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Laser Cutting Wood: Complete Guide

Laser Cutting Wood: Complete Guide

Laser Cutting Wood: Complete Guide

Laser cutting is a great way to cut wood when you are looking to create patterns or intricate designs which are difficult to achieve using other techniques.

For laser cutting wood, 150W - 800W CO2 lasers are the best choice, their 10,600 nm wavelength beams are readily absorbed by wood. They can make effective cuts on up to 3/4" thick wood. Alder, balsa, basswood, birch laser plywood, poplar, cedar, and pinewood are the best options for laser cutting.

But cutting wood with a laser can pose a few challenges. To overcome those, the right tool and optimal settings are necessary.

In this article, I discuss wood laser cutting in detail and help you understand everything you need to know.

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Laser Cutting Wood - The Basics

Laser cut wooden panel (Source Trotec)
Laser cut wooden panel (Source: Trotec Laser)
ParameterRecommendation
Type of laserCO2
Laser powerHigh power (150 - 800W CO2 laser)
Cutting SpeedVaries for different types of wood (Sample tests are recommended)
Spot sizeAs small as possible (0.025mm or 0.001" of diameter)
Air assistA high-pressure air assist is recommended
Work tableHoneycomb or Pin table
Exhaust systemRequired as smoke is generated from wood

Recommended parameters for laser cutting wood

Wood is a naturally occurring organic material that you can cut easily with a laser. Being an organic material, it brings along some challenges to the table.

The quality of laser cut on wood will depend on its thickness, density, resin content, color, texture, and moisture. In addition, their heartwood, sapwood, earlywood, and latewood versions behave differently when laser cut.

It simply means that different wood workpieces give different results on a laser. It would be best to spend some time testing and finding the proper settings for your application.

The best and most commonly used wood for laser cutting are balsa, alder, basswood, poplar, cedar, pine, oak, walnut, mahogany, cherry, maple, birch, multiplex, cork, and laminated wood.

Artificial wood like MDF and plywood also works well on a laser. Unfortunately, internally they are stuck together as layers using glue that can melt and burn when such woods are laser-cut.

You can avoid such hazards by using specially engineered wood for laser cutting, such as laser plywood. They are made to be lasered and can deliver good results.

Diode, CO2, and fiber lasers can process wood, but among them, the best option is a CO2 laser with a minimum power of 150W.

With it, you have the flexibility of cutting wood of various thicknesses. Also, CO2 lasers won't cost as much as a fiber laser machine.

Laser cutters are not flexible enough to carve, shape, and mill wood or wood composites. For such operations, the best option will be CNC routers.

However, learning to control different parameters of a laser cutter can allow you to use your machine for making a variety of different projects.

Getting Good Results when Laser Cutting Wood

Laser Power and Cutting Speed

Using a 15 or 20 W diode laser, you can cut up to 0.25" (1/4") thick wood at a slower speed.

A 10W diode laser with a G2 lens can cut 0.19" thick black-colored balsa wood at a speed of 23.6 ipm in 23 passes.

Also, light-colored wood needs to be colored black when cutting with a diode laser for optimum absorption of the laser light.

A 1/4" thick mahogany wood can be laser-cut at ~13 ipm on a 100W CO2 laser cutter with 80% power utilization.

Similarly, a 20W diode laser of xTool D1 Pro can perform clean cuts in 5mm thick pine wood at 600 mm/min using 4 passes.

The processing speed of wood with a laser will depend on the lens, laser power, wood thickness, density, and type of wood.

The thickness of wood is a significant factor in laser-cutting. As the thickness increases, the cutting speed has to decrease.

CO2 lasers are the go-to option for most wood laser-cutting applications for many hobbyists and businesses.

Fiber lasers are not so good when working with wood, and it has a poor absorption rate on wood which causes irregular marks and uneven cuts.

Lenses

A single lens of 2" focal length and a small laser spot size of 0.001" will give smooth cuts on wood.

