Laser Engraver vs Laser Cutter - Are they Different?

Laser Engraver vs Laser Cutter - Are they Different?

Laser Engraver vs Laser Cutter - Are they Different?

What's the difference between a Laser Engraver and Laser Cutter?

Do you need two different machines to cut and engrave a material?’

The answer to this question goes beyond a simple yes or no because several factors affect the ability of a laser to cut or engrave.

In this article, I have discussed the major differences between laser cutting and engraving to help you understand what each machine is capable of.

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Laser Engraver vs Laser Cutter - Differences Explained

The processes that a laser machine can perform over a broader range of materials determine whether it is a “laser engraver” or “laser cutter”. Generally, a machine with laser power under 60W is considered a laser engraver, and a machine with laser power above 60W is considered a laser cutter.

The line between a laser engraver and a laser cutter is in fact quite blurry.

A laser engraver for one material can be used as a laser cutter for another softer material.

For example, a laser engraver capable of engraving wood and plastic can be used to perform satisfactory cuts on sheets of paper.

Although both work on the same principle, there are several differences between the two processes.

ParameterLaser EngraverLaser Cutter
Cutting thicknessRemoves layers of the material without performing a through cutCuts through the entire thickness
Design fileRaster and/or vectorVector file only
Laser powerLow power (under 60W)High-power (above 60W)
Cutting speedHigher speed is possibleComparatively lower speed
Additional parameterResolutionFrequency
Auxiliary gasGenerally not requiredStrongly recommended for cutting thick material

Laser engraver vs Laser cutter

Cutting Thickness

The basic working principle of laser cutters and laser engravers is quite similar, but the difference arises in how this principle is used.

During laser engraving, the laser beam burns, melts, and vaporizes the layers of the material up to the desired depth without making a through cut in the material.

Typically, laser engraving removes materials and leaves a mark with a maximum depth of around 0.01" (~0.25mm).

It generally results in visually attractive engraving designs due to the contrasting color produced by the burning of the material.  

In laser cutting, the laser beam cuts through the entire thickness of the material by burning, melting, and vaporizing the material.

The cuts made by a laser cutter are generally smooth with an excellent surface finish that does not require a secondary finishing process.

Designing

Vector vs Raster
Vector vs Raster (Source: Coreldraw)

Laser cutters or engravers are basically CNC machines that take the input from a computer and perform the required task.

The input from the computer is in the form of a CAD design or a photograph. 

There are two types of designs that are used for laser cutting or engraving a material.

Raster DesignVector Design
It is a bitmap image that is made up of thousands of tiny dots called pixelsIt is made up of geometrical curves and lines that are based on mathematical equations
Re-scaling affects the image qualityCan be easily re-scaled without affecting the image quality
Generally used for laser engravingUsed for laser cutting and vector engraving
File formats: .JPEG, .PNG, .BMP, .GIF, etc.File formats: .SVG, .EPS, .CDR, .AI, etc.

Difference between raster design and vector design

Generally, a vector design consist of hairline geometrical curves and lines that define the path along which laser cutting or engraving is to be done.

As vector design can be used for both cutting and engraving, in most of the laser software, the cutting lines are generally represented by red color, and blue lines represent engraving.

A raster design is a bitmap image consisting of pixels and the quality of the image depends upon its resolution or dots per inch (dpi).

Raster images are only used for the engraving process, and depending upon the type of image file used, laser engraving can be of two types: Raster engraving and Vector engraving.

When performing raster engraving, the laser head undergoes a horizontal motion while removing the material pixel by pixel, line by line.

It works similarly to an inkjet printer which works by printing one pixel at a time.

Whereas in vector engraving, the laser head undergoes a continuous two-dimensional motion while engraving the design vector by vector along a continuous curve.

Laser Type

The type of laser also plays an important role in determining the machining ability of the laser equipment.

CO2 Laser

A CO2 laser generally has a wavelength of 10.6 µm, which is readily absorbed by non-metals.

This makes them an excellent choice for cutting and engraving non-metals.

Although CO2 lasers can cut through metal, they do not give good results when used for engraving metal.

Therefore, a CO2 laser can be used as a laser engraver for non-metals and as a laser cutter for both metals and non-metals.

Fiber Laser

With a wavelength of 1.06 µm, a fiber laser is readily absorbed by metals and is thus recommended for cutting and engraving metals.

The availability of fiber lasers in high power options of up to 15kW makes them ideal for industrial laser cutters.

Fiber laser engravers with a power rating of under 60W are used to mark and engrave metal surfaces but cannot engrave non-metal surfaces.

However, a MOPA fiber laser can engrave plastics without burning them and can also be used to produce color laser engravings on certain materials.

Therefore, if your primary need is to cut and engrave metal surfaces, it is recommended to use a fiber laser cutter and engraver.

Diode Laser

Diode lasers are available in a wide range of wavelengths (455nm to 950nm), making them very effective for both metals and non-metals.

