Desktop Laser Cutter for Metal: Sad News…

If you’re like me and many of your creative ideas have become more and more ambitious (involving materials like aluminum business cards, metal toys, metal tags, etc.), you’ve probably wondered if desktop laser cutting machines are powerful enough to cut very heavy duty materials like steel or other kinds of metals.

I did a little bit of digging into this issue, and I have to admit that what I found didn’t exactly instill a lot of confidence (I’ll explain what I mean shortly).

So, are there any smaller desktop cutting machines out there that are capable of cutting through metals with precision? All of the desktop laser cutting machines that I’ve seen are only capable of etching and engraving the surfaces of metals without actually cutting all the way through it. The machines that actually are capable of cutting all the way through metal are going to be extremely bulky, large, industrial workhorses way too large to fit on a typical desktop. They are most often used for commercial purposes and designed to cut large volumes, with extremely powerful lasers.

This means that inevitably you will need to make some sort of trade-off: either you can decide to get a bona fide desktop device that can etch or engrave designs merely on the sufaces of metal, or you can mortgage one of your appendages for an industrial machine too large, powerful, and cumbersome to fit on a desk.

If you do decide to purchase a desktop machine, they do seem to be more than capable of cutting any number of materials that are not as thick and therefore will not be any trouble for the lasers on your machine, given their wattage, to slice through completely (wood, paper, plastics, leather, etc.).

It’s even possible to engrave or etch some really neat designs on the back of a laptop or other mobile device without damaging it.

Desktop laser cutting machines are already expensive enough relatively speaking as they will typically run you at least 10 times as much is vinyl cutting machines, but if your needs require one (and you’re perhaps planning on using a machine chiefly for business purposes, a large workhorse may not necessarily be such a horrible idea).

Why Don’t Available Desktop cutters cut through metal?

So now we know that desktop laser cutters generally do not cut completely through metal although they are perfectly fine at dealing with other materials that are much thinner. However, naturally, the next question you’re probably wondering is why on earth don’t they just simply make a machine capable of cutting the metal?

Technology is evolving at a breakneck pace, so I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually we will start to see some extremely powerful desktop machines capable of doing the equivalent work that industrial machines can do today. For the time being, there are power and physical limitations that are not so easily circumvented.

For the most part it’s all going to boil down to power, speed, and efficiency.

There are two main types of lasers that are used machines today commonly that are of concern to us:

  • fiber
  • CO2.

I could spend quite a bit of time getting into all the technical knowledge and minutiae, but I won’t wear you down with all the details.

Just know this: with fiber lasers you get a beam that is usually narrower, involves no moving parts or mirrors, has lower maintenance costs, and probably most importantly, is more efficient electrically.

CO2 lasers, on the other hand, tend to work better with thicker materials, and also work faster in straight lines although they tend to be a lot slower and involve more maintenance costs.

My guess is that CO2 lasers are cheaper to manufacture as well because the desktop machines i’ve reviewed seem to employ this kind of laser, but I’m not 100% positive on this.

Lasers work by directing a very thin, powerful beam of light, sometimes as thin as a human hair, with a system of mirrors and lenses onto a surface vaporising, melting, or burning material away.

Desktop laser cutting machines just simply aren’t powerful enough to cut through the thicknesses of many metals used in most projects.

If you’re concerned about energy consumption in your home, you probably wouldn’t want a more powerful machine anyway. Desktop laser cutters are usually operating around 40-45 W, and that’s only powerful enough to engrave the surface of metal but not sliced through it completely.

A cutting machine capable of cutting more than perhaps a few millimeters deep will probably have to rely on higher wattage lasers, plasma, or water jets rather than traditional lasers in order to cut. 

Plasma cutters are extremely power-consuming, large machines used for industrial purposes.

This definitely would not be of any use to the average hobbyist.

Desktop Laser Machines That Are Available

As I already mentioned, I haven’t seen any desktop laser cutters that are capable of cutting completely through metal. However, there are a few laser cutting and etching machines I like that are currently available and can fit on an average desktop.

Glowforge

Honestly, I find it a bit strange that they’ve marketed these machines as “3D laser printers.” These neither actually “print” anything a la a traditional printer nor do they work in true 3D like a 3D printer complete with plastic filaments and everything.

They are, however, perfectly capable of cutting pieces, for instance, in wood, which can later be assembled into a 3-D product. In addition to engraving and etching on the surfaces of metal, it is sold as being able to work on the following materials:

  • Leather
  • Paper
  • Fabric
  • Acrylic
  • Glass
  • Cardboard
  • Chocolate (yes, you read that right!)

Glowforge actually has three models of it’s laser cutting machines at different price points:

  • Basic
  • Plus
  • Pro

The designs look very “Mac-friendly” and sleek. The Glowforge Plus 3D Laser Printer works with a free app (so no issues with Mac vs. PC compatibility). It meets all the federal safety standards.

*Keep in mind that all laser cutters need ventilation either by connecting a hose to a filter or putting it through a window or other opening to outdoors.

Dremel LC40-01

I think this might be my personal favorite desktop laser cutting machine. The design, black shiny exterior, and everything else about it screams “cool”.

Like the Glow Forge Plus it uses a 40 W CO2 laser to cut through a variety of materials including metal.

It’s been tested extensively as rugged, to stand the test of time. It also has interior LED lights it is outfitted with the a number of safety sensors to ensure that systems are working properly.

Alternatives to Laser Cutting Machines for Desktops

Since Options are somewhat limited with desktop laser cutters, I decided to see what else I could find as possible workarounds for metal cutting projects.

CNC Routers

CNC routers can also etch and cut materials, But instead of using a high power laser beam to do so it uses a metal bit called a router. Also, just like laser cutters, CNC routers come in industrial and desktop versions.

CNC stands for “ Computer numerical control.” Technically, this is also The same technology used to control the laser beam in laser cutting machines and the drag knife in vinyl cutters that I’ve covered elsewhere on this site.

 If you really want to save some money you can purchase DIY CNC routers in which some assembly is required.

They usually will be 1/10th the price of laser cutters, but you will sacrifice some precision and efficiency as laser beams don’t have the concomitant “wear and tear” and replacement issues that a router would.

Laser Engravers

Although the laser cutters I’ve covered are capable of both cutting through completely and engraving numerous surfaces and materials, there are some machines that are designed exclusively for etching/engraving and nothing else.

The biggest benefits of these are:

  • Lowest price point of any laser machines
  • Very small size, often as small as a desktop printer

Now these will only be able to engrave very small things like wallets, business cards, mobile phone cases, etc. 

*NOTE: You will need to check the specifications, as not all of these small machines are capable of engraving metal.

Despite the aforementioned limitations, I still find laser cutting machines, particularly those small enough to fit on a typical desktop, to have a lot of potential and are still very cool.

There is still a lot of great stuff you can make with them, and it’s on my bucket list to eventually invest in one of those to cut intricate designs on paper that can’t really be done with drag knife cutting machines (i’m going to have to save up a little bit though, as they are quite a bit pricey, especially compared to other machines like the vinyl cutters I’ve reviewed on this site!)

However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little disappointed that desktop laser cutting machines are not capable of cutting everything I’d hoped.

Laser Cutting Services

I really hope no one allows the news that there are no sufficiently powerful desktop laser cutting machines deter them from embarking on some exciting metal projects.

Another possible option is that if you’re an amateur, don’t really plan to do any projects in bulk, and are operating under a budget, it may be more economical to simply rely on service professionals to cut your project for you.

You won’t have to worry about investing in any heavy machinery since these pros will already be well-equipped with everything necessary to cut your projects and produce stellar results.

Do yourself a favor and check out http://Ponoko.com for laser cutting services if you can’t find a cutter that is to your satisfaction to purchase. I checked out their website and They do amazing work!

Final Thoughts

I’m an artist, and I started this site chiefly because I was fascinated by many different creative projects that could be completed with amazing technology.

I’ve done a lot of research and written several articles revolving around Desktop vinyl cutting machines and related projects on this site so far (with more in the pipeline). Those are very exciting and relatively inexpensive machines that can do a myriad of things.

But for precision and power, nothing compares to laser cutters. I hope that one day the technological hurdles will be overcome that will allow for desktop models to be able to cut completely through metal.