Laser Marking vs Engraving vs Etching: Explained

Laser Marking vs Engraving vs Etching: Explained

Laser Marking vs Engraving vs Etching: Explained

Laser machining is a powerful technique that can be used to produce permanent markings and engravings on the surface of the material.

Depending upon the various factors, the process can be considered laser marking, engraving, or etching.

Although all three processes have similar functionality, they are used for different applications.

So, what exactly are the differences between laser marking, engraving, and etching? And which one should you choose for your application?

This article provides a detailed differentiation between laser marking, engraving, and etching. It also discusses their applications to help you understand which one to choose.

In the end, I've also discussed some of the best laser machines for engraving, marking, and etching.

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Difference Between Laser Marking, Laser Engraving, and Laser Etching

Difference between laser marking, engraving, and etching
Difference between laser marking, engraving, and etching
ParameterLaser MarkingLaser EngravingLaser Etching
Working DepthSurface Phenomenon0.001"-0.125"0.001"
Material RemovalNoYesYes/No
Laser PowerLow-powerHigh PowerModerate Power
SpeedHighLowLow
Abrasion resistanceLowHighLow
ApplicationsSerial number, Barcodes,
Bath number, etc.
Wood carving, leather items, etc.Name plaques on trophies and awards, etc.

Difference between laser marking, laser engraving, and laser etching

The difference between laser marking, engraving, and etching is the depth at which the laser works during these processes to produce the desired pattern. While laser marking is a surface phenomenon, etching works at around 0.001”, whereas laser engraving involves material removal at around 0.001”-0.125”.

Although they have the same functional application, there are significant differences that set them apart.

A single laser machine can perform marking, engraving, etching, and many other processes.

Laser cutters are versatile tools that can be used for a variety of projects, and the more you explore, the more you learn.

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Laser Marking

Laser Marking (Source Trotec)
Laser Marking (Source: Trotec)

Laser marking is the technique of using a laser beam to decolorize the material and produce a permanent mark on the surface of the workpiece.

Unlike other laser processes, laser marking does not involve material removal, and the mark is produced by altering the physical or chemical properties of the material.

In this process, a low-powered laser beam is moved over the surface of the material to initiate a chemical alteration that results in the darkening of the target material.

This produces a high-contrast permanent mark on the material's surface.

It is generally used for applications such as marking manufactured parts with serial numbers, QR codes, barcodes, logos, etc.

Laser marking can generally be performed by four methods: carbon migration, foaming, annealing, and coloration.

Laser Carbon Migration

Laser carbon migration is generally performed for marking metals and alloys containing high carbon content.

In this process, the laser beam alters the chemical composition of the surface of the material and forces the carbon content to rise to the surface.

This results in the re-orientation of carbon in the desired pattern, thereby producing a dark mark on the surface of the workpiece.

Laser Foaming

Laser foaming is the process in which the laser heats and melts the material, without vaporizing it, and results in the foaming of the material in the form of bubbles.

This process is generally performed on non-metal surfaces, such as polymers.

Laser Annealing

Laser annealing is one of the most commonly used metal marking techniques. In this technique, the laser beam heats the surface of the metal and results in the oxidation of the material.

As a result, the material undergoes a change in color and produces a permanent mark on the metal workpiece.

Generally, a fiber laser or diode laser is used for annealing marking metals.

Laser Coloration

Color laser marking on aluminum metal
Color laser marking on aluminum metal

Laser coloration is a special technique used to produce colorful marks on the surface of certain metals and plastics.

In this process, the pulse width and frequency of the laser are specifically modified to produce different colors on the workpiece surface.

Generally, a MOPA fiber laser is used to produce colorful markings on materials such as titanium, stainless steel, and certain plastics.

Laser Engraving

Laser engraved glass using xTool D1 Pro
Laser engraved glass using xTool D1 Pro

Laser engraving is a process that requires comparatively more laser power than laser marking.

In this process, the laser beam melts and vaporizes the material to produce a void or cavity in the desired shape.

Generally, during laser engraving, the material removal is accompanied by the darkening of the surface, thereby resulting in a visible engraving with a high-contrast mark.

Depending upon the type of material removal, there are four types of laser engraving: laser ablation, deep laser engraving, concave engraving, and convex laser engraving.

Standard laser engravings can have a maximum working depth of around 0.001" - 0.005", whereas deep laser engravings can go as deep as 0.125".

The deeper the laser engraving, the better its ability to resist abrasive conditions, thereby enhancing the life of laser engraving.

A fiber laser engraver is recommended for laser engraving metals, whereas a CO2 laser is recommended for non-metals.

Apart from that, a powerful diode laser, such as xTool D1 Pro can be used for performing deep laser engravings on both metals and non-metals.

When comparing laser engraving with CNC engraving, laser engraving is ideal for producing high-contrast engravings such as photographs.

On the other hand, CNC engraving is ideal for applications where a 3D carving of the workpiece is desirable.

Laser Etching

Laser etching on Knife
Laser etching on Knife

Laser etching is the process of using a high-energy laser to melt the surface of the workpiece and produce a visible mark by creating micro-elevations and discoloring of the material.

These micro-elevations change the reflective properties of the material, thereby producing a visible mark in the desired shape.

However, laser etching can also involve removal of material at a maximum depth of around 0.001".

Although it is similar to laser marking operation, it requires comparatively more laser power to remove the material and is generally performed where a long-lasting mark with minimal material removal is required.

Laser etching is generally performed with a moderately powerful laser engraver at a processing speed slower than the engraving of similar material.

Laser Marking, Engraving, or Etching- Which is Best for your Application?

Laser engraving projects
Different Laser projects

The selection of the appropriate process for your application depends upon the type of application and the environmental conditions that the workpiece will be facing.

