For many first-time laser cutter users, scraps of wood are the first thing they might think to put in their laser cutter. That makes sense, since they’re cheap, and they really can show what a laser cutter is capable of – at least, until you’re ready to up your game! There’s a lot to learn about different types of wood, and the issues that you might encounter when laser cutting wood, so in this post, we’re going to cover some of the basics.
What different types of wood are there?
There are two types of natural wood that can be used – hard wood, and soft wood. The type of wood that a tree produces depends on whether the tree is evergreen or deciduous, and the easiest way to determine that is whether they lose their leaves during the autumn or not. In addition to categorising natural woods, there are manufactured woods, and wood alternatives that can be used – we’ll take a quick look at some of those at the end of this section.
Hard woods are usually darker in colour than soft woods, and they tend to be heavier and denser too. That’s because it takes longer to grow, which leads to them being much more expensive to purchase. Because of their beautiful natural colours and the fact that they are harder and more durable, hard woods are in high demand – they can last decades, and their strength and resistance to fire means that they can be used for things like furniture making, flooring, and even in the marine industry.
Varieties of hard woods that are grown in the UK include oak, ash, and beech, but overseas species that are often imported also include maple, cherry, birch, and teak.
Hard wood timber isn’t just harder, heavier, and darker, it also generally contains less sap – which makes it less likely to create a mess on your laser cutter bed during cutting.
Soft woods are the lighter coloured timbers that you see in some flat pack furniture. They’re also a lot less dense, lighter in weight, and easier to cut and treat. Since soft woods come from evergreen trees which tend to grow quickly, it is possible to buy soft woods at a much lower price, and increasingly forests are being managed sustainably, making the impact on the environment much lower.
Soft woods that are most found and used in the UK include pine, cedar, and fir.
Soft wood timber has a looser grain, but a higher sap content – which means that you need to be cautious when using a laser cutter. Even if you’re regularly working with a certain type of soft wood, such as pine, you can’t guarantee the same amount of sap in each, so testing a section before you start is a good plan.
Engineered and man-made woods
There are an increasing number of engineered woods - but essentially, they are made from hard woods and soft woods that would typically be used to create lumber. Sometimes wood waste, and scraps from sawmills can be used to create engineered woods made from particles and fibres, but for other types of engineered woods, such as plywood, medium density fibreboard (MDF) and boards such as oriented strand board, whole logs are required.
Medium Density Fibreboard is a man-made board that is particularly dense and is held together with resin and glue. As it is inexpensive, it is widely used for large items such as flatpack furniture, because it cuts well, doesn’t contain any knots, and is unlikely to warp over time. It is also good for cutting and engraving larger designs, but care must be taken, since it can be prone to breaking unevenly. However, it must be treated once it is processed, since it is particularly vulnerable to moisture – it can start to crumble over time without proper treatment to waterproof it.
Plywood is a man-made board that is created by gluing thin layers of wood veneer together. Each layer is laid perpendicular to the other to make a single piece that is super strong, yet lightweight. This makes it a good option for building projects, since it is unlikely to break. However, that also means it can be difficult to cut with manual methods, although laser cutters can cut it cleanly.
Things to watch out for when working with plywood include splintering (nobody enjoys a splinter!) and the fact that it can burn easily, which can be an issue when it is being treated with the laser. There can also be issues with plywood curling since veneers are rotary peeled from round logs, and that means the fibres are prone to going back to their original shape. Our specialists suggest that keeping stocks of plywood can be advisable, so that the wood can acclimate to the temperature and humidity before being used.
Bamboo with veneer is another type of board that can be used in similar ways to wood, and is similar to plywood. Although technically not a wood, bamboo is popular as it is a fast-growing plant – it can grow up to a metre every day – and so it is a good choice for businesses that want to ensure their products are sustainable.
Because man-made woods are not naturally occurring, they often contain plastic or oil-based products, particularly in the veneer finishes required to give them a more natural look. If you’re planning to use engineered wood with a veneer, make sure you’re able to identify what other materials are contained in it. Adhesives, plastics, and colourings may cause man-made woods to cut and engrave differently, and you will certainly want to ensure that the wood you’re working with doesn’t contain any of the materials that can completely ruin your laser cutter.
Key facts about wood use in the UK
Throughout the UK, manufacturing and the wider industry uses an estimated 50 million tonnes of timber every year, with around three quarters of this being soft wood.
