Laser engraving and laser marking – at first glance – seems to be pretty straightforward when you first think about it. But the reality is that there’s a lot to consider, with different methods and techniques that can be used to create different effects. Whether you’re just starting out with your laser cutter and you’re learning about all the different ways that you can use it, or you’re wondering if you can use laser engraving to start a business with a laser cutter, in this post, we’re taking a look at laser engraving, how it works, and some of the other methods that can be used instead.
What is laser engraving?
Laser engraving is a process where the laser is used to vaporise tiny amounts of material from the surface of a product in order to permanently mark it. These marks can be clearly seen when the process is completed.
It is a technique that began in manual engraving, which has been around for thousands of years. Manual engraving techniques involve removing small amounts of material from the surface of a material, except for using tools such as hammers and chisels.
While both methods are essentially removing material from the surface of an item, with laser engraving, the material is vaporised. And of course, since the laser beam is much smaller than any manual tool, a much more precise finish can be achieved, and much more quickly than using manual methods.
How does laser engraving work?
The design is created in a 3D design package such as LightBurn, CorelDraw, Adobe Illustrator, or one of the open source options, such as Inkscape, LaserWeb 4, or LaserGRBL. When the design file is sent to the laser cutter, it will create the design on the material.
Rather than the laser vaporising the material in order to cut through it, the laser vaporises just the required amount of material to create the design. Because the laser can be narrowed to within tiny fractions of a millimetre, and the depths of materials that are removed are incredibly small too, very intricate designs can be created – right up to, and including laser engraving photographs, with the right laser photo software.
Once the design is created and it has been sent to the laser cutter, the engraving process is really, really quick. And unlike other methods of marking materials, there is no post-processing required, and whatever has been engraved can be used instantly.
Advantages of laser engraving
It is a permanent way of marking a material or a product. Depending on the material being engraved, the laser engraving is resistant to extreme temperatures, scratching, erosion, and daily use of the product. This makes it a perfect solution where paper or plastic labels may become loose, or inks may be likely to fade, such as where a product is being used outdoors.
It is a non-contact method of marking. This means that transference of bacteria and other potential contamination is kept to a minimum, and chances of physical damage occurring during the process are also reduced. This is particularly important for items to be used in science and medical environments, where tiny adjustments could make all the difference.
Designs can be incredibly detailed. This means that whether the design is a copy of a photo, a barcode or QR code, or text in tiny fonts, the laser will be able to create it due to the laser beam being so small.
Laser engraving is really fast. This is key to the success of the method, since it allows businesses to use it at scale – whether it is creating the same design over and over, or it is used for different designs, such as in the case of barcodes, asset marking, and QR codes.
It is a resistant way of creating designs. Because laser engraving creates a shallow mark, and there is no contact with machinery, there is also less risk of corrosion occurring once the engraving is complete. This makes it perfect for marking products used in the medical field. However, laser engravings do create an indent in the materials, even if it is only a fraction of a millimetre. Depending on what the design entails, in some cases that means that they can be felt as well as seen. Of course, this might be seen as an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on the purpose of the object being engraved.
It is adaptable. There is a wide range of materials that can be marked using laser engraving – we’ll get to that in a moment – and even really thin and brittle materials can be marked. Depending on the requirements of the design, 3D effects can be created by using multiple passes with the laser, offering even more flexibility and adaptability.
Laser engraving looks professional. Since it only removes a tiny amount of material, it doesn’t look amateur, or obtrusive in the way that a sticky label or chemical marking does. This means it is perfect for applying branding to technology such as laptops, phones, and TVs, instead of using asset labels or chemical marking.
Laser engraving can be achieved with all types of laser cutter. It is just one method of creating a finish on a material – and there are other techniques that laser cutters can create that may be preferable. We’ll talk about some of those in a moment, but essentially, it isn’t the only option for marking materials and products, so you’ll need to assess the right one for the job.
Challenges of laser engraving
While laser engraving is incredibly useful in many situations, it isn’t always the right option. There are some challenges, as well as essential tasks and extras that are required for the process to run smoothly.
Laser engraving isn’t suitable for all materials. There is a limited range of applications, and materials that it can be used on. There are some materials that laser cutters must never be used on due to the toxicity of the fumes required, so business owners and managers must ensure that all personnel knows which materials can’t be put in the laser cutter for any processes at all. You can find the list of materials that should never be in your laser cutter here.
