Warning: This post is different from my other posts. It delves deep into tech nerdery If that’s not your thing, turn back now! I’m still going to write posts about crafts and cookies (hmmm, cookies), so fret not. Still with me? OK, buckle up…
I have started using a laser cutter at my local makerspace, and decided to start documenting what I learn. Like most things in life, it’s super easy, everything works exactly the way it’s supposed to, and I do everything right the first time. If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.
I will be writing these posts as I go, so the topics will be in the order I learn them myself, not necessarily in the order a handbook would be laid out. That means you get to experience my journey first hand, mistakes and all! Doesn’t that sound like fun?
Some of the information I will be posting will apply to laser cutting in general, and some will be software and/or hardware specific. Ready? OK, let’s get started…
I am using a Redsail x700, 60 watt CO2 Laser Tube. The work area is: 700 x 500 mm (2’ 3” x 1’ 7.5”) (27.5” x 19.5”) Inches are approx., rounded down. Hmmm, I betcha that’s why it’s called an x700.
Information about the laser can be found on the manufacturer’s website.
The software for the machine is AutoLaser, and it’s…something. You can use AutoLaser to create your images, but I can’t think of why you would want to. Unless you hate yourself, and enjoy things being more difficult than the need to be.
To prepare files for the laser, I use
Inkscape Affinity Designer for vector, and Photoshop for raster. (More info on vector and raster later in post)
I’ve been using Photoshop for almost 20 years, and I already subscribe to the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography plan. It’s $10 a month and includes Photoshop and Lightroom. Here’s the link.
There are free raster programs available, but I have not tried any of them myself. You can find a list of free software here.
I prefer Illustrator for vector, however, I cannot justify the cost right now. Inkscape is pretty good, there are a lot of tutorials online explaining how to use it, and best of all, it’s free. Get Inkscape here.
Note: If you use a Mac (like I do), you will need to install and run XQuartz first. It is also available for free. Update: Inkscape now runs on macOS.
Update: Since writing this article, I’ve discovered Affinity Designer and have been using it ever since. It’s almost as good as Illustrator and better than Inkscape. It only costs $50, once and done. No monthly subscription. They even offer a free trial, so you can try it out before purchasing. Now you can’t export to DXF from Affinity Designer, but I have two work arounds for you:
- Open your file in Inkscape and export to DXF from there.
- Ditch AutoLaser and get Lightburn which can open SVG files.
Tip: Even though you can create vector shapes in Photoshop using the pen tool, I do not recommend it. First, Inkscape and Illustrator are faster, easier, and you have more options that just don’t exist in Photoshop. Second, you won’t be able to save your vector image in a file type (dxf) you need for AutoLaser.
Raster vs Vector
There are two types of digital image files: raster and vector. The super simplified explanation is:
A raster image is made up of pixels, think a digital photo.
A vector image consists of a series of paths, think a logo.
Which should you use? You want to use vector images whenever possible for laser cutting. One exception would be if you are engraving a photo image with the laser. I will have a separate post about engraving photos in the future.
Saving Files for Laser Cutting
The specs for AutoLaser say it will open PLT, DXF, BMP, Ai, or Dst. Now, I don’t want to say this is a bold-faced lie (because I don’t want to be sued), but I have not found this to be the case. I’m sure the fault lies with me…and all the others users who have had the same experience.
I have only been able to open .dxf and .bmp files in AutoLaser. I have tried all the file types listed except Dst.
Even with dxf and bmp files, I have inconsistent results. What do I mean? Well, sometimes the file will be blank, or my objects can only be cut, not carved. As I figure out the kinks, I will post the information to my site.
You want to save all your vector images as .dxf, and all your raster images as .bmp.
Once you are able to successfully open your file in AutoLaser, you can save it as a .plt from AutoLaser and it will open again.
Note: while it should save all your cut/carve settings, it doesn’t really, so double check your settings when you reopen it. I’ll go into more detail about this in another post. Just make sure you write down all your settings so you can recreate your project in the future.
I actually tried to read the manual, and I couldn’t really understand it. This is because the English translation is very much not good. We’re talking bad on an epic level.
Although, it does have a very Zen like quality to it at times, and almost seems like it might hold the meaning of life, if one spent enough time meditating on it. Behold:
“Mirror image falls into horizontal image and vertical image.”
“The function of combining multiple segments is the pre-processing process of changing a curve in high precision into one that is more appropriate for processing.”
“[Time]: it refers to the time of bright dipping in situ when doting a point.”
You all may know what bright dipping means, and how to dote a point, but I do not. So, I went in search of other sources of information.
In my search, I came across a post where someone said that AutoLaser was practically the same as LaserWorks. So, I downloaded the LaserWorks v8 manual from here.
Here is a screenshot of AutoLaser:
And here is an excerpt from the LaserWorks Manual:
As you can see, the interface is similar, and the LaserWorks manual is MUCH easier to understand. I actually understood everything on this page! The softwares aren’t identical, but having this manual as a reference helps.
Update: Lightburn software is now available for TopWisdom controllers. If you can afford to buy it, run, don’t walk, to get it.
More Better Basic Info
I found a site called Obrary where they have a couple of free eBooks on Laser Cutting.
I recommend reading “Laser Cutter 101: Learn the basics to getting started on the laser cutter” and “Laser Cutter Advanced Techniques”
Laser Cutter 101 covers topics such as the difference between cut and engrave(carve), the different types of lasers, and different materials you can cut.
Laser Cutter Advanced Techniques includes information on test cuts, living hinges, and cardboard jigs.
They also have free open source designs you can use for personal and commercial use. Make sure you follow their rules.
That’s it for now. I’m already working on the next laser post. Follow me on Facebook to stay up to date on my progress!