While our industries are using a huge amount of timber, our forests can’t even get close to providing the millions of tonnes required, and barely 10% is home produced by British forests.
- Sweden, Latvia, and Finland provide the majority of sawn soft woods for use in the UK.
- Germany, France, and Latvia provide the majority of particleboard imports to the UK.
- Estonia is the largest single source of sawn hard wood imports to the UK.
- China and Brazil provide the majority of plywood imports to the UK.
More than 50% of the wood used in the UK is consumed by manufacturers of paper and cardboard products, but that still means a huge amount of timber being used – let’s take a look at what types of woods are being used.
Where can I buy wood for use with my laser cutter?
There are thousands of hardware stores that you can buy wood for use in your laser cutter – your local B&Q is an option, as are the hundreds of independent trade outlets with experts that we’d highly recommend making use of. But if you’re looking for a specific type of wood, then buying from us at Hobarts can be a great option too, especially if you’re ordering other materials.
If you’re looking for samples to make sure you’ve got the right type of wood before tackling a project, then our sample packs are perfect for testing. Our MDF Premier (laser grade) sample pack contains 10 panels of 3mm, 4mm, and 6mm of MDF Premier, while our Laser grade Birch Plywood Wood sample pack contains birch plywood of the same measurements.
When you’ve tested and made your decision about which type works best for your project, we can supply you with the size that you require at no additional cost. This means that you can have pieces of plywood or MDF delivered at the required thickness and size to perfectly fit in the bed of your laser cutter without needing to cut it manually beforehand. Note that we have various different quality products, with budget plywood, to premier Finnish birch plywood, as well as low density Balsa wood from Indonesia, and bamboo ply with natural veneer that is manufactured in China.
These are all great options for use in your laser cutter, whether you’re making smaller items such as items for weddings, jewellery, or gifts.
Advantages of using laser cutters for wood
The advantages of using laser cutters to cut and engrave wood are pretty similar to working with any other materials in your laser cutter – but let’s cover them again here.
Accuracy and replicability
Laser cutters are incredibly precise, which means that parts for furniture, and engravings on wood can be accurate to within fractions of a millimetre. Additional tolerances aren’t required for post-cut finishing, which means that materials can be used more efficiently – saving money for businesses, and creating less waste, which is better for the planet.
Where the finished product is to be created several times, the design can be saved and accessed within the laser cutter software, so replacement pieces can be processed whenever they are needed, even if that is years later.
High quality finishes
In addition to that, because there isn’t any mechanical friction, laser cutting can be used with thinner woods and wood veneers, producing high quality results incredibly quickly.
When cutting or processing wood with traditional machinery and manual tools, woods tend to need post-processing finishing to soften the cut and prevent rough edges, usually by sanding either with a machine, or with simple sanding paper. This takes up additional time, which slows how quickly the final product can be finished. With laser cutting, humans aren’t required to complete the job – the laser does all the cutting, which makes the process so much faster to complete.
While the advantages of using a laser cutter to cut or engrave on wood far outweigh the challenges, there are still issues that you may need to address. Aside from the cost of the initial investment and health and safety considerations, these are some of the biggest complaints we hear about.
Problems when laser cutting wood – and the solutions
Laser cutting wood, and engraving on wood is a great way to get the effects that you want, but it isn’t a perfect solution, and sometimes there are challenges to getting a perfect cut. How can you avoid these issues? Testing, testing, testing! Using scraps of the same wood that you want to use for the final piece will give you a good idea of how the piece you’re currently working with will react to the laser.
It should go without saying that your laser cutter should never be left unattended when you’ve set a job going – but we’ll remind you again here!
The risk of fire when you’re using your laser cutter is pretty minimal – but since you’ll be working with materials that can burn, and especially wood – unfortunately it is never zero, and especially when you’re working with flammable materials. A lot of wood tends to burn pretty easily, which means that when you’re working with it, you must be prepared, just in case.
Most businesses and institutions will have carried out a risk assessment before purchasing their laser cutter, which will have taken the risk of fire into account, and they will have fire extinguishers, fire blankets, and so on ready. At home laser cutter users, even with lower powered lasers, should also have emergency available, just in case – you simply cannot be too careful. Where small flares occur, it can be possible to have a small spray bottle on hand to douse the flames and prevent them from spreading.
The main thing to take away here though? Never, ever leave your laser cutter unattended.
