Which Type of Laser Should I Buy

There are purpose built machines for various types of materials you may want to cut, mark, or engrave.  The main types of maker style lasers are Diode, C02, and Fiber.  Each serves a unique purpose.  There are many more options for size and power when you get into the industrial line of equipment.  Here we cover the maker or hobby size equipment.

You should consider carefully what you want to accomplish with your laser machine then choose a laser that will fit your goals. 

Some of your considerations should be:

  • Size of the bed (the size of the items you can engrave or cut).
  • Z height or depth – how tall of materials will fit inside.
  • Power – how fast do you need to produce products.  Your power will affect how quick you can engrave or cut. 
  • Options – accessories like rotary attachments for engraving round objects (tumblers, cups, ball bats, etc.) . Not all machines will accomdate this without heavy modifications.
  • Support – how much will you need.  Import lasers are as much as 5-6 times cheaper than those built in the U.S.  But support will be almost zero for most of these.  Many make very good machines but will be difficult to contact if you need something.  You must be willing to do some DIY figuring things out.  North American built machines have some very good support available.

Diode lasers

diode laserDiode lasers are low power lasers usually less than 20 watts and are mainly used to engrave materials.  They can be stand alone machines or often times mounted to another machine like a CNC or 3D printer.  Because of the lower power output, speed will be the biggest impact here. 

Diode lasers can take 10-20 times longer to engrave than a C02 or fiber laser and cutting material is almost impossible.  It can be done – but will take multiple passes and a long time.  Having said that, they are a great place to start from a learning and budget standpoint.

Pros

  • Easy to use especially with existing platforms and machines
  • Working size it limited to the machine it is attached to.
  • Budget friendly starting at a a couple hundred bucks.

Cons

  • Low power means very slow producing products.
  • Cannot cut thick materials and even cutting thin materials is slow.

 

Materials Available For Engraving With A Diode Laser

Note – you will only be able to cut very thin materials and it will be slow

  • Wood
  • Acrylic
  • Fabric
  • Glass
  • Cloth
  • Leather
  • Matte Board
  • Melamine
  • Paper
  • Mylar
  • Pressboard
  • Rubber
  • Wood Veneer
  • Fiberglass
  • Painted Metals
  • Plastic
  • Cork
  • Anodized Aluminum

 

CO2 lasers

c02 laser equipmentC02 lasers in the past few years have become very affordable.  The entry level K40 style C02 laser which start around $500.  The K40 usually has a fairly small workspace in both width and height.  There are many mods available for the K40 machines including cutting the bottom out to accomdate taller items and installing rotary attachments.

In a larger format many companies both import and domestic offer 50-150 watt machines.  These machines easily cut materials up to ½ inch thick and can engrave on many types of materials including acrylic, plywood, MDF, leather, some fabrics, stone, painted surfaces and many others. 

One thing to remember is the tubes in C02 lasers are like a toner cartridge – they have a limited lifespan and will need to be replaced depending on age and usage.  Replacement tubes will run a few hundred dollars to over a thousand for larger wattage replacements.  Be sure and figure this into your budget.

Pros

  • Large user support online
  • Large working areas and heights
  • Budget friendly starting at $500 thru $10k
  • Flexible options including rotary attachments

Cons

  • Maintenance costs
  • Will only mark metal with specialty coatings– will not engrave.

Materials Available For Engraving With A C02 Laser

 

  Engrave Cut
Wood x x
Acrylic x x
Fabric x x
Glass x  
Coated Metals x  
Ceramic x  
Delrin x x
Cloth x x
Leather x x
Marble x  
Matte Board x x
Melamine x x
Mother of Pearl x x
Paper x x
Mylar x x
  Engrave Cut
Pressboard x x
Rubber x x
Wood Veneer x x
Fiberglass x x
Painted Metals x  
Tile x  
Plastic x x
Cork x x
Corian x x
Anodized Aluminum x  
Stainless Steel *  
Brass *  
Titanium *  
Bare Metals *  
* CO2 lasers will mark bare metals when coated with a metal marking solution like Cermark.

 

Fiber Lasers

Fiber laser machines can engrave or mark all types of metals including stainless steel, aluminum, tool steel, brass, titanium, and much more, without the use of special sprays or coatings.

There are many applications that are perfect for fiber lasers including modifying gun parts and other metal parts that a C02 laser won’t engrave metal directly.  It will only cut very thin metal and is not a replacement for a waterjet or plasma table.

Pros

  • Can directly deep engrave metal without coatings

Cons

  • Expensive

Materials Available For Engraving With A Fiber Laser

  • 17-4 PH Stainless Steel
  • 303 Stainless
  • 4043 Steel
  • 6061 Aluminum
  • Bayer 2807 Makrolon polycarbonate
  • Bayers Bayblend FR 110
  • Black/White ABS
  • Brass
  • Brushed Aluminum
  • Carbon Nanotube
  • Clear Coat Anodized Aluminum
  • Cobalt Chrome Steel
  • Colored Delrin (Black/White)
  • Compacted Powder Iron w/Iron Phosphate Coating
  • Copper
  • DAP - Diallyl Phthalate
  • GE Plastics Polycarbonate Resin 121-R
  • Glass Filled PEEK
  • Glass Filled Telfon
  • Hard Coat Anodized Aluminum
  • Machine Tool Steel
  • Magnesium
  • Metal Plated Ceramics
  • Molybdenum
  • Nickel Plated 1215 Mild Steel
  • Nylon
  • Polybutylene Terephthalate
  • Polysulphone
  • Rynite PET
  • Santoprene
  • Silicon Carbide
  • Silicon Steel
  • Silicon Wafers
  • Various Inconel Metals (Nickel-Chromium Super Alloys)
  • White PEEK
  • Yellow Chromate Aluminum
  • Zinc Plated Mild Steel

 

C02 Vs. Fiber Lasers

There ARE some laser machines that offer both in a combination unit giving you the best of both worlds.  This may be a perfect fit for your workflow but with seperate machines you could potentially double your output running two jobs at once.

This video outlines the technology behing the two types of lasers.  If the science gets too deep for you, skip forward as it covers actual best machines for material types.