You want to get into laser engraving, but how do you choose from so many options? There are diode lasers, CO2 lasers, and fiber lasers on the market, and they all claim that they are the best.
Even among diode lasers, there's just so much variation in power and specifications. How much power do you really need? Do you need a diode laser or a CO2 laser?
In this guide, I'll answer all that, and I will help you discover the laser engraver you need by helping you understand what really matters.
I'm Unni, and I'm a laser engraving expert. I've used and played around for hours with tons of laser machines over the years. Here's the proof:
Decide whether your primary purpose is to Laser engrave or Laser Cut
You might have seen some manufacturers naming their machine as a "laser engraver and cutter," whereas some just have "laser engraver" in their name.
This is because some lasers can cut through materials, whereas some merely engrave on the material's surface.
Which laser you need will depend on what you are planing to do.
If you only want to laser engrave (on materials like wood, leather, acrylic, etc.,) a laser engraver does the job.
But if you want to do both, that is, if you want to engrave and would also like to cut materials, what you need is a laser cutter.
An important point you have to note here is that a laser cutter can also engrave, but a laser engraver is usually poor at cutting through materials.
Unfortunately, there are no formal standards for classifying what is an engraver and what is a cutter.
I have seen some shady manufacturers taking advantage of this and adding the term "cutter" to their engraver machine name just because it can cut a thin sheet of notebook paper. This is misleading!
For me to pass anything as a laser cutter, it must at least cut through a 2mm thick packaging cardboard in a single pass.
You can decide on your own standards depending on what you intend to cut.
Decide whether you need a Diode, CO2, or Fiber laser
You have the option of choosing from three types of lasers. They are diode, CO2, and fiber laser.
Most people start with a diode laser, some get CO2, and people who need to primarily work on metals get a fiber laser.
Generally, anyone getting into the laser hobby starts with diode lasers and eventually, based on their requirements, work their way up to CO2 and fiber lasers.
So why are these lasers used by different groups of people? What's different about these lasers?
Well, the main difference between these lasers is in their operating wavelength. This influences how the laser beam interacts with different materials.
The type of laser you choose determines the materials you can work with.
In the following table, I've put together the materials each laser can process.
|Opaque acrylic (dark)
As you can see from the table, diode lasers are quite versatile except with certain materials, such as clear acrylic, and clear glass.
CO2 lasers can engrave most materials except metals. Well actually they can engrave on metals, but you need to spray it with a marking agent first.
Fiber lasers are best at marking metals and poor at almost everything else.
While diode lasers are versatile, the power and speed of a CO2 or fiber laser is much higher compared to most diode lasers.
Also, precision and the ability to cut or mark deeper material thicknesses are better addressed by CO2 and fiber laser machines.
However, CO2 and fiber lasers are also much more expensive compared to diode lasers.
While you can get an entry level diode laser for ~$500, an entry level CO2 laser like the Omtech 50W will cost around $2000.
Fiber lasers are far more expensive and while they start at $2000 for 20W ones, the price for a good fiber laser that can process metals quickly can cost around $6000.
I'll use the table below to help you get an idea of how the price varies for each kind of laser.
|Creality Falcon Laser Engraver
|Ortur laser master 3
|Xtool D1 Pro
I would suggest to not go below 10W when buying a diode laser as it's likely to be too feeble do any serious work.
Also if you're primarily going to be engraving (very less cutting), I recommend you avoid buying a 20W diode and instead just get a 10W diode laser.
This is because a 10W diode is going to be more precise when engraving compared to a 20W diode laser resulting in better engraving quality.
|Omtech 50W CO2
|Boss/Epilog Lasers (Industrial)
With a CO2 laser like the Xtool P2 you can work on most materials except marking on metals.
If marking metals is a top priority, you'll likely need a fiber laser.
|Commarker B4 Fiber Laser
|Cloudray 50W Fiber Laser
|Omtech 60W Fiber Laser
With a fiber laser, you'll be able to mark on any metal and do metal related projects.
The advantage in paying more for the omtech 60W fiber laser compared to the commarker B4 is faster speed of engraving and also higher depth of engraving in each pass.
Don't expect to cut metals with a fiber laser as you'll need an enormous amount of power to do this, I'm talking ~1000W power.
Marking and etching on metals is not a problem however for fiber lasers.
The downside of a fiber laser is that it cannot work on materials like wood, leather, cardboard, glass.
For this reason, most people who have a fiber laser also have a CO2 laser for the material flexibility a CO2 laser offers.
How much Laser Power do You Really Need?
Higher laser power directly correlates with an increase in attainable cut depth.
While factors like spot size and beam quality also influence depth capabilities, if all other parameters are held equal, a 20W laser can cut deeper than a 10W laser.
