Owen with his laser cutter

A Home Made Laser Cutter For $700

While some decent lasers are out there for under $400 USD, they tend to be a little small. What if you wanted something a little nicer but didn’t want to jump to the $2,000 category? The answer for [Owen Schafer] was to build it with parts he had lying around and a few strategic purchases.

While he was initially planning on using a diode laser, doing anything more than engraving is tricky. He purchased a cheap 40 W CO2 laser tube, but it meant that he needed water cooling, mirrors, and more complex stuff that a diode doesn’t need. The frame is aluminum extrusion held together with 3D printed plates. Given there was a powerful laser bouncing around with mirrors, a plywood box formed the enclosure.

The stepper controller is an Arduino Mega running the Marlaser firmware, though [Owen] admits perhaps a laser cutter-specific driver board would have been better as he spent many hours trying to get the Arduino to do what he wanted. Air ventilation is a tube with a fan that vents out a nearby window. Water cooling is just a bucket of water with a pump in it. A simple nylon hose connected to a compressor with a maximum airflow valve provides an air assist while cutting. Finally, we’re happy to report that [Owen] bought safety glasses specific to his laser to protect his eyes and researched how to ground the high voltages generated.

We particularly loved seeing all of [Owen’s] test cuts. He proudly displayed his boxes, sharks, and lamp shades like anyone with their new laser cutter is wont to do. If you’re looking to upgrade your laser, there’s an add-on for detecting materials optically or a relatively cheap laser bed you can throw in your laser.

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3D Print Glass With A Laser Cutter

We’re all familiar with FDM 3D printing, and some of the more well-heeled or adventurous among us may even have taken a faltering step into the world of SLA printers. But for most of us there’s a step further in 3D printing that remains beyond our reach. SLS, or Selective Laser Sintering, creates prints from powder by melting it layer by layer using a laser, and has the advantage of opening up more useful materials than the polymer stock of the other methods. It’s not entirely unreachable though, as [Kenneth Hawthorn] shows us by using a laser cutter to produce SLS prints from powdered glass.

He evolved the technique of repeated fast passes with the laser to gradually melt more glass together as opposed to slower passes. He achieved a resolution as low as 0.1 mm, though he found a better glass color when the laser was less tightly focused. It raises the concern that glass powder is abrasive and thus a threat to any mechanism, thus he’s being extremely careful with the fan settings.

This may not be quite in the league of an SLS printer costing thousands of dollars, but it’s a technique that bears more investigation and could no doubt be refined for more custom fused glass creations. He tells us he was inspired by a previous Hackaday post about sintering sand, and of course we’d like to remind readers of a 3D printer that did the same job with the power of the sun.

Hackaday Prize 2022: Upcycling Acrylic Scraps

Living and working in a remote rain forest may sound idyllic to those currently stuck in bland suburbia, and to be sure it does have plenty of perks. One of the downsides, though, is getting new materials and equipment to that remote location. For that reason, [Digital Naturalism Laboratories], also known as [Dinalab], has to reuse or recycle as much as they can, including their scraps of acrylic leftover from their laser cutter.

The process might seem straightforward, but getting it to actually work and not burn the acrylic took more than a few tries. Acrylic isn’t as thermoplastic as other plastics so it is much harder to work with, and it took some refining of the process. But once the details were ironed out, essentially the acrylic scraps are gently heated between two steel plates (they use a sandwich press) and then squeezed with a jack until they stick back together in one cohesive sheet. The key to this process is to heat it and press it for a long time, typically a half hour or more.

With this process finally sorted, [Dinalab] can make much more use of their available resources thanks to recycling a material that most of us would end up tossing out. It also helps to keep waste out of the landfill that would otherwise exist in the environment indefinitely. And, if this seems familiar to you, it’s because this same lab has already perfected methods to recycle other types of plastic as well.

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The laser module shown cutting shapes out of a piece of cardboard that's lying on the CNC's work surface

Giant CNC Partners With Powerful Laser Diode

[Jeshua Lacock] from 3DTOPO owns a large-format CNC (4’x8′, or 1.2×2.4 m), that he strongly feels is lacking laser-cutting capabilities. The frame is there, and a 150 W CO2 laser tube has been sitting in a box for ages – what else could you need? Sadly, at such a scale, aligning the mirrors is a tough and finicky job – and misalignment can be literally blinding. After reading tales about cutters of such size going out of alignment when someone as much as walked nearby, he dropped the idea – and equipped the CNC head with a high-power laser diode module instead. Having done mirror adjustment on a few CO2 tube-equipped lasers, we can see where he’s coming from.

Typically, the laser modules you see bolted onto CNC heads are firmly under three watts, which is usually only enough for engraving. With a module that provides 5 watts of optical power, [Jeshua] can cut cardboard and thin plywood as well he tells us even 10 W optical power modules are available, just that he didn’t go for one. We reckon that 20 W effective power diodes are not that far into our future, which is getting very close to the potential of the blue box “40 W but actually 35 W but actually way less” K40 laser cutters we cherish. [Jeshua]’s cutter is not breaking speed limits, but it’s built on what’s already there, and the diode is comparatively inexpensive. Equipped with a small honeycomb surface and what seems to be air assist, it’s shown in the video cutting an ornamental piece out of cardboard!

We hackers have been equipping CNCs with laser diodes for a while, but on a way smaller scale and with less powerful diodes – this is definitely a step up! As a hacker, you should have at least some laser cutting options at your disposal, and this overview of CO2 cutters and their availability can get you started. We’ve also given you detailed breakdowns about different sides of laser cutting, be it the must-have of safety, or the nice-to-have of air assist.

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The Nine Dollar Laser Bed

A laser cutter bed has to be robust, fireproof, and capable of adequately supporting whatever piece of work is being done on the machine. For that reason they are typically a metal honeycomb, and can be surprisingly expensive. [David Tucker] has built a MultiBot CNC machine and is using it with a laser head, and his solution to the problem of a laser bed is to turn towards the kitchen ware store.

The answer lay in an Expert Grill Jerky Rack, a wire grille with a baking tray underneath it. Perfect lasering support but for its shininess, so it was painted matte back to reduce reflections and a handy set of clips were 3D printed to secure the grille to the tray.

We like this solution as it’s both effective and cheap, though we can’t help a little worry at the prospect of any laser cutter without adequate enclosure for safety. Having been involved in the unenviable task of cleaning an encrusted hackerspace laser cutter bed, we also like the idea that it could be disposed of and replaced without guilt. Do you have any tales of laser cutter bed cleaning, or have you found a cheap substitute of your own? Let us know in the comments!

How To Make Laser-cut Decals On The Cheap

Want to make a sweet adhesive decal with a complex design and floating elements, but all you have is a laser cutter and some tape? Good news, because that’s all you need with this method of creating adhesive tape decals on a laser cutter demonstrated by the folks at [Lasers Over Los Angeles]. The overall technique is very similar to creating vinyl decals and using tape transfer to apply them, but is geared towards laser cutters and nice, cheap tape.

This method also makes applying to non-flat surfaces a breeze.

The way it works is this: paper-based tape (such as blue painter’s tape) is laid down in strips on the laser cutter’s honeycomb bed, forming a nice big rectangle big enough for the intended design. Then, the laser cutter cuts vector art into the tape, resulting in an adhesive decal ready to be stuck to some other surface. Transferring is done by using good quality clear packing tape to “pick up” the decal, then move it to where it needs to be.

To do this, one lays strips of packing tape onto the top of the design on the laser bed, then lifts the design up and away. Move the design to its destination (the clear packing tape helps in eyeballing the final position), press the decal onto the final surface, and carefully peel away the clