Woodshops add a laser for tasks such as marking RTA parts, engraving artwork on panels, or cutting parts for gift and award items. Some lasers can cut all the way through wood and deliver extremely accurate parts. Buying or leasing a laser takes a little bit of homework. The first thing to know is that there are a couple of types of commercial lasers: fiber (also called solid state) and CO2. The first is more powerful and more expensive. The second is what woodworkers need, unless the shop also works in metals.
A fiber laser creates its beam through a bank of diodes (lights). The light is built up, straightened out and released. (Electrical engineers are feeling the hairs on their necks rise as they read this incredibly simplistic explanation.) This is a more efficient way to generate a beam than the CO2 route, and that helps with the electric bill. A CO2 laser uses electricity to stimulate carbon dioxide gas, which delivers a very high quality beam.
The biggest differences between the two are the length and angle of the wave. Think about gentle waves lapping on a beach. For every CO2 wave that crests (they are 10.6 micrometers long), there will be about ten fiber ones (1.064 micrometers each). The waves cover the same distance, but the fiber frequency is higher. The fiber version’s absorption rate makes it more suited to metals than wood.
The angle of the wave (called the angle of incidence) refers to the distance between the surface of the wood and the bottom of the trench where the burn is taking place. Imagine the beam having some width (which it does, of course, but it’s too small for us to see), and as it moves along, the front edge of the beam is chewing away on new material while the back edge is still deeper down in the trough. That means the edge of the beam is, well, at a little bit of an angle. And that angle increases the thicker the material is, or at least the deeper the cut is.
A fiber laser’s beam is smaller, but more intense. And while CO2 lasers are quite a bit slower and usually require more frequent maintenance, they are also safer, and deliver a higher quality result. Plus, mirrors and lenses can also manipulate them, which allows the operator to increase the resolution and also direct the beam.
Epilog Laser (epiloglaser.com) has been building engraving machines for three decades. The company is responsible for a number of major innovations, from creating the first laser that could ‘print’ directly from CorelDraw, to designing the first rotary attachment, marketing the first large-format table, and manufacturing the first 100-watt laser. Epilog recommends its Legend series for woodshops looking for high quality engraving. Made in America, the series runs from the small format Mini 18 (choose either 30 or 40 watts) with an 18” x 12” by 4” high work area, to the Helix (30, 40, 50, 60, or 75 watts), which has a 24” x 18” table that can handle items up to 8-1/2” tall. In between those two is the Mini 24 (30, 40, 50, or 60 watt), with a work area of 24” x 12” and 5-1/2” tall. And getting into this technology is surprisingly affordable. In August, the company had a lease offer of $399 a month for the Helix on its website. Epilog also publishes a book titled the “Guidebook to Starting Your Own Engraving & Cutting Business”.
Laguna Tools (lagunatools.com) offers a half dozen SmartShop CO2 lasers for working wood and acrylic. There’s one for just about any size job, from the desktop MU to the HPL. The MU is fully loaded with W-Fi control, 3-in-1 gantry (the tank line, belt and rail are all hidden in the gantry), laser light positioning, square rails and a stainless steel table. The work area options are 20” x 12” and 24” x 20”, and the power is either 40 or 60 watts. The much larger HPL is a CNC laser with a five-mirror single lens that’s designed to support the constant light path system. It comes with Panasonic servo motors and Hiwin rails. Working area options are 52” x 100” or 60” x 120” and the power can be either 150 or 260 watts.
Techno CNC (technocnc.com) has a new wide format machine that the company offers as an affordable solution for production shops that require high speed cutting, engraving and marking applications. It’s a heavy duty, state-of-the-art, precision CNC laser that “produces excellent results with smooth edge finishes and fine detail,” according to the company.
Kern Laser Systems (kernlasers.com) was founded in 1982. Its larger wattage lasers are suited to cutting through many timber species such as oak, birch, maple and basswood, all the way up to 1? thick. These floor model machines are used to make parts for furniture, plus specialty items such as decorative picture frames and wood inlays. The company points out that the kerf of a CO2 laser is a lot narrower, and thus less wasteful in terms of materials, than that of a router or a saw. The entry-level machines (called Micro) run from 50 to 400 watts, and the table sizes are 24” x 24” and 24” x 48”. The Micro comes standard with high-speed engraving technology and a moving Y-axis bed for fast, accurate vector cutting. In addition to the Micro line, the company manufactures four families of larger machines.
MANY LASERS ARE UPGRADABLE
Universal Laser Systems (ulsinc.com) focuses on designing highly modular platforms that can be easily configured with interchangeable laser power cartridges, and field upgradable laser system options.
“This robust system configuration capability is unique to Universal and gives customers the flexibility and investment protection to optimize laser systems as their business evolves,” the company states. The idea is that the system can grow as the business does. ULS offers a comprehensive line of laser engraving, marking, graphic imaging and cutting systems. Available machines run the gamut from the desktop VLS2.30 with a 16” x 12” processing area and maximum 30 watts of power, through 15 models to the XLS10MWH with a 40” x 24” processing area (it can actually handle parts up to 61” x 33” x 12”), and a 150-watt maximum power laser.
Vytek divides its website (vy-tek.com) into marking, cutting and engraving, so a woodworker can explore each area separately. For engraving wood, the company recommends the FX3 or Lstar series for 2D work in addition to the CO2CAB for 3D work.
BossLaser (bosslaser.com) offers eight models for processing wood, ranging from the 50- or 60-watt LS-1620 (16” x 20” work area) to the 150-watt HP-3655.
Jamieson Laser (jamiesonlaser.com) offers a catalog that goes from the new LP-640 desktop hobbyist machine to large format floor models.
Legacy Lasers (legacylasers.com) offers eight models of engravers/cutters, and one dedicated laser marker. The product range runs from the 40-watt 300-series desktop to the 80-watt flatbed 2500-series. The latter is upgradable to 100, 120 or 150 watts and has a 47.2” x 98.4” work area.
Full Spectrum Laser (fslaser.com) designs and manufactures a full range of consumer and industrial grade laser cutters, engravers, and 3D printers.
Trotec Laser (troteclaser.com) recommends its Speedy series laser engravers (10 to 120 watts, and up to 39.4” x 24” work area) and the large format SP series cutters (40 to 400 watts and up to 87” x 126.4”) for working wood.
Rayjet Laser (rayjetlaser.com) offers a couple of smaller, desktop models.
Thunder Laser (thunderlaser.com) is a Chinese company based in Guangdong Province, with distribution through Texas-based Lone Star Laser.
AP Laser (aplazer.com) in Lansing, Mich., offers a versatile line that can handle a lot of different sizes and shapes.
There are many companies that offer laser engraving and cutting services, and a small shop might want to run a few jobs through one of these subs before investing in its own machine. Having somebody make some parts might answer a lot of questions, especially if they are willing to let the woodworker watch the process.
Another option for engraving is a dedicated CNC mechanical engraver, such as the machines available from Vision Engraving & Routing Systems (visionengravers.com). Its product line includes a variety of machines for a range of budgets and applications, from small format and specialty engravers to heavy-duty, large format engravers and CNC routers.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue.