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Laser Materials – the Good and the Bad

We get a lot of questions on what materials you can cut and engrave with a laser. Mostly, our lasers work great with engraving on wood, but there are also a lot of materials that are great with our lasers. There are also plenty of materials that you should never process with a laser. This list is a repost from the ATX makerspace wiki about laserable materials.

https://atxhs.org/wiki/Laser_Cutter_Materials

We thought the list was pretty good, so here it is:

NEVER CUT THESE MATERIALS

WARNING: Because many plastics are dangerous to cut, it is important to know what kind you are planning to use. Make has a How-To for identifying unknown plastics with a simple process.

MaterialDANGER!Cause/Consequence
PVC (Poly Vinyl Chloride)/vinyl/pleather/artificial leatherEmits chlorine gas when cut!Don’t ever cut this material as it will ruin the optics, causes the metal of the machine to corrode as chlorine is released and ruins the motion control system.
Thick ( >1mm ) Polycarbonate/LexanCuts very poorly, discolors, catches firePolycarbonate is often found as flat, sheet material. The window of the laser cutter is made of Polycarbonate because polycarbonate strongly absorbs infrared radiation! This is the frequency of light the laser cutter uses to cut materials, so it is very ineffective at cutting polycarbonate. Polycarbonate is a poor choice for laser cutting. It creates long stringy clouds of soot that float up, ruin the optics and mess up the machine.
ABSMelts / CyanideABS does not cut well in a laser cutter. It tends to melt rather than vaporize, and has a higher chance of catching on fire and leaving behind melted gooey deposits on the vector cutting grid. It also does not engrave well (again, tends to melt). Cutting ABS plastic emits hydrogen cyanide, which is unsafe at any concentration.
HDPE/milk bottle plasticCatches fire and meltsIt melts. It gets gooey. It catches fire. Don’t use it.
PolyStyrene FoamCatches fireIt catches fire quickly, burns rapidly, it melts, and only thin pieces cut. This is the #1 material that causes laser fires!!!
PolyPropylene FoamCatches fireLike PolyStyrene, it melts, catches fire, and the melted drops continue to burn and turn into rock-hard drips and pebbles.
Epoxyburn / smokeEpoxy is an aliphatic resin, strongly cross-linked carbon chains. A CO2 laser can’t cut it, and the resulting burned mess creates toxic fumes ( like cyanide! ). Items coated in Epoxy, or cast Epoxy resins must not be used in the laser cutter. ( see Fiberglass )
FiberglassEmits fumesIt’s a mix of two materials that cant’ be cut. Glass (etch, no cut) and epoxy resin (fumes)
Coated Carbon FiberEmits noxious fumesA mix of two materials. Thin carbon fiber mat can be cut, with some fraying – but not when coated.
Any foodstuff ( such as meat, seaweed ‘nori’ sheets, cookie dough, bread, tortillas… )The laser is not designed to cut food, and people cut things that create poisonous/noxious substances such as wood smoke and acrylic smoke.If you want to cut foodstuffs, consider sponsoring a food-only laser cutter for the space that is kept as clean as a commercial kitchen would require.
Material with Sticky Glue BackingCoats lens, cracks lensThere are many normally laserable items such as thin wood laminates that you can purchase that become un-cuttable when the manufacturer adds a layer of peel-off glue on the bottom to attach them to surfaces. Examples include cork tiles, thin wood laminate, acrylic tiles, and paper stickers. Never cut these materials in the laser cutter if they have this backing. The glue will vaporize forming a coating on the lens that will coat it, cloud it, heat it, and then potentially crack the lens. The glue residue is worse than resin, and can’t be removed without risking damage to the lens … requiring a lens replacement.

Safe Materials

The laser can cut or etch. The materials that the laser can cut materials like wood, paper, cork, and some kinds of plastics. Etching can be done on almost anything, wood, cardboard, aluminum, stainless steel, plastic, marble, stone, tile, and glass.

Cutting

MaterialMax thicknessNotesWARNINGS!
Many woods1/4″Avoid oily/resinous woodsBe very careful about cutting oily woods, or very resinous woods as they also may catch fire.
Plywood/Composite woods1/4″These contain glue, and may not laser cut as well as solid wood.
MDF/Engineered woods1/4″These are okay to use but may experience a higher amount of charring when cut.
Paper, card stockthinCuts very well on the laser cutter, and also very quickly.
Cardboard, cartonthickerCuts well but may catch fire.Watch for fire.
Cork1/8″Thin cork can be cut, but the quality of the cut depends on the thickness and quality of the cork. Engineered cork has a lot of glue in it, and may not cut as well.Avoid cutting thicker cork (5mm). Engraves well, cuts poorly.
Acrylic/Lucite/Plexiglas/PMMA1/2″Cuts extremely well leaving a beautifully polished edge.
Thin Polycarbonate Sheeting (<1mm)<1mmVery thin polycarbonate can be cut, but tends to discolor badly. Extremely thin sheets (0.5mm and less) may cut with yellowed/discolored edges. Polycarbonate absorbs IR strongly, and is a poor material to use in the laser cutter.Watch for smoking/burning
Delrin (POM)thinDelrin comes in a number of shore strengths (hardness) and the harder Delrin tends to work better. Great for gears!
Kapton tape (Polyimide)1/16″Works well, in thin sheets and strips like tape.
Mylar1/16″Works well if it’s thin. Thick mylar has a tendency to warp, bubble, and curlGold coated mylar will not work.
Solid Styrene1/16″Smokes a lot when cut, but can be cut.Keep it thin.
Depron foam1/4″Used a lot for hobby, RC aircraft, architectural models, and toys. 1/4″ cuts nicely, with a smooth edge.Must be constantly monitored.
Gator foamFoam core gets burned and eaten away compared to the top and bottom hard paper shell.Not a fantastic thing to cut, but it can be cut if watched.
Cloth/felt/hemp/cottonThey all cut well. Our lasers can be used in lace-making.Not plastic coated or impregnated cloth!
Leather/Suede1/8″Leather is very hard to cut, but can be if it’s thinner than a belt (call it 1/8″). Our “Advanced” laser training class covers this.Real leather only! Not ‘pleather’ or other imitations .. they are made of PVC.
Magnetic SheetCuts beautifully
NON-CHLORINE-containing rubberFine for cutting.Beware chlorine-containing rubber!
Teflon (PTFE)thinCuts OK in thin sheets. See https://www.ulsinc.com/materials/teflon ; the issues listed in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polymer_fume_fever should not matter because our lasers are fully vented and exhausted.
Carbon fiber mats/weave
that has not had epoxy applied
Can be cut, very slowly.You must not cut carbon fiber that has been coated!!
Coroplast (‘corrugated plastic’)1/4″Difficult because of the vertical strips. Three passes at 80% power, 7% speed, and it will be slightly connected still at the bottom from the vertical strips.

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