The depth of focus is more remarkable for a lens with a long focal length than for a shorter length, so a long focal length lens is the optimum choice for cutting thick pieces of wood.

Beam Quality

Multimodal (left) and Single moded (right) laser beam
Multimodal (left) and Single moded (right) laser beam

A beam with a near-Gaussian energy distribution is the perfect choice for cutting wood.

It means a small focal point and a small beam spot can generate the highest energy density.

With a single moded laser, you can replicate cutting wood using a really sharp tool.

It cuts easily through the wood, and since all the energy is focused on a single spot, you will be able to cut thick wood pieces.

With multimodal lasers of equal power, it is almost like cutting with a blunt tool.

Work Area

The work area is an important aspect you have to look into while selecting a laser cutter.

A machine with a larger work area gives you the flexibility of working on small and large wood pieces.

Work Holding

Since laser cutting is a contactless process and no pressure is applied to the work material, in most cases, you do not have to look for a fixturing option for wood as its weight helps it stay stable throughout the cut.

For really thin wood sheets, double-sided tape should be enough to keep the workpiece in place.

Air Assist and Exhaust

Visible levels of smoke/fume are generated when wood is laser-cut. Therefore, a high-pressure air assist is a good option while processing wood on a laser.

When laser cut, wood vaporizes and leaves behind ash. Since ash is not a good conductor of heat, it has to be timely removed using an air assist to make room for the laser to cut.

Wood having sap content and engineered wood produces harmful fumes when laser-cut. An exhaust system will help remove all the smoke trapped in the work area.

Sometimes doing multiple passes on thick wood also causes smoke. It is better to have an air assist and exhaust running together on such jobs.

Sap Content on Wood

When looking at the contrast of cut, resin/sap content in wood is a significant factor. Wood with a higher resin content can give darker cuts in a laser.

Also, wood with higher sap or moisture content requires more laser power to cut.

How to Laser Cut Wood - Steps

Creating the Design

Sign design using VCarve software
Sign design using VCarve software (Source: Vectric Ltd - YouTube)

The first step in making anything in a laser cutter is designing the object you plan to cut using CAD software of your choice.

While designing, make sure to create different layers of cut lines. This will help you sort the layers better when you import the design into a CAM software later.

There are several free and paid software for laser engraving and cutting that you can choose from for CAD, CAM, and control operations.

Performing Test Runs

Laser cutting wood with a CO2 laser
Laser cutting wood with a CO2 laser (Source: Woodworking Trade)

It is better to test and see how a laser cutter cuts the wood you plan to use.

You can refer to laser cutting thickness and speed chart for wood to set the optimal parameters for your test run.

Generally, it is recommended to start with the lowest recommended setting and slowly work your way up until you get the best results.

With the proper laser settings, you can avoid making any expensive mistakes.

Making the Cut

Laser Cutting Plywood (Source Endurancelasers)
Laser cut plywood art (Source: Endurance Lasers)

When you make the final cut, make sure you minimize material wastage. The correct laser settings and design placement will help you achieve it.

Nesting software can help realign and place cut-out shapes in a design on a plane to minimize material wastage and reduce transmission paths.

CNC nesting software takes in the design and rearranges it according to the workpiece area to get the most out of the available material.

Running an air-assist and exhaust system is always helpful. It continuously removes the emitted fumes and volatile organic components.

It also helps limit heat buildup in the work area and saves you from the risk of fire outbreaks.

Advantages of Laser Cutting Wood

Architectural model made by laser cutting wood
Architectural town planning model made by laser cutting wood (Source: Capital Models)

The major advantage of laser cutters is their hands-free automated movement, high precision, and repeatability.

Quality

Lasers are a good option when working on flat wood surfaces. When wood is cut using a laser, it will get a contrasting finish, with burr-free smooth edge cuts.

Any contours can be cut without restriction, and the inner contours are automatically smooth and free of burrs. In addition, the contours can be easily placed side-by-side by cutting with a thin laser beam.

Non-contact Cutting

Since laser cutting is a contactless process, the workpiece does not have to be clamped, fixed, or aligned using stops.

