How to Engrave Plastic with Laser: Beginners Guide

Laser engravings can occur with several different materials. From wood to aluminum, your choice of material heavily influences the look and feel of your final product. One popular material that’s used for many engraving projects is plastic but you may be asking why you should engrave plastic with laser.

For engraving and cutting plastics, laser machines work best because they produce fine, accurate results quickly. You should choose laser technology for engraving and cutting plastics because of their amazing precision, performance, and speed.

Plastic is an ideal material for laser engraving for several different reasons. However, knowing how exactly to go about laser engraving plastic is essential to ensure that the result matches your vision. In this article, you’ll learn what types of plastics work best with laser and how to engrave plastic using laser technology. You will also learn about the benefits of engraving plastic and things you should look out for throughout the process.

Laser Engraving Basics

Before learning how to engrave plastic, here’s a refresher on how exactly laser engraving works.

Laser engraving is the process of marking material using a laser engraving machine. A file containing the engraving is sent from a computer to the machine that tells the machine what exactly to engrave. The file can be in various forms depending on the device, from JPG to PDF.

From there, the machine positions the laser to start the engraving process. The machine burns or evaporates – depending on the material being worked on – the engravement onto the material’s surface.

Laser engraving has many different applications. It can be used to engrave a name onto a plaque, or it can be used for decorative reasons by laser engraving enthusiasts undertaking DIY projects. Laser engraving truly is a versatile tool.

What adds to laser engraving’s versatility is the fact that you can engrave different materials, including:

  • Wood
  • Stone
  • Marble
  • Acrylic
  • MDF
  • Glass

Plastic is a popular material for laser engravings; however, engraving plastic might be trickier than engraving other materials. Let’s take a look at why that is.

How to Engrave Plastic with Laser Technology

Why Use Plastic for Laser Engraving?

There are plenty of reasons why you choose plastic for your engraving projects. To start, plastics are synthetic materials made from polymers. Plastic’s versatility has led it to become one of the most commonly used materials in manufacturing today and a common material for engraving. In many industries, engraving plastic is a common practice performed regularly.

Laser engraving is a standard method because it is quick, accurate, and precise. A laser beam vaporizes the plastic surface to engrave the chosen words or design.

Plastic is relatively easy to engrave on as far as materials go. It’s also simple to fix engraving mistakes on plastic. Once you have your finished product, it will likely be easier to clean than other materials, such as wood. Finally, plastic is also one of the easiest materials that allows you to paint your engraving without it being too tedious of a process.

That said, it is crucial to find the right type of plastic for your engraving project. There are many different types of plastic out there, and no two plastics are the same. Let’s take a look at the types of plastics that can be laser engraved.

Types of Plastic that Can Be Laser Engraved

When it comes to learning how to engrave plastic with laser engraving machines, it’s important to know what types of plastic you can use to complete your project. Some plastics release toxic fumes when they are being engraved. These types of plastic should be avoided to not inhale those toxic fumes.

Below are several types of commonly used plastic that are safe for laser engraving:

  • Acrylic – Detailed Information on Engraving Acrylics can be found in this article I wrote.
  • PET
  • Delrin
  • Polyurethane
  • Mylar
  • Polyimide
  • Polyester
  • Polystyrene
  • Polymethylmethacrylate

However, you must choose the correct machine for the appropriate material. Diode lasers, for example, cannot engrave transparent or blue acrylic. A hack for this would be to paint the transparent acrylic black. A CO2 laser machine can cut and engrave any color. Diode lasers might be more appropriate in some circumstances, but CO2 lasers are the best for cutting and engraving plastic.

You should stay away from thin plastics, as the laser engraver may end up melting them, and plastics that emit toxic fumes when heated. If you are dealing with a slightly thinner plastic, you may need to use a less powerful laser machine to complete your project.

Plastics that shouldn’t be used with a laser engraving machine include Teflon and ABS, a thermoplastic known for its durability but can emit a lot of smoke when laser engraved. PVC is another plastic you may be surprised to hear shouldn’t be laser engraved. While PVC is a popular plastic that can easily be laser engraved, it does create toxic fumes.

Other plastics to avoid include:

  • Polyvinyl Butyral (PVB)
  • Materials That Contains Halogens, Epoxy, or Phenolic Resins
  • Vinyl
  • Carbon Fiber 
  • Artificial Leather That Contains Chromium

If you do want to engrave any of these plastic materials, it is recommended that you opt for a CNC Router instead.

In the below YouTube Tutorial, you will learn more on how to test whether the material you intend laser engraving or cutting contains Chlorine.

Exhaust Fan and Fume Extractor

Almost all types of plastics release unpleasant fumes when engraving or cutting with a laser machine. These fumes, depending on the type of plastic, can be dangerous to people, especially if they are exposed to them for an extended period of time.

A good exhaust system or fume extractor is therefore required to keep these fumes away from people and the laser machine.

Make sure your work area is well ventilated by using a good quality exhaust fan or a fume extractor. 
For detailed information have a look at our buying guides:

Top 5 Laser Engraver Exhaust Fan Options
Top 5 Best Fume Extractors For Laser Engravers

Now that you know which plastics to use for laser engraving and have your exhaust system or fume extractor in place, let’s look at how to engrave plastic with laser technology.

Types of Plastic that Can Be Laser Engraved

How to Engrave Plastic with Laser Engraver

The process of laser engraving plastic isn’t overly complicated, but it does require preparation. Before you start, you need to have a clear vision of your desired outcome.

Here are the steps for how to engrave plastic with laser technology.

Create your design

The most crucial part about figuring out how to engrave plastic is to decide on your design. When creating your design, it’s essential to keep in mind that you will be engraving on plastic throughout the process. The result may look different from other materials, such as wood.

Make sure you save your design in a file format compatible with your laser engraver.

Choose your plastic

Next, it’s time to choose a plastic material. First and foremost, your plastic must be compatible with laser engraving, as outlined in the list above. What’s more, choosing a plastic that you choose will best showcase your finished work for its intended purpose. For more information on the plastics we use for our engraving and cutting projects then check out the best materials for laser engraving, the article I wrote on the subject.

Before beginning the engraving process, you must ensure the plastic is clean. Be sure to wipe off any dust and use an mild cleaner.

Engrave the plastic with your laser machine

Once you have your design and plastic, it’s time for the fun part: laser engraving.

Laser engraving plastic starts similarly to how you would engrave any other material. Position the plastic material and align the laser beam to the desired location on the plastic. From there, you just let the laser machine do its thing! The machine should vaporize the plastic surface.

Be sure to supervise to ensure that the machine is engraving the plastic as it should and that no flames are being produced. Make sure you have a fire extinguisher handy and that your work area is well ventilated by using an exhaust fan or a fume extractor to ensure your safety.

In the below YouTube Tutorial, you will learn how to engrave acrylic with the xTool D1 10 Watt Diode laser. For a detailed review on the xTool D1 10W Laser then check out the review here.

Check the finished product

Once your machine is done, check the final product to ensure precision and accuracy. This is the time to remove any unwanted residue from the engraving. You can simply use clean water to do this, or you can use a mild cleaner that doesn’t affect plastic. Avoid using Alcohol or any harsh cleaners.

If there is a small mistake, you may be able to fix it by engraving over the mistake. If there is a more significant mistake, you may need to start over.

Optional: Paint your engraving

Once you’re happy with your final product, leave it as is or add some color. One of the great things about engraving plastic is that it is easy to paint.

Put simply, all you need to do is take a spatula full of your paint, spread it across the plastic, and remove the excess paint once dried. For more information read the article I wrote on how to achieve the perfect laser engraving paint effect.

How to Engrave on Plastic FAQ

Is it safe to engrave plastic with a laser machine?

If you take the proper precautions, it is safe to engrave plastic with a laser machine.

Firstly, knowing what plastics you can and can’t engrave with a laser machine is essential. There are several types of safe plastics, such as Acrylic, but there are also plastics that can produce excessive amounts of toxic fumes when laser engraved, such as PVC.

Beyond that, you should follow the safety precautions you take when engraving any other material with a laser. Be sure to supervise the process to ensure that no flames occur and make sure you have a fire extinguisher handy and that your work area is well ventilated.

How long does it take to engrave plastic with a laser machine?

The time it takes to laser engrave plastic varies based on several factors, including the size of the design and the power of the laser. The fact that the material is plastic plays a minor role in the amount of time that it takes to engrave. Typically, it should usually take no more than a few minutes.

The actual process of engraving is usually quick, but the steps that come before this part of the process, including rendering the design into the computer software and preparing the material and machine may be what take the longest.

Can any laser machine engrave plastic?

While many laser machines can engrave on plastic, not every machine is capable of it. In general, CO2 machines, diode and fiber laser machines can get the job done.

CO2 laser machines are the most commonly used machines when learning how to engrave on plastic. Fiber laser machines are used mainly for industrial plastics such as Polypropylene, Nylon and Teflon. Engraving Black Cast Acrylic with a fiber laser will usually result in a white mark on the plastic. A Diode Laser is not able to engrave transparent Acrylic but black cast acrylic will yield excellent results.

What are some common applications for laser engraved plastic?

There are many different applications for laser engraved plastic as this method is used in a variety of industries.

Here are a few common applications for laser engraved plastic:

  • Engraving serial numbers and barcodes on products
  • Adding plastic identification codes for recycling purposes
  • Create customized gifts
  • Engrave logos for your business
  • Engrave signs, including neon signs
  • Engrave serial codes into medical devices

Of course, one of the best reasons to learn how to engrave plastic is for your own DIY or creative projects!

The Takeaway: Consider Plastic for Your Next Project

To recap, engraving plastic isn’t too different from engraving other materials. However, it’s important to know how to engrave plastic with a laser machine to ensure both your safety and the satisfaction with your end result.

Hopefully, you’ve learned more on how to engrave plastic, and that you have some new creative ideas brewing!

Related Resources: