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Wood Laser Engraving: Expert Guide [2022]

Wood Laser Engraving: Expert Guide [2022]

Wood Laser Engraving: Expert Guide [2022]

Laser engraving is an easy and quick way of personalizing wood projects by adding a customized logo, signature, or other engraving patterns.

Although wood is one of the easiest materials to laser engrave, challenges such as overburnt edges, smoke stains, and uneven contrast can come up during laser engraving wood.

Following proper preventive measures and implementing optimal process parameters can help overcome these challenges and produce a high-quality engraving on wood.

This article provides a complete guide for laser engraving wood and discusses various ways to overcome the challenges faced during the process.

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You can laser engrave wood using a low-powered CO2 laser with a power rating of around 15W - 20W. Laser etching on wood can be done with a diode laser with a power rating under 10W. Wood is easy to laser engrave and produces good contrast when engraved using lasers.

Laser Engraving Wood

How to laser engrave wood (Source Glowforge)
Laser engraving wood (Source: Glowforge)

Apart from laser cutting wood, lasers can be used for engraving intricate patterns on the surface of wooden workpieces.

The primary difference between a laser cutter and a laser engraver is the material removal ability of the laser.

A laser engraver is an excellent tool that can be used to customize woodworking projects with high precision and minimum cycle time.

It provides good control over different process parameters to vary the amount of material removed during the process.

This enables to cut, engrave, or etch wooden workpieces without changing the tool.

Furthermore, laser engraving enhances the value of wooden items and can be implemented as a stand-alone business idea to earn profitable deals.

ParameterRecommendation
Type of laserCO2 or Diode laser
Laser power15W - 20W
Engraving speedModerately high speed
Resolution500 - 800 DPI
Air assistVery low pressure
Exhaust systemStrongly recommended
Cooling systemRecommended
Laser focusFocused for vector & sligltly defocused for raster engravings

Laser parameter for engraving wood

Type of Laser Suitable for Engraving Wood

Wood is an organic material that readily absorbs the energy radiations of CO2 lasers (10,600 nm) and diode lasers (450 - 950 nm).

Whereas fiber lasers with a wavelength of 1060 nm are not suitable for cutting or engraving wood.

However, the low power output of diode lasers makes them more suitable for marking, etching, and shallow engravings on wood.

On the other hand, CO2 lasers with higher power outputs can be used for performing different types of laser engravings on wood.

Laser Power for Engraving Wood

Laser power determines the ability of a laser to cut through various materials.

However, laser engraving does not involve performing through cuts in the material.

Instead, the laser removes the material up to a required depth (generally up to 0.01") to create a void of desired shape and pattern.

This requires a comparatively lower laser power than laser cutting wood.

Using high laser power can result in darker engravings with loss of detail and overburning of wood.

Generally, a low-powered diode laser or a CO2 laser with a power rating of around 15W - 20W is recommended for laser engraving wood.

Optimal Speed for Laser Engraving Wood

Wood is a flammable material capable of producing high-contrast marks when engraved by a laser.

The amount of laser energy absorbed by the wood determines the darkness of the engraving.

However, using a high-power laser with a low engraving speed can result in over burning of wood and cause fire hazards.

Whereas low laser power with high engraving speed will result in a low contrast engraving with poor visibility.

Therefore, it is important to maintain a perfect balance between the laser power and engraving speed to produce a good quality engraving with no or minimal edge burns.

You can refer to the settings provided in laser cutting thickness and speed charts for wood.

However, it must be noted that these charts provide a reference value and it is always advised to perform test runs before exiting the process.

Generally, moderate laser power with high marking speed is recommended for engraving wood.

For example, when using Ortur Laser Master 2 with 5.5W laser power output to engrave bamboo wood, an engraving speed of 47 ips (~1,200 mm/sec) is recommended for producing a good quality engraving with high contrast and minimal burns.

Whereas a 20W xTool D1 Pro can perform high-contrast engravings on pine wood at around 12,000 mm/min and 90% power.

Apart from that, low-powered diode lasers such as 1.6W laser module of Snapmaker 2.0, can also be used for engraving wooden surfaces with good contrast.

Furthermore, high-powered CO2 laser engravers can also produce 3D laser engravings on wood by using the multi-pass technique.

3D wood laser engraving
3D wood laser engraving (Source: Trotec)

When performing 3D engraving, it is recommended to use high power and slow speed for initial passes to remove the maximum amount of material.

