I’ve laser cut a wide and varied number of materials over the years, but not everything that cuts great with a laser is great to cut. So what can a laser cutter cut?
Your standard CO2 laser cutter (up to 150W) is capable of cutting a wide variety of organic materials such as wood, paper, leather and fabrics. Many plastics such as Acrylic and Delrin can be laser cut. Although great care needs to be taken as not all plastics are safe to cut with a laser.
For an overview of what materials you can cut as well as engrave with a CO2 laser machine, please read on:
OK, So What Can a Laser Cutter Cut?
Over the years, I have come to realise that the greatest health risk associated with laser cutting and engraving is not the laser beam. It’s not even the high voltage at the anode of a glass laser tube (18~30KV). It is, in fact, the fumes and particulates given off during the laser cutting and engraving process.
So when you are cutting a new material, particularly a plastic. You should get yourself a data sheet and determine the risks associated with that material. To help you out, here is a list of common and not so common materials you may come across.
I have split these materials into four broad categories:
- Minerals & Metals
Red Headings indicate materials to avoid and Orange Headings indicate materials that you need to take care with if using.
Table Of Materials For Easy Reference
Here is a table of materials for What Can a Laser Cutter Cut? and their suitability for laser cutting and engraving with a typical CO2 laser up to 150 watts. You must carry out your own risk assessment on any materials you choose to process with a laser and ensure you have sufficient safety measures, including sufficient fume extraction in place.
|Material Name||Chemical Formula||Acceptable||Take Care||Avoid|
|Leather - Vegetable Tanned||N/A||-------X-------|
|Leather - Chrome Tanned||N/A||-------X-------|
|Plastics||Always use extraction|
|Material Name||Chemical Formula||Acceptable||Take Care||Avoid|
|Polyvinyl Chloride||PVC (C2H3Cl)n||-------X-------|
|Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene||ABS (C8H8·C4H6·C3H3N)n||-------X-------|
|High-Density Polyethylene||HDPE (C2H4)n||-------X-------|
|Acrylic Poly (methyl methacrylate)||PMMA (C5O2H8)n||-------X-------|
|Polyester||PES – C27H38O14||-------X-------|
|Pleather - Fake Leather||PVC or PU||-------X-------|
|Polyoxymethylene||POM / Delrin (CH2O)n||-------X-------|
|Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol||PETG (C10H8O4)n||-------X-------|
|Kapton Tape||Polyimide C22H10N205||-------X-------|
|Rubber (thin no chlorine)||(C5H8)n||-------X-------|
|Expanded Polystyrene Foam||EPS / Styrofoam (C8H8)n||-------X-------|
|Polypropylene Foam||PP (C8H8)n||-------X-------|
|Polyester Foam||PES – C27H38O14||-------X-------|
|Polyethylene Foam||PE (C2H4)n||-------X-------|
|Polyurethane Foam||PUR (C3H8N2O)||-------X-------|
|Minerals and Metals|
|Material Name||Chemical Formula||Acceptable||Take Care||Avoid|
|Anodised Aluminium||Aluminium Oxide||-------X-------|
|Painted, coated metals||N/A||-------X-------|
|Material Name||Chemical Formula||Acceptable||Take Care||Avoid|
|Corian||PMMA (C5O2H8)n and minerals||-------X-------|
|Magnetic Sheet (non-chlorine)||N/A||-------X-------|
|Fibreglass||Glass and Epoxy resin||-------X-------|
What Can A Laser Cutter Cut? Organics
These are the materials that you are most likely to use on a daily basis depending on your business or hobby requirements. It is worth putting in the time and effort upfront to understand how these materials interact with the CO2 laser beam. Determine the best settings and keep a record for future jobs. This will save a lot of time and can act as an early indicator of dirty mirrors/lens reducing your power output. It is advised that you use effective fume extraction when cutting any materials with your CO2 laser cutter.
So, can you laser cut wood? All woods will cut with a laser, the depth and speed of cut will vary on the density of the wood. Softwoods such as Balsa will cut easier than hardwoods such as Walnut. Take care with woods that contain a lot of resin as there is a higher possibility to get flare-ups (catch fire). As woods are natural materials, there will be a lot of variability in the finish achieved. This is particularly true when engraving as there will be bands of different density wood which will react slightly differently to the laser, giving variable finishes. Other woods to consider are Cherry, Oak, Spruce, Bamboo and Pine.
So, can you laser cut Plywood? Plywood is more difficult to cut than natural wood due to the adhesives used to hold the individual layers together. There is also a chance of formaldehyde being given off as the laser beam reacts with these adhesives. So good ventilation is a must. As the top surface of Plywood is a natural material, you will get the same issues engraving as you do with solid wood. Plywood also tends to bow if not stored correctly making it very difficult to process unless you are able to keep it flat under the laser head.
So, can you laser cut MDF? MDF is an engineering wood product held together by adhesives. It has the same issue as plywood with the potential to form formaldehyde gas. However, there are now some “laser friendly” low formaldehyde mix MDF sheets on the market. Engraving is easier on MDF as it has a more consistent surface, although the results can be quite bland. You can also get MDF veneers that offer the benefit of a consistent cutting performance, with the beauty of a finished surface.
So, can you laser cut paper? Paper cuts easily and quickly with a laser, but you need to make sure there is not too much power as it will burn the edges. If you are doing a mixture of long cuts and fine detail work, it is best to group each type of work and give them different settings. The fine detail work will tend to run slower and will need a lower power setting than the long cuts.
So, can you laser cut Cardboard? Standard cardboard cuts the same as paper, with just a higher power setting to allow for the increased thickness. Corrugated cardboard is more difficult as it tends to be relatively thick in comparison to standard cardboard. It also has air gaps that collect smoke during the cutting process. This smoke diffuses the laser beam, making it less effective. The usual response is to either increase the power or slow the speed. Both can result in the cardboard catching fire. One solution, if available on your laser software, is to use the Dot function. This pulses the laser, reducing the amount of heat generated within the cardboard.
So, can you laser cut Cork? Cork cuts and engraves well in most cases, but there can be difficulties in cutting thicker pieces. It may be worth trying out the Dot Mode if you are having difficulties.
Leather and Suede
So, can you laser cut Leather and Suede? Leather and Suede both cut easily and can be engraved with reasonable success, just take care that debris does not fall back onto the engraved surface as it is difficult to clean afterwards. The main drawback, however, is the smell, it is extremely pungent (think of burning flesh) and should only be carried out with suitable extraction in place.
Take care not to process fake leather or pleather as it is sometimes called. Pleather can contain either PVC or polyurethane.
Take care if processing chrome-tanned leather as toxic Chromium V1 can be given off, best to stick vegetable tanned leather as it is safer.
So, can lasers cut through flesh? This one is obviously a bit gory, but a CO2 laser can easily cut into flesh, cauterising the wound as it makes contact. Referring to the previous leather and suede topic, both of which are different forms of animal skin. The CO2 laser beam is capable of cutting tough leather up to 6mm in thickness, so skin and flesh is little obstacle. This is why safety interlock features on your laser machine are so important.
So, can you laser cut Fabrics? Natural fabrics such as Cotton, Denim, Felt, Linen, Silk and Chiffon all cut well and at high speed. Although it is possible to engrave fabrics, they tend to disintegrate if stretched due to the fibres being damaged. Take care with any fabrics that have plastic coatings.
So, can you laser cut Food? Yes, you can cut and engrave many food products. However, unless you have a dedicated laser with hygienic surfaces it’s best the food is used for display purposes rather than consumption.
What Can A Laser Cutter Cut? Plastics
Of the 4 groups, plastics has the highest risks. There is confusion in the community as to which plastics are safe to process with a laser and which are to be avoided.
After researching several sites, including laser manufacturers and laser users. I have the following three suggestions relating to plastics;
3 Rules for Laser Processing Plastics
- Avoid all materials that contain Fluorine (F), Chlorine (Cl), Bromine (Br) and Iodine (I), also known as the Halogens. While everyone agrees that laser cutting PVC (Poly Vinyl Chloride – Chemical formula (C2H3Cl)n) is a bad idea. This is because it releases Hydrogen Chloride gas (HCl), which reacts with water to form Hydrochloric Acid. Some sites are suggesting that it is acceptable to laser process PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene – Chemical Formula (C2F4)n). While I am not a Chemist, I would be concerned that a similar reaction would occur, producing Hydrogen Fluoride. Avoid this one!
- Avoid all materials containing a CN bond, i.e. a Nitrogen atom bound to a Carbon atom. Plastics containing this CN bond will form Hydrogen Cyanide Gas (HCN) when laser cut. This gas is a highly toxic gas, and absorbed through both the skin and lungs. ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene – Chemical Formula C8H8·C4H6·C3H3N)n) is an example of a plastic containing a CN bond. Performance wise, ABS is not a great material to cut or engrave with a CO2 laser.
