Which are the materials that you can cut using a laser?
Every material behaves differently when processed under a laser. While some are safe to be cut under a laser, others release toxic fumes and are prone to catching fire.
Therefore, it is important to understand the behavior of different materials and identify the optimal parameters for laser cutting them.
This article provides a detailed guide on laser-cutting materials by discussing the optimal parameters for each material and things to consider when laser-cutting these materials.
In the end, I've also discussed the materials that are not suitable for laser cutting.
What's in this article?
- What materials can a laser cut?
- Laser cutting wood
- Laser cutting plastic
- Laser cutting metals
- Laser cutting paper
- Laser cutting fabric
- Laser cutting leather
- Laser cutting glass
- Materials not suitable for laser cutting
- How to identify optimal laser cutting parameters for a material?
- Frequently asked questions (FAQ)
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What Materials Can a Laser Cut?
Lasers are capable of cutting almost every material, but the question arises, is it safe to cut any material with a laser?
Laser cutting can be used for materials like wood, paper, plastics, glass, leather, foam, fabrics, and metals. Selecting the optimal laser parameters will ensure high-quality cuts with a smooth surface finish. However, certain materials, like vinyl, ABS, etc., are not recommended to be cut under a laser.
A laser cutter works by focusing a high-energy laser beam on the surface of the material to burn and vaporize it, producing the desired cut.
Each material behaves differently when processed under a laser and requires a specific configuration of different laser parameters to produce a clean cut with a high surface finish.
Apart from that, the ability of a laser to cut the material depends upon the type of laser being used.
Lasers, such as CO2 lasers, fiber lasers, and direct diode lasers, are generally used for laser cutting applications.
CO2 lasers have a wavelength of around 10600 nm and are best suited for cutting and engraving non-metals. However, a high-powered CO2 laser machine can also be used for cutting metal.
Fiber lasers usually have a wavelength of 1060 nm, readily absorbed by metals, making them ideal for laser cutting sheet metal.
Although fiber lasers are available in different power outputs, these lasers cannot be used for cutting non-metals, except for laser marking certain types of plastics.
On the other hand, diode lasers have a wavelength ranging from 450 nm - 950 nm, and these lasers can be used for cutting metals and non-metals.
However, these lasers are generally available in low-power options, making them suitable for laser cutters used for DIY projects.
Generally, natural materials like wood, paper, leather, metals, etc., are best suited for laser cutting because they produce no or minimal amount of harmful by-products.
Laser Cutting Wood Guide
Wood is one of the most popular materials for laser cutting and engraving projects.
Laser cutting wood produces a smooth cut with charred edges that can be easily cleaned by sanding.
Generally, a CO2 laser with a power rating of above 150W is recommended for industrial applications where up to 3/4" thick wooden workpieces are to be cut with quick cycle time.
You can also use low-powered CO2 lasers (around 50W) for small-size projects involving laser cutting up to 0.25" thick pine wood.
Apart from that, wood laser cutters are also used for laser engraving wooden workpieces with high contrast.
However, laser cutting wood generates heavy smoke, which can stain the workpiece and cause unease for the operator.
Therefore, it is recommended to use a good exhaust system with a high-pressure air assist to dispose of the smoke away from the work area.
Best Wood for Laser Cutting
|Type of Wood||Behavior|
|Hard Wood||Difficult to laser cut, but produces high-contrast engravings|
|Soft Wood||Easy to cut and produces engravings with low-contrast|
|Plywood||Easy to cut, but can produce harmful fumes during laser cutting|
|MDF||Easy to cut and engrave but produces harmful fumes.|
Different types of wood and their behavior when processed under a laser
Some of the best wood for laser cutting and engraving applications include balsa, alder, basswood, poplar, cedar, pine, cherry, walnut, birch, maple, mahogany, and oak.
Softwood like balsa, alder, pine, etc., have a comparatively lower fiber density than hardwood and produce less smoke during laser cutting.
Whereas hardwood like cherry, walnut, oak, etc., has high fiber density and produces heavy smoke during laser cutting or engraving.
On the other hand, engineered wood like plywood and MDF are comparatively easier to process under a laser.
However, these engineered wood consists of adhesive and other chemicals that can generate toxic fumes when processed under a laser.
Laser Cutting Plastic
Plastics are synthetic materials that release harmful fumes when processed under a laser.
Hence it is recommended to use a good exhaust system with an active carbon filter to purify the fumes before disposing of them in the atmosphere.
Generally, a CO2 laser with a power rating of over 40W is recommended for small-scale laser cutting plastic applications.