Followed by a final pass with low power, high-speed combination to improve the surface finish of the engraving.

Using high laser power with slow engraving speed results in overburning and charring of wood which requires further processing to get a clean surface.

The post-processing to clean a 3D engraving is time-consuming as it requires intense sanding of wood to remove charring from the complex engraved surface.

Engraving Resolution

Raster engraving (Source Trotec)
Raster engraving outputs for different engraving resolutions (Source: Trotec)

Laser engraving is performed by two techniques: Raster engraving and Vector engraving.

During raster engraving, the laser functions in a continuous on-off fashion and prints the required pattern in the form of tiny dots.

The number of dots per inch (DPI) determines the resolution of the engraving.

These dots are similar to pixels in a bitmap image. The higher the number of dots, the higher the engraving resolution will be.

Generally, when laser engraving wood, a resolution of 500 - 800 DPI produces a high-quality engraving with good detailing and high contrast.

Air Assist

xTool D1 Pro engraving on Plywood
xTool D1 Pro engraving on Plywood

Air assist boosts the cutting speed of a laser by blowing the molten material out of the kerf.

However, laser engraving does not involve making a through cut in the workpiece. 

Therefore, there is no space for the molten material to escape from the bottom end of the material.

Instead, the high-pressure air-assist forces the molten material out of the engraved slot and results in a sputter over the engraved surface.

This degrades the quality of engraving and necessitates grinding or sanding of the workpiece to attain a smooth surface finish.

Generally, it is not recommended to use air assist during laser engraving wood.

However, air-assist with the least possible pressure setting can reduce the cycle time when performing deep laser engraving or 3D engraving.

Exhaust System

Wood is a flammable material that produces heavy smoke when processed under a laser.

This smoke can stain the surface of the workpiece and degrade the quality of the engraving.

The accumulation of smoke in the cutting area diffracts the laser and thereby reduces the ability of the laser to produce good quality engravings.

Furthermore, certain types of wood, such as MDF, contain formaldehyde adhesive that produces toxic fumes that can harm the operator.

Therefore, it is strongly recommended to use a good quality exhaust system for disposal of the smoke away from the user and the workpiece.

Cooling System

Laser engraving uses a high-energy laser beam that heats the surface of the workpiece to burn, melt and vaporize the material.

This heat can damage the focusing lens, especially when operating the laser for long runs.

Therefore, when performing 3D engravings or large-scale engravings that require long operational hours, it is recommended to use a good quality cooling system to keep the temperature of the equipment under control.

This ensures long life of the engraver and improves its productivity.

Laser Focus

Affect of a defocused laser on the spot size
Defocusing the laser to increase the spot size

The high-energy laser of a laser engraver passes through a focusing lens that converges the laser beam into a tight spot.

This enables the laser to cut/engrave intricate patterns on wood with high precision.

However, when performing raster engraving on wood, it is recommended to slightly defocus the laser (around 1mm) to increase the spot size.

Although defocusing the laser results in loss of detail, it produces smoother engravings with good contrast that blends into the surface of the wooden workpiece.

Whereas a focused laser with tight spot size is preferred when performing vector engravings on wood, as it produces fine line engravings with high precision.

Therefore, it is important to learn how the material behaves when processed under a laser and identify the optimal laser parameters accordingly.

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How to Laser Engrave Wood

Laser engraving wood requires access to a good quality wood laser engraver and knowledge about a few basic steps to begin the engraving process.

Preparing the Design

The design aspect of laser engraving consists of preparing a digital file representing the final engraving output.

These design files can be of two types: Raster file and Vector file.

Vector vs Raster
Vector design vs Raster design

A raster design is a bitmap image made up of millions of tiny elements called pixels.

These designs are used for performing raster engravings, such as engraving a photograph, which involves printing the design in the form of tiny dots on the surface of the material.

On the other hand, vector design consists of geometrical curves that are based on mathematical equations.

In this type of engraving, the laser cuts through the material like a hot blade and moves from one design element to another.

Whereas in raster engraving, the laser head follows a left-right pattern and engraves the desired pattern line-by-line.

Generally, when preparing the design file to engrave a photograph on wood, choosing a close-up image of the subject with a light background is recommended.

Furthermore, the dithering pattern of the image plays an important role in determining the quality of a raster engraving.

It adds desirable noise to the image and enhances the visibility of the engraving.

Generally, a dot pattern or Jarvis pattern improves the visibility of the engraving and provides the best results for laser engraving on wood.

When preparing the design file, overlapping design elements must be avoided to attain a uniform engraving with no burn marks.

If preparing the design is not one of your strong skills, you can always rely on websites that provide free design templates that you can download and use for your laser cutting and engraving projects.

Performing Test Runs

Test runs on Cherry wood (Source Snapmaker forum)
Test runs on Cherry wood (Source: Snapmaker forum)

The optimal parameters for laser engraving wood depend upon various variables, such as the type of wood, laser, laser power of the engraver, and other environmental factors.

Therefore, it is strongly recommended to perform test runs before working on the actual workpiece.

These test runs enable the user to understand the effect of different parameters and find the optimal settings that produce the best results for their application.

A square matrix is one of the most commonly used templates for performing laser engraving test runs.

It provides a quick comparison between the outputs of different settings and helps the user to find the optimal parameters.

Preparing the Workpiece

Applying masking tape on the surface of the workpiece (Source Exploratorium)
Using masking tape to cover the surface of the workpiece (Source: Exploratorium)

After performing the test runs and finding the optimal parameters, it's time to prepare the workpiece for the engraving process.

There are various types of woods that are suitable for laser cutting and engraving projects, but selecting the appropriate wood for your application enhances the quality of the engraving.

For example, laser cutting Victorian Ash produces a clean cut with minimal edge burns, but its bi-colored grain pattern results in poor visibility of the engraved design.

Similarly, European Beech consists of tiny flecks in the wood fiber.

These flecks burn differently than the rest of the wood and result in an engraving with a non-uniform contrast.

On the other hand, laser engraving hardwoods like Mahagony, cherry, and walnut produce excellent results with high contrast, and the lighter shade of Mahagony makes it ideal for fine detailing work like engraving photographs.

Moreover, placing the workpiece in such a way that the left and right pattern of engraving is in-line with the grains of wood improves the quality of the engraving.

It must be noted that finishing products like oil and stain, which are absorbed by the wood, should be applied before engraving because they cause the wood to swell and might result in loss of fine detailing from the engraving.

Whereas surface products like a sealant and other protective coatings are not absorbed by the wood and, therefore, can be applied after engraving as they do not cause the wood to swell.

Furthermore, it is recommended to apply masking tape on the surface of the wooden workpiece to prevent overburning and smoke stains from degrading the surface finish of the engraving.

Executing the Engraving Process

After preparing the workpiece, you can place it on the work table and execute the engraving process.

However, it must be noted that wood is a highly flammable material that can catch fire and result in fire hazards.

Therefore, it is strongly recommended to monitor the engraving process and strictly follow the laser safety protocols to prevent accidents.

Finishing the Workpiece

After successfully executing the engraving process, the workpiece might require some finishing.

Generally, deep laser engraving leads to overburning and sap coming out of the wood, which degrades the surface finish of the engraving.

It is recommended to clean the engraved area with soapy water and a brush/cloth to rub off the unwanted stains and produce a clean surface.

Furthermore, staining the wood with a suitable color can enhance the contrast of the engraving.

Laser Etching Wood

Laser etched photograph on wood
Laser etched photograph on wood

Laser etching is similar to laser engraving, with the only difference being the depth at which the material is affected by the laser.

In laser etching, the material is affected by the laser at a maximum depth of around 0.001", whereas laser engraving involves material removal at a depth of around 0.002" - 0.01".

Laser engraving vs etching
Laser engraving vs etching

Laser etching does not necessarily involve the removal of material.

It can also be performed by burning the surface and discoloring the wood fibers in the desired pattern without vaporizing the material.

Generally, a laser power of under 10W is suitable for laser etching wood, making diode lasers ideal for laser etching applications on wood.

Furthermore, laser etching wood is mostly used for applications such as printing images and photographs, as these projects require more contrast than depth.

It must be noted that laser etching produces a mark on wood in a darker shade of the base color.

Using a dark color wood, such as walnut will result in a low contrast etching with poor visibility.

Therefore, it is advised to refrain from using dark color wood for laser etching projects.

Wood Laser Engraving Projects that Sell

Wood is one of the most easily available natural materials suitable for hobbyists' laser projects.

It is relatively easy to engrave, and having access to a good laser cutter/engraver can get you started on making some profitable laser engraving projects with wood.