- Avoid all materials that are claimed to have a flame retardant, the additive used often contains Bromine. See item 1 above.
Polyvinyl Chloride PVC (C2H3Cl)n
So, can you laser cut PVC? Avoid PVC at all times. Not only will it damage your machine by corroding metal parts the fumes generated are extremely bad for your health. Avoid at all costs. Kydex and Foamex both contain PVC.
Polytetrafluoroethylene PTFE (C2F4)n
So, can you laser cut PTFE? PTFE is also known as Teflon and is to be avoided at all times. Not only can it damage your lens, and other components of your machine, the fumes generated are extremely bad for your health. When Teflon is heated to between 440oC and 700oC, COF2 (Carbonyl fluoride) is given off. COF2 is in the same class of chemicals as the chemical warfare agent phosgene. Avoid at all costs.
Polycarbonate PC (C16H18O5)
So, can you laser cut Polycarbonate? Polycarbonate is also known by various trade names such as Makrolon and Lexan. It can be cut at thicknesses below 1mm but the quality is poor and generates excessive yellow sooty smoke. It is also a significant fire hazard and needs to be closely supervised. Best avoided.
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene ABS (C8H8·C4H6·C3H3N)n
So, can you laser cut ABS? ABS does not cut or engrave well with a CO2 laser source. It melts easily and does not cut cleanly. Engraving performance is poor with little contrast and leaves behind deposits on the workpiece and the laser work chamber. ABS also gives off Hydrogen Cyanide gas, which is highly toxic. NB: If you are looking to mark ABS, you are better off using a fibre laser source which will leave a high contrast mark in most cases. Best to avoid, even if you have great fume extraction.
High-Density Polyethylene HDPE (C2H4)n
So, Can you cut HDPE? HDPE doesn’t cut very well, easily melts into a sticky mess and catches fire. The same goes for Polyethylene PE. Two to avoid.
Acrylic Poly (methyl methacrylate) PMMA (C5O2H8)n
So, can you laser cut Acrylic? Commonly referred to Acrylic or Plexiglas®, this is a mainstay material for the laser cutting and engraving industry. Please note that there are two types of acrylic: Cast and extruded. Even though they have the same chemical formula, they perform differently. Cast acrylic gives a beautiful engraved finish but can be very difficult to get a decent polished edge. Extruded acrylic gives a great polished cut edge but is not as good as cast acrylic when engraving.
Polyester PES – C27H38O14
So, can you laser cut Polyester? Polyester is also known by the brand name Mylar. Great when cutting thin sheets, but take care on thicker sheets as there is a tendency for the material to warp and curl.
So, can you laser cut Nylon? Nylon is another material that has the CN bond and should be avoided. If you are looking for an engineering plastic, I would suggest you consider Delrin.
Polyoxymethylene POM / Delrin (CH2O)n
So, can you laser cut Delrin? Delrin is another great material for laser cutting but significantly more expensive than acrylic. However, it’s very stable and not as brittle as acrylic. Engraving white Delrin gives a white mark, so it’s not possible to get a contrast mark.
Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol PETG (C10H8O4)n
So, can you laser cut PETG? Yes, you can laser cut PETG, but it is a dirty material to process, giving off a significant volume of white particulates. Your laser machine will need regular cleaning and fume extraction filters will soon clog up unless you have a sacrificial pre-filter to take the strain. Your fume extraction needs to be good as the smell given off is extremely bad. Thin sheets should cut fine with sufficient power and speed, but thicker sheets will just melt and reform after the laser has passed. It is also possible to get a reasonable engraved finish.
Polyurethane PUR (C3H8N2O)
So, can you laser cut Polyurethane? Yes, Polyurethane can be both laser cut and engraved. It cuts very cleanly and engraves to a darker colour. It is usually laser cut in it’s foam format. While considered to be a “laser friendly” material, Polyurethane is another material that has the CN bond and forms Hydrogen Cyanide gas when laser cut. Effective extraction is a must.
Polypropylene PP (C8H8)n
So, can you laser cut Polypropylene? Yes, polypropylene cuts well, although the kerf (the amount of material removed by the laser) tends to be wider than you would expect. You need to take this into account if you need accurate dimensions or if you are cutting detailed profiles. You will also get a raised edge to the laser cut. Putting too much heat into the material will result in melting of the material around the cut and possible stringing of the material.