Wood can stay stable in the work area even if the exhaust and air-assist are running as it has enough weight to hold itself down.

Precision

Laser cutting inlay on veneer
Laser-cut inlay on veneer (Source: eurolaser - YouTube)

Lasers cut with good precision due to their small focus spot and computer-controlled machine movement.

A laser with an ultra-thin laser beam is particularly suited for filigree cuts because its beam diameter can be virtually left out of consideration.

Limited Material Wastage

In a laser cutter, the wooden panels can be used entirely without leaving out fixing points.

The focused laser beam generates intense localized heat that burns the wood. It maximizes material utilization with minor material damage.

Versatility

A laser cutter can control its power intensity. By controlling the laser power, you can use the same machine for engraving and marking the wood apart from cutting.

Because of the ability to control the feed and speed rates, you also do not need to replace laser heads like how you remove tool heads in other woodcutters.

When cutting thick wood pieces on a laser, things can get a little tricky.

For example, if you plan to make a 1" thick cut in a single pass, you will have to cut slow. When doing so, there is a high chance of heat buildup, which in turn can cause a fire.

A laser can easily engrave, mark, and cut different wood or wood composite materials with the proper settings.

Challenges in Laser Cutting Wood

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

High Initial Cost

Laser cutters are costlier than traditional wood cutting methods and limits many from entering into laser cutting.

Because of the enormous initial investment needed, many still use sharp tools to work on wood. CNC routers are also a popular choice.

Need for Expertise

Achieving an optimal cutting result requires an experienced individual with good knowledge of material and laser machining properties.

The software used also requires good knowledge of computers, then only you can efficiently work and troubleshoot errors.

When working with lasers, you need to be cautious and wear safety glasses. It will also be beneficial if you are aware of the possible laser hazards.

Edge Burns

Laser cut solid birch wood
Laser-cut solid birch wood cutout with a burned edge (Source: Footsteps in the Past)

When wood is laser-cut, it leaves behind a burned edge, which is problematic in most applications.

Such burn stains need multiple post-processing to remove the char and expose the natural wood texture.

When cutting thick wood pieces, the burned cut area will be much larger, making post-processing costly and nearly impossible as you will have to slice off much of the material.

To reduce charring effects, you will need to use an air assist with a high-pressure air compressor. Using a honeycomb or pin table also helps reduce charring.

When cut at low speed, the char development will be high. However, a proper speed only produces minimum charr, for finding that you will have to do many test cuts.

Toxic Fumes

Fumes from cutting some engineered wood will have chemical compounds that are toxic when inhaled for a long time. An exhaust system will help timely remove them.

Otherwise, the fumes will also block the laser path, reduce the laser intensity, and causes uneven cuts.

Best Types of Wood for laser cutting

Softwood

Softwoods for laser
Some softwood samples

Alder

Alder wood has a reddish-brown color and when laser-cut, it gives dark burns with a clean cut. It also has a grain density of ~28lbs/ft3.

A 0.125" thick alder wood can be cut at a speed of ~66 ipm on a 70W CO2 laser by utilizing 40% of its output power.

Balsa

Balsa is a buoyant wood that is of white to pale reddish-brown in color.

0.125" thick piece of balsa wood can be cut at a speed of ~72 ipm using a 100W CO2 laser cutter by utilizing 70% of its output power.

Basswood

Basswood has a pale-white to light-brown color, and when laser-cut they'll have smooth brownish cuts. It also has a grain density of ~26lbs/ft3.

A 0.125" thick basswood can be cut at a speed of ~60 ipm using a 100W CO2 laser by utilizing 55% of its output power.

Cedar

Cedarwood has a special aroma and is reddish-brown in color. It has a grain density of ~33lbs/ft3.

When laser cut, they give dark red-black color, and a 0.25" thick cedar wood can be cut with a 35W CO2 laser at a speed of ~24 ipm.

Poplar

Poplar wood is available in colors ranging from white to blackish-brown. When laser cut they give blackish burns.