Small Size Projects to Utilize Scrap Wood

Small size wood laser engraving projects
Small size wood laser engraving projects (Source: Etsy)

Laser engraving is an innovative technique that can enhance the value and aesthetics of almost anything.

Using a laser engraver to make small-size projects like coasters, name tags, keychains, etc., can help transform scrap wood into profitable items.

These projects are comparatively easier to make as there are various templates for small-size projects that you can find online to get started with their design.

However, these projects require a higher power laser to cut the scrap wood into the desired shape with clean edges.

SignBoard

Laser Engraved signboard (Source Kernlasers Blog)
Laser Engraved signboard (Source: Kernlasers Blog)

Signboards are one of the most popular wood laser engraving projects that can fetch you a profitable deal.

However, it is a competitive business, and your success depends entirely upon your creativity.

Having a unique and creative design to personalize the signboards on customer demand can help you earn good profit.

Furthermore, it requires a good knowledge about different woods and protective coatings that can be applied to enhance the ability of outdoor signboards to withstand harsh environmental conditions.

When comparing laser engraving with CNC engraving, a good CNC router for sign making provides the ability to make deeper engravings with 3D designs.

Whereas laser engraver provides higher accuracy for intricate patterns with variable contrasts.

Artwork

Laser engraved artwork on wood (Source Kernlasers blog)
Laser engraved artwork on wood (Source: Kernlasers blog)

The introduction of cheap laser engravers has made it easy for DIY enthusiasts to get their hands on a capable laser cutter without blowing a hole in their budget.

These engravers are capable of printing a photograph or intricate patterns on a wooden board to create beautiful artwork.

Furthermore, various artists switch to laser engraving to create a unique artwork or enhance their existing work by adding a laser engraved sign or logo.

Customized Furniture

Laser engraved tables (Source Epilog Laser)
Laser engraved city map on tables (Source Epilog Laser)

Laser engraving also enables customizing wooden furniture by adding a personalized engraving.

Projects such as engraving family initials on a dining table or adding an innovative texture to handles and furniture can fetch some profitable deals.

These projects require an experienced operator to personalize the costly furniture with no scope of error.

Furthermore, performing large size engravings on furniture requires an industrial laser engraver with a large work area, which increases the initial cost for these projects.

Challenges in Laser Engraving Wood

Although wood is one of the easiest materials to laser engrave, you need to be wary of some challenges that laser engraving wood can throw up.

Over Burning of Wood

Wood is a flammable material that can easily catch fire when processed under a laser.

Overburning of the surface is one of the most commonly faced issues in wood laser engraving that can degrade the surface finish of the project.

Furthermore, the sap coming out of the wood during the engraving can result in a sticky mess all over the engraved surface.

Using a brush or a piece of cloth with soapy water can easily rub off these stains and produce a clean engraving with a high surface finish.

Smoke Stains on Wooden Workpiece

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

Laser engraving wood generates heavy smoke that can stain the workpiece and affect the engraving quality.

Using a quality exhaust system can help quickly dispose of the smoke away from the workpiece and reduce the risk of stains.

Furthermore, selecting the bottom-up engraving direction with low-pressure air assist will facilitate easy removal of the smoke by forcing it towards the exhaust vent.

Uneven Contrast

Uneven contrast due to wood fibers
Laser engraving with uneven contrast due to wood fibers (Source: Epilog laser)

Laser engraving wood can produce excellent results with good contrast and great detail.

However, it requires experience, and some test runs to perfect the results and get the desired quality engraving with good contrast.

The choice of wood plays a vital role in determining the contrast of the engraving.

Different color woods produce different contrast when laser engraved.

Therefore woods with bi-colored fibers and flecks can result in uneven contrast as these flecks and fibers burn differently than the rest of the wood.

Furthermore, aligning the grains of wood to be in line with the left and right motion of the laser during the engraving process can also improve the contrast of the engraving.

Best Laser Engravers for Wood

Glowforge Pro

Glowforge Pro
Glowforge Pro

Glowforge Pro is a large-size desktop laser engraver that houses a 45W CO2 laser, capable of cutting and engraving various types of wood.

It has a footprint of around 38" x 21" x 8.25" that provides a large work area of 19.5" x 11" with a two-way slide-through door to fit workpieces of infinite length.

This makes Glowforge pro suitable for making large-size wood engraving projects such as customized furniture.

