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If there’s one tool that’s coveted by Makerspaces more than any other, it has to be the laser cutter. These high-precision machines can produce both functional and beautiful items. Their versatility allows anyone with access to one to quickly go into production with his or her designs.

Go to your local indie craft fair and I bet you’ll find laser-cut jewelry. Craft stores are stocked full of laser-cut scrapbooking items. Even big-box stores are not immune to the awesomeness of laser-cut items, offering laser-cut window curtains, holiday ornaments, fixtures, and more.

The power of the laser cutter comes from its ability to cut through a wide range of materials with high precision. Drag-knife cutters — like those on craft cutters and vinyl cutters — can’t penetrate hard and thick materials, while a laser can slice through them like butter. And a CNC router has a hard time creating ultra-sharp details (think about cutting a letter V: the outside edges can be cut away sharply with overlapping passes but the inner point can only be as pointy as the diameter of your router bit). A laser’s beam is so narrow that it can give you that precise detail.

Building structures with laser-cut parts has become a well-defined practice. Plugins to automatically generate boxes are available for the popular vector graphics application Inkscape, making it a snap to create a case for a project. Captured nuts with tab-and-slot construction make parts easy to assemble and take apart, unlike glued builds. In fact, desktop 3D printing wouldn’t be where it is today without laser cutters — MakerBot, Printrbot, SeeMeCNC, Ultimaker, and many other companies started out producing 3D printers largely made from laser-cut parts.

If you’re looking for a tool that can widen your boundaries, a laser cutter has a universe of possibilities. Buying your first laser cutter can be a daunting challenge, especially if you’re budget-minded. Let this overview of three different types guide you on your way.

Buying Your First Laser Cutter

With great power comes great expense, but here are three entry-level options that will have you beaming.

Epilog Laser

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Epilog is the gold standard if you’re looking for a high-quality, user-friendly laser cutter. Two big advantages: Epilog’s print driver makes the process of sending your designs to the machine quick and painless; and special air-cooled laser tubes made by Epilog reduce the hassles and potential hazards of their liquid-cooled competitors. The convenience doesn’t come cheap though; the Zing line, their most affordable, starts at just under $8,000 for a 30-watt, 16″×12″ machine.

Full Spectrum Laser

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Full Spectrum Laser started out by importing Chinese lasers, tuning them up, and rebranding them for American sales. In an attempt to increase reliability and ease of use, FSL decided to create their own laser cutter system and released the H-Series. To reduce cost, the H-Series skips an adjustable bed — instead, you adjust the laser focus by moving the final lens assembly. With a step up in software from the standard import offerings, the H-Series starting at $3,499 offers great value.

Chinese Imports

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Imported laser cutters are so popular, they’re almost a brand themselves. If you’re on a budget or looking for the biggest bang for your buck, they are a great option. You might find machines as cheap as $400 on eBay, but expect to pay $1,000 or more for a decent cutter, depending on mods and software upgrades you need to make. Be prepared to swap out small submersible pumps intended to go in buckets for radiant chillers, and to upgrade your ventilation system. The bundled software typically offers a very poor user experience, but that’s something you can learn to work around — especially with the potential savings.