For example, with a 10W diode laser, I can cut through a 2mm thick black acrylic sheet. Whereas with a 40W diode laser, I can cut through 10 mm thick acrylic.
|10W if engraving is the primary purpose and 20W if you need to do cutting as well
|50W is recommended.
|50W for businesses and 20W if you're a hobbyist
Some brands mislead customers when it comes to laser power wherein they advertise the input power of the laser module instead of the actual laser output power that the material receives.
I've seen brands advertise the laser power as 50W (input) whereas the output power could be just 10W output (true).
So always look for the output power of the laser, as it's the only power that matters.
Note that having excessive power does little good if a large, imprecise beam is unable to focus down small enough to harness that power. This is where spot size and beam quality come into play.
Spot Size and Beam Quality: Why it matters?
The spot size of a laser refers to the focused width or diameter of the laser beam at the point it impacts the work material.
Beam quality is a measure indicating how tightly the laser can be focused. A "perfect" laser beam could be focused down to the smallest possible spot size.
What you need to know is this.
Lasers with smaller achievable spot sizes and higher beam quality can typically engrave/cut materials with better resolution, precision, and faster processing speed.
A good laser machine will have a spot size close to this:
|0.08 x 0.06 mm
|0.15 x 0.2 mm
|0.05 x 0.05mm
Higher the spot size, the more imprecise the engraving/cutting is going to be.
What's your Typical Project size?
The work area for a laser cutter or engraver is the maximum area that the laser beam can be moved over. It refers to the dimensions of the usable processing area inside the machine.
For example, a laser cutter with a large work area allows you to process large workpieces like a full sheet of plywood.
Meanwhile, a more compact laser may only have a work area that limits it to small jobs like engraving nameplates, labels, or microelectronics.
There is no golden rule here. You can get a laser in any work area configuration you like. If you can't find one that matches your requirements, look for a DIY kit.
What Speed Do You Need for your Laser?
If your primary goal for getting a laser is for engraving, look for a machine that offers the most speed.
Most diode and CO2 lasers now offer a speed of around 600 mm/s.
A fiber laser equipped with a galvo head can engrave at an astonishing speed of 15000mm/s. That's 25 times faster.
This means that if a diode laser takes 5 minutes to engrave a metal workpiece, a fiber laser will be able to finish the same job in 12 seconds.
Software and Compatibility
Generally, all three types of lasers (CO2, diode, and fiber) are compatible with a wide range of software. But the popular options are LaserGRBL and LightBurn.
I use LightBurn as it has many more features, supports all of my machines, and is easy to use.
LightBurn is a paid software but it's relatively affordable at $60 for a perpetual license.
If you want free, go with LaserGRBL and upgrade to Lightburn when you are ready to pay.
Some laser manufacturers also have their own proprietary software that is designed to work with their machines. For example, RetinaEngrave from Full Spectrum Laser (FSL).
Such software may offer additional features or functionality that cater to their laser machine.
In general, diode lasers are the most compatible with common laser engraving software.
This is because diode lasers are the most popular type of laser for hobbyists, and software developers tend to focus on supporting this type of laser hardware.
Laser Safety Features
Standard safety features that are important in my opinion are fire detection sensors and machine tilt monitoring.
Fire detection sensors and machine tilt monitoring immediately trigger emergency shutdowns if things go wrong.
Some machines even come with a big red E-stop button that you can use to halt the machine's operation.
Machines with an enclosure and physical locks add additional layers of safety. Opt for such machines if you are getting a machine for an environment such a classrom.
If you plan to do a lot of cutting, get a machine with a built-in exhaust fan, as cutting generates considerable amount of fumes.
Whichever laser system you choose, make sure you and anyone near the machine wear a laser safety glass. Choose the appropriate safety glasses for the wavelength of your laser.
Laser Autofocus: Useful Feature
Autofocus is a useful feature that helps you save time in manually focusing each time.
But most lasers these days comes with a focus bar or plate which helps you focus quite easily without an autofocus.
If you're getting an open framed laser (like most diode lasers), autofocus isn't an important feature in my opinion.
But if you're getting a laser with enclosure like most CO2 lasers, a camera based autofocus is quite useful for focusing and aligning.
Do You Need an Air Assist?
An air assist nozzle is often mounted adjacent to the laser head in order to direct a constant stream of compressed air across the laser's path.
This air blast blows away the fumes and vaporized debris, aiding the laser beam in making a clean cut with less charing.
It's not an absolute necessity for laser engraving jobs but it's very important for cutting jobs.
Even for engraving jobs, an assist helps keep fumes away from lens while engraving.
Do You Need a Rotary Module?
A rotary attachment is an accessory that enables laser machines to engrave cylindrical and spherical objects.
If you want work on projects like mugs, bottles, balls, etc., you need this.