It isn’t the fastest lasering process. While most laser cutters are pretty efficient, depending on the machine, it may take longer and use more energy than other techniques. When speed is of the essence, this may be an important consideration.
It may be less efficient at scale. This is where knowledge of other techniques comes in, since other ways of marking materials might be better when large quantities are required.
All personnel need training. As with all mechanical tools and laser processes, all users of the laser cutter need to be trained in full before they are permitted to use it. This means that new team members can’t start designing and engraving immediately, unless they have already got significant experience in the industry.
What materials can be engraved with a laser cutter?
We’ve talked extensively about the materials that can be cut with a laser cutter on the blog before. It is a logical assumption that anything that can be laser cut can be engraved, but some materials can be engraved that cannot be cut. In many cases, metals that can’t usually be cut with a laser cutter (such as stainless steel, brass, and titanium) can be engraved with a laser, but often there needs to be a coating or pigment applied to the material before it is placed in the laser. Non-metallic materials such as fibreglass, wood, paper, and stone can be laser engraved, but different businesses will specialise in different types of materials and will be able to create different effects and designs with their laser engraver.
Laser engraving on mirrors has become a popular use of the technique. Depending on how power, focus, and speed are utilised, it can produce results that are close to sandblasting or chemical etching, but quicker and more accurately. Newer techniques create the image in the reflective layer of silver on the back of the mirror, rather than etching onto the glass surface. This means that the glass surface remains intact, and the reflective qualities are maintained. Once the job has been completed, the back of the mirror needs to be filled with a new material or coating to enhance the detail that has been lasered. If a photograph has been laser engraved, for example, filling the back of the mirror with a black material will help the image to stand out better.
Since the laser cutter will require significantly less power to create the design than it would need to complete a cut requiring multiple passes. For example, our budget lasers such as the Beamo are perfect for starting with laser engraving, and can provide loads more techniques and flexibility too.
Because engraving requires the laser to cut into the material at significantly less depth, a laser cutter can engrave on thicker materials that it may not be able to cut all the way through – and of course, it is ideal for engraving on super thin materials too.
How is laser engraving used in different industries?
There are thousands of ways that laser engraving is used in different industries. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the most popular ways that it is put into use.
Direct Part Marking
Direct Part Marking is one of the most popular uses for laser engraving. This allows different industries to track parts and components throughout their life cycle, as they are manufactured and proceed through the supply chain. It is particularly useful for industries where safety is paramount, such as the automobile industry, the medical field, and the aerospace sector. Using Direct Part Marking means that each part can be traced to the manufacturer, allowing for quality assurance and to eliminate such quality control issues, should they occur. Laser engraving is perfect for marking parts, for cars, planes, and replacement body parts such as hips, since it is fast, inexpensive, and resistant to corrosion.
Retail and hospitality
In retail and hospitality settings, laser engraving offers the establishment a more luxurious look and feel, suggesting that the management has invested significantly more for their customers to enjoy. We wrote a whole post about laser cutting in the retail and hospitality industries here, but some of the most commonly used ways to use laser engraving in this industry include:
- Bespoke detailing on items for restaurants, such as menus, tableware, and room dividers
- Customised drinks accessories
- Screening for smoking areas
- Display accessories
- Tags such as keychains, fitting room tags, and do not disturb signs
- Branded items for marketing
Industry and sports award memorials
Memorial plaques are often created with laser cutters, and the nature of laser engraving means that it is perfectly suited for use outdoors, as they most often are. Plaques for benches, headstones, engraved flower holders, and so on can be created quickly and at low costs.
Trophies and awards are one of the biggest uses for laser engraving. With industry awards and sports competitions becoming ever more popular, the demand for inexpensive awards is high – and laser engraving allows businesses to get their prizes created at a minimal cost. While hand engraving might still be preferred for competitions with much higher stakes, for industry awards where the result is known by the organisers in advance, as well as team and participation trophies where large quantities are required, laser engraving is usually preferred for the lower cost.
Products for retail
Laser engraving is used extensively in various niches in the retail industry. Where there is a demand for personalised items, laser engraving can mean that products can be created quickly and inexpensively. This means items for wedding gifts, jewellery, and more can be particularly lucrative.
What other types of engraving are there?
We’re huge fans of laser engraving, but then you’d expect that! However, it isn’t always the right solution, and there are different types of laser marking and non-laser marking that could be preferable. Let’s take a look.
This is generally what we’re talking about when we spoke about manual engraving earlier. Because each piece of engraving is completely different, there’s a huge amount of prestige when engraving with this method. The uniqueness of each piece is both an advantage and a disadvantage, since it means there isn’t any way of replicating the job perfectly.
It takes a lot of skill and time to learn the different techniques and methods for hand engraving, so training costs are high. Not only that, but it also takes a lot more time to create hand engraved designs, and it can be really tricky and tedious to get the exact right look – with expensive consequences when it goes wrong, since you can’t put the material back once it has been removed.
Is laser engraving better than hand engraving?
It depends on what you want to achieve. For the majority of businesses and individuals, time and cost are a factor that needs to be kept to the minimum – which is where laser engraving has the advantage.
Engraving by hand is a skill that can take years to hone and master, and even when the craftsman has been doing the job for years and are very proficient at it, they will still take significantly longer than working with a laser cutter to engrave a material.
With laser engraving, creating the design is the longest part of the process. Once the design has been created, the laser cutter takes care of the engraving job – there’s little input required from the person creating the engraved design after that.
A Computer Numerical Control (CNC) router can be used to cut and engrave many materials, including wood, metals, plastics, and foams. Rather than using a laser to complete tasks, CNC routers can have different setups that use a spindle, as well as a cutting bed, drive system, and controller. They can cut along the X, Y, and Z axis, allowing for some interesting, complex shapes to be created.
Many of the pros of using a CNC router are similar to those of using a laser cutter – they automate business tasks, help to minimise staffing costs, reduce wastage, and they’re highly accurate, fast, and flexible. They’re also well built and durable, meaning that they make a solid investment. However, there are some significant drawbacks. They’re loud due to the vacuum system, extraction, and spindle, there’s a lot of dust and swarf created, and there’s a much steeper learning curve to creating the right finishes when compared with a laser cutter.
Laser etching is a type of laser engraving, which uses the heat of the beam to allow the surface of the material to melt. As the material melts, it expands, and then creates a raised mark. This has an impact on the reflectivity of the surface of the material, so it will be less shiny.
Laser etching tends to be used on thinner surfaces and fragile objects. As with other laser techniques, it offers very precise, very quick results, and it can be used on metals as well as glass, polymers, and ceramics, but other materials can be etched too – but results can vary, so testing is essential. However, the downside of laser etching is that it offers less durable results, and not all types of laser cutter can create the finish required – typically fibre lasers are used for laser etching. This does mean that metals can be marked with this technique.
Laser marking is different from laser engraving and etching, since it uses different methods to leave marks on the material. It creates colour changes (because of chemical alteration) using charring, foaming, melting, ablation, and more. In more general terms, it can be described as discolouration. The laser is set to a low power, and then moves slowly across the material.
Despite the flexibility it offers, laser marking isn’t offered by all businesses that have laser cutters, but it is particularly popular for use in the medical device industry when used on stainless steel and titanium, and can be used for identification of parts such as bar codes, QR codes, logos, and so on. This is preferable to chemical etching methods, since inks and chemicals have impacts on the environment, and laser marking doesn’t require the additional consumables that chemical etching does.
What is the difference between engraving and embossing?
When looking at the finished product, embossing can be thought of as almost – but not quite – the opposite of engraving. Rather than the material being removed from the surface of the product to produce an indent, with an embossed finish, the material is raised. However, creating an embossed product is completely different from engraving. The product is created by making a male-female custom die set, so that when the material (typically metal, but some plastics) is placed into the die and then placed in an industrial press, it will create the raised embossed effect.
If you’re creating a huge number of the same design, then embossing may be a suitable option, but since the technique relies on a different die set for each design, it can be costly. That means where the design changes regularly, a different technique – such as laser engraving – is likely to be preferable.
Which is the right type of engraving for my business?
There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this question, since each machine, and type of engraving offers different effects and advantages. Many businesses will buy different machines for different purposes, with manufacturers using them to create prototypes and final products.
What laser cutters are suitable for laser engraving?
Since laser engraving is simply removing small amounts of material from the surface, most types of laser cutters can be used for engraving – as long as you stick to the rules about which materials can be used in laser cutters. However, some laser cutters that you wouldn’t normally be able to use materials in to cut can be used for laser engraving. The Beambox, for example, can engrave on glass, anodized aluminium, and stainless steel – although it can’t be used to cut those items.