If you’ve encountered a situation where the surface of your wood has become burnt, you’ve likely discovered surface scorch. This most often occurs when multiple passes of the laser have caused smoky effects on the surface. An easy fix for this is to use masking tape, or electrical tape – the laser will simply burn the tape rather than burning on the wood.
Edge burn is another issue that is sometimes caused by the laser when working with wood, and it is usually because the power percentage has been set to a level that is too high. This causes the surface of the wood to burn as the laser passes through, and so you don’t get a clean cut. If you find you’re getting edge burn, then lower the power percentage and do additional passes, rather than going for high power.
Wood is a natural material, and so it is tricky to predict the amount of sap and oil that might be in the piece of wood you’re working with – even if you’ve worked with the particular type of wood before. The problem with sap and oil that naturally occurs in woods is that when they are heated, they melt – and when they melt, very often they will also run and drip on the cutting bed, leaving deposits that can be difficult, or even impossible to remove. If you’re working with engineered woods such as MDF, there are often other chemicals including adhesives that can melt and run and leave deposits on the cutting bed.
A low-tech solution can be to apply masking tape to the cutting bed before placing the wood in there, to make removing these deposits easier, but there are optional cutting bed mats that can be added to make removing such deposits easier too.
Different types of woods have different densities, which means that sometimes there will be times that different pieces will be tougher to cut than others. This is usually only a minor inconvenience, since as long as you leave the material in place, you can repeat the pass, or repeat the cut at a higher power percentage – but it is one that you need to be aware of and leave contingency time for.
What projects using wood can be done in a laser cutter?
There are so, so many projects that you can use your laser cutter to create, and when you’re using wood, there are probably millions! It all depends on what your imagination can create, and that you can design in whichever 3D design package you’ve decided to work with.
If you’re looking for projects that are ready to send to your laser cutter now, without you needing to design them, head for one of the incredible resources for laser cutters that we detailed in this post. Matterhackers, Thingiverse, and MyMiniFactory are good places to start, as well as Pinterest and the /r/lasercutting thread on Reddit.
Types of laser cutters
OK, so we’ve talked about all the different types of laser cutters that are available on other posts before, but we’re going to do a quick recap here, so that you don’t have to go searching for that information and break your concentration!
Diode laser cutters
Diode laser cutters are one of the most affordable types of laser cutters on the market, and are popular with at-home hobbyists for that exact reason – they’re a great laser cutter for beginners. But they’re also not as powerful as some of the other types of laser cutters on the market, which means they are only really useful for engraving, rather than cutting, and tend to only be suitable for working on softer natural materials such as leather and paper.
When it comes to wood, you may be able to use a diode laser cutter for engraving projects on soft woods. But if you are looking for more flexibility, and the ability to cut denser materials, then you’re probably going to want a more powerful laser cutter. That’s especially the case if you’re thinking about starting a business with a laser cutter – you don’t want to be held back because you need a more powerful machine in a year’s time.
Fibre laser cutters
Although fibre laser cutters also use diodes, the power that is produced is enhanced by the use of a fibre optic cable. This intensifies both the power and focus of the laser, which means that it can cut harder materials much more easily. The main benefit of purchasing a fibre laser cutter though, is that they can cut metal, which is often problematic for other types of laser cutter. Because of this benefit, and because of the way that they are built, they are generally more expensive than gas laser cutters and diode laser cutters.
Crystal laser cutters
Crystal laser cutters are also known as nd:YAG (neodymium-doped yttrium aluminium garnet) and nd:YVO (neodymium-doped yttrium ortho-vanadate) laser cutters, and they’re one of the most powerful types of laser cutters on the market at the moment. Because they’re powerful, as you’d expect, they’re also pretty expensive, and the consumables required for crystal laser cutters aren’t cheap either, so they are a big investment. However, that power also equals flexibility – crystal laser cutters can also cut metals and other more dense materials.
Gas laser cutters
These are our favourites, and by far the most popular type of laser cutters. Gas laser cutters come in a range of different strengths, and are, for the most part, best for cutting non-metallic materials. The most common type of gas that is used for laser cutters is carbon dioxide, but some higher strength lasers use nitrogen.
The reason that gas laser cutters are so popular? Well, they’re relatively affordable, they are easy to use, and there is a lot of help and support for them out there, precisely because they are affordable and easy to use! This means they are ideal for beginners, and for businesses that are using laser cutters for the first time. While they are a great choice for most users, they do require proper maintenance, and for parts to be replaced when necessary, so a gas laser cutter certainly isn’t a one-time purchase – because, like a car, you need to be prepared to do the work to keep it running well.
