General questions about laser engraving

How much do you know about laser engraving?  Have you ever seen it in action?  I have often had a difficult time explaining what laser engraving is and how it works.  Most people associate laser engraving, as well as other types of engraving, with the trophy and award industry but lasers often make up only a small portion of their work.

Below are some of the most asked questions I receive and a few others I thought would help.  Enjoy.

What is laser engraving?

Laser engraving is the act of using a laser to burn away material leaving a design in a surface. Lasers are used in the trophy and award industry as well as in a variety of other areas you may not be aware of.  For example, the marks on bulk electrical wire, the type used to wire buildings, are often laser engraved on the outer sheath.  The reason being that there is no contact with the materials, no consumable inks or other products, and the speed that the laser can operate is right for high speed production.

Do you have one of those big lasers that cut metal?

No, my laser does not cut metal; it is a table top machine.  The laser I operate is a COlaser. The wavelength it operates at, about 9.4 to 10.6 micrometers, does great with materials like wood, leather, and paper but does not penetrate metals.  On the other hand, lasers that do well with marking metals, such as a Fiber laser operating at 1062 nanometers, often do terrible with materials like wood, leather, and paper.  It is a trade off and really depends on your application.  The COlasers tend to be more versatile.

What can your laser put a mark on stainless steel?

No, the wavelength of the laser is wrong (see the previous question), but it is possible to mark stainless steel with a CO laser using a marking compound.  The marking compound is sprayed, painted, or taped on the stainless steel and when struck with a CO laser, the material bonds to the metal creating a permanent mark.  The resulting mark will survive high heat (like those needed to sterilize medical instruments) and abrasions.

Can your laser do those 3 dimensional pictures in glass or crystal?

No, my laser is a two dimensional machine.  The machines that are capable of 3D pictures in crystal or acrylic are very specialized and will often only produce those type of items.

How big is your laser?

My laser is about 35 inches wide by 26 inches deep by 16 inches tall.  It is considered a desk-top laser, although it would have to be a big desk.  I have my laser setup on some industrial shelving.

Can you laser etch a car door?

Probably not, but it depends on the car.  The engravable area of the laser is 24 inches wide by 12 inches deep by about 8 inches tall.  For a mental picture, the engraveable area is about the size of three pieces of copy paper placed side by side.  The height is about as tall as a piece of copy paper turned on it’s side.  That can change a little depending on a few factors, but there are limits with any machine.

Can you cut/engrave __________ (insert material here)?

Yes. No. It depends.  There are a few materials that should never be laser cut or engraved.  The two that stand out are Teflon and PVC.  When Teflon is burned, it produces Hydrogen fluoride, a very nasty gas that, when combined with water (such as in the air, your eyes, your lungs, etc), makes hydrofluoric acid.  Definitely to be avoided as skin contact of about 25 square inches will kill you… dead (as if there is any other way).

Same concept with PVC: when burned, PVC created chlorine gas which makes hydrochloric acid when combined with water (such as in the air, your eyes, your lungs, etc).

Most other materials that can be burned can be cut with the laser (such as acrylic, wood, paper, etc).  For a more detailed list of materials (but not all inclusive) check out the What We Do page.

How do you design the images?  How does the pictures get to the laser?

To the computer, the laser looks just like a printer.  I create the design in a vector drawing program (I use CorelDraw, but you could use Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape) and when I am ready, I print the image to the laser.  I can set the power, speed, and frequency of the laser at that time.  Once I have the settings right, I send it to the laser.  This particular laser is setup over an Ethernet network. There is additional software that does a better job preparing photos for laser engraving but the end result is the same, once the design is complete, I send it to the laser by printing it and selecting the laser as the printer.

For those computer people out there, the laser has it’s own driver that controls the speed, power, frequency, and other settings.

Can your laser do color?

No, lasers can not create color, only remove and mark materials.  One technique to add color to engravings is to add paint, ink, or other colors to the areas after engraving them.  This technique is often referred to as color fill.  Make It Urz, a laser engraving company in Dryden, New York, has done some fantastic work with color fill on the new Kindle Fire, using multiple colors.

I hope I have answered your general laser engraving questions.  If you have more that I didn’t answer, please leave me a comment and I will answer it as soon as possible.  You can also email me at or connect with me on Facebook, Google+, or Twitter.

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