a fiber laser (950 - 1060nm) is not suitable for laser cutting plywood.

Diode lasers are available in relatively lower power options than CO2 lasers which limits the application of diode lasers to laser cutting thin sheets of plywood.

Whereas high-powered CO2 lasers can perform smooth cuts in plywood sheets with a thickness of around 0.6".

A diode laser with over 10W power output is an excellent choice for DIY and small-business projects.

Laser Power for Plywood Cutting

The power of a laser determines its ability to burn through the material.

A laser cutter with a high power-rating can perform through cuts in thicker materials when compared to a low-powered laser cutter.

However, low-powered lasers can also be used to cut through thick material in multiple passes with a significant increase in the kerf width.

Generally, 60W - 100W CO2 lasers are recommended for plywood as they can cut through plywoods of various thicknesses.

High laser power is desirable for cutting plywood as it can burn through the material quickly, reducing dwell time and minimizing the heat-affected zone (HAZ).

The smaller the heat-affected zone (HAZ), the lesser will be the edge burns along the cut.

Cutting Speed

The cutting speed during the process depends upon the thickness of the material and laser power.

When laser cutting plywood, it is desirable to use a high cutting speed to minimize the dwell time of the laser.

However, the thickness and strength of plywood can limit the laser from achieving a very high cutting speed.

For example, when using a 100W CO2 laser to cut through 0.35" (9mm) of 5-ply plywood, it is recommended to use 85% laser power with 1 ips (24mm/sec) cutting speed to attain a smooth cut with minimal edge burns.

Whereas a 20W xTool D1 Pro can perform clean cuts in 6mm thick plywood in 3 passes at 500mm/min with a 30 psi air assist.

It is recommended to use the multi-pass technique along with high cutting speed to laser cut thick plywood.

A low-powered diode laser cutter, such as Snapmaker 2.0 can perform clean cuts in around 2mm thick plywood at cutting speed of around 300mm/min, and 3 passes.

Generally, it is advised to perform test runs before executing the actual cut, and you can refer to laser cutting thickness and speed chart to get started with the test runs.

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Spot Size

The spot size is the diameter of the laser beam at the surface of the workpiece.

To attain the smallest possible spot size, the laser should be adjusted to focus on the surface of the workpiece.

Converging the laser beam into a tight spot increases the energy density of the laser, thereby increasing the ability of the laser to burn, melt, and vaporize the material quickly.

Tight spot size is recommended for laser cutting plywood as it enables the laser to cut through plywood with a fast cutting speed.

Air Assist

Cutting 6mm Ply using xTool D1 Pro
Cutting 6mm Ply using xTool D1 Pro

Air assist, as the name suggests, assists in the laser cutting process by blowing the molten material out of the kerf and increasing the cutting speed.

It also protects the focusing lens by preventing the hot debris from blowing towards the lens and damaging it.

Furthermore, it helps regulate the temperature of the cutting area and reduces the heat-affected zone (HAZ).

Therefore, when laser cutting plywood, it is recommended to use the air assist at maximum pressure setting.

Work Table

Laser-cutting plywood generates a lot of smoke.

This smoke gets trapped between the workpiece and work bed, which creates smoke stains on the back of the workpiece.

A pin table elevates the workpiece from the base of the table and provides easy clearance for the smoke generated while laser cutting plywood.

Another effective work table that enables easy clearance of smoke is the honeycomb work table.

It consists of a honeycomb structure that facilitates easy clearance of smoke through the gaps on the surface of the work bed.

Furthermore, if you are looking for a laser cutter specifically for plywood, it is recommended to select the laser cutter that offers the largest work area in its price point.

A large work area enables you to work on large sheets of plywood without the need to cut it into smaller pieces.

Exhaust System

Although a good work table can clear out the smoke easily, the accumulation of the smoke around the cutting area can affect the performance of the laser and degrade the quality of the cut.

A good exhaust system facilitates disposing of this smoke away from the cutting area, thereby enhancing the quality of the cut.

Challenges in Laser Cutting Plywood

Laser cutting plywood can produce excellent results with smooth cuts and high precision, which other traditional cutting processes cannot achieve.

However, it can throw up some challenges that you need to be wary of.

Edge Burns

Edge burns in plywood (Source Lightburn Forum)
Edge burns in laser cut plywood (Source: Lightburn Forum)

Edge burns are one of the most common challenges in laser cutting plywood.

It leads to charring along the edge of the cut and generally occurs due to high laser power or low cutting speed.

To avoid edge burns, reducing the laser power or increasing the cutting speed, and performing the cut in multiple passes is advised.

Scorching

Scorching of Plywood (Source Glowforce Forum)
Scorching of Plywood (Source: Glowforge Forum)

Using the multi-pass technique helps avoid edge burns but leads to scorching of the surface.

Scorching occurs due to excessive heat produced due to multiple passes, which increases the heat-affected zone and results in burn marks on the surface of the plywood.

It is advised to use masking tape to cover the area around the cut and prevent it from overburning.

Smoke

Smoke stains on laser engraved wood (Source Flux3dp forum)
Smoke stains on laser engraved wood (Source: Flux3dp forum)

Laser cutting uses a high-energy laser beam to burn through the layers of the plywood to produce the desired cut.

Plywood consists of multiple layers of wood bonded together by an adhesive material.

Laser cutting the layers of wood present in the plywood produces heavy smoke.

The adhesive material burns with harmful fumes and further adds to the smoke generated while laser cutting plywood.

This smoke hinders the laser cutting process by staining the workpiece and reducing the performance of the laser by diffusing the laser beam.

The smoke generated due to the burning of the plywood cannot be avoided, but a good exhaust system can help with the disposal of this smoke away from the cutting area.

Furthermore, using a pin table and high-pressure air assist can improve the quality of the cut by clearing the smoke away from the workpiece.

Types of Plywood Suitable for Laser Cutting

Laser cutting plywood produces excellent results with a brownish edge that adds a bit of contrast to the cut.

Although all types of plywoods can be laser cut, some plywoods produce better results than others.

Furthermore, many manufacturers have introduced special plywood series, generally known as "laser ply".

These plywoods are exclusively designed for laser cutting and produce excellent results for laser cutting and engraving.

Birch Plywood

Birch Plywood
Birch Plywood

Birch plywood is one of the most commonly used plywood for household projects.

It is durable plywood that is light in weight and offers a good surface finish.

Laser cutting Birch produces a clean cut with a light brown edge.

It might not produce the best quality cuts, but it is easy to cut and can be used for a variety of projects.

Birch laser ply is one of the easiest plywood to be laser cut and is an excellent choice for beginners.

Bamboo Plywood

Bamboo Laserply (Source Plyco)
Bamboo Laserply (Source: Plyco)

Bamboo plywood is well known among craftsmen for its beautiful color and dense wood grain.

Laser cutting bamboo plywood produces clean cuts with a beautiful brown edge that adds contrast to the project and enhances the beauty of the cut design.

The beautiful brown contrast makes it ideal for laser engraving projects.

Furthermore, bamboo plywood is available in different shades, and using a combination of light and dark Bamboo plywood will add contrast to the project.

European Beech Plywood

European Beech Plywood (Source plyco)
European Beech Plywood (Source: plyco)

European Beech Plywood is known for its rich, golden-brown color that makes it stand out from other plywoods.

Its aesthetic beauty makes it ideal for decorative applications and artworks.

European Beech Laserply produces excellent results when laser cut.

It is ideal for projects such as laser-cut business cards or wedding invitations.

Hoop Pine

Hoop Pine plywood (Source Plyco)
Hoop Pine plywood (Source: Plyco)

Hoop pine is Australian plywood that is generally acquired from Queensland plantations.

It has a beautiful texture and is generally categorized as marine plywood due to its excellent waterproof characteristics.

The high surface finish and durable build of Hoop pine make it ideal for projects such as furniture and jewelry items.

Laser cutting of Hoop pine plywood produces clean cuts with comparatively less contrast than bamboo laser ply.

Jarrah

Jarrah Plywood (Source Plyco)
Jarrah Plywood (Source: Plyco)

Jarrah plywood stands out from the other plywoods due to its dark and rich red color.

These plywoods are generally sourced from high-quality Veeners found in New South Wales.

The Jarrah laser ply is easy to laser cut and produces dark contrast, which enhances the visual aesthetics of the cut.

Its unique color makes it an ideal choice for adding contrast to woodworking projects.

