Stainless steel is metal alloyed with chromium and nickel. The alloy gives the material its resistance to corrosion and heat. Due to its impressive properties, it has a wide range of use in industrial applications such as food processing, medical equipment, and automotive manufacturing.
Whether you are looking to improve the design of your jewelry or brand your stainless steel products, laser engraving is a great option.
But what exactly is laser engraving? What are the pros and cons of using this method? And what are the best methods for laser engraving stainless steel products? Let us explain.
What is Laser Engraving and How Does it Work?
Laser engraving is the process of using a laser beam to etch a design onto a surface. In this process, a laser engraver uses a focused high-powered laser beam to vaporize the material.
Laser engraving is used to create high-quality logos and other designs on metal, plastic, wood, glass, ceramic, etc. The process uses lasers to cut through the surface of the object, leaving a permanent mark behind. This makes it perfect for branding purposes.
Best Methods for Laser Engraving Stainless Steel
Laser engraving stainless steel can be done in several ways. You can opt for a CO2 laser or a fiber laser. Stainless steel can be laser annealed as well.
We will take a look at all these methods below.
C02 lasers are quite versatile with the capacity to engrave not only stainless steel, but also wood, plastic, and other materials.
When using this method, the stainless is first pre-treated, since the C02 laser will otherwise get reflected from the surface of the metal. To pre-treat the metal surface, you need to use a marking solution.
For our recommendations on the best marking solution then read: Metal Engraving with a CO2 Laser
If you are looking for light surface etching, then C02 laser engraving is a good method.
For this process, optical fibers are used. The method uses a powerful and focused laser beam to heat and then mark the metal surface.
Using a fiber laser to permanently mark the stainless steel is reasonably better than using C02, mainly due to its stability and efficiency. This method is faster than using a CO2 laser and, although a bit more expensive, is exceptionally good for large-scale projects.
Check Out Our Buying Guide: Best Fiber Laser Engravers for you
Laser annealing is a bit different from the CO2 and fiber laser engraving. Essentially, with laser annealing, a metal surface is heated slowly, and then as the process continues, the metal goes through internal oxidation.
Upon annealing the surface, the metal melts, but it does not remove any material. Once the metal cools, its color changes in the spot where the laser was focused. When done on stainless steel, it produces an extra layer that prevents rust and corrosion.
Laser annealing is comparatively a slower process, where the low power is incentivized more.
What are the Costs of Getting Stainless Steel Engraved?
Laser engraving can be quite expensive. Prices can start at around $250 per hour, however, it depends on your requirements, such as the complexity of the design, dimensions, etc.
The cost of getting metal engraved primarily depends on the size of the material itself. If the surface to be engraved is large, then it will be much cheaper.
Similarly, if you have more items that have to be engraved, then the cost would vary according.
Complexity of Design
If you want a simple outlining on a surface, the cost will be low compared to a more complex logo. In general, the more complex the design is, the longer it will take to produce, and the higher the price will be.
Similarly, the price also varies based on the type of engraving. If you want a deep engraving, then the cost will be affected accordingly. Typically in deep engraving, the designs are replicas of each other. Repeatable patterns are less costly if you get them together, compared to unique cases.
Best Practices for Laser Engraving Stainless Steel
There is a big difference between a professionally engraved item and one done by an amateur. The following practices should always be incorporated to give your product a professional finish.
Marking Speed and Power
The main goal when trying to engrave stainless steel is to make sure that it lasts. The marking speed and power supplied play a vital role in determining the result.
If you want an engraving that will last for a long time, then you need to decrease the marking speed and increase the power. This will increase the intensity of the focused beam and subsequently make deeper grooves.
Repeat the Process
While it is true that you can get a deeper engraving by slowing down the machine and increasing the power, this alone will not guarantee a finer finish. The reason for this is that slag can accumulate when a lot of material is removed at the same time.
Slag can affect the contrast of the engraved material and may make it stand out from the rest of the material.
To fix this problem, prioritize repeating the process instead of doing it all at once. You can lightly engrave and then repeat it two to three times. Each time, clean the surface to make sure no slag accumulates.
Use Rubbing Alcohol
After the process of engraving, it is a common practice to use rubbing alcohol or an alternative material to clean the surface. This process removes any irregularities and leftover slag.
Regardless of how well you set up the entire process, there will always be room for error. This is because of the variation that exists in laser products in general.
Depending on the brand, type of laser, and even the software used, the results can be quite different. Therefore, you will have to do trial and error to calibrate the engraver according to your needs and settings.
When you are about to engrave a material, things can always go wrong. It may be that the dimensions are a bit off or that the software outputs a slightly different design than what you desire.
Regardless of what the concern may be, running a test is always better. To do this, we suggest you choose a cheaper material. You can find sheets of stainless steel at a local hardware store, which you can use to test what the engraving will look like.
This will ensure that you get the same result that you wanted and also give you room to change the concept in case you do not like the design.
Is Engraving Suitable for Stainless Steel?
It is perfectly fine to use stainless steel for engraving. In fact, due to its properties, many industries engrave their stainless steel products. For example:
- ID codes
- Serial Numbers
Deep engraving is usually used when marking stainless steel. The main difference from traditional engraving is that deep engraving prioritizes multiple passes at lower power rather than one pass at high power.
To get sharper and cleaner designs, this method is quite useful as it heats and removes comparatively a larger amount of material.
In the below YouTube Video you will learn how to engrave stainless steel with a Fiber Laser:
Can Engraving Cause Rust on Stainless Steel?
Stainless steel is essentially covered by a thin layer of chromium oxide. This protects it from oxidation and rust.
When we engrave stainless steel, the surface is removed, so the layer of chromium oxide preventing rust is no longer there. This can make the surface vulnerable to oxidation.
To avoid this, it is recommended that you use corrosion-resistant methods and techniques. This will ensure that even after the engraving process, there is little to no chance of rust.
What is the Main Difference Between Laser Etching and Laser Engraving?
Laser etching and laser engraving are two different methods that are used when designing or branding items. The main difference is that etching is a chemical process and engraving is a physical one.
Unlike in engraving where the metal surface is heated, etching makes use of a strong acid which is made to come in contact with the surface that needs to be marked. Due to the low pH of the acid, it causes a chemical reaction with the metal surface.
Laser etching is much faster in comparison to engraving and allows more precision. However, engraving can last longer.
Advantages of Using Engraving Compared to Etching
Depending on your use, you may be more inclined toward engraving compared to etching. Below we will discuss the main advantages of engraving.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of engraving is the depth that it adds to the item. Since you can change the power and repeat the process, engraving can make deep permanent marks on the stainless steel surface, promising longevity.
On the other hand, etching will add a depth of no more than 0.001 inches. This is because etching prioritizes contrast more than depth.
Engraving can be more cost-effective for medium-sized businesses that only need a few items to be marked.
Etching on the other hand is expensive on a small scale, due to the prices of chemicals. It’s only really worth it if you have industrial projects since, in those circumstances, engraving is more costly.
As previously mentioned, engraving promises longevity. If you are dealing with products that are expected to be used a lot, then etching will be a bad option to choose since it can fade away more easily.
This is especially true when dealing with stainless steel kitchen utensils. In such cases, engraving is a much better choice.
Even though we are mainly concerned with stainless steel for this article, investing in engraving can be costly, to say the least. In such cases, engravers stand out since they can be used not only on metal surfaces but also on glass, wood, leather, and even paper.
Etching, on the other hand, chemically changes the composition of the material. Due to this, it can only be used on specific materials such as polymers, ceramics, and anodized aluminum.
When working with a high-powered laser beam, anything can go wrong if the necessary steps are not taken.
The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) established a safety standard that should always be followed when dealing with laser products.
This is primarily because laser engravers can be extremely dangerous and cause various injuries if proper safety measures are not taken. You can find details of IEC’s guidelines on their official website.
Related Post: Safety Precautions when using a laser cutter
Laser engraving has been around for a while and as the technology continues to improve, so do the features, accuracy, and security protocols.
If you are looking to improve the branding of your product, or if you just want to make some DIY art, laser engraving can be a valuable investment promising use for a wide variety of applications.
Check Out Our Buying Guide which also includes some budget options: Best Laser Engraving Stainless Steel Machine