What mistakes are common in laser engraving?
The two biggest issues in laser engraving are the ones that have the most variability in them – both the user, and the material.
Where there are humans in a process, there will almost always be mistakes, and user error is one of the biggest issues in laser engraving! These are some of the most common issues that humans have when they are laser engraving.
Getting spellings of names or places wrong, the wrong date, missing out words, or using the wrong font all mean that whatever has been engraved is essentially worthless to the recipient, especially if it is for the likes of a memorial plaque. This type of wastage is really easy to avoid. Once your customer provides you with the details they require, double checked that all details are correct. After you’ve created the design file, send it to them via email for proofing and approval before you send the job to the laser cutter. These extra steps might seem like a hassle, but they will potentially save you money, so they’re worth it.
Not carrying out sample tests on materials is likely to end up with an expensive waste of materials. It should go without saying that if you’re using a new material, or a natural material such as wood that has different levels of sap or oil, then a test should be carried out on a scrap piece to make sure that it won’t burn or singe. Forgetting to save presets is an error that can end up costing you loads of time, so make sure that when you get the settings right, you save them.
Health and safety
We talk about it a lot, but not getting health and safety gear in place is a huge mistake that has the potential for you to regret. Whatever you’re engraving, make sure you’ve got this covered!
Safety must be addressed. Ensuring the right personal protective gear (PPE) and emergency equipment is in place before you start is an essential step, as is ensuring proper ventilation, which brings us to our next point.
Fume extraction is required. As with all uses of laser cutters, it is essential to have the right ventilation systems in place. Most materials will release fumes when the laser hits them, and even if they are not poisonous, you still don’t want them in your lungs, and those of your employees. Getting a fume extraction system should be a part of buying your laser cutter, so don’t skimp on your budget.
Maintenance is a must. You can’t expect any kind of machinery to be used all day, every day without needing to be maintained – and we’ve talked extensively about having a great maintenance schedule on the blog before. You’ve got daily maintenance tasks, which is essentially keeping the machine free of debris, weekly tasks, and more intricate, detailed tasks that is required less often. But less often isn’t less important – and it needs to be done by a professional that knows what they are doing. With that in mind, signing up for one of our service plans means that businesses don’t have to worry that their laser cutter will continue to perform for them – and our 100 point check means that there are very few occasions when emergency call outs are required.
Problems with materials
Metal surfaces can look great with laser engraving on them, but not all will. Laser engraving melts the top layer of material, so if you have a metal with a rough finish that isn’t uniform, it won’t necessarily create the finish you want.
Items that are metal plated aren’t always good enough quality to engrave, and this is particularly the case with low cost gift items, costume jewellery, and trophies. If you’re buying cheap items in bulk to personalise them, but the quality is poor, it might end up being a costly error – so if this is your plan, buy single items to test before buying in bulk.
Some customers will have heard that you can buff out engraving on metal items – particularly jewellery – to engrave the item again. This has created a lot of damage to jewellery in the past, particularly with plated jewellery. It may be possible to re-engrave solid gold or silver, but it should be done carefully, and only by someone who knows what they are doing with those materials.
Woods are another popular material to engrave, but there are various problems with laser engraving wood – especially when you’re getting started. Because the laser is melting the top layer of the material, the chances of scorching, and smoke being produced can cause issues with the final result. You can reduce the chances of this occurring by using masking tape over the parts that you’re engraving, since the laser will easily burn the tape away and leave other areas of the material unharmed.
This brings us back to the importance of ensuring you carry out sample tests first, whatever material you’re working with. The laser cutter will create lines that might appear different to what is expected. Different types of acrylics won’t create the frosty texture you’re looking for, and different types of paper and board may create unexpected effects too.
Our final thoughts
Laser engraving is an awesome technique that allows you to get even more value from your laser cutter. It may not be ideal for every scenario, but it is certainly one that you’re going to want to learn how to do, and how to use best once you’ve bought your laser cutter. If you’re in the market for a new laser cutter to start laser engraving, you need help with servicing your laser cutter, or you need to source materials for your laser engraving, then browse our website, and get in touch! If we’ve inspired you, or you’re creating laser engraving for the first time, don’t forget to tag us in your Instagram posts – we’re @hobartslasers.