DIY plotter with laser


[Viacheslav] built a plotter that is fast and accurate. He wanted to take it one step further and added a laser in place of the pen. The 300 mW unit does a nice job of wood-burning any pattern sent to it, but isn’t strong enough to serve as a laser cutter for anything other than thin-film. We wonder if it can be used to cut solder paste stencils for surface mount PCB production.

In the video after the break you can see some plotting that uses a pen. In addition to writing on paper, [Viacheslav] has tested this as a method of applying etch resist to a copper clad board for PCB production. He’s able to achieve 0.8 mm pitch but the production process is limited by the resist pen’s tendency to wear out quickly and to only prevent etching for a short period of time (compared to toner transfer resist).

Just like with his touch sensitive keypad project, he’s taken the time to thoroughly document his work. Build notes, pictures, CAD files, and source code are all available for your perusal and hackage.


  1. Matt says:

    Slight (but important) error. Its a 300mW laser, not a 300W laser. A 300 Watt could easily cut through almost anything if it is in the right frequency range for the material.

  2. medix says:

    Not to mention, you’d be hard-pressed to find a 300W diode cheaply OR at/near the red wavelengths.

  3. f.r0ze.n says:

    5W costs like 5 hundred bucks on ebay, it’s from Australia, I think and being shipped everywhere…

    Btw, this machine shares same conception and idea of that one with hot wire we saw recently in here…
    I’m building my own laser plotter out of 2 broken dvd-roms and 300mW laser I took from the ‘RW’ one :)

    Arduino and H-Bridge + decent driver for my laser diode is my status atm.

  4. andrew says:

    300 watt laser hahaha WOW.

  5. MakesLoveToArduinos says:


    2 more and you could have :


  6. Hackius says:

    Strong lasers are crazy expensive. You’re better off buying a whole new plotter that comes with a laser included.

  7. medix says:

    For about 350 – 400 us you can get a 45W (yes, watts) C02 tube. The drive circuitry is relatively simple..

  8. medix says:

    I should have my 3-axis ‘plotter’ done in a few weeks as well. The design is based off the gantry platform for a Rhino robotics teaching platform with some slight (heavy) modifications. Should be pretty sweet when it’s done..

  9. Mike Szczys says:

    300 watts… danger! Fixed.

  10. leftsquarebracket says:

    That’s some nice plotting there. Even just the pen. Sounds pretty cool too.

    Though I wonder if he couldn’t dust a copper clad board with toner and get the laser to melt it to form a resist layer (and not damage the board!). The only limit then is the .8 mm pitch, since that’s a little over 30 mil. It might solve the ink running and short pen life issues.

    Could also do it printer-style, just sweeping back and forth.
    But where’s the fun in that?

  11. Haloppa says:

    “fast and accurate”

    It might be fast, but it sure isn’t accurate. That being said, it is still a nice project.

  12. polymath says:

    Definitely showing my laser ignorance here but I was wondering if you could use a beam combiner do up the oomph of the laser. There was a RGB laser hack not too long ago where some one made a “white” laser using parts from a broken PSP. Would it be possible to replace the other two colored laser with ones of the same color to get more bang for your buck?

  13. M4CGYV3R says:

    Now make one that will etch Crysis-quality graphics on a moving strip of wood…

  14. svofski says:

    It’s a 300mW laser module found on eBay. Comes as a kit with a simple LM317-based driver, without modulation input. I didn’t bother modding it: the laser is relatively weak so I just move the head much much slower where I want it to leave the trace and move it with normal warp speed between the vectors. It’s fun to engrave wood and crispy breads and you can cut shapes out of black foam. For PCB making though, no, not really.. It could be a lot of fun, but traditional photoresist method is just so much more precise, easier and perhaps faster.

  15. Andy1988 says:

    What about the other way round?
    Not applying an etch resist to a PCB but removing it?

    You could paint the PCB black an remove the black paint where you want to let the etchtant to do its work on.
    After etching just take some acetone or turpentine to remove the black paint.

    Would have a 300mW laser enough power to do this?

  16. medix says:

    @polymath: You can buy power combiners, but they’re fiber based, so you’ll have to have fiber-coupled laser diodes as well as a way to cleave/align/fuze the fibers. Despite the equipment costs, it’s much easier to accomplish with fiber than in free-space.

  17. medix says:

    @Andy1988: I’ve seen this done somewhere, but I can’t remember what the laser power was. It’s possible, even at 300mW but you’d have to focus the beam down to a smaller spot (a few microns).

  18. Paul says:

    Hey, has anyone here been fool-hardy enough to pick up a ebayed laser bar, or fibre diode and hook it up to a yag crystal… Project probably around $1200 mark power output probably 80-300Watts before the Crystal. I’ve heard if you do it, too much, you’ll go blind.

  19. medix says:

    @Paul: Nd:YAG emission at 1.06 micron is particularly dangerous, since it is impossible to see without an IR viewer and is often high power (in the case of a YAG laser).

    You’d do much better with a flashlamp pumped Nd:YAG, but you’ll be limited to maybe 10Hz repetition rate, so your average power will be quite low (maybe a watt at best). The power in each pulse will be pretty high though..

  20. Andrew says:

    Why not just use a DVD burner laser and use it to expose positive resist, and then use normal photoplotting… 0.8mm is a plenty fine trace, and with a cleanish room you could get some VERY nice boards.

