How to Use a Laser Cutter – The Essentials

How does a Laser Cutter Work?
Preparing Your File
Setting Up Your Work
Tips

Hand-made models are great but at some point, precision becomes very important. There are some people who are very good at making models by hand quickly and precisely, but using the laser cutter can help save time, if you know what you’re doing. This article will go over some essential steps you need to know to prepare your file for laser cutting. 

Where to start

Laser cutting machines work by reading vector files. The technician will help you to use the software for the laser cutter but before that you need to prepare the file as a DWG. You can use AutoCAD, Sketchup, Rhino, Illustrator etc. Any vector program that lets you draw 2D. Check out our CAD 101 post to understand file types. 

How Does a Laser Cutter Work?

A focused laser beam follows ‘instructions’ from the computer to cut shapes, engrave and scribe. The beam goes through a lens/mirror which helps to focus the beam and get the precise cut you want. The intensity, heat output and length of the beam can be controlled and set according to the material you are using. Speak to the technician regarding the material as not all machines are the same. 

If you are interested in all the details about these, this is a great post which explains it in more detail.

There are three types of laser cutters:
– CO2 laser cutting
– Crystal laser cutting
– Fibre laser cutting

Preparing Your File

You can do this in most CAD programs, Sketchup, Autocad, Rhino, Illustrator etc. For this example we will be using Rhino.

1.Scale your work

If you are drawing out pieces for a model then your work is fine at a 1:1 scale e.g 200mm on the drawing, is 200mm. However if you have a site plan thats at 1:1 you need to scale everything down to the scale you plan to make your model. e.g 1:50

2.Organise your layers

Make 3 new layers: Board, Cut, Engrave. Select the objects and move them onto the correct layerSelect the objects and move them onto the relevant layer 

3. Set up your board

First of all; you need to know the dimensions of the laser cutting machine. The maximum of the one we use is 590X820. This will help you to figure out the dimensions of your drawing board. You obviously can’t go over that, and if you decide to have your board as the full size; it’s recommended that you leave a tolerance of a few mm, around 2/5. This depends on your machine- speak to the technician before you sort out your board.

Place your line work on the board that you have drawn. Things can get a little complicated and you are likely to get confused with your pieces so it is recommend that you mark them. It might be a little time consuming but it is worth it. Put the markings on a different layer and call it ‘engraving’

Select and export as a DWG or DXF
Need to recapture

2.Preparing to cut

The following may differ for different systmes, so make sure you speak to the technician about templates and settings for the laser cutter. However in general you print from Adobe Illustrator.

1. Fix the colour of the lines, they should be RGB- RED cut and BLUE Engrave
2. Select all and place on to a single layer

Move all objects on to one layer
Delete the empty layers

3. Change lineweight to 0.1pt

File is ready to cut. Save it as an .ai (Adobe Illustrator file) and also make sure to back up as a DWG/DXF file.

Note: Remember to remove the board out line once you have the correct artboard size.

Tips

  • Mark your work after it has been cut out so you know where to place your pieces
  • Make sure your material is clean and to try minimise burn marks cover the surface with a specific type of backing paper (workshops usually offer this) but if they don’t you can use low tack masking tape.

*this can be a bit time consuming if you have a lot of detailed engravings as the machine will cut them but you can weigh the benefits*

Usually you will have a workshop technician to guide you through the process and make sure you’re allowed to use that machine so if you have any doubts you can always ask them.

Leave a comment below letting us know what you think the best ways of using a laser cutting machine are, and tag us on Instagram with photos of your laser cut models to get featured!

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