Best Laser Cutters for Plywood

Trotec SP2000

Trotec SP2000
Trotec SP2000

Trotec SP2000 is a large-sized laser cutter that has a footprint of 99" x 127" x 48" and provides a large work area of 66" x 99".

The large work area and two-way pass-through door make it ideal for working with full-size sheets of plywood.

It houses a CO2 laser with power options ranging from 60W to 400W and provides a maximum processing speed of 39 ips.

This makes SP2000 ideal for large-scale businesses that work with huge sheets of plywood and require quick cycle time.

Trotec SP2000 is an open frame laser that enables you to work with large workpieces due to its infinitely long loading area.

It must be noted that SP2000 does not operate in a safety enclosure, therefore it is necessary to wear laser safety glasses when operating the laser.

Furthermore, the use of an ultrasonic sensor enables reliable auto-focus, ensuring excellent results every single time.

Trotec also provides other options under the SP series that offer different work area sizes for different applications.

ModelWork Area
(inches)
Laser Power
(W)
Cutting Speed
(ips)
SP-50056 x 3260-200100
SP-150067 x 63100-40065
SP-200077 x ∞60-40039
SP-300098 x ∞60-40039

Different models of the Trotec SP series

OM Tech MF2028-80

OM Tech 80W
OM Tech MF2028-80

OM Tech MF2028-80 offers a work area of 20" X 28" with a maximum working thickness of 0.4".

It has a footprint of 47.2" X 34.3" X 36.6" with a two-way pass-through door that lets you work with large-sized workpieces, making it ideal for plywood cutting.

OM Tech MF2028-80 provides a comparatively slower cutting speed of around 10 ips, but is complemented by its various features.

It uses an 80W CO2 laser that can cut through plywood sheets of various thicknesses.

Furthermore, its dedicated exhaust system and air assist help you perform clean cuts in plywood with a high surface finish.

The emergency stop button, safety enclosure, and auto-shut sensor ensure safe use and reduce the risk of accidents.

OM Tech MF2028-80
Powerful 80W CO2 laser
Pass-through door for handling large workpiece
Bulilt-in Air-assist

Glowforge Plus

Glowforge Plus
Glowforge Plus

Glowforge Plus is a comparatively low-powered desktop laser cutter that houses a 40W CO2 laser.

It has a footprint of 38″ x 20.75″ x 8.25″ with a very small work area of 19.5” x 11” that can be used for small size projects like laser cutting business cards or wedding invitations.

The high precision of Glowforge Plus enables it to cut with a maximum resolution of up to 13,000 lines per inch (LPI).

This makes it an ideal choice for engraving high-quality images on plywood.

Furthermore, the built-in cameras enable the precise positioning of the workpiece and the air assist facilitates in performing clean cuts on plywood.

Glowforge Plus
Sleek design 40W CO2 laser cutter
High precision with Air-assist
Easy-to-use with built-in Cameras

Final Thoughts

Laser-cutting can be used to create intricate patterns and products like dollhouses, maps, and much more.

A combination of the right settings, right material and the right machine is what's necessary to be successful with laser cutting plywood.

It must be noted that plywood is a flammable material, and therefore, it is recommended to follow laser safety protocols and monitor the cutting procedure to avoid fire hazards.

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
LeatherLaser Cutting and Engraving Leather
PlasticLaser Cutting and Engraving Plastic
PolypropyleneLaser cutting polypropylene
BrassLaser Engraving Brass
FabricLaser Cutting Fabric
FoamLaser Cutting Foam
GlassLaser Cutting Glass
VinylLaser Cutting Vinyl

Laser Cutting Guides for other Materials

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Can we laser cut hardwood?

Yes, we can laser cut hardwood. Laser cutting hardwood requires a moderately powerful CO2 or diode laser to perform clean cuts with minimal edge burns. The burning of wood produces a brownish edge that is generally desirable as it adds contrast to the project.

Can we laser engrave photographs on plywood?

Yes, we can laser engrave photographs on plywood. Laser engraving plywood produces a high-quality engraving with dark contrast, making it ideal for engraving photographs with a good level of detail.

Can we laser cut MDF?

Yes, we can laser cut MDF. Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) is a durable material made of engineered wood fibers that produce excellent results when laser cut or engraved. Generally, a CO2 laser with a power rating of above 60W is recommended for cutting MDF boards of various thicknesses.

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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