So, can you laser cut Coroplast? Coroplast is a “Fluted or Corrugated Polypropylene Sheet” used in the signage industry. It will laser cut but can prove difficult at larger thicknesses, leaving tags at the bottom where there are vertical corrugations.
So, can you laser cut Corflute? Corflute is a “Fluted or Corrugated Polypropylene Sheet” used in the signage industry. It will laser cut but can prove difficult at larger thicknesses, leaving tags at the bottom where there are vertical corrugations.
Kapton Tape Polyimide C22H10N205
So, can you laser cut Kapton Tape? Polyimide, also known as Kapton does not cut well with a CO2 laser as it chars significantly.
Rubber (thin no chlorine) (C5H8)n
So, can you laser cut rubber? There are a wide variety of rubbers available and you will need to check the composition before laser cutting as some, such as Neoprene will contain Chlorine. Many rubbers will cut and engrave fine but can generate a significant amount of smoke. Other rubbers will just melt and reseal once the laser has passed. It is possible to purchase laser friendly rubber sheets, generally used for in the production of rubber stamps. Some are even perfumed!
So, can you laser cut foams? Care should be taken when attempting to laser cut foams as there are foams that give off highly toxic / corrosive fumes when burnt. However, there are some foams that can be laser cut, and they are usually made up of either Polyester (PES), Polyethylene (PE) or Polyurethane (PUR).
Expanded Polystyrene Foam EPS / Styrofoam (C8H8)n
So, can you laser cut Styrofoam? Styrofoam/Expanded Polystyrene is highly flammable and should be laser cut with extreme caution as it does not self-extinguish and continues to burn when the heat source is removed. Dot mode / pulse mode laser cutting is the only safe method as there is no sustained energy source, only pulses interacting with the foam. Solid styrene (also known as ethenylbenzene) can be cut, but note that it will release Benzene gas (as will the foam) which is a highly toxic gas. So full, effective extraction would be needed, but best to avoid when possible. Both Depron Foam and Gator Foam are types of Polystyrene.
Polypropylene Foam PP (C8H8)n
So, can you laser cut Polypropylene Foam? It’s best not to try and laser cut Polypropylene foam, it melts, easily catches fire and does not self-extinguish. The melted residue becomes rock hard and can be very difficult to remove.
Polyester Foam PES – C27H38O14
So, can you laser cut Polyester Foam? Polyester foam should laser cut great and is considered to be a laser safe material. However, I wasn’t able to find many companies selling polyester foam so I haven’t been able to test it for myself.
Polyethylene Foam PE (C2H4)n
So, can you laser cut Polyethylene Foam? Polyethylene or PE foam is probably the go to foam for laser cutting. It cuts cleanly with little smoke, however there is a tendency for the cut to taper at larger thicknesses. In addition the kerf can be pretty large, so if you are looking for accurate cuts, you will need to experiment with the kerf settings on your software package of choice.
Polyurethane Foam PUR (C3H8N2O)
So, can you laser cut Polyurethane Foam? Yes, Polyurethane foam laser cuts cleanly and leaves a dark contrast mark when engraved. It is usually considered a “laser friendly” material, but forms Hydrogen Cyanide gas when laser cut. Effective extraction is a must. I would suggest using Polyethylene Foam as a safer alternative.
What Can A Laser Cutter Cut? Minerals and Metals
The materials included in this section tend to have a binary colour scheme when laser marked. I.e. you have the natural colour of the material and you have a different colour/finish when laser marked (these cannot be cut only engraved). Repeated marking with the laser will not change the colour, only remove material. In some cases, small beads of glass can be formed due to the extreme temperatures attained. Many of these materials are great substrates for photoengraving.
Slate, Pebbles, Stone, Marble, Granite, Soapstone, Onyx
So, can you laser engrave Slate? Slate and similar materials can be engraved to great effect with a CO2 laser machine. The laser removes the top surface, leaving behind a light grey textured surface. Subsequent laser marking will not alter this colour, just removes additional material.
So, can you laser engrave glass? Glass can be engraved but not cut with a CO2 laser. The surface is locally heated by the laser beam causing minute fractures and particles of the glass to break free. Think “Crazy Paving” for the textured effect. While the effect is limited to the surface of the glass (less than 0.1mm / 0.004″) you will get particles of loose glass. So engraving should be done on the reverse of clear glass (reverse image) or brushed and coated to minimise the risk from the glass particles. If the mark needs to be on the front facing surface, my preference is to use Cermark/Thermark/Dry Moly spray to give a black mark on the glass. Toughened glass engraves in a similar manner, but be careful not to put too much heat into one spot as it could cause it to shatter.