Apart from working on wood, its powerful laser can be used for making various Glowforge projects that you can sell.

It is a feature-packed engraver that provides high accuracy of around 0.001".

The two in-built cameras facilitate easy and precise layout of the job on the workpiece.

Furthermore, its simple interface and auto-focus features add to its user-friendly experience.

You can find a detailed review of this product here — Glowforge Pro Review: Worth buying?

OM-Tech K40

OMTech K40 desktop laser engraver
OMTech K40 desktop laser engraver

OM-Tech K40 is one of the most popular K40 laser cutters that houses a 40W CO2 laser, capable of cutting and engraving different types of wood.

It has a footprint of 32" x 20" that provides a comparatively smaller work area of 12" x 8", which makes it suitable for small size wood engraving projects.

It houses a belt drive system capable of achieving a maximum engraving speed of ~822 ipm.

However, the engraving speed decreases as the hardness of the material increases.

OM-Tech K40 can engrave alder wood and wood laminates at a maximum speed of ~65 ipm with a high precision of 0.01".

Its built-in exhaust fan and cooling system enable to use OM-Tech K40 for long runs without the risk of overheating.

Furthermore, its enclosed structure and emergency stop button make K40 safe to use even on a busy shop floor.

OM-Tech provides a two-year part warranty and a six-month warranty for the laser tube and power supplies.

They provide dedicated customer support via email and phone. You can also reach them through the contact form on their website.

OM Tech also offers a higher power version, OMTech 60W CO2 Laser, ideal for wood laser engraving applications where deeper engravings are desirable.

OM Tech K40
40W CO2 laser capable of cutting and engraving wood
Can engrave alder wood at a maximum engraving speed of 65 ipm
In-built exhaust fan and cooling system suitable for long runs

Comgrow Comgo Z1

Comgrow Comgo Z1
Comgrow Comgo Z1

Comgrow Comgo Z1 is a desktop diode laser capable of laser engraving and laser etching intricate patterns on wood.

It is an open-frame laser engraver that provides an engraving area of 15.7" x 15.7" and offers laser modules with power output options of 5W and 10W.

The dual Y-axis motors enable smooth operation even at high engraving speeds.

Its 10W variant can engrave solid wood at a maximum engraving speed of around 196 ipm.

Furthermore, the compressed laser spot provides high precision, which enables Comgo Z1 to engrave intricate patterns with a maximum engraving resolution of 1000 DPi.

The open frame build of Comgo Z1 allows placing the engraver on top of any large size surface and engraving the desired pattern.

Comgrow provides 30 days return and 1-year warranty on Comgo Z1 laser engraver.

They provide email-based customer service and a website-based contact form to get in touch with the support team.

A detailed review of this product can be found here– Comgrow Z1 Laser Engraver Review

Final Thoughts

Laser engraving wood can be highly rewarding if done right.

However, it is strongly recommended to perform test runs on different types of woods and gain experience by working on small projects before stepping into large-scale projects.

Wood is a flammable material that can be challenging to laser engrave and therefore requires good process control and optimum parameters to perform high-quality engraving with good contrast.

Furthermore, finishing the workpiece by applying a protective sealant or staining the wood can enhance the quality of the engraving and protect the workpiece from harsh environmental conditions.

Laser Cutting Guides for Other Materials

Check out these guides on laser cutting and engraving some popular materials.

MaterialLink to Guide
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)

What is 3D engraving?

3D engraving is a type of deep laser engraving in which material removal occurs at varying depths. It requires a powerful laser to engrave at varying depths and is generally used for producing artwork with intricate patterns and designs.

Can a diode laser cut wood?

Yes, a diode laser can cut wood. Although the low power output of diode lasers limits them from performing through cuts in thick wooden workpieces, they can perform clean cuts in thin wood by using the multi-pass technique. The low power of diode lasers is more suitable for laser engraving wood and can even be used for engraving photographs on wood.

Does laser engraving wood produce toxic fumes?

No, laser engraving wood does not produce toxic fumes. However, certain engineered woods, such as MDF, contain formaldehyde resin to bind the wood fibers. This formaldehyde resin produces toxic fumes when burnt under a laser. Although laser engraving natural wood does not produce toxic fumes, it produces heavy smoke that can cause irritation to the lungs. Therefore, it is strongly advised to use a good quality exhaust system when laser engraving wood.

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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