I initially became interested in desktop laser cutters because I started having lots of new ideas for more intricate projects. I realized that vinyl/die cutters, although great for many reasons, were limited in the amount of precision their drag knife blades could cut. I was curious about what sorts of materials can these desktop laser machines could handle.
What materials can desktop laser cutters cut? Luckily, these machines are designed to cut through completely and engrave a wide variety of materials. The most common ones are wood, fabric, paper, leather, rubber, cardboard. However, there are some materials that these machines are capable of engraving only like glass, anodized aluminum, stone, marble, and many others.
I will elaborate with a little more detail shortly about some of these materials and more. It is also very essential that you know which materials you should avoid using with your laser cutter.
Some of these materials are actually quite dangerous when coming into contact with a laser beam. Others may merely wreak havoc on your machine.
What Materials Can Be Cut
Desktop laser cutters are perfectly suited for slicing all the way through and engraving beautiful designs, letters, and graphics onto wood. This is probably one of the most popular materials used.
Over the years there have been numerous exciting projects done with various kinds of wood. I’ve personally seen everything from clocks to boxes, puzzles, toys, jewelry, and a whole lot more.
Since many of these machines are specially designed to cut many kinds of woods, I wouldn’t worry too much about any project you may have in mind for your machine.
I would caution you to avoid any kind of woods that have oily resinous material embedded in them. Some examples would be pine or cedar. The reason being that is that these varieties are much more prone to catching fire. The laser beam, rather than vaporrising and burning material away, will simply ignite it and you could have a real fiery mess on your hands.
I’ve seen some very beautiful ornate designs with paper that have been cut with laser cutters. This is one of the things that intrigued me, and piqued my interest when I was doing research on the limitations of other cutting machines.
Incidentally, it’s also one of the chief reasons I am planning on investing in one very soon.
I had read that vinyl cutting machines are capable of cutting paper, but often there are issues with overcutting, alignment, dull blades, and several other issues that hamper the creation of more intricate designs.
Although they are less expensive, lighter in weight, have smaller dimensions, less power intensive, and thus much easier to transport relative to desktop laser cutters, they are not without their occasional hassles.
Laser cutters circumvent a lot of these issues because one is dealing only the laser beam and the material to be vaporized or melted away. There exists nothing physically in contact to be worn down or corroded.
In addition, the laser beams emitted are about the width of a human hair, so it’s possible to achieve exquisitely detailed designs that would be either extremely time consuming or next to impossible to implement manually, with CNC routers, or with vinyl cutting machines.
If you’re looking to create any of your own fashion, bags, stuffed animals, or any of the countless textile crafts that are possible, you should be pleased that it is not only possible, but feasible to cut many varieties of fabric as well with desktop laser cutters.
Possible fabrics include but aren’t limited to:
… and of course this list is not exhaustive
As laser cutting technology became more available over time, desktop machines also became more capable. It’s not uncommon to see laser cut designs worn in fashion shows these days.
Leather is one of those materials where you can get some great designs whether you’re cutting actual shapes out of the leather completely or merely engraving or etching on the surface of it.
The darkening of the surface, caused by the laser beam, leaves a very beautiful contrast between the ground (or the material), and the lines that are to be drawn.
The laser etches out ornate decorative designs and patterns which are also known as motifs. Since the laser beam is actually burning the surface of the leather material, strong odors like burning smells may or may not be an issue as you’re working on your designs.
Belts, wallets, smart phone covers, and many more projects are possible by engraving into leather with the desktop laser cutting machines.
It should also be noted that you don’t want the leather that you’re using to be too thick. Err on the side of caution. You don’t want the leather to be thicker than, say, a belt. Suede also can be used in similar ways as leather. Similar principles apply. Specifically, this thickness is about 1/8 of an inch.
You also want to make sure that is real leather and not imitation leather, also known as pleather, or other such damaging materials.
Pleather is not actually made of animal hide, but of a PVC material, which as I’ll get into later on, is one of the materials you want to avoid cutting with your Desktop laser machine.
Even though materials like rubber—and I’m speaking now specifically of silicon rubber— is comprised of multiple synthetic fillers and additives, your desktop laser cutter shouldn’t have any problems slicing cleanly through this material.
Some obvious and perhaps not so obvious projects that can be cut out of rubber using your desktop laser cutting machine are…
…and much more.
Regarding stamps, since laser machines can cut so precisely and so ornately, you can get some really exciting designs and very precise lettering for your rubber stamps that simply wouldn’t be possible or at least will be extremely difficult if you try to do it by hand.
I already mentioned paper, so it should go without saying that a laser powerful enough to cut through paper shouldn’t encounter too many roadblocks cutting through cardboard.
That being said, cardboard has unique properties, is a little bit thicker, sturdier, and there are some other varieties, like a corrugated cardboard, that necessitate putting cardboard in its own category.
One of the unique advantages of cardboard is that it’s ubiquitous, extremely low cost, and is structurally robust.
You can usually find it in much larger dimensions than other kinds of papers, so you can create some larger projects like shelters, supports, sculpture, 3-D VR glasses (The kind where you place your smart phone behind it, use magnifying glasses for the lenses and hold it up to your face like those old-fashioned Viewmaster toys) and even furniture like bed frames capable of supporting the weight of multiple adult humans, chairs, tables, and shelves.
Cardboard is one of the most versatile and manageable materials in existence right now with so many possibilities for creativity and exploration that the precision laser beam is well-suited to handle deftly.
It should be an obvious fact, but you will have to consider the dimensions of your desktop laser cutting machine if you’re going to go this route of creating larger projects.
There are easy workarounds like creating designs that can be fitted together and fastened or locked together. Otherwise, the only true limit is your imagination.
The aforementioned materials are just barely scratching the surface of the myriad possibilities that can be done with these desktop laser cutting machines.
A quick Google image search under “laser cut projects” or something like that will send you down a rabbit hole of discovering many cool ideas you may not have even thought of before!
Which Materials Can Only Be Engraved
I’ve mostly spent time talking about materials that can be cut through completely. But there are some materials you have to be cautious about as you can only engrave the surfaces of them.
This is a very popular option as the results end up looking very pristine, and it makes for some very elegant gift ideas. It’s especially popular to cut glass cups and dishware.
Keep in mind that you will have to outfit your laser cutter with a rotary device if you’re going to cut glass cups or other cylindrical objects.
If you own a machine, read carefully the specifications to check and see if your machine has this capacity.
I recently wrote another article (here) on why desktop laser cutters do not have the wattage in the power to completely slice through metals. Certain metals certainly can be engraved with no problems whatsoever.
If you’re interested in etching darker lines in designs on various materials, there is a marking compound called Cermark they can be sprayed on the metals before it is etched.
Which Materials to Avoid Cutting at All Costs
There are definitely some materials that you want to stay away from cutting with your desktop laser machine to cut.
- PVC (I mentioned pleather earlier) surprisingly, vinyl would also be placed in this category. You never want to cut vinyl with your desktop laser cutter! It is actually dangerous because it’ll it leak chlorine gas when I was being cut!
- ABS (melts onto the surface of your machine it leaks out hydrogen cyanide)
- Styrofoam, which can catch on fire and melt
- Epoxy resin
Where to Get Materials
Well, what point is there to having desktop laser cutting machine, which is already very expensive, without the materials to cut with it!
There are many places you can source materials. Here’s just a handful:
- Inventables.com (scroll down to the bottom of their site until you see where it says “Materials”)
- eBay you’ll probably find many materials that are sharply discounted.
- Your local big box hardware store like Home Depot or Ace Hardware.
- If you buy a Glowforge (one of my top recommended machines) it comes with some test materials are already pre-packaged with the machine so you can get to experimenting right away
- Why not laser cut the packaging material that your machine came in?
- Search in Facebook groups to see if there’s anything people are trying to get rid of
As is apparent, desktop laser cutting machines, while not quite as powerful as their industrial counterparts, can cut through numerous materials quite deftly.
This article was only meant to serve as a very brief guideline just to get things going for you. This is clearly only the tip of the iceberg.
I’m continuing to do more more research on these machines and I’m discovering so many new things about them every single day.
Happy cutting 🙂