Which is the best laser cutter for cutting wood?
As we almost always say when we’re advising our customers, even though laser cutters are incredibly flexible, there definitely isn’t a “one laser cutter fits all” perfect laser cutter. Despite the fact there are some absolutely brilliant laser cutters out there, the best laser cutter differs from situation to situation. The best laser cutter depends on the circumstances. A hobbyist at home working with wood for their crafting may find a small laser cutter such as the Beamo the best laser cutter for their needs, while a university department working with a mix of materials that includes wood may find a better solution in a laser cutter platform that offers flexibility such as the USL Ultra X6000.
There’s a lot to consider when you’re choosing your first laser cutter – and each time you upgrade, of course – and if you’re unsure which is the right one for you, then get in touch. Our experts will be able to help you.
Which type of laser cutter is right for me?
There is no one size fits all, multipurpose laser cutter that will be perfect for all users and businesses – there are simply too many variables to consider.
- The budget available to purchase the laser cutter
- The amount of space available to install the laser cutter and the required peripherals
- What type of materials need to be cut
- The size of the materials that will be cut and engraved
- Who will be using the laser cutter
Desktop laser cutters, and platform laser cutters are the choice for many businesses, schools, colleges, and universities, as they provide the most flexibility and can process larger materials, as well as a wider variety of materials. However, with larger, and more powerful machines comes a larger price tag – but for many businesses working with wood and other materials, the return on investment makes it worthwhile.
If your budget, the materials you’re working with, or your workspace is on the smaller side, then our range of budget laser cutters is for you, without compromising on performance compared with desktop and platform models. With prices starting at just over £2000, the Beamo, the Beambox, and the Beambox Pro are ideal options for businesses and home users that want professional laser cutting at a smaller size and at a lower cost.
Alternatively, from time to time we have second hand and ex-demonstration laser cutters available. When this is the case, our engineers will have carried out our 100 point check, replacing parts where necessary, and ensuring that the laser cutter will perform to the required standard, as well as being completely safe. Second hand, and ex-demonstration models can be a great choice for businesses that need a desktop or platform laser, but don’t quite have the budget for a brand-new model.
Laser peripherals and upgrades that can help with cutting wood
Even if you’ve chosen the best possible laser cutter that you can afford, you’ll almost certainly be thinking about how you can get even better performance from it. Like most technology these days, there are loads of different add-ons and extras that you can choose from to enhance your experience and get better results.
Air assist is a useful peripheral to have if you regularly work with materials that have flare ups, or that create a lot of debris when it is cut. Certain types of woods have a tendency to have flare-ups, and so if you’re planning to be working with wood a lot, an air assist is certainly something you might want to consider.
Exhaust fans and extractor units
Getting the right fume extraction unit is an important part of your laser cutter setup. As it sounds like, exhaust fans and extractor units are machines that can help pull smoke, or any other types of gases from the material, and neutralise them within the machine. Not only is that important for your health and that of anyone that is using it – especially if you accidentally cut a material that releases toxic gas, but it also draws away fumes from anything that might be on or in wood, such as sap, or adhesives, which can help to prevent flare ups.
Upgraded cutting bed
This certainly isn’t an essential part of your purchase, but there are benefits to fitting a better cutting bed than those that are already on the machine. Depending on the model of laser cutter, you may be able to purchase a honeycomb, or pin cutting bed, which will help to prevent any residue or drips of sap from building up and causing irreparable damage.
If you’ve chosen a less powerful laser cutter – perhaps because you’re on a tighter budget – then upgrading the mirrors on your laser cutter can help to maintain the power of the beam. A good option to upgrade low power laser cutter mirrors is silicon glass gold coated mirrors – they don’t tend to be too expensive and so can be an affordable upgrade.
Our final thoughts
Laser cutters are great for processing a whole range of materials, and wood is just one of them! While there are a few issues to be aware of when you’re starting out, as long as you take our advice and do testing one each piece before you start, you can avoid the issues that can be problematic for your laser cutter. Whether you’re looking for wood for your laser cutter, or you’re looking for a new laser cutter to revolutionise your business, we’ve almost certainly got what you need in our range. If we can’t provide you with what you need, we may be able to advise you where to purchase from, and we can certainly advise you about the best laser cutter for your needs. Get in touch with our team of laser cutter experts today.