They lasers are generally used in cheap laser engravers, which makes them an excellent choice for beginners.

Various diode laser engravers are often regarded as portable laser engravers due to their extremely compact size and ease of use.

Diode lasers are generally available in low power options (up to 9W), with excellent engraving ability but are limited in their cutting ability.

However, recent developments have made it possible to combine the laser output from multiple diodes into a single, high-power laser beam (up to 8kW).

This high-powered diode laser can cut through various materials with ease and is used in some of the newly developed industrial laser cutters.

Power

The laser power directly affects the ability of the laser beam to cut through a material.

Laser cutters with a power rating of up to 60W are generally considered laser engravers.

They can be used to engrave various materials but cannot be used for cutting, except for thin sheets of some non-metals.

Whereas a laser cutter with a power rating of above 60W can perform through cuts in various materials and thus can be called a laser cutter.

The power of a laser engraver or laser cutter affects the process parameters such as power setting, optimal cutting or engraving speed, etc.

Process Parameters

Laser parameters (Source Instructables)
Laser parameters (Source: Instructables)

Process parameters play a vital role in the quality of the output of a laser cutter or engraver.

These parameters, in a way, also define whether the process to be done is laser cutting or engraving.

Power Setting

The power setting determines the amount of laser power used for the process.

Using a high power setting for raster engraving improves the contrast of the output, but too high power can cause scorching and other types of damage to the material.

The power setting for laser cutting depends upon the type and thickness of the material.

High the power setting, the higher will the ability of the laser to cut through thick material.

Cutting Speed

The cutting speed plays a vital role in the quality and effectiveness of the laser to cut or engrave the material.

Compared to a low-powered laser, a high-power laser can cut or engrave a material faster.

Apart from the laser power, the type of process to be performed is also a decisive factor for optimal cutting speed.

In order to reduce the contact time and prevent the laser from cutting through the material, laser engraving is generally performed at a higher speed than laser cutting.

However, too high engraving speed would result in poor engraving quality with very low detailing and low contrast.

On the other hand, laser cutting at a comparatively lower speed enables complete material vaporization with no sputter and a good surface finish.

Unlike laser power and cutting speed, which are used for every process, there are also some process-specific parameters.

Frequency

An additional process parameter of frequency is used when using a vector file to cut or engrave a material. 

Laser cutting uses a vector image that consists of continuous curves, and thereby, laser works as a knife, making a continuous cut through the material.

Continuous pulses of laser hit the surface of the material to raise its temperature and eventually cut through it.

The frequency setting determines the number of pulses that hit the material per second and is generally measured in hertz (Hz).

Resolution

Similarly, an additional process parameter for raster engraving is the resolution.

In raster mode, the laser engraver works like a printer that prints thousands of tiny dots per inch to make the desired shape or design.

The quality of the final output depends upon the number of dots per inch (DPI) and the higher the value of DPI, the higher the detailing of the engraving will be.

Generally, the value of DPI is limited by the laser's spot size as it is the smallest size of the dot that a laser can engrave.

The table below shows the recommended process parameters for cutting and engraving 1/8" thick sheets of various materials by a 35W laser engraver.

MaterialRaster Engraving
Speed/Power
(250dpi)
Raster Engraving
Speed/Power
(500dpi)
Vector Cutting
Speed/Power
(Frequency)
Wood60/10080/10070/40
(500Hz)
Acrylic100/60100/4020/100
(5000Hz)
Leather100/55100/3070/30
(500)
Glass20/10030/100N/A
Anodised Aluminum100/60100/40N/A

Process parameters for various materials

Pass Parameter

Laser engraving outputs under different parameters (Source Research_ppld)
Laser engraving outputs under different parameters (Source: Research.ppld)

The pass parameter determines the number of times the laser will pass over the cut or engraved pattern.

Multiple passes are often used to cut thick material with a low-power laser.

This technique enables a laser engraver to perform the function of a laser cutter and cut through some thin materials in multiple passes.

The multi-pass technique can also be used to engrave certain heat-sensitive materials by repeating the process several times at low power and high-speed settings.

Auxiliary Gas

The use of compressed gas to assist the laser cutting process drastically improves the performance of a laser cutter, especially when cutting thick materials.

It helps to expel the molten metal out through the bottom of the kerf and thereby attain a smooth cut at a higher cutting speed.

The auxiliary gas is generally not used when laser engraving a material because it sometimes creates an unwanted sputter that affects the surface finish.

However, when engraving certain materials that produce a lot of smoke, like leather, the auxiliary gas pushes the smoke away from the engraving and improves engraving quality.

Operational Cost

A common misconception about laser cutters is that they consume a high amount of electricity.

A laser cutter with a power rating of around 60W along with a fumes extraction system and a laptop will have an average operational cost of around $0.14 per hour.

Furthermore, laser engraving is generally performed at a lower power setting, resulting in an even lower operational cost compared to a laser cutting operation.

The faster speed used for engraving will slightly increase the power consumption but will save more in terms of the lesser machining time.

This results in laser engravers having a 35% lower operational cost compared to laser cutters.

Best Laser Engravers

Depending upon the laser power, performance, and material capability, these are some of the best laser engravers you can buy in 2022.

OM Tech DF0812-40BG

OM Tech 40W
OM Tech DF0812-40BG

Orion Motor Tech (OMTech) DF0812-40BG is a desktop laser engraver that has a work area of 12” x 8” with a footprint of 32” x 20” x 10”.

It houses a 40W CO2 laser that cannot perform well on metal surfaces but can engrave all non-metals.

OM Tech DF0812-40BG offers a maximum engraving speed of 1,000 ipm and can work on workpieces with a maximum thickness of 2.5”.

It also houses a dedicated exhaust system to safely dispose of the harmful fumes and a water cooling system that keeps the laser module from overheating.

The machine is placed inside a safety enclosure with a laser safety acrylic window on the top that enables you to keep an eye on the engraving process.

OMTech provides a 2-year warranty on the equipment and 6 months warranty on the laser tube and power supply.

They have US-based customer support that ensures hassle-free assistance via email or phone.

Ortur Laser Master 2

Ortur Laser Master 2 (712)
Ortur Laser Master 2

Ortur Laser Master 2 is a low-power, budget-friendly diode laser engraver that provides a fairly large work area for its price point.

It has a footprint of 21.2” x 19.68” x 5.9” that provides a work area of around 15.5" x 17".

The Laser Master 2 offers various laser module options that provide a laser power of 1.6 - 5.5W.

It offers a maximum engraving speed of 120 ipm and can engrave various materials like wood, paper, acrylics, glass, and anodized aluminum.

The Laser Master 2 does not have a safety enclosure, but Ortur includes a safety goggle in the kit.

A more detailed review of this laser engraver can be found here - Ortur Laser Master 2 Review

Best Laser Cutters

Considering the laser power, performance, and material capability, here are some of the best laser cutters you can buy in 2022.

Trotec SP 500

Trotec SP 500
Trotec SP 500

Trotec SP 500 is a medium-sized laser cutter that offers a work area of 56" x 32" with a footprint of 76" x 49" x 45".

With a maximum processing speed of 100 ips, it can increase the throughput by offering a faster cycle time.

Trotec offers flexibility in choosing the laser module with power options ranging between 60 - 200W.

It houses a CO2 laser module that can cut through various materials, including metals and non-metals.

SP 500 comes with a transparent safety enclosure that ensures the safe use of laser while giving access to monitor the engraving process.

The use of an ultrasonic sensor enables a quick and reliable auto-focus which saves time and ensures the best results.

For those who require a larger work area, Trotec provides three more options with a larger work area.

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 comes with a footprint of 47.2" X 34.3" X 36.6" that offers a work area of 20" X 28" and the two-way pass-through door provides the opportunity to work with even larger workpieces.

It offers a comparatively slower cutting speed of around 10 ips, complemented by its feature-rich performance.

The OM Tech MF2028-80 houses an 80W CO2 laser that can cut through various materials with a maximum thickness of around 0.4".

It also includes a dedicated exhaust system and air assist that enhances the ability to perform clean cuts with a high surface finish.

The safety enclosure and the auto-shut sensor that turns off the laser upon opening the hood of the enclosure ensure the safe use of the machine and reduce the risk of accidents.

Final Thoughts

The primary difference between a laser engraver and a laser cutter is in their ability to cut through the material.

A laser cutter is a broad term used for machines capable of laser cutting and engraving various materials.

Most laser cutters can be used as laser engravers by regulating the power output and cutting speed when setting the process parameters. 

A laser engraver can also be used to cut through thin sheets of materials by using the multi-pass technique.

However, it is inefficient to use a laser engraver to cut thick materials as it would increase the operational cost of the process and the prolonged exposure to heat in multiple passes can damage the material.

It is strongly advised to follow laser safety protocols and use laser safety glasses while working with a laser engraver or laser cutter.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Can we use raster mode to cut through the material?

Yes, you can use the raster mode to cut through the material with the multi-pass technique. But the quality of the cut will be inferior and might even result in burn marks along the edge of the cut.
Futhermore, it is uneconomical to use raster mode for cutting as it would have to burn and vaporize a complete area of the material that would otherwise be removed by performing the vector cut only along its perimeter.

Can we convert a raster image into a vector image?

Yes, you can convert a raster image into a vector image by using the image trace feature available in most of the popular CAD softwares like Adobe Illustrator, CoralDraw, etc.
This feature traces the curves of the image and then saves it in vector form. However, you might lose some details if the image is too complex.

What is PPI setting in laser engraving?

The PPI setting in laser engraving determines the number of pulses per inch.
It is similar to the frequency setting used in vector mode and determines the number of dots the laser will print per inch of the engraving. Generally, its value is set to double the value of the resolution (dpi). Most laser engravers automatically set the PPI based on the resolution (dpi) selected by the operator.

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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