3D printing and laser cutting have allowed hobbyists, students and craftspeople to create beautiful and functional items from the comfort of their own workshops or classrooms. Go to a local indie craft fair and chances are you’ll find laser-cut jewelry. Go to a big-box store and you’ll probably find holiday ornaments and fixtures, window curtains and more, all of which can be made using a laser cutter or a 3D printer. Laser cutters, in particular, have become quite popular, due to their versatility and their ability to cut through a wide range of material with utmost precision. In fact, some of the things you can accomplish with a laser cutter, you can’t even do with a CNC router. But with the rise in popularity of laser cutters, and due to their widespread availability, it’s safe to say that the laser cutter market is oversaturated. There are hundreds of different brands, including cheap Chinese imports that you should avoid.
With that said, buying your first laser cutter should take a lot of careful consideration. Typically, you want to look for laser cutters from well-renown brands such as Epilog, Full Spectrum, Darkylabs, etc. Although you may end up paying a higher initial price for the laser cutter than you would if you shopped from a less-known brand, you get the peace of mind knowing that if something goes wrong with the laser cutter, you’re going to get the support you need to repair or service it. I got mine from Darky Labs and I’m really satisfied with it. Some of the questions to think about when purchasing a 3D laser cutter, even from reputable brands like Epilog or Darkylabs are: How hard is it to get replacement parts? Do they offer tech support? How hard is it to get questions answered? Are there tutorials on how to use and repair the machine? Can the machine be upgraded?
Once you’ve decided what brand of laser cutter best suits your preferences, there are two important things to focus on to make sure the machine you get suits the cuts you’ll be doing for the most part – the power of the laser and the size of the bed.
The power of the laser is measured in Watts, and the more watts the laser cutter has, the more powerful it is. Sometimes, you’ll be able to upgrade to a stronger laser if you end up needing more power in the future, but you have to make sure there are compatible lasers available that fit your machine. And this is exactly why I recommend buying a laser cutter from reputable and established brands – they offer replacement and upgrade parts for most of their models.
The strength of the laser can make or break your experience, as it will determine which materials you can cut. However, keep in mind that the thickness of material your laser can cut isn’t determined by the power of the laser, but the focal point of the lens. That being said, adding a more powerful laser won’t necessarily allow you to cut through thicker materials, but instead, you’ll cut more reliably and faster. Weaker lasers will force you to cut slowly in order to get a good cut.
The cutter’s bed size will determine the size of the material you can fit in the cutter to engrave or cut. Bigger beds obviously allow you to cut and engrave bigger pieces. Even if you’re cutting a smaller piece, like jewelry, a bigger bed can allow you to cut out multiple pieces at a time instead of cutting them one by one. Worth noting is that some machines have a fixed bed, while some machines have a bed that can be moved up and down. The latter type allows you to engrave differently sized objects easier, without the cutting depth changing. So if you want to engrave a logo, for instance, on a leather shoe instead of a flat piece of leather, having a bed that you can move down to get the shoe in the machine can be really helpful.
I personally own a Darky Labs laser cutter and here’s what I like best about it. The model I have is called Emblaster 2, and it accepts materials with up to 500mm x 300mm x 50mm dimensions. It’s rated as Class I, which is the safest rating a laser device can get. It’s fully software-controlled, offers wifi and USB connectivity, as well as internal workspace lighting. Further, it came with laser cutting accessories like an air-assist system and a fume filtration/extraction system. However, I’ve also had experience using an Epilog laser cutter, which is also a high-quality and user-friendly model, in my limited experience. Some of the more notable features on the Epilog laser cutter are the print driver sending the designs to the machine quickly and effortlessly, and special air-cooled laser tubes that make the machine extremely safe. One big downside to Epilog laser cutters, however, is their price, with their cheapest models going for several thousand dollars.