Hobby laser cutters?
July 30, 2014 9:05 PM   Subscribe

A friend and I are curious about acquiring a home/hobby laserccutter and would like some recommendations.

Hi peeps, for some time I have been bitten by the making bug and instead of a 3D printer, I want a laser cutter suitable for home and hobbyist, as is my friend. What are some good models or trustworthy review sites? We are not looking to build one ourselves. We're interested in machines that can cut and engrave and ship or are locatediin Canada. TIA!
posted by Calzephyr to Technology (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Can I recommend against this? The maker space I'm a part of bought an $800 40W laser cutter (one of the Chinese blue-and-white ones from eBay, sold under many brands). After another $500 in enhancements (better cooling, exhaust, computer to drive it), we got something that could kind of cut some very thin materials, extremely slowly ... but the software was abysmal and made it painful to actually use the thing. With many hours of trial and error, you could cut out simple shapes like gears and finger-jointed boxes, but it was really not worth the effort. We then got a $15,000 machine and the difference is like the difference between a Cessna and a 737. It actually cuts things, consistently and easily! And doesn't randomly crash! So my recommendation would be to find a place you can borrow or rent the real thing if you possibly can do so.
posted by miyabo at 10:04 PM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

What's your budget? What are you trying to cut, and how thick? (e.g. 1/4" acrylic, 5mm plywood, etc) What's your needed bed size? (e.g. 18x24", etc)

Based on the research that I've done, you have three levels of options:
1) Pro (Epliog, Universal, etc) - starting at $10k and upwards
2) semi-DIY (Full Spectrum Laser, Chinese from eBay (Gweike, etc))
3) full-DIY (lasersaur, buildlog)

It seems like Full Spectrum Laser has a large userbase, good support, and very inexpensive for what you get. Check out reddit's /r/lasercutting and cnczone's laser cutting sub-forum for where most of the laser-cutting knowledge on the internet seems to pool around.

Personally, I would go 1), 3), 2), in order, since a pro machine is going to work like a pro; the full-DIY lets you at least fix anything that breaks, and 2) is cheap but you're more likely to be in a tough spot when something breaks.
posted by suedehead at 10:11 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I agree with the opinions above. If you actually want to spend your time making stuff rather than fixing / maintaining your machine, get as professional a machine as you can.

I also applaud your thinking outside the 3D printing box - I just read an article which spells out the problems with assuming the 3D revolution will change everything, and pointing out that hobbyist grade digital manufacturing equipment has been out in various forms for a while. In that article they use a roland CNC to make molds for resin-casting parts, which is a totally decent approach. I would seriously consider a CNC rather than a lasercutter.

In any case, if you can't afford an entry level pro machine, find a local shop which you can contract the work out and spend your time working on your CAD models.
posted by ianhattwick at 10:32 PM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sorry - I meant to link that article - 3D Printing Revolution: the Complex Reality. Zalewski's other articles on the Make blog are also worth reading.
posted by ianhattwick at 10:50 PM on July 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Miyabo, what a dreadful experience! I did see one of those blue and white ones at the local Maker Faire last year and the guy never mentioned if he had any problems with it (although he probably would have thought it part of the learning curve).

I took a 3D printing class last year as well and the teacher managed to salvage a machine for wax mold making, and yes, the software was awful now that you mentioned it. Even the software for my Pazzles paper cutter is pretty bad! Thank you.
posted by Calzephyr at 7:03 AM on July 31, 2014

Response by poster: Ianhattwick, I can't wait to dig into those articles. I was really excited about 3D printing too, but the quality of home machines really isn't there yet. Hubs says the time to get one is when HP is making them. I learned Rhino in my class, and to behhonest, the only part I was really good at was extruding curves, hence why I want a laser cutter now :)

I just put in my first Ponoko order, but the cost of shipping to Canada is really prohibitive ($29). I will definitely have to shop around, maybe with a little more education I can ask a shop better questions.

I had not thought about a CNC either...that technology is at least well established :)
posted by Calzephyr at 7:41 AM on July 31, 2014

We do have a pro-level Full Spectrum as well and it's totally fine. Their software is decent and they modify the no-name Chinese hardware to be at least usable.

We also have a $700 Shapeoko CNC which would be my choice for home use.
posted by miyabo at 10:30 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

May I tack on a question to this AskMefi?
How useful is a nitrogen system?
I have read that high-end laser cutters blow nitrogen over the cutting surface, which prevents or reduces fire/smoulder damage to the material being cut.

Are these add-ons make a significant difference for cutting paper and other things that burn easily?
Are these even made for the hobbiest or pro-sumer buyer?
posted by anonymisc at 12:06 PM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

We don't have one. Occasionally something catches fire and I put it out with a little squirt bottle of water. But if you leave the machine unattended while operating it can cause damage, and that has actually happened to ours (not my fault!). I think the nitrogen system makes a lot of sense for workplaces where you can't expect someone to be sitting there while the machine operates.
posted by miyabo at 12:17 PM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Suedehead...I couldn't name a budget because I wasn't sure what the price range/options would be. I can see cutting and engraving wood, leather, acrylic and maybe metal, all no larger than 5-10 mm thick.

Anonymisc, thanks for the add on question!I hhave pet birds so if it uses gases and gives off gases, it sounds like it would live in the corner of the garage.
posted by Calzephyr at 5:24 PM on July 31, 2014

Response by poster: The Shapeoko looks like a less pretty version of my Pazzles machine. I can buy an engraving tip for that, so that might be one problem solved, hmm!
posted by Calzephyr at 5:43 AM on August 1, 2014

Best answer: My late husband's experience with the laser cutter/engraver we used to have.
posted by luckynerd at 9:18 AM on August 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the link, and I am sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. That was really detailed and informative, and thankfully it worked in the end, but I don't think I would be able to get around those problems. My husband is pretty techy and handy, but it would also be a matter of him getting around to it :)
posted by Calzephyr at 5:58 PM on August 3, 2014

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