CNC & Machining Digital Fabrication Laser Cutting
A Guide to Buying Your First Laser Cutter

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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.

16 thoughts on “A Guide to Buying Your First Laser Cutter

  1. I run three huge FSL machines at work, their customer service is the worst I have ever seen. We caught them having installed used parts into a “new” $60000 machine we ordered.

    It has taken them over three months to respond to a warranty claim on a simple door hydrolic, and when they finally answered it was to ask for pictures to prove it was really faulty and then they needed a model number.

    Do they really not keep track of who bought what?

    Never EVER buy from F**king S**tty Lasers.

    1. ***I’d strongly recommend a BOSS Laser if you’re looking for a good value laser – and really good support. I looked at Full Spectrum’s H series and Muse. Neither offer external exhaust, true air assist, a moveable z-axis, or a material pass through. The software is fairly basic but easy. But Boss gives you all that. I’m very happy with it so far..

      Also, the “H series” uses Chinese glass tubes/power supplies among other parts so its more US assembled.

  2. May I humbly suggest that you could add another category / level of entry: homebuilt.

    I recently put together a DVD-carriage based laser etcher with a 150mW diode laser and it does a cracking job. The laser package cost just £40 ($60)! For small marking jobs a some cutting it’s ace — however, I always intended it to be a gateway [drug]!

    I’ve just made the X axis bigger using an old scanner; so instead of 36mm2 it can now do 400mm x 36mm.

    Our Makerspace startup team is now looking at a 5W laser diode (c. £180 ($270)) to add to a new machine that will have a larger bed — maybe 400mm2.

    Whilst I appreciate that it’s not a route for everyone — it certainly isn’t rocket science and there are many build guides online — it is most definitely the cheapest way of getting your hands on a laser!

    1. Mine is a 2.8W on a Mostly Printed CNC MultiTool (650x650mm). The laser tool is awesome for etching, less so for cutting. The MPCNC part is just plain awesome.

      1. Our nascent Makerspace is just about to do similar with a 5W diode laser. We’re aware it’s not such a serious cutting tool as gas lasers but one important thing for us is it’s portability — we can take it to shows, clubs, schools etc. which is all good publicity.

  3. There should also be some mention of laser cutters that use laser diodes, often in the 2-4 Watt range they can be substantially smaller then a C02 unit.

    I have an Emblaser by Darkly Labs, and it is great for cutting paper and card up to a few mm in thickness, as well as engraving on a wide variety of materials.

    Worth a look if the above models are out of your price range, or overkill for your needs.

  4. Love my cheap Chinese laser cutter.. but man it needed a lot of upgrades. Paid 200 (used) and then another 100 for a real fan, 20 for tubing, 60 for ramps (electronics) .. probably 400 total. But it can do the work, anything more and I would just go to the hackerspace.

    That said, people, avoid the 200 dollar enclosure-less kits on alibaba. Good way to go blind.

  5. I’m surprised you didn’t mention Universal, a close 2nd to Epilog in performance and ease of use.

  6. This wasn’t a guide so much as a “buy one of these” article. From the title I was hoping to find discussions about cutting power, beam size, tube life, maintenance or any of the many other potential considerations. What I found instead was a very short list of products with the only real variety being in cost.

  7. It took two authors to write this “1, 2, or 3” option piece? Hardly a “Guide to Buying.”

  8. Not bad at showing the top and low end options. I have a laser cutter from boss laser / http://www.bosslaser.com (LS1416-60W). Considering the price was just over $4k I’m surprisingly impressed thus far. The interface took some time for me to get the hang of. Now I use Corel with it w/o issue. Under rated company in my opinion.

  9. Have you ever thought of learning to laser cut without having to cough up thousands of pounds for the machine? If so, then you are more then welcome to come down to learn create sell. We have ample room in our workshop just check out our website http://www.makelasergifts.com/
    If you’re eager to laser cut then get involved we have specialists on deck to help all level of learners.

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Matt is a community organizer and founder of 3DPPVD, Ocean State Maker Mill, and HackPittsburgh. He is Make's digital fabrication and reviews editor.

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Kacie Hultgren

Kacie Hultgren, better known as "Pretty Small Things" in the online 3D printing community, is a multi-disciplinary designer focused on set design for live performance. She is a Lynda.com author, recording video tutorials about 3D printing and CAD. She is passionate about teaching others to use digital tools and hardware to augment traditional craft and bring their ideas to life in three dimensions. Kacie lives in New York City. You can find her on Twitter: @KacieHultgren

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