Welcome to the exciting world of laser cutting! For all those makers out there looking to start creating with a laser cutter, this tutorial will have the basic information you need to get started! We recently added a Laser Cutting Service to our site, so everyone can start making with a laser cutter!
What is Laser Cutting?
Laser Cutting is the process of using a very high powered laser to cut or engrave materials into desired shapes. Things that you can easily laser cut are flat, relatively thin sheets of material like acrylic, plywood, MDF, cardboard, and paper. You can also laser engrave into materials like rubber to make stamps. For the purpose of this Tutorial, we will talk about flat sheets of plywood or acrylic. All you need to start laser cutting is a vector file.
What is a Vector File?
A vector file is a type of image file that uses calculated line positions rather than pixels. This means that vector images are completely scalable without any loss in quality. Have you ever zoomed in on a photo or something drawn in paint and seen how it goes blurry? In a vector file, this doesn’t happen.
A couple easy ways to identify a vector file:
Is it a vector file type? AI, EPS, SVG, DXF, DWG, PDF are all file types that can contain vectors. This doesn’t mean that everything in them is a vector object though.
Can you move objects in the file? Have a line that you’re not sure is a vector. Select it and see if you can move or reshape it in the document. Vector objects are calculated between nodes. This allows you to drag and reshape objects after they have been placed.
A great program for the creation and editing of simple vector files is Inkscape. It’s a free to use vector editor, and its open source. The native file format is .svg, which is our preferred file type for laser cutting.
Inkscape is great at vectors but not that great at standard picture editing or freehand drawing. We usually use it in conjunction with a bitmap photo editor when we need to make changes to a raster portion of our drawing. Gimp 2 is a great open source photo editing software who’s capability approaches that of Photoshop.
If you choose to make more complex or exact shapes, we recommend that you use Fusion360. You can export your sketches as DXF files, which can then either be converted to .svg or printed directly from Inkscape unconverted.
Note: We have found that DXF files exported to Inkscape have scaling problems when converted to .svg, and its best to open the DXF in Inkscape and print it without saving it as a .svg.
Software that works great but you might need to purchase like CorelDraw and Adobe Illustrator are also great options. If you use Adobe Illustrator be sure to set your drawing to be RGB rather than the default CMYK. The best vector editing software is probably Adobe Illustrator. This program is very full featured and can do just about anything. Unfortunately, you need to buy a license to use it. That’s why we choose Inkscape.
Laser Cutter Operation
There are three types of actions that a laser cutter can perform, a cut, a raster etch, and a vector etch.
To make a cut with a laser we must use a vector file. Vector files are used in precision drawings. How do you tell if A line is a vector? Try to click on the line and move it. If there are moveable points or the line can be dragged around after its initially made, then its most likely a vector line. The standard colour for a cut vector is red. Once your image is prepared, change your line width to be .01 mm or smaller. This is necessary for laser cutter software to recognize the vector as a cut vector. When you send your file to a computer all red lines will be converted to cuts. If you have some masked or hidden behind other objects, the software will still find them and cut!
A raster etch makes a shallow engrave across the surface of the material, but doesn’t cut all the way through it. This works like a traditional printer, the laser passes back and forth across the entire piece one laser width at a time. This can be a pretty time-consuming process! Engrave is typically anything coloured black in the print file. A laser cutter is capable of mimicking shades of grey by engraving different depths and patterns.
A vector etch is for when you want a fine line but don’t want to cut through the material. You can achieve a similar effect by rastering, but if you have a small number of thin lines a vector etch is much faster. The laser follows all the blue vectors with a low power laser to etch lines into the surface.
You can mix and match these methods as much as you want within a single design to get the desired effect!
- A laser cutter can be used to make precise cuts or engravings
- Cuts must be red vector lines with 0.01 mm weight
- Engraving must be black
- The vector etch lines must be blue with 0.01 mm weight
- Files must be a .svg format
Once you’ve made your vector drawing you can cut it on your own laser cutter or use our laser cutting services! The formatting that we’ve shown in this tutorial is widely used amongst laser cutters so if you decide to use another service this format should still work! To learn more about laser cutting check out our Laser Cutting Tutorials!