Laser Cutting Vinyl: Is it Safe?

Laser Cutting Vinyl: Is it Safe?

Laser Cutting Vinyl: Is it Safe?

Laser cutting is a quick and precise way of making high-quality intricate cuts in various materials.

However, you must be very careful when selecting the material for your project as some materials are not considered safe for laser cutting.

Vinyl is one such material that is considered unsafe to cut or engrave with a laser.

What exactly makes it unsuitable for laser cutting and is there a safe way to laser-cut vinyl?

This article talks about laser cutting vinyl, discusses the safety concerns, and puts forward some alternatives to laser cutting vinyl.

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Laser Cutting Vinyl - Can it be done?

Vinyl, one of the most widely used plastics, produces harmful fumes when burnt. Although it is an easy material to be laser-cut, laser-cutting vinyl is considered unsafe. It produces toxic chlorine gas and hydrochloric acid, which can be hazardous to the operator and also cause damage to the laser cutter.

Vinyl is a man-made plastic material that consists of ethylene and chlorine.

It is the second most popular plastic resin and is also referred to as polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Laser cutting the material involves using a high-energy laser beam to burn, melt, and vaporize the vinyl and produce the required cut.

The primary issue is that the burning of vinyl produces toxic fumes of chlorine gas.

Furthermore, when this chlorine gas comes in contact with the atmosphere, it undergoes a chemical reaction and produces hydrochloric acid, which can corrode the laser cutter.

Corrosive effect of laser cutting vinyl (1)
Corrosive effect of laser cutting vinyl (Source: Laser Cutting Guide/Youtube)

Therefore, laser cutting viny is not considered safe, and it is strongly advised not to process vinyl materials under a laser.

However, there are some precautionary measures that can be implemented to prevent the harmful fumes from reaching the operator and minimize the damage caused to the laser cutter.

It must be noted that vinyl content is generally found in various plastic materials and some synthetic leathers.

So, it is recommended to always check the material for any vinyl content before processing it under a laser.

Laser Cutting Vinyl - How to?

Laser Cut Vinyl Sticker (Source FAMUSE)
Laser Cut Vinyl Sticker (Source: FAMUSE)

Although laser cutting vinyl can be dangerous, its low melting point makes them one of the easiest materials to be laser-cut.

It must be noted that laser cutting vinyl is not recommended and one should always prefer to use an alternative wherever possible.

However, if special requirements necessitate the use of a laser cutter, there are various things to be considered when laser cutting vinyl.

Type of Laser for Laser Cutting Vinyl

The wavelength of a CO2 laser (10,600 nm) is readily absorbed by non-metals and is therefore recommended for laser cutting vinyl.

On the other hand, fiber lasers are not recommended for laser cutting vinyl as their wavelength (1060 nm) is not suitable for cutting non-metals.

Furthermore, the low melting point makes it possible to even use a low-powered diode laser to laser-cut vinyl.

However, the higher power of CO2 laser makes it a better choice for cutting thick vinyl workpieces like vinyl records.

Laser Power

Vinyl is an easy material to melt and vaporize, but using extensive heat can overburn the vinyl and ruin the workpiece.

Laser cutting vinyl generally requires a low-powered laser to perform through cuts in a single pass.

However, laser cutting some thick vinyl materials like vinyl records require a moderately-high laser power.

Generally, a 20W laser is recommended for laser cutting different types of vinyl.

Safety Measures for Laser Cutting Vinyl

When processing vinyl under a laser, there are various safety measures that must be strictly followed.

It must be noted that these measures will not completely eliminate the risk but help in reducing the intensity of damage caused by the harmful fumes of chlorine and hydrochloric acid.

Safety Enclosure

A safety enclosure is primarily used to reduce the exposure of the human eyes to bright laser beams.

This enclosure also facilitates in keeping the air around the operator clean by entrapping the harmful fumes and smoke.

However, the enclosure alone cannot prevent the harmful fumes from reaching the operator as proper disposal of these fumes is equally necessary.

Exhaust System

An exhaust system facilitates the disposal of the harmful fumes away from the operator, thereby reducing the risk of inhaling the harmful fumes.

However, disposing of these toxic fumes directly in the environment is against moral conduct and even punishable by law in some countries.

Therefore, it is strongly recommended to use a good exhaust system with an air filter to extract the toxic chlorine from the fumes before venting it out into the environment.

Furthermore, the quick disposal of the fumes reduces the corrosive effect of the hydrochloric acid, thereby minimizing the damage to the equipment.

It must be noted that disposing of fumes minimizes the damage to the laser equipment but can drastically reduce the life of the exhaust system by corroding it.

Safety Mask

Although the safety enclosure and exhaust system prevent the fumes from reaching the operator, it is strongly recommended to wear a good quality gas mask to further reduce the chances of inhaling the chlorine gas.

Keeping a Watch

A laser cutter is a CNC machine that takes in the design input and automates the cutting process to produce precise cuts.

However, it is advised to monitor the cutting process and keep a watch for any irregularities in the process or the material catching fire.

Safety Indications

When laser cutting harmful materials like vinyl, it is recommended to use visual signs to indicate the people around the shop floor not to enter the restricted area without a safety mask.

This reduces the risk of accidental exposure to harmful fumes and enhances the safety of the process.

Although these safety measures prevent the toxic fumes from harming the people, the damage to the equipment caused by the hydrochloric acid cannot be completely eliminated.