If you're not sure, just get the laser and get the rotary module later.
Also, almost all rotaries work with almost all lasers, you just need the appropriate connector.
Honeycomb Workbed: Is it Useful?
A honeycomb workbed is a type of metal work surface used in laser machines primarily for cutting jobs.
Its pocketed honeycomb pattern gives space for the smoke and debris to pass through the workbed, facilitating efficient exhaust.
A honeycomb workbed helps control the smoke stains and burns on the underside of your work material. You only need this for cutting jobs.
Do You Need an Offline Controller
An offline controller allows you to operate the laser machine without being connected to a computer. It is a standalone unit that usually comes with its own display screen and controls.
You can load designs to the controller, set job parameters, and send them to the laser for cutting or engraving.
Getting such controllers is a good idea if you don't want your only PC to stay connected to the laser machine throughout an hour-long job.
A Laser Camera?
A laser camera enables real-time monitoring and alignment, allowing you to position designs precisely on materials.
Some laser cameras can even record the job progress.
They also let you monitor your jobs remotely if you want to leave your job unattended for a bit.
There's no need to buy it with your laser. You can always retrofit them into your machine. I did the same.
Is Portabily Important to You?
Diode lasers are generally quite light and can be moved around easily. Even the expensive Xtool D1 Pro weighs only around 12 lbs (5.5 kg).
But CO2 and fiber lasers are much heavier.
For e.g., my Xtool P2 weighs 100 lbs (45 kg).
So if you want a compact laser that you can easily move around, a diode will be your best bet.
How Heavy is your Usage?
If you only need to engrave or cut a limited range of materials and your projects are relatively small, a diode laser may suffice for occasional use.
Since CO2 and fiber lasers have complex laser source mechanisms, the initial investment in these lasers may not be justified for occasional use.
However, if you expect to work with a wider variety of materials or tackle larger projects, a CO2 laser may be a more versatile option, even for rare use.
How Long will Each Laser Last?
If you only use the laser occasionally, you may be able to get several years of use out of the laser source before it needs to be replaced.
However, if you use the laser at full power more frequently, you may need to replace the laser source more often.
CO2 lasers typically have a lifespan of 1,500 - 8,000 hours, while diode lasers and fiber lasers can have lifespans of up to 10,000 hours or more.
Generally, fiber lasers have the highest, and CO2 lasers have the lowest lifespan.
Replacing diode laser modules is easier than replacing a CO2 or fiber laser source.
CO2 and fiber laser sources are often integrated into the overall laser structure, requiring more involved disassembly procedures to access, replace, and align.
Also, CO2 laser sources have multiple components, such as gas tubes, mirrors, and optics, which can be more challenging to handle.
Most laser machines have at least a USB or Wi-Fi to connect to the computer. Some lasers, usually diode lasers, also feature a memory card slot to load and run designs locally.
Some CO2 and fiber lasers even have an ethernet option for a stable connection, to connect to the internet, or to integrate into a network of lasers.
If you're just getting started with lasers, a machine with a USB or WiFi connection is sufficient.
Power Requirements and Plug Configuration
The power and plug configuration requirements of a laser machine vary depending on the machine's size, power output, and region.
Laser machines typically require a dedicated 110V or 220V circuit with a 20-amp breaker. The specific power requirements will depend on your machine's power output.
For example, a small diode laser may only require a 10-amp breaker, while a large CO2 laser may require a 30-amp breaker.
Using an undersized breaker can cause the breaker to trip frequently, and using an ungrounded outlet can pose a safety hazard.
The required plug configuration of a laser machine will depend on your region.
For example, laser machines sold in North America typically have a plug different than the one sold in Europe.
Reliability and Customer Support
Reputable laser machine manufacturers offer comprehensive customer support through various channels, such as phone, email, and online chat.
They also provide user manuals, tutorials, and troubleshooting guides to help you resolve common issues.
Also, strong customer support can assist with technical queries, software updates, and warranty claims.
A comprehensive warranty is an indication of the manufacturer's confidence in the quality and reliability of their laser machines.
Ensure that replacement parts are readily available for the machine you choose.
If possible, consider a manufacturer with a local presence in your country or region. This can facilitate easier communication, faster response times, and access to local repair services.
Do your research and check for online communities, forums, and Facebook groups dedicated to the specific laser machine you are considering.
These platforms can provide valuable insights from experienced users and, when needed, can act as a network for support.
Final Thoughts: Futureproof your laser
Before making the final decision on which laser you need, assess whether it offers upgrade paths as your expertise and project demands expand over time.
Can accessory modules like air assist, rotary attachments, or higher-powered laser tubes be integrated later?
Having an adaptable platform that “grows” with you will extend the value and return on investment of your laser purchase.