They have a grain density of ~29lbs/ft3. A 0.25" thick poplar wood can be cut with a 100W CO2 laser at a speed of ~24 ipm by utilizing 80% of the laser's output power.

Hardwood

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

Birch

Birchwood is reddish-brown and has a grain density of ~46lbs/ ft3. When laser-cut, it gives a dark brown color.

A 0.25" thick birchwood can be cut at a speed of ~28.2 ipm with an 80W CO2 laser by utilizing 65% of its output power.

Cherry

Cherrywood is reddish-brown and has a grain density of ~35lbs/ft3.

A 0.25" thick cherry wood can be cut at a speed of ~30 ipm on a 70W laser by utilizing 40% of its output power.

Walnut

Walnut is pale brown or dark brown in color and has a grain density of ~40lbs/ft3.

A 0.25" thick piece of walnut wood can be cut at a speed of ~36 ipm on a 70W CO2 laser by utilizing 40% of its output power.

Maple

Maple is light brown and has a grain density of ~44lbs/ ft3.

A 0.25" thick maple wood can be cut at a speed of ~38.4 ipm on a 70W CO2 laser by utilizing 40% of its output power.

Oak

Oakwood is of light to medium brown color and has a grain density of ~47lbs/ft3.

You can cut 0.25" thick oak wood at a speed of ~24 ipm using a 100W laser operated at 80% of its power.

Engineered Wood

Laserply
Laser plywood (Source: Plyco)

Laser Plywood

Laser plywood comes with a veneer. Laser cutters can cut through them easily.

They have a uniform grain distribution and a 0.25" thick birch plywood can be cut at a speed of ~48 ipm utilizing 70% power of a 150W laser.

Laser MDF

Laser MDFs can be cut pretty easily, a 0.625" thick MDF can be cut at a speed of ~236 ipm with a 100W CO2 laser by utilizing 6% of its output power.

When cut, Laser MDF emits a lot of fumes. It is better to cut them with air-assist and exhaust turned on.

If you want to know more about different laser compatible wood, their properties, and their optimal speed and feed rates. Then, you can check out the article "Best wood for laser cutting and engraving".

Best Laser Cutters for Wood

Considering the laser power, work area, performance, and material capability, the following are some of the best laser cutters suitable for wood.

ATOMSTACK A5 PRO

A5 Pro cutting wood
A5 Pro cutting wood (Source: ATOMSTACK)

ATOMSTACK A5 PRO has a 40W CO2 laser that operates at a wavelength of 445±5 nm and provides a cutting accuracy of 0.01mm.

It can safely cut up to 1/2" thick wood with multiple passes and has a work area of 16.14" x 15.7".

Other than wood, ATOMSTACK A5 PRO can work on brass, stainless steel, cotton foam, leather, cotton, rubber, paper, and acrylic.

It has a rotary and work area extension upgrade available. With the upgrade, you will get much more flexibility in engraving and cutting operations.

Another similar laser cutter from Atomstack which is worth considering in the list is Atomstack X7.

Sale
ATOMSTACK A5 PRO
A 40W Laser with an optical power of 5.5W.
It has a 16.14 x 15.7-inch work area.

OMTech K40

OMTech K40 Desktop
OMTech K40 Desktop

OMTech K40 uses a 40W CO2 laser that operates at a wavelength of 10640nm and a frequency of 20 - 100kHz.

It has a work area of 8" x 12" and has a 32" x 20" footprint. This machine has an enclosed build with detachable moving wheels for ease of mobility.

OMTech K40 is also equipped with a stability clamp and a level board for holding regular objects.

It can work on wood, acrylic, paper, melamine, glass, fiber, ceramic, textile, leather, rubber, anodized aluminum, plastic, and other non-metal materials.

K40 easily cuts most softwoods and can cut wood laminates at a speed of ~10 ipm in a single pass.

OMTech K40 supports K40 Whisperer, LaserDRW, and Inkscape software.

A detailed article on K40 laser cutters can be found here– K40 Laser Cutter: Complete Guide.

OMTech K40
A 40W CO2 laser with a work area of 8 x 12-inches.
It has integrated cooling and red dot guidance.

Trotec SP Series

Trotec Sp3000 machine and a leaf design cut using it
Trotec Sp3000 machine and a leaf design cut using it (Source: Trotec Materials)

Trotec Laser's SP series of CO2 laser cutters are a good choice for 24x7 production environments.

They are available in the 60W to 400W range and give a maximum work area of 87" x 126".

SP series of laser cutters can readily cut and engrave wood, acrylic, plastic, leather, paper, and textiles. It can also work on material with up to 4" thickness.

SP's 60 - 100W CO2 laser are powerful enough to cut and engrave on wood like balsa, alder, cherry, poplar, cedar, pine, oak, walnut, mahogany, maple, birch, basswood, laser plywood, MDF, and more.

Trotec Laser provides good customer support and promises durability of 10-years for their laser cutters.

If you are looking for more laser cutters that can work on wood, check out the article "Best Wood Laser Engravers and Laser Cutters".

Laser Cutting Services

If you have not used a laser cutter or cannot afford a laser machine, it is better to outsource your work to a custom laser cutting service.

Several online and offline laser cutting businesses offer wood cutting services. You can find them online or visit some makers workshop near you.

Some of the popular online wood cutting services in the US are:

Final Thoughts

Laser cutting wood creates precise cuts that require less post-processing and also allows you to create intricate designs on wood. But, it cannot carve on wood.

Its precision and repeatability make it better than other traditional woodcutting techniques.

The type of optics and energy concentration of the focused beam determines the quality of cut you get. To obtain a uniform power density, you will need to use lenses having a long focal length.

Many large-scale industries have switched to laser cutting wood because of its ability to perform precise and complex cuts quickly.

However, if you want to cut thick pieces of wood, the economical option is a CNC router.

Laser Cutting and Engraving Other Materials

Following are some detailed guides on laser cutting more materials.

MaterialLink to Guide
PlywoodLaser Cutting Plywood
AluminumLaser Cutting and Engraving Aluminum
LeatherLaser Cutting and Engraving Leather
FabricLaser Cutting Fabric
FoamLaser Cutting Foam
PlasticLaser Cutting and Engraving Plastic
PolypropyleneLaser cutting polypropylene
BrassLaser Engraving Brass
FoodLaser Engraving Food

Laser Cutting Guides for other Materials

Frequently Asked Questions

Is MDF good for laser cutting?

MDF is not a good option for laser cutting. Manufacturers use urea-formaldehyde to glue together different layers of MDF. When laser-cut, they may release hazardous formaldehyde gas. Laser MDFs are a better alternative to general-purpose MDFs during laser cutting. Laser MDFs are specially crafted to be cut and engraved using a laser.

What wood can you laser-cut?

You can easily laser-cut most wood with low grain density and thickness. Alder, balsa, basswood, birch laser plywood, poplar, cedar, and pinewood are some of the best options for laser cutting.

How to make laser-wood cutouts?

To make laser-wood cutouts, first, you need to design the shape you want to cut out using any CAD software of your choice. Then choose the suitable wood for your project and cross verify if it can be cut using your laser. Once everything is ready, you can load your design to the laser software to cut. You can try many different wood projects with a laser cutter or engraver.

What's the best laser engraving for wood?

The best laser for laser engraving wood is a diode laser (810 - 1064 nm) with a power of 15W or 20W. They are a good option if your application only requires engraving text, logos, and designs on wood, they are also more affordable than CO2 and fiber lasers.

About John

Hey I'm John. I talk about CNCs and Lasers at Mellowpine. If you have any questions related to CNCs or Lasers, I'd be happy to answer them. Reach me at mail@mellowpine.com

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John

Hey I'm John. I talk about CNCs and Lasers at Mellowpine. If you have any questions related to CNCs or Lasers, I'd be happy to answer them. Reach me at mail@mellowpine.com

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