Laser cutting vinyl drastically reduces the life of the laser cutter and should only be performed when extremely necessary.

Furthermore, it is always recommended to wear laser safety glasses and strictly follow the laser safety protocols when laser cutting vinyl.

Chlorine Test for Detecting PVC in Vinyl

PVC material burning with a green flame (Source Textilesathi blog)
PVC material burning with a green flame (Source: Textilesathi blog)

Apart from PVC, some other plastics and synthetic leathers have some chlorine content in them.

Although verifying the contents of the material by contacting the manufacturer is the best practice, it can sometimes be difficult and time-consuming to get in touch with the manufacturer.

A simple chlorine test, also known as the Beilstein test, can be helpful to quickly verify the chlorine content of a material.

The Beilstein test is based on the fact that material containing chlorine burns with a greenish flame.

To perform this test, you will require a candle or flame torch, copper wire, and a scrap piece of the material.

Clean the copper wire to remove any impurities and heat the wire over the flame until it is hot enough to melt the material.

Then bring the hot wire in contact with the material so that a small amount of material melts and sticks to the wire.

Place the copper wire containing the sample material in the flame, and check the color of the flame.

If the flame turns green, the material contains chlorine and is not safe for laser cutting.

Alternative Material for Vinyl

Vinyl is a versatile material that is widely used in making stickers, clothing, PVC pipes, floor tiles, and vinyl records.

The vast applications of vinyl often bring forth occasions where laser-cut vinyl is highly desirable.

However, the generation of harmful fumes restricts the use of a laser for cutting vinyl.

Therefore, it is only practical to look for alternative materials that are similar to vinyl but safe to cut with a laser.

Laser Safe Vinyl

PVC-free Heat transfer vinyl
PVC-free Heat transfer vinyl from Siser

Apart from the standard vinyl that contains PVC, there are some PVC-free vinyl that are made from polyurethane or other laser-safe plastics. 

These vinyl can be used as the best alternative for thin vinyl sheets generally used in making stickers, heat transfer vinyl, and wraps.

One such example of of laser safe vinyl is the Siser EasyWeed Heat Transfer Vinyl.

Black Acrylic

Black acrylic record
Black acrylic record (Source: vid-atlantic)

Black acrylics are another alternative that can be used in applications where thick vinyl sheets are required.

Although black acrylic does not possess the physical and chemical properties of vinyl, it has a surface finish similar to vinyl, making it ideal for applications such as making decorative vinyl records.

Furthermore, laser cutting acrylic produces a smooth cut with flame-polished edges that can be used for various decorative projects.

Alternative Techniques to Cut Vinyl

In addition to laser cutting, there are alternative techniques that you can use to cut vinyl.

Vinyl Cutting Plotter

Vinyl Cutter Machine
Vinyl Cutting Plotter

A Vinyl Cutting Plotter or vinyl cutter uses a sharp knife to cut thin sheets of vinyl into the desired pattern.

The modern electrical vinyl cutters are CNC machines that take in the design input and control the movement of the sharp blade to make intricate cuts.

These machines are capable of producing precise cuts with smooth edges without burning or melting the vinyl.

Therefore, it is the safest way of cutting intricate patterns on thin sheets of vinyl.

Hot Blade

Hot Blade vinyl record cutting (Source Tam Taramtam Youtube)
Cutting a vinyl record by a hot blade (Source: Tam Taramtam/Youtube)

As the name suggests, the hot blade technique uses a heated blade to cut through the vinyl and is generally used for cutting vinyl records.

The hot blade melts the vinyl and glides through the material smoothly to produce a clean cut.

However, the melting of vinyl produces harmful fumes of chlorine, making it mandatory to wear a gas mask when using the hot blade for cutting vinyl.

Furthermore, the movement of the hot blade is controlled manually by the operator and, therefore, is not ideal for producing intricate cuts.

Final Thoughts

Vinyl is not a laser-safe material, and it is strictly advised not to process vinyl under a laser unless extremely necessary.

Following the proper safety measures can reduce the health hazards and make the process safe, to some extent, but the corrosive nature of the fumes damages the exhaust system and the laser equipment.

Therefore, it is recommended to use a cheap and expendable laser cutter for working with vinyl projects, as damage to the equipment is inevitable in the long run.

Laser Cutting Guides for Different Materials

Check out these guides on laser cutting and engraving 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
PlywoodLaser Cutting Plywood
GlassLaser Cutting Glass

Laser Cutting Guides for other Materials

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is vinyl safe for laser marking?

No, vinyl is not safe for laser marking. Although there are people who argue about vinyl being safe for laser marking as it does not involve vaporization of the material, laser marking often involves melting and solidification of the material, which produces comparatively less fumes than vaporization of vinyl. Nevertheless, the fumes produced during the melting of vinyl are equally toxic.

What is the best method to cut vinyl?

Using a CNC vinyl plotter is the best method to cut vinyl as it does not involve heating the material. This eliminates the generation of harmful fumes and makes the process much safer than other methods like laser cutting and hot blade cutting. Furthermore, the use of a CNC plotter allows you to make precision cuts with high accuracy.

Can a diode laser be used to laser-cut vinyl records?

Yes, a diode laser can be used to laser-cut vinyl records. However, the low-powered diode lasers are more suitable for engraving vinyl records but can perform through cuts using the multi-pass technique. Furthermore, it is strictly advised against laser cutting or engraving vinyl, and proper safety measures should be followed when laser cutting vinyl if the necessity arises.

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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