If you ask any DIY fanatic what’s on top of their wish-list, chances are pretty high they’ll say a laser cutter or engraver. As you might expect, these exotic pieces of kit use high-powered lasers to cut through materials, or to engrave them with a design. Like a 3D printer, they’re controlled by a computer, and work autonomously once provided with a design.
Laser cutters aren’t terribly new technology, and haven’t quite captured the public attention like 3D printers have. However, they are incredibly cool, and much like 3D printers, prices have crashed to the point where they’re now affordable for DIY enthusiasts.
Which brings us on to a really interesting question: What one should you get? What can you make with it? And crucially, what should you do to ensure that you use them as safely as possible?
How to Pick the Right Laser Cutter or Engraver for You
Laser cutters and engravers come in all shapes and sizes, and at a number of radically different price points. At the very top of the spectrum are the high-powered ones, which are extensively used in heavy industry. These are the cream-of-the-crop, and include some astonishingly powerful lasers. Some are even used in the processing of diamonds. But what really makes these laser cutters so prized is their ability to consistently cut through even the thickest of materials with ultimate precision. Of course, it goes without saying that these are unaffordable, even to the most well-endowed makerspace.
At the middle of the market, things get a bit more reasonable. There are laser cutters that are aimed at smaller businesses, deep-pocketed enthusiasts, and makerspaces. These range in price from $1,000 to over $5,000. They differ from the cheaper units on the market by having a larger workspace, with many being able to cut A3-paper sized materials. They also have a more powerful laser, meaning it can cut through thicker materials, faster.
But what if you don’t have $1,000 to spend on a laser cutter? Thankfully, there are a number of bargain-basement devices, the majority of which go from as little as $60, to as much as $500. At the lower end of the scale, you’re likely to end up with a device that can only engrave on a small area, and is only able to cut through paper or cardboard.
Gearbest – a retailer of affordable Chinese-made electronics – sells the NEJE 300mW Laser Engraver Machine for just $65. This includes shipping to the United States. While it’s undoubtedly a great deal, it can only engrave images that have dimensions of less than 38 by 38mm. This limits what you can produce significantly.
If you spend more, you’ll get more. GearBest also sells a 5500mW laser engraver kit for $315. This is faster, and boasts a significantly more powerful laser. However, its Achilles heel is that it needs to be assembled. If you’re looking for an out-of-the-box solution, this isn’t it.
There are a number of interesting offerings on Amazon. They sell a generically-branded laser cutter for just shy of $470. This packs an enclosed cutting surface, and can cut up to 35 millimeters deep (that’s just over an inch). It also has a much wider cutting area. But it’s worth remembering that although it costs around four times what the NEJE cutter cost, it’s still a relatively cheap bit of kit, and like many cheap gadgets coming from the factories of Shenzhen, it’s burdened with terrible software.
What Can You Do with A Laser Cutter or Engraver?
Like we discussed earlier, laser cutters and engravers are still niche items. Because they don’t have the same profile as 3D printers, there aren’t as many tutorials, guides, and recipes on the Internet. If you’re looking for inspiration as to what to make, read on.
Our green-thumbed DIY editor, James Bruce, recently bought a cheap laser engraver from GearBest. Almost immediately, he hammered together some wood signs, and engraved them with the plants, flowers, and vegetables that occupy his allotment.
These are way better than stapling a piece of paper to a lollipop-stick. Firstly, they’re less likely to blow away in high winds, as they’re much heavier. Since the signs aren’t written using ink, they won’t run when it rains, as it inevitably does in England.
Custom iPhone Cases
Lots of people want to make their iPhones reflect their personality. To do that, they customize it with all sorts of unique cases and backgrounds. But if you really wanted to personalize your iPhone, you could give it a case that’s been engraved with a design of your own making.
It’s not recommended to directly engrave your phone; glass and metal can be tricky to etch with consumer-grade kit, plus your phone is expensive. You don’t want to take any unnecessary risks that could break your device. However, you can purchase blank iPhone cases online for not that much dough. If you want one with a beautiful, organic finish, you could purchase a wooden one. Wood is one of the materials that etches really well, but if you choose to go down this path, ensure you pick a wooden case that’s neither oily nor resinous.
If money is no object, you can also engrave leather. These tend to be much more expensive though, with a genuine leather iPhone case easily costing $40. We’ll talk about the specifics of using leather later on, but for safety reasons, you should make sure it’s actual leather, and not a synthetic version (often called “pleather”).
It’s worth noting that if you haven’t got access to a laser cutter, or aren’t feeling comfortable with it to create your own design, you could always just order your own custom designed iPhone case online from VistaPrint or Casetify.
Like I mentioned earlier, you can use a laser engraver to customize leather or suede, provided that it’s the genuine article. Fake leather, although significantly cheaper, doesn’t engrave as well, and can produce nasty byproducts that are dangerous to both humans and machines.
There are a bunch of really fascinating ideas on Reddit and YouTube. One of my favorites is taking a plain-old wallet, and customizing it by permanently etching your name or initials onto it with a laser engraver.
If you’re especially stylish, you can also custom-brand your belt. This video shows you how.
Using A Laser Cutter Safely
Before you start using a laser cutter, you’ve got to remember one simple fact: When used improperly, there’s a real risk they can cause you great harm, or at the very least, you could damage your expensive equipment. However, if you take a few simple precautions, you can reduce any risk significantly.
The first thing to take note of is that whenever you use a laser cutter or engraver, there’s a significant potential for fire. After all, you’re essentially taking an extremely powerful beam of energy and applying it to a flammable material (wood, most often, although Styrofoam is incredibly fire-prone). It’s for this reason why you should always keep a CO2 fire extinguisher handy at all times.
You can find these at pretty much any bricks-and-mortar DIY store (think Home Depot, or B&Q in the UK), as well as in many supermarkets. Unsurprisingly, Amazon sells them too, although at steeply marked-up prices.
Much like with 3D printing, you also have to be careful with what materials you cut, too. If you cut PVC (or any kind of vinyl for that matter), you will inadvertently release chlorine gas. This will mix with the moisture in the air to create hydrochloric acid, which is bad for both people and machines. As a general rule, you should always use a laser cutter in a well-ventilated space. If you’ve got a window, you should keep it open at all times.
The ATX Hackerspace has a great list of items that should never be laser cut. These include polypropylene, fiberglass, coated carbon fiber, ABS, HDPE, and polycarbonate.
Finally, it should go without saying, but you should never put naked flesh in the path of the cutter’s laser beam. Many people recommend the use of protective eyewear, too. You can get a decent pair of laser protective goggles for about $40.
Have you got a laser engraver? Have you created anything interesting or unusual with it? Tell me all about it in the comments below.
Photo Credits: DoES Liverpool (Laser Cutters)