If you want to learn how to start laser engraving, first, understand that it’s not as hard as you might think. But before you can start laser engraving, you need to know the equipment required and the work it takes to succeed. We created this guide to educate potential buyers about where to start when they’re ready to buy a laser engraving machine.
What Do I Need To Start Laser Engraving?
Before you start laser engraving, learn as much as you can about laser engraving and your new laser machine. You can quickly learn how to laser engrave by reviewing your user manual, reading helpful blogs, and watching instructional videos.
Once you have a solid foundation, you can start planning out laser engraving workshop or room for your laser engraving. Before you buy, make sure you have enough space for your laser and other required machinery. In addition, you should have a dedicated circuit with a breaker to accommodate the electrical requirements of your laser engraving equipment.
Download the user manual online and read it before the laser machine even arrives. You will have an easier time setting your new laser machine up, working with the software, and testing it out to achieve your desired results.
Clean the workshop space or surrounding area to free the room of dust and pollutants. Have any external vent or fume extractor set up and ready for use with your laser engraving machine. In addition, think about how much your device weighs and the effort it might take to get it positioned correctly in your workshop. Expect some troubleshooting during the initial setup process, and reserve some patience for this time.
The Five Things You Need to Start Laser Engraving
The CO2 laser machine is not just a single unit; it is a complete system with a few different components that make it function safely and add longevity. Let’s take a deeper look at the individual components of CO2 laser engravers. In order to start laser engraving, you’ll need these five things:
1. CO2 Laser Engraving Machine
As a novice learning more about how to start laser engraving, you don’t necessarily have to purchase the most powerful laser machine available. A beginner laser engraver like the K40 laser, or even a 50 to 60W mid-range laser is ideal for a hobbyist or someone looking to set up a small laser engraving business. The best laser engraver for beginners should provide you with:
- Ease of access
- Versatility to engrave the materials you desire
- Beginner-friendly laser software
When deciding between a smaller beginner laser engraver and a mid-sized one, think about the space available in your workroom and how much time you’ll spend on laser engraving. If it’s going to be a serious endeavor, then springing for a more powerful machine from the start can pay off as a long-term investment. Keep the below factors in mind when comparing different laser engraving machine models.
- Higher-wattage lasers work more effectively with denser materials than lower-wattage machines
- User-friendly machines make it easier for new users to become more skilled at engraving
- Features like an adjustable laser nozzle help when working on DIY laser projects
2. CO2 Laser Water Cooling System
CO2 laser engravers contain glass CO2 laser tubes filled with a mix of gases with conductive properties. They start bouncing around when you send electricity through your machine. The pressure produced sends out a beam of light hot enough to melt most compounds.
Water cooling systems stop the heat from damaging your CO₂ laser tube. There are two different methods for keeping your tube temperature at a manageable level:
- Water Pump & Bucket method: Some users rely on DIY water pumps with buckets of water to keep their lasers cool. The drawback to this is that there’s no way to precisely regulate the water temperature for your CO2
- Water laser chiller: Water chillers use active refrigeration to provide water circulation cooling to the laser generator. That helps regulate the temperature and extend the life of the tubes — and it saves the hassle of refilling your water bucket.
Using a water pump for lower-wattage lasers can be suitable for your needs. However, you’re better off investing in a water chiller. If you’re buying a laser engraver of 80 watts or above, look into purchasing an industrial-strength water laser chiller.
Oftentimes, when you buy a new laser engraving machine, a water chiller or pump system comes included in the regular price. Before buying, check if your new laser engraver comes with a water cooling system, or if you’ll need to buy your own.
3. Ventilation System for Laser Engraving
A ventilation system protects both you and your laser engraving machine. The laser beam quickly heats various materials to the point of vaporization, producing smoke, soot, and other airborne debris. A laser ventilation system keeps you from breathing in harmful airborne particles while removing the smoke and debris that could accumulate in your machine. Any smoke lingering around your laser engraving machine may cause optical damage to the focal lens and laser mirrors. In addition, a good ventilation system should reduce any laser cutting odors inside your workroom.
Before you start laser engraving, you have two options for your laser ventilation system:
- Connect the ducting included with your laser machine to an exhaust vent that vents outdoors — like a dryer vent in a laundry room. You may need to add an inline fan to pull the exhaust out faster.
- Use a fume extractor to purify exhaust indoors. You no longer need an exhaust exit vent to the outdoors, as the fume extractor will purify the laser cutter exhaust and release clean air back into the room. If you do use an air purifier exhaust system, using an inline fan is not necessary.
Pro Tip: To remove laser engraving exhaust faster, make sure you place your laser machine as close to the fume extractor or exhaust vent as possible. The key is to reduce the length of your ducting and eliminate any twists or turns in the duct.
4. Laser Software
Laser engraver software allows you to create and import detailed designs on your laptop or PC that can be sent directly to your laser engraver’s control computer. Before you buy your laser machine, spend some time researching the compatible laser software. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is the laser software compatible with my computer’s OS?
- Does the engraving machine come with free laser software?
- How easy to use is the laser software?
- Does the laser software support my preferred image formats?
- Can I control laser settings in the software?
Before you get started, you’ll want to learn more about SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) files, Raster vs Vector engraving, and find a laser software that will work best for you. It’s a lot easier than you might think, and there are many similarities between the various laser programs. While LightBurn is the most popular laser software to date, some of the top laser engraving software today are:
- LightBurn Laser Software for CO2 lasers
- RDWorks V8 for CO2 lasers
- CorelDRAW Graphics Suite & CorelLASER
- LaserDRW for Desktop lasers (K40 lasers)
- K40 Whisperer
5. CO2 Laser Engraving Materials
Once you set up your laser machine and you’re ready to start laser engraving, you’ll want a generous supply of laser engraving materials to keep you busy. Chances are, you already have an idea of the DIY laser projects you want to do. If so, it’s a good idea to start stockpiling co2 laser cutting materials; you’ll be surprised how fast you can laser engrave through lots of lumber or acrylic.
Each time you laser engrave a new material, you’ll need to do some test runs to find the best laser settings to achieve your desired finish. This will typically use up a small amount of your co2 laser materials, and your test card should indicate precisely which laser settings to use.
What Materials Can a CO2 Laser Engrave?
You can engrave the following materials with a CO2 laser:
- River Rock
- *Stainless Steel
*Cannot cut hardwoods like mahogany
*CO2 lasers only mark bare metals when anodized or treated with laser mark coating.
Some PVC-based acrylics can create toxic fumes when lasered.
When you start shopping for a new laser engraving system, ensure you have adequate workroom space and electric support for your machine. In addition, you should have cooling and ventilation systems in place to protect yourself and your laser engraving machine.