You can also use a powerful diode laser, such as xTool D1 pro, for DIY projects.
Best Plastic for Laser Cutting
|Name||Laser Cutting||Laser Engraving/Marking||Safety|
|Acrylic||Excellent||Excellent / Good||No harmful fumes|
|Fluoropolymers||Good||Good/Fair||No harmful fumes|
|Delrin||Good||Fair/Fair||Produces fumes of formaldehyde,|
can catch fire
|Polycarbonate||Poor||Fair/Good||Produces heavy smoke when cut|
|Mylar||Good||Fair/Fair||No harmful fumes|
|Polyimide||Poor||Poor/Good||No harmful fumes|
Types of plastics and their behavior when processed under a laser
Plastic, a synthetic material, can be found in various types that behave differently when processed under a laser.
While some plastics produce a flame-polished edge when cut with a laser, others produce toxic fumes or can cause a fire.
Acrylic is the best suitable plastic for laser cutting and engraving applications.
Laser cutting acrylic produces a flame-polished edge with minimal burns and a high surface finish.
Apart from acrylic, plastics such as polyimide, polypropylene, mylar, etc., can also be used for laser cutting plastic but require good process control to avoid excessive heat generation on the workpiece's surface.
For example, laser cutting polypropylene can result in extensive melting of the workpiece and lead to a greater kerf width, affecting the accuracy of the cut.
Therefore, it is advised to use a highly focused laser with small spot size, fast cutting speed, and air assist system to minimize the heat-affected zone (HAZ) on the workpiece.
Laser Cutting Metals
Laser cutting metal requires high-powered lasers that can generate enough heat to melt and vaporize the metal.
These high-powered lasers are mostly found in industrial laser cutters that can cut, engrave, and mark almost any metal.
Generally, a laser power of over 1kW is recommended for metal cutting applications, but a 500W laser can also be used to perform clean cuts in thin workpieces.
When comparing fiber laser with CO2 laser, fiber lasers can cut thin metal faster, but as the thickness of the workpiece increases, a CO2 laser produces better quality cuts with a smooth surface finish.
A diode laser can also be used to make clean cuts in metal, but their low power output limits them to only marking, engraving, and etching applications.
Laser cutting metal can produce fumes, and it is recommended to use an exhaust system to dispose of the smoke away from the workpiece to enhance the quality of the cut.
Apart from that, it is strongly recommended to use an auxiliary gas, generally oxygen or nitrogen, to blow the molten metal out of the kerf and enhance the cutting process.
While oxygen improves the speed of the cutting process by supplying additional heat, nitrogen enhances the quality of the cut.
Laser Cutting Paper
Paper is one of the easiest materials to cut by a laser.
However, it is prone to catching fire, resulting in charred edges with a brownish hue, which can be minimized by setting optimal parameters and establishing good process control.
Generally, a laser power of around 10W with low-pressure air assist and a good exhaust system is recommended for laser cutting paper.
Lasers can be used for cutting and engraving different types of paper, like copy paper, cardstock, two-ply paper, cardboard, and corrugated cardboard.
Although all types of paper are relatively easy to laser cut/engrave, corrugated cardboard can throw up some challenges during the laser cutting process.
Its corrugated design entraps the smoke between the layers of cardboard and disperses the laser beam, thereby reducing the ability of the laser to perform a clean cut.
Increasing the laser power can overcome the energy lost due to dispersion but can lead to fire hazards.
Therefore, when laser cutting corrugated cardboard, it is recommended to use a comparatively higher laser power with Dot Mode setting to reduce heat accumulation in a localized area.
Laser Cutting Fabric
Fabrics are generally soft and require low-powered lasers to cut or engrave.
Depending on the type of fabric, laser engraving can result in light or dark marks with variable contrast.
Moreover, synthetic fabrics produce a sealed edge when processed under a laser. In contrast, natural fabrics like cotton, denim, etc., produce frayed edges that might require secondary operations to have a clean edge.
Generally, a 40W CO2 laser is best suitable for industrial applications, and a 10W diode laser can be used for DIY projects.
Laser cutting fabric can produce moderate to heavy smoke, so it is recommended to use a low-pressure air assist and exhaust system to dispose of the fumes.
Laser Cutting Leather
Leather is a popular material used in the fashion industry for making various accessories, and laser cutting leather provides a quick and precise way of making intricate cuts in leather workpieces.
There are various types of natural and synthetic leather that can be safely processed under a laser.
However, synthetic leathers containing vinyl content are not recommended to be laser cut or engraved as they release toxic fumes that can harm the operator and the laser equipment.
Generally, a 40W CO2 laser with low-pressure air assist and a quality exhaust system will produce the best results for laser-cutting leather with minimal edge burns.
Laser Cutting Glass
Glass is a tough material that can throw up various challenges during laser cutting.
Its brittle nature makes it prone to internal fractures when subjected to the extreme heat of laser cutting.
However, using a damp paper towel to cover the cutting area will overcome this issue and minimize the risk of internal fractures.
Apart from that, being a transparent material, laser cutting glass cannot be achieved by diode or fiber laser, as these lasers will pass through the transparent surface without producing any significant effect.
However, you can apply black paint on the surface of the workpiece to use a diode laser for laser etching or engraving glass.
Generally, a CO2 laser with a power rating of around 80W is recommended for the industrial application of laser cutting glass, whereas a low-powered laser (around 30W) can be used for etching or engraving.
Materials Not Suitable for Laser Cutting
Although laser cutters can cut/engrave almost any material, certain materials can be dangerous or difficult to process under a laser.
Vinyl is a type of plastic that requires a low-powered laser to perform clean cuts.
However, laser cutting vinyl produces harmful fumes of chlorine gas and hydrochloric acid that can harm the operator and damage the laser machine.
The fumes of hydrochloric acid can result in rapid corrosion of the laser machine, drastically reducing the equipment's life.
Therefore, checking the material for vinyl content is strongly advised before processing it under a laser.
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is a thermoplastic that is relatively easy to cut by a laser.
However, it produces dangerous cyanide gas that can be toxic if inhaled by the operator, making it unsuitable for laser cutting applications.
Furthermore, ABS has a low melting point and is prone to melt during the laser cutting process, resulting in a gooey mess on the worktable.
3D printing is a safer alternative for working with ABS plastic, as it does not involve burning the material, eliminating the generation of harmful fumes.
Coated Carbon Fiber
Coated carbon fiber contains a layer of epoxy that produces harmful fumes when processed under a laser.
Apart from that, carbon fiber is prone to catching fire during the laser cutting process, making it unsuitable for laser processing.
Highly Reflective Metals
Although metals do not produce harmful fumes, certain highly-reflective metals, like silver, gold, brass, etc., can reflect the laser beam.
This reflected laser beam can be dangerous if it comes in contact with the skin or eyes of the operator, especially when working with invisible CO2 lasers.
The invisible laser can enter the eye of the operator and cause permanent damage. The reflected beam can also be directed towards the surroundings and risk fire hazards.
Apart from that, the reflected beam can also enter the laser module and damage the laser equipment.
Therefore, laser cutting reflective metals require special equipment with a safety enclosure and back reflection detection to avoid damage to the laser equipment.
Stone is a tough material with high density that requires very high laser power to cut.
Although lasers can be used to engrave granite, it is not economical to make through cuts.
When comparing laser cutting with waterjet cutting, waterjet produces better results for machining stone and granite workpieces.
How to Identify Optimal Laser Cutting Parameters for a Material?
Laser cutting uses a high-energy laser with an appropriate configuration of power, speed, frequency, resolution, and other parameters to vaporize the material and produce the desired cut.
Changing a single parameter can have visible effects on the quality of the output. Therefore it is important to ensure the perfect configuration of these parameters before performing the actual cut.
The best way to identify optimal parameters is to perform test runs on the sample material before working on the actual workpiece.
One of the most popular techniques for performing test runs is to cut or engrave a matrix of small squares with different power, speed, and frequency configurations.
This will help identify the configuration that produced the best results for your application.
It must be noted that the optimal parameters vary from one setup to another and the optimal values suggested in laser cutting thickness and speed charts cannot always ensure the best results.
You should start the test run with the lowest recommended value and slowly work your way up to find the configuration that produces the desired result.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What material is best suitable for laser applications?
Although every laserable material is suitable for laser applications, certain materials like laser leather, two-ply paper, laser ply, laserable brass, anodized aluminum, etc., are specially designed for processing under a laser and therefore are best suitable for laser applications.
Which laser is best suitable for working with various types of materials?
CO2 and diode lasers are best suitable for working with various types of materials. Depending upon the laser power, these lasers can work with almost any material, ranging from non-metals like paper, wood, plastics, etc. to metals like steel, aluminum, etc.
Can we use laser to cut foam?
Yes, a laser can be used to cut foam in intricate shapes and patterns. A 30W CO2 laser can be used for laser cutting foam with high precision and smooth edge quality. However, certain foams are made of metal and require a high-powered fiber laser to perform clean cuts.