Anodised Aluminium (Aluminium Oxide)
So, can you laser engrave Anodised Aluminium? Technically you are not engraving the Anodised Aluminium, you are in fact vaporising the pigment revealing the natural light grey anodised surface. Repeated engraving of the same spot does not change the colour or remove material, making anodised aluminium a fantastic substrate for photographic engraving.
Painted, coated metals
So, can you laser engrave painted, coated metal? Technically you are not engraving the Painted, coated metal, you are in fact vaporising the paint or coating, revealing the bare metal underneath. Care must be taken to ensure you do not engrave directly onto bare metal as the reflection of the laser beam can damage the lens.
There are three coatings commonly applied to metals (they’re also good for glass, ceramics and stone) and they each work in the same manner. Namely, you spray the coating onto a clean dry surface and allow it to dry. You laser engrave the coated surface and wash away the untouched residue, leaving a black mark on the surface.
- Dry Molybdenum Disulphide Lubricant spray: About 20% of the cost compared to the others, but the mark is not as black.
So, can you laser engrave a glass mirror? The CO2 laser beam can only engrave the surface of the glass and will not affect the silver mirror finish. If you are looking for a specific effect, you could consider engraving mirrored acrylic instead. NB: you will need to use a fibre laser to directly engrave the mirrored surface on a glass mirror. The fibre laser beam will pass through the glass and interact with the silver coating.
So, can you laser engrave Ceramics? Ceramics and materials can be engraved to great effect with a CO2 laser machine. The laser removes the top surface, leaving behind the natural textured base material. Subsequent laser marking will not alter this colour, just remove additional material. Some specialist tiles have a ceramic coating that changes colour and is not removed when laser marked. You can also coat the ceramic with Thermark/Cermark/Dry Moly spray, engrave and get a black mark.
What Can A Laser Cutter Cut? Composites
So, can you laser cut Corian? Corian is a composite of acrylic and minerals used in worktops. The laser vapourises the acrylic and leaves behind a fine white dust. While Corian can be both laser cut and engraved, you should be concerned about the volume of abrasive dust left behind.
Magnetic Sheet (non-chlorine)
So, can you laser cut magnetic sheet? Magnetic sheets cut well, leaving a clean finish. But make sure you choose a variety that does not contain PVC or Chlorine.
So, can you laser cut Fibreglass? It’s not possible to laser cut fibreglass as it’s key ingredients, namely, Glass and epoxy resin either cannot be cut or give off toxic fumes when reacting with a CO2 laser beam.
So, can you laser cut FR4 PCB? FR-4 is a composite material composed of woven fiberglass cloth with an epoxy resin binder that is flame resistant (self-extinguishing). A CO2 laser is not able to cut FR4 and will severely char the surface. High powered Fibre lasers can cut FR4 but some charring still occurs, which is unacceptable for many applications. Fibre laser cutting of FR4 is best left to cutting the retaining tags on multi-panel boards.
So, can you laser cut composites containing Epoxy? You should not laser cut or engrave any composite that contains Epoxy resin. Epoxy resin contains Chlorine and emits toxic fumes.
Coated Carbon Fibres Polyacrylonitrile (C3H3N)n
So, can you laser cut Carbon Fibres? You should not try to laser cut coated carbon fibres. It is a combination of a carbon fibre mat, which can be cut with some success but there is an epoxy bonding agent which gives off toxic fumes when burned. Woven raw carbon cuts cleanly and safely, with no fumes, smoke or debris. During the laser cutting process, it is intensely bright, think carbon arc lamp! This means viewing the laser cutting process is ill-advised unless wearing suitable dark glasses.
Gypsum Drywall / Plasterboard – Calcium Sulfate Dihydrate (CaSO4⋅ 2H2O)
I have it on good authority that you can laser cut drywall. Although it is likely to take a few passes even with an 80 watt tube. I have placed drywall under composites because it’s made up gypsum sandwiched between two layers of specialised paper.
Fire resistant panels may contain glass fibres and are unlikely to laser cut cleanly.
What If I Don’t Know The Plastic I Have?
Sometimes, you may find yourself with a piece of plastic and have no idea what it is made from. Generally, I would suggest that it’s probably not worth the risk processing it with a laser. However, there are some tests that you can carry out to determine what the material is. How to identify plastics before laser cutting them.
Why not check out our other posts:
Last updated August 26, 2021
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