  21. tantris says:

    maybe you could cover pcbs with a paint made out of toner powder (you’d make it with starch or gelatine, isoprop, and water- like for photo paper or inkjet overheads)
    then the laser could be used on the black copper surface: melt the plastic traces, wash of the rest, etch

    just an idea

  22. googfan says:

    that was the image on the pioneer plaque.

  23. svofski says:

    @Andrew; 0.8 mm is not a very fine trace. The Motori itself has a PCB with traces ranging from 0.3 (narrow places near fine-pitch IC’s) to 0.4 (general signals) up to over 1mm (power busses) wide.

    Re: precision in general: the motors can position very finely, stepping at some 0.2mm I guess (they are different on two axes so I have different calibration in the firmware). But the end precision you get on paper is a sum of belt play, drive play, bridge play and oscillations, pen holder play etc.. The results are consistent though.

    If anyone really would want to make something practical out of a project like this, it would be a foam or stencil cutter for RC models, or small signs, something like that. With a 300mW laser the orders are not going to be very quickly served, too ;)

    • Ludo says:

      I would be interested in your laser version of the plotter you designed. Could you tell me more about the laser you used (wich model), and how you supply and controlled it ?

  24. Johnboy says:

    WTF is this guy wearing a floppy disk platter as an eye patch for? Crazy.
    Also, are (what look like) sunglasses really enough to prevent burning a hole in your eye with a 300mW laser?

  25. svofski says:

    No, they’re not enough. But they, as well as a floppy, act as a very dense filter that helps to relieve eye stress from watching the extremely bright spot where the light is focused.

  26. Funky Gibbon says:

    ive been trying to do the same with my Roland A3 plotter, i have 300mw red laser, it will etch 30 thou black styrene card though 10 thou would be better, the idea was to make stencils as mentioned b4, two things i need to do, slow down the plotting speed it moves too fast, and a fan to blow away the smoke, the beam is defused by the smoke and optical power is reduced, also i think a laser higher up into the IR spectrum would work better

  27. svofski says:

    @Gibbon: did you see the HP-GL reference? There are commands that define speed and acceleration. I never had a real plotter so I can’t be sure if you can make it slow enough for a 300mW laser, though.

  28. McNoob says:

    having seen the hacked up thin film plastic he burned, I don’t think making solder stencils is going to work.

    perhaps making them with some of the above ideas for burning off resist, and etching a stencil.

    or a higher power laser to burn through faster before the adjacent plastic can warp and bubble due to heat transfer.

  29. McNoob says:

    oh and maybe remove the pics of the flower tattoo might be wise.

  30. barbiegirl says:

    I love it! Thank you, svofski, you inspire me! Yes, your plotter is THAT good! :)

    I have already collected parts for over two years so I have a lot of belts and motors, but I don’t have any tool to make it GOOD, so I had to begin at the other end: Proxxon MF70. :)

    This is a great framework to drill PCB, and I’ll make a similar one but in metal to get higher accurancy.

    A CNC machine have 4 important aspect:

    High accurance is useless with leadscrews who backlash a lot. The cheap one usually do that. Belts are much better than cheap leadscrews, but the torque/force will be lower. Get a bigger motor, The resolution increases if one use gearing to get more power but it’ll be slower.
    (use belts to avoid backlash)

    Don’t underestimate the powers of belts, they’re really great! :)

    Improve accurancy:
    Are the workplace REALLY flat? 1mm? 0.1mm? 0.05mm?
    Is the gantry stiff enought?
    stiff = heavy. heavy = bigger motors.
    How’s the repetability?

    Improve resolution:
    Higher step/degree at the motors.
    gearing. use belts.
    leadscrews. preferably with zero backlash.
    (or cheap treaded with bolts/nuts, but the accurancy will go down compared to belts)
    Or belts with microstepping/1.8 degrees motors
    lower frictions at the bearings (?)
    Smaller and slower is a cheap way.

  31. jcox1968 says:

    Probably a really stupid thought but I must admit ignorance here. As for the wood burning, would it be possible to have say~~~ two laser diodes(such as from a dvd writer) both aimed in the same spot on the wood and be able to move a bit faster? (obviously this is assumed that the entire surface to be burned would be flat and level)?????
    I have a cnc machine and would really really like to be able to burn designs in wood like this but I don’t know much about lasers.

  32. svofski says:

    @jcox1968: of course, why not. Provided that the surface is flat, you can do this with several beams. But aligning the optics may become tricky, methinks.

  33. jcox1968 says:

    I am really curious as to how fast the machine in the video on this page was able to move(like, how many inches per minute…

  34. svofski says:

    It’s going at 1cm/minute on slightly darkish wood, I guess. I never measured and I have it packed away for now, to provide space for other stuff. Those lasers can be found on ebay for whereabouts of $40 with shipping, you can buy one just to experiment: for the geeky type it’s one of the best ways to spend $40 imho :) Practical side of this is dubious, unless you do some decor/handcrafts stuff, like adding ornaments to kitchen boards.

  35. jcox1968 says:

    Any idea how high above the surface the laser can be to do this?

  36. svofski says:

    3-5cm should be fine, you can adjust focus back and forth.

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