Which are the best materials for laser engraving?

One of the advantages of owning a laser engraver is the wide array of materials that can be engraved. Traditionally, laser engravers were too expensive for the man in the street but the introduction of inexpensive ones has now made it possible for anyone to set up a laser engraving business. All you have to do is buy a good laser engraver, choose the best material and you are good to go!

But which are the best materials for laser engraving? A laser engraver can be used to engrave, laser-cut, and mark several materials including rubber, leather, plastics, textiles, wood, and metals. However, if you are using a fiber laser engraver, then you may want to avoid working with organic materials like wood and leather because even though they are not transparent to the human eye, they appear transparent to the 1062nm wavelength of the fiber laser beam. It is, therefore, a good idea to ask the manufacturer of your laser for the list of permitted and disallowed materials before you start using it.

Some of the commonly laser engraved materials

  • Marble and granite
  • Stone and brick
  • Wood
  • Glass
  • Acrylic
  • Metal
  • Cardboard and paper
  • Fabric
  • Leather

Let’s look at each of these materials in more details.

  1. Laser engraving on marble and granite

Marble and granite are great materials for engraving photos. This is mainly because granite and marble yield an awesome contrast when engraved. If you use a dark-colored marble or granite, you will get a high contrast so there will be no need to add color.  The resultant image should be white or dark grey as long as the engraving is done properly. 

But how do you know which one to use between marble and granite?

The easiest way to know which one to go with between marble and granite is to start by finding out where the engraved item will be displayed, i.e., will it be a wall hanging in a house or will it be displayed outdoors? If you the piece will be placed inside, then you can use either marble or granite. However, it is best to with granite for any pieces that will be exposed to the elements. That’s because granite is a harder material than marble. To put that into perspective, the Moh scale places marble at a 3 while granite is placed at a 7 in terms of hardness. Granite is in fact close to diamond because the Moh scale gives diamond a 10.

  • Laser engraving on bricks and stones

Just like granite, bricks and stones are perfect for engraving pieces that will be exposed to the elements. You can use them for engraving pieces for outdoor patios, memorial sites, and other outdoor installations. Laser engraved bricks are commonly used as a donation strategy in parkways, walkways, and universities. The organization can opt to laser engrave the names of donors or sponsors on the bricks and place them in memorials, parks, hospitals, zoos, religious buildings, museums, etc. The engraved bricks are typically prearranged in a given pattern.

Traditionally, organizations relied on sandblasting to achieve the etch effect in bricks. However, sandblasting is quite a complicated process that requires lots of energy. As if not enough, it is also quite inaccurate and even though advances have been made at computer-controlling the process, sandblasting often causes too much stress on the bricks which makes them break easily upon installation. These are just some of the reasons why laser engraving on bricks is becoming popular. Laser engraving will not only ensure permanency but also give a smooth and professional look.

  • Laser engraving on wood

Wood is a popular material for engraving because you can use almost any type of wood and you can also use several laser cutting and laser engraving techniques to achieve different results. Here are some of the commonly engraved types of wood.

  • Natural wood, real wood
  • Solid wood, solid timber
  • Plywood
  • Chipboard
  • Cork
  • MDF
  • HDF
  • Veneers
  • Precious woods
  • Multiplex

Some of the common wood laser applications include photo-engravings, inlays, prototyping, and personalized items. With the right laser engraver and wood, the possibilities are simply endless.

Wood is a natural substance and you should, therefore, pay a lot of attention to the different parameters.  For instance, softwoods like balsa will need less laser power. Hardwoods will need a more powerful laser beam. If you are working with wood that is made by glue different fibers together, like MDF, it is better to go with compressed air.

  • Laser engraving on glass

Laser engraving can be done on almost all kinds of glass items to produce stunning effects. Mugs, vases, wine bottles, and wine glasses are just some of the examples of the items that can be engraved. In fact, most established wineries and distillers use laser engraving to etch their logos on their bottles. If you are a collector of wines, you might make your bottles unique by adding custom engravings with your laser marker. The advantage of laser engraving glass is that the laser will not cut the glass deeply. On the contrary, it will leave a frosted look. You must, however, be meticulous when laser engraving glass because you might end up with a rough surface thanks to the chipping that might be caused by the laser. 

Here are a couple of things you can do to avoid chipping when laser engraving glass

  • Use the right type of glass

Crystal glass will not work too well for laser engraving because it has too much lead content.  Lead can retain a lot of the heat from the laser and this makes it impossible to achieve a uniform engraving. As a rule of thumb, test the type of glass you will be using before you engrave on the real item.

  • Know the difference between flat and round glass

Flat glass has a consistent hardness, unlike the curved glass which typically has hard and soft spots. If you are engraving a bottle, mug or some other curved glass, go with the medium speed with a high power. It will help compensate for any inconsistencies.

  • Masking

Masking is the process of placing a paper towel or a wet newspaper on the glass before laser engraving it. The idea is to help dissipate some heat. If you decide to mask, make sure your paper towel is spread evenly on the glass or you might just end up with a lot of chipping. In fact, if you are not able to make the paper truly flat, it is best to avoid masking altogether.

Some of the laser engravers come with software that makes laser engraving on glass just a breeze. That’s because they have an intuitive WYSIWYG editor that you can use to see exactly where your engraving will go on your glass item before you start engraving.