Furthermore, depending upon the thickness of the workpiece, laser marking is ideal for applications where material removal cannot be achieved without affecting the strength of the workpiece.

Whereas laser engraving is ideal for applications where a long-lasting mark is required irrespective of the effect on the strength of the material.

Laser engraving removes a significant amount of material, thereby reducing the physical strength of the workpiece, but due to its greater depth, a laser engraved mark is not easily removed even under abrasive conditions.

On the other hand, laser etching is generally used for etching name plaques for trophies and awards, that are not subjected to adverse environmental conditions.

Best Laser Machines for Marking, Engraving, and Etching

xTool D1 Pro- Best Laser Engraver

xTool D1 Pro
xTool D1 Pro

xTool D1 pro is a powerful diode laser engraver available with 10W and 20W laser power options.

It is ideal for engraving almost any material, except for certain transparent materials like glass and clear acrylic.

However, covering the transparent surface with black paint or masking tape resolves the issue, making it possible to engrave even the transparent workpieces.

The xTool D1 pro provides a work area of around 16.9" x 15.3" (430 x 390 mm) and can handle workpieces with a maximum thickness of around 2".

Its all-metal body with a capable belt drive system provides a maximum engraving speed of around 942 IPM (400 mm/sec), with a marking accuracy of 0.004".

xTool also provides an optional rotary engraving kit that can be used for working on cylindrical workpieces like cans, pens, etc.

The 20W variant can produce high-contrast engravings on stainless steel at 5000 mm/min and 100% power.

It can also be used for producing color laser engravings on metals such as steel, titanium, and aluminum.

Apart from metal, xTool D1 Pro can also be used to engrave glass at 8000 mm/min and around 90% power.

D1 Pro is compatible with xTool Creative Space software and LightBurn software.

xTool provides a 1-year warranty on D1 Pro and you can contact their customer support via email.

You can find a complete review of this product at- xTool D1 Pro Laser Review.

You can also watch a detailed review video of this product.

YouTube video

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Trotec SpeedMarker 1300- Best Laser Marking Machine

Trotec SpeedMarker 1300
Trotec SpeedMarker 1300

SpeedMarker 1300 from Trotec is a fiber laser marking machine that provides a work area of 39" x 18" and has a footprint of around 51" x 41" x 71".

It houses a galvanometric laser head which enhances its ability to perform laser marking operations with a quick cycle time.

The SpeedMarker 1300 comes with laser power options ranging from 20W to 100W fiber laser modules with an optional MOPA laser head.

It comes with a standard focusing lens (F-160), which can be upgraded with F-254, F-330, or F-420 lenses that provide larger marking areas and better spot sizes.

High laser power and a galvanometric marking system enable SpeedMarker 1300 to achieve a fast marking speed of around 800 characters per second (cps).

It comes with a dedicated software system, known as SpeedMarker Laser software, which provides the ability to dynamically control laser focus and perform laser marking on curved surfaces, without the need for a rotary attachment.

Trotec provides a 2-year warranty on all their SpeedMarker machines and a 3-month warranty on their optics system.

You can contact them via phone or by technical assistance form available on their website.

Glowforge Plus- Best Laser Etching Machine

Glowforge Plus
Glowforge Plus

Glowforge Plus is a desktop laser engraver that houses a 40W CO2 laser capable of etching different materials.

It has a footprint of around 38" x 20.75" and provides a work area of 11" x 19.5", with a maximum workable thickness of around 2".

It can perform high-quality etchings with a maximum resolution of around 1,000 dpi, making it ideal for etching images on wooden workpieces.

Apart from wood, it can also be used to perform laser etching on coated metal surfaces like anodized aluminum or laserable brass.

Its rigid construction along with belt-driven V-wheel carrier provides high positional accuracy of around 0.001".

Glowforge Plus comes with two inbuilt cameras that provide a live feed of the work area, thereby facilitating accurate positioning of the design to be etched on the workpiece.

The camera also facilitates the autofocus feature, ensuring perfect results every single time.

Glowforge provides a 1-year warranty for Glowforge Plus. Their active community forum and timely technical assistance provide a hassle-free experience.

They also provide a Glowforge Pro model, with a pass-through slot for handling workpieces with infinite length.

Apart from that, you can also consider other laser machines that offer excellent alternatives to Glowforge.

Glowforge Plus 3D Laser Printer
40W laser CO2 laser machine.
It has a work area of 11 x 19.5 inches.
Comes with a one-year warranty.

Final Thoughts

Although all three techniques are used to produce permanent marks on the surface of the workpiece, the right technique depends on your goals.

Laser marking is generally used on medical equipment and other sensitive workpieces where removing material can damage the equipment.

Laser engraving produces the most durable mark and performing multiple passes increases the depth of engraving, thereby enhancing its durability.

Fiber laser and diode laser are best suited for metal workpieces, however, a CO2 laser can also be used for etching metal workpieces with the help of a laser marking ink.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Can you remove a mark produced by laser marking?

Yes, you can remove a mark produced by laser marking. As laser marking is a surface phenomenon, the mark produced by the process can be easily removed by sanding the surface of the workpiece and is therefore not recommended for workpieces subjected to abrasive conditions.

Can a diode laser be used for etching glass?

Yes, a diode laser can be used for etching glass. However, it is recommended to cover the transparent glass with black paint to enhance the ability of glass to absorb the laser energy.

Can a laser engraver produce 3D engraving on wood?

Yes, a high-powered CO2 laser engraver can produce 3D engravings on wood. However, it will result in heavy charring of the surface and require extensive cleaning of the surface of the workpiece to produce a high-quality 3D engraving.

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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