Precise to a thousandth of an inch. Autofocus. Live camera preview. Carves up to 1/2" deep and more than 1,300 lines per inch. Automatically recognizes materials. Prints on wood, leather, paper, fabric, acrylic, glass, metal, and chocolate. Sets its own power, speed, and other settings automatically. Simply add your paper drawing, PDF, or photo and print. Quick setup. Lifetime access to Glowforge app. Run machine wirelessly from Mac, PC, phone, or tablet. CDRH Class 1 meets CE, FDA, and FCC standards. Safety sensors. Exhaust hose included.
Cannot engrave gold or silver. Some metals must be sprayed with product before engraving.
For the money, this is a decent machine capable of engraving over an area 6.1 x 6.8 inches, and at reasonable speed. It’s best with darker materials – some require a coating to be applied first. Straightforward to use, accepts a wide range of picture formats, and comes with USB cable, thumb drive, and safety goggles.
Somewhat limited range of materials. Quality control is variable so accuracy can be poor. Not Apple Mac compatible.
Full color touch screen. Engraves wood, plastic, leather, paper, and other materials. Can cut thin plastic. 3D printer has dual extruders, which can print 2 of the same objects at once, cutting printing time in half. Pauses job if filament runs out or if you experience power failure. WiFi control lets you control print job using a phone or PC.
Cannot have engraving head and printing head installed at the same time.
Compact laser module. Able to engrave wood, paper, fabric, felt, leather, colored acrylic, and other materials. Laser processing indicator for safety. Certified Class 1 motion triggered stop. Overheat shutdown. Password lock. Controlled wirelessly by smartphone. Photo and vector supported. Choice of color. Goggles included.
App is temperamental. Cannot engrave metal, anodized aluminum, glass, or mirrors. Also, using it to engrave plastic may cause toxic fumes.
500 MW DIY desktop blue laser engraving machine. Engraving area of 40 x 50 cm. Can be used with wood, plastic, paper, bamboo, bone, leather, plastic phone, shells, sponge paper, and other media. Plug and play. Includes safety glasses.
You must assemble the machine. Manufacturer states this is not an industrial-grade machine. Cannot be used to engrave metal.
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Engraving gives us the opportunity to make highly individualized items. Historically, this work has been carried out by skilled craftspeople and, as a result, designing and creating engraved items has been quite an expensive process.
Thanks to the introduction of laser engravers, that's no longer the case. Yes, you need to make that initial investment, but once that's done, you can produce an almost endless variety of unique items for yourself or a business. And the options are endless. Do you want a machine that simply engraves or one that cuts and does 3D printing as well? Do you need a basic model for simple crafts, or do you want something that can crank out a large number of engravings fast?
With such a huge selection of laser-engraving machines available, choosing the right one isn't easy. To find a high-performance laser engraver at an excellent value, read our buyer’s guide for more details and recommendations.
A laser is really just a highly concentrated beam of light. In laser engravers, it's focused using a series of mirrors until it becomes very narrow (as thin as a human hair). This magnification process creates high temperatures that vaporize the surface of the material being engraved, leaving a permanent mark.
By varying power and intensity, it's possible to engrave card stock, leather, wood, metal, stone, glass, ceramics, and a variety of plastics. With some machines it's also possible to slice right through the material, cutting out any kind of shape you can imagine — either as individual pieces or part of an assembly.
However, some materials are difficult. Metals require high power; acrylics, polycarbonates, and reflective surfaces present technical challenges. There are solutions, but it's vital to understand the capabilities of any given laser engraver before you buy.
Particularly suited to engraving metals and plastics, these lasers use diodes to create a high-intensity beam. They are “solid-state,” which means they have few moving parts and, therefore, are very reliable, with minimal maintenance requirements. However, their cost means they are mostly restricted to high-volume commercial environments.
These use a chamber filled with carbon dioxide that is “excited” by electricity. They don't have the intensity of the fiber laser, but that's actually an advantage on many materials. As a result, CO2 lasers are those most often used by hobbyists and small businesses. So it's those we are concentrating on.
There are also two types of mechanisms to choose from. In one, the laser is stationary and the workpiece moves. In the other, the laser moves and the workpiece is stationary. The latter is far more common in the kind of laser engravers we are looking at.
The craft professional might be attracted by all-in-one machines that offer not just laser engraving and cutting but 3D printing as well. However, machines that offer good levels of productivity require considerable investment.
Power varies from a low of about 500 milliwatts to in excess of 130 watts. In basic terms, the former will scratch the surface of relatively soft materials like leather; the latter will engrave several millimeters deep into steel or stone and easily cut through plastics.
Entry-level engravers deliver around 1,500 milliwatts
Mid-range engravers deliver between 8 and 15 watts
'Prosumer' engravers deliver around 40 to 45 watts
While we're on the subject of power, you'll also want to look at supply. The smallest laser engravers run off batteries, and some can accept mobile chargers or similarly low voltage supply. Larger models often plug straight into the mains.
The size of the item you can engrave is mostly restricted by the laser’s enclosure. We've seen these from under 2 inches square to an enormous 55 inches x 35 inches. These machines are inherently safer, because the laser operates within a closed space.
There are also open-frame laser engravers, and some of these can be placed on top of the item to be engraved. These have the potential for almost limitless size (though positioning on some things could be problematic). However, you do need to be extra careful with these models, as the laser-engraving unit is exposed.
Speed of engraving varies tremendously and is usually quoted as a maximum, because the complexity of a design and resolution you use has a major impact. Resolution can range from 150 dots per inch (d.p.i.) to 2,500 d.p.i. (for reference, a glossy magazine is usually 300 to 600 d.p.i.). So, high resolution gives you the ability to reproduce photographs, for example, in great detail, but the higher the resolution, the slower the machine will work. There are also usually limits on the amount of adjustability you'll have.
