I am on record as saying the Glowforge is my favourite laser cutter but that doesn’t mean it is the right tool for you in 2022, so let’s take a look at the main options I would suggest you look at.
1. Diode Laser
Diodes are a great way to add a laser to an existing platform (CNC or 3d printer) or a budget way to get into lasering with a full kit.
A lot has changed since the original cheap diode lasers came out, fortunately.
They had a justified reputation for being
- Dangerous – They were not enclosed or shielded so special protective glasses must be worn, tiny hands could get seriously burned, and one that I reviewed fired the laser as soon as power was applied!
- Dirty and smokey – Again, not enclosed, and had no air filtering or extraction, so LOTS of smoke.
- Low-powered – If a laser engraver can not make much of a mark on the surface, let alone cut, then you will have to slow right down, which means you get even more soot and smoke.
- Slow – Speed isn’t just related to the power output but also it comes down to the motion hardware and stepper drivers. Engrave jobs especially need the machine to be able to get up to high speeds with accuracy, and if the framework is not stable then you can get severe artifacts in the resulting engraved image. Modern lasers also do complex math to maintain speed around curves and stops and starts – you don’t want burn or collisions due to overly aggressive acceleration and deceleration.
With all this in mind, don’t buy a diode laser that is more than a couple of years on the market, and make sure you do your research that it will perform up to the standard you need it to.
Ben recently covered an excellent diode laser on his channel:
Two additions that you will still need to make are
- Air assist – adding airflow to your cuts and engraves benefits the quality of your work and the depth of your cut greatly.
- Air extraction – get that soot out of your room to the outside, you do not want to be breathing that in!
2. Desktop/Hobby Co2
This is the category where the Glowforge sits, but also many K40-style lasers.
I would very much suggest that you avoid the K40 unless your budget is super tight or you are a fan of tinkering with the machines rather than using them. Once I had upgraded my K40 to be truly usable I might as well have bumped up in price to a Glowforge.
The one advantage the import lasers have over the Glowforge is the ability to be upgraded to use LightBurn which is an excellent piece of Laser control software.
3. Prosumer Co2
Once you outgrow a desktop laser, especially if you start making in quantities, you will need something bigger and beefier.
There are a lot of options on the market but my favourite is the Thunder Laser. It has the wallet-friendly pricing that most of us appreciate but has specs only found on machines 2x or 10x the price.
What you will need to carefully consider in this price range is how the machine is going to get to you.
Shipping is extremely expensive and slow right now due to global shipping container issues) and where it is going to go once it arrives (some of the lasers in this scale require additional power requirements, meaning it will need to go in a real workshop, but almost all are the size of a chest freezer and upwards.
If you have never used a laser before then I recommend you find a local maker space and see if you can get time with theirs. It could be a costly mistake to buy the wrong type or wrong model.
For people simply dipping in their toes, try a diode laser and see if you get much use out of it.
When you need to cut rather than just engrave, you will eventually need a Co2 laser. As mentioned, my favourite is the Glowforge but due to the volume of our production we ordered a Thunder Laser once we had enough experience of using the one at Fuse33.