This article highlights my journey through different laser engravers and goes over some things to consider before deciding on a machine.
DISCLAIMER: Laser Engravers can emit deadly high voltage and laser radiation capable of causing instant blindness and tissue damage.
I got my first laser, a Meterk DK-8-KZ, because they interested me. This is a 1000mW Solid State LD machine and, while interesting, was essentially useless. It did, however, prime my interest in other laser systems.
Then I lucked up and received a ULS-25E in a trade for another piece of equipment because I thought it would be “neat”. I am a techie geek and tinkerer with a pretty advanced level of mechanical inclination so I wanted to explore this cool device and learn more.
After I got the ULS up and running my research indicated (although this machine is one of the best US made units out there) the parts, should they be needed, are VERY expensive and it was made in 1990 or 1991 so it was pretty old. A new Laser module (a Synrad Air-Cooled Metal Tube CO2 laser) was over $8000 and it would cost over $1000 to recharge mine if it became necessary.
I decided to get a K40 Chinese Laser Engraver (a saw one for sale on Craigslist that was still in the box and I couldn’t beat the price) and it took my inner techie-geek to a whole new level!
I just sold the ULS and have heavily modified the K40 and it is a freaking amazing wonder! I justified paying as much to mod the laser as it would have cost to buy a bigger machine, brand new with all of the mods needed because I wanted to tear this one down and build it back up myself. I am glad I did even though I restricted the size of my work area by doing so.
The Nitty Gritty
Below are 3 of the more popular types of laser sources:
- CO2 (9.4μm and most commonly 10.6μm)
- Crystal (Nd:YAG, Nd:YVO @ around 1.064μm)
- Fiber/MOPA @ around 1.064μm).
We will be referencing the 2 most common sources in this section: CO2 and fiber. CO2 is best for organics (acrylic, wood, leather, glass, etc…) while fiber is best on polymers, metals, and such. CO2 will not, reasonably, ablate metals but you can bond pigments to it at the molecular level with special marking compounds. Fiber lasers can etch and cut metals.
CO2 lasers sources are typically either water cooled glass tubes that are DC excited (like 99% of high and low end Chinesium engravers) or metal tubes that are air cooled and RF excited. You will find metal air cooled RF tubes in most US made lasers . Metal tube RF sources can maintain a steady beam signature throughout the entire power range and are typically higher resolution than their water cooled DC excited glass counterparts. DC excited laser tubes have a minimum excitation threshold meaning they will not fire below a certain power.
Gantry lasers have rails and a carriage and steer the beam with stationary mirrors mirrors and lenses. Galvanometers (galvos) steer the beam with oscillating mirrors (think walmart scanner at the checkout). Not all fiber lasers are galvo and not all CO2 lasers are gantry. You can get either source in either beam delivery method and there are also dual source units (mostly gantry like epilog fusion).
NOTE: WE ARE FOCUSING ON TYPICAL C02(GAS) LASER SYSTEMS HERE. FIBER, CRYSTAL, AND OTHERS WILL BE ADDRESSED IN FUTURE ARTICLES.
There are many considerations which need to be addressed. Some of which are:
Is it for hobbyist or business purposes?
Are you mechanically inclined?
Have you laid out a budget?
What size is your proposed work area?
Do you know what materials/product you plan on lasing?
Would you anticipate expanding in the near future?
PRICING (CO2 Gantry Lasers):
High End (ULS, Epilog, etc..): $20K and up
Mid Range (Thunder Laser, Aeon, Boss. etc…): $6K and up
Low End: Chinesium Clones (k40, etc…): $350 and up
US MADE LASERS
The US made laser engravers are high quality, high precision workhorses that will last forever if properly maintained. Arguably the top two are ULS and Epilog. Other models include Trotec, Rabbit, Boss (Made in China but heavily supported in the US), and I’m sure there may be more. The price tags on US laser engravers can be intimidating especially if you are not running a full-fledged laser engraving business. They are worth it, however. If you have the money, spend it!
HIGH END CHINESE LASERS
The High End Chinese made laser engravers are very impressive, even against Epilog and ULS and the price point is better than you think as compared to the US lasers. They do not suffer from a lack of design or quality yet the stigma associated with the low end clones still unfairly follows them.
Thunder Laser is, in my opinion, the best, with Aeon pulling a very close second and Boss trailing closely behind that. Thunder Laser’s product line is built to exacting specifications and they have rigorous quality control and continuous improvement standards. This, coupled with unparalleled US based support and their ease of use make them them go straight to the top of the list. Additionally they now ship with a full LightBurn software license.
LOW END CHINESIUM CLONES
The Chinese made laser engravers have no standards for quality, safety, or performance as a general rule. If you choose a low end Chinese laser you need to do lots of research. A good start, if the workspace size isn’t critical or if you love to tinker, is the K40. They are cheap (around $350) but will require some modifications to make them more reliable and safe.. If you plan to add a different controller or do heavier modifications, it doesn’t take long to sink $1200 into a K40. If you will want full control over laser power (DSP or PWM controllers), better design and control software, bigger work area, more power, etc… then strongly consider going with a 50 watt or above Chinese unit. They come with DSP, air assist, adjustable z-axis, and more.
THE BOTTOM LINE IS TO DO LOTS OF HOMEWORK AND RESEARCH THE LASER YOU ARE CONSIDERING ON YOUTUBE, FACEBOOK GROUPS, FORUMS, GOOGLE+, ETC…
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