Connectivity can be via USB port or wireless to desktop, laptop, or tablet. However, you need to be careful with compatibility. Windows and Android are better served than Mac and iOS. A number of machines don't work with the latter, which is frustrating for some designers, who typically use Apple equipment.
Input/software options are equally varied. Some machines will scan from your artwork or photo. Many take common file types like JPEG, BMP, and EPS. Some work with a variety of graphics software, some have their own proprietary programs. It's another area that bears careful investigation.
With the advent of affordable 3D printers, there are now a number of hybrid machines that can either engrave or print in 3D — usually it's a relatively simple matter of changing the print head. They are beyond the scope of this guide, but designers and craftspeople may want to look into the potential of those devices.
However, it's important not to confuse these with 3D laser printers, which are a type of engraving machine and do not create three-dimensional objects from filaments in the same way. Once again, it's vital to understand each machine's capabilities.
Your laser engraver may require some assembly. This varies from simply attaching a couple of components to a full DIY build. If the latter comes with video instructions, it can make life a lot easier.
Inexpensive: You can buy a small laser engraver from around $120 to $200. Few have a carving area of more than about 1 1/2 inch square, and power will be in the 1,000 to 1,500 milliwatts range, so the materials you can engrave, and depth of engraving, will be limited. While some look at these as entry-level machines, craft enthusiasts will soon want to do more.
Mid-range: The cheapest way to buy an engraver with greater capacity and flexibility is via a kit. A variety of power options are usually provided, and it's important to choose carefully. You'll probably want 2,500 milliwatts or above, and this is going to cost between $300 and $500. That’s a lot for something you need to put together yourself. For around $500 to $600 you can get several very similar-looking models — some with considerably higher output (up to 15 watts) — and you don't have to put them together yourself.
Expensive: Enclosed (and thus inherently safer) machines start in this same price range. Though physical capacities might be slightly less — 12 inches x 8 inches is common. Power on many is 40 watts, thus giving far fewer restrictions on the materials you can use. Fifty-watt machines range between $1,500 and $3,500, again mostly depending on the physical size of the objects they can accommodate. For high-productivity commercial engravers, it's not difficult to spend $15,000 or more.
The other area you can consider, as we've mentioned above, is combination machines. It's very difficult to give price guidance here because of the sheer diversity. You could spend anywhere from $800 to $8,000. If it's a subject where you have little or no knowledge, it might be worth buying separate mid-range devices first, then upgrading once you have a full understanding of their capabilities.
A wide variety of materials can be laser engraved, but each machine has its own capabilities. For example, cheap laser engravers rarely cut metals or acrylics. It's important to consider what you'll be working on and the depth of engraving you expect.
You'll be eager to start using your new laser engraver as soon as it arrives. That's natural. However, taking time to read the instructions carefully can make a big difference to performance and accuracy. Same goes for any software that comes with your engraver — a little extra study usually results in a much better understanding of what you can and can't do.
Using high resolution (maximum d.p.i.) will give you the greatest level of detail, but slows down your laser engraver considerably. If you can, try some samples at d.p.i.s that are lower. If the image is still of good quality, you'll save a lot of time. The job could go as much as 30% faster.
Always follow recommended maintenance closely. Dust and dirt can make a huge difference to output quality. Remember: Don’t start to clean until after you have turned it off and unplugged.
The Qiilu 1500mW Laser Engraver is a remarkably cheap introduction to laser engraving, though the maximum area of 1 1/2 inch square restricts practical uses. You'll struggle to find a better mid-range model than the Mophorn Laser Engraving Machine, which has a spacious 12-inch x 8-inch print area, is relatively fast, and accepts a variety of graphics formats. The only thing that will let it down in some people's eyes is that it's not compatible with Mac, iPad or iPhone. Those considering the commercial aspects of these devices might want to consider the Orion Motor Tech 50W Laser Engraver/Cutter, which is a powerful machine with a big 12-inch x 20-inch work area and features a rotary device for engraving cylindrical objects. It's also a good value for a machine of its size.
Q: Are laser engravers dangerous?
A: When operated properly, these devices are perfectly safe. However, the lasers are powerful, so some care is required.You should never look directly into any laser beam, and though that's unlikely to happen when using the laser engraver normally, eye protection should always be worn to prevent any danger from light bouncing back off a reflective surface. It's also important to keep your hands well away from the path of the beam. If it's capable of burning into wood and leather, it will have no trouble with skin.
Finally, you need to consider the item being engraved. Smoke from many plastics, fiberglass/resins, and other materials is unpleasant and, in some cases, poisonous. Work in a well-ventilated area, and wear a mask if necessary. The better laser engravers provide exhaust/extraction fittings. Manufacturers should provide safety information. If in doubt, check online sources for further details.
Q. Do I need special safety glasses to go with my laser engraver?
A. It depends on the power output. Experts we consulted said that if the laser is under 40 watts (the majority of home/hobby machines are), then ordinary polycarbonate workplace safety glasses will provide adequate protection from diffuse reflections. Above that, we would suggest it's best to consult the maker. Proper laser safety glasses cost between $15 and $40 — but that's a small price to pay to protect your eyesight.
Q. What's the difference between laser etching and laser marking?
A. Laser marking alters the chemical composition of the surface layer, usually changing its color. It doesn't actually cut into it. Engraving goes deeper, so items will take a lot of wear, and the engraving will still be visible. Depending on a number of parameters, such as laser power and material composition, some laser-engraving machines can be used to cut all the way through an item.
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