  • Laser engraving on Acrylic

Acrylic sheets, sometimes known as polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) are durable and lightweight and can serve as great alternatives to glass. PMMA can be manufactured in two ways – cast or extruded. These two types of acrylic respond differently to laser engraving. Cast PMMA yields a frosty white look which gives a great contrast to its clear material. On the flip side, extruded acrylic remains clear when engraved and does not yield much contrast. For this reason, extruded acrylic is most ideal when doing a laser cutting project while cast acrylic would be perfect for all other laser engraving projects.

Mirror reverse side engraving is often used when engraving cast acrylic. It entails reversing the image in order to mirror the engraving on the back of the surface. The end result will be a breathtaking “look through effect.” Some engravers also paint the surface of the sheet and then laser engrave the painted face to reveal the acrylic beneath the paint.

Even though etching acrylic through other means (like chemicals) is possible, most people prefer using laser engravers. Laser engraving is not only safer but also a more durable alternative since the equipment won’t wear off quickly. It is also possible to programme the laser engraver to achieve an intricate design with very little effort.

  • Laser engraving on metal

Almost all types of metals can be laser engraved but the following are some of the most commonly engraved ones:

  • Steel
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Stainless steel
  • Aluminum
  • Brass
  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Paladium
  • Titanium
  • Platinum
  • Carbides
  • Coated metals

Metal is one the most commonly used materials in the world and laser engraving, as well as laser cutting, come in handy in all manner of scenarios. Some examples include the creation of art pieces, alteration of aircraft wings for better aerodynamics, the manufacture of automotive parts, engraving of chop and parts, etc. We can, therefore, categorize laser engraving of metals into two functional categories; industrial laser engraving and promotional laser engraving.

Promotional laser engraving would include makes of external and internal signs as well as the making of promotional materials and pieces of art for sale. Industrial laser engraving would cover the other sophisticated laser engravings that are done by manufacturers of different things like airplanes, automobiles or microchips.

For your home-based laser engraving business, you can make all manner of promotional materials with metal. Here are some examples of metal items you can engrave for your clients.

  • Picture frames
  • Door signs
  • Locks
  • Nameplates
  • Hip flasks
  • Thermos flasks
  • Lighters
  • Bottle openers
  • Laptops, tablets, and mobile phones
  • Cutlery
  • Jewelry
  • Pocket knives
  • Key fobs
  • Cardboard and paper

From decorated greeting cards to custom book covers, the possibilities of making breathtaking laser engraved cardboard and paper items are endless. Some of the types of paper that would be ideal for laser engraving include:

  • Art paper
  • Fine paper
  • Cardboard
  • Corrugated cardboard
  • Handmade paper

One main advantage of paper and cardboard is that they are inexpensive as opposed to the other materials that can be laser engraved. Additionally, the applications for paper are endless. Paper and cardboard would, therefore, be perfect for starting your home-based laser engraving business.

  • Laser engraving on fabric

Both natural and synthetic fabrics are good candidates for laser engraving. Cotton and microfiber are however the most commonly laser engraved fabrics. Microfiber is made from polyamides (nylon), polyesters, and a mixture of polyamide and polyester. Microfibers are very durable and this is precisely why they are commonly used for laser engraving. 100% cotton that has a tight weave can also result in breathtaking engraving. If you decided to engrave on cotton, make sure you go for fabric that has tightly fitting threads because lose threads will not give a good result.

Other fabrics that are good for laser engraving include denim, felt, twill and fleece. These fabrics are durable enough to withstand the heat of the laser. You can use them to come up with aesthetically appealing specialty merchandise.

When engraving on fabric, it is best to go with high speed and low power. This gives the laser beam a chance to quickly burn away the top part in order to yield the desired effect. Before you start your engraving, test with a couple of swatches until you have found the perfect settings. This will ensure that you do not burn your fabric when you start laser engraving it. As a rule of thumb, avoid engraving any fabric that has loose knitting, like terry cloth, because they are not sturdy enough for the process.

  • Laser engraving leather

Customized leather items are always in demand and there is just a no better way of customizing a leather item than laser engraving it. Almost all kinds of leather items can be laser engraved and yes- that includes nubuck and suede. Here is a list of the commonly engraved leather types.

  • Suede leather
  • Nubuck leather
  • Synthetic leather
  • Alcantra leather
  • Napped leather
  • Natural leather

Even the man-made leather, also known as synthetic leather, can be laser engraved.  The most important consideration when laser engraving leather is the color. Generally speaking, dark and black leather should be avoided for engraving projects. Engraved patterns will be more visible on lighter leather.

Because of its wide use, there are all manner of leather items that you can engrave. Here are some examples:

  • Purses
  • Wallets
  • Bracelets
  • Belts
  • Crafts
  • Briefcases
  • Office products
  • Promotional materials

Laser engraving is perfect for leather items because leather is quite tough and it is hard to make aesthetically appealing marks using other tools.

So in summary, there isn’t one best material for laser engraving. The most ideal material will depend on the factors described above. Before you buy your laser engraver, first of all, determine what kind of material you intend to engrave on. Some materials work best with cutting as opposed to engraving and will, therefore, work better with engravers that have been specially made for that. Other materials are harder than others and will, therefore, require a more powerful laser beam. Once you have settled on your preferred material, you can then purchase a laser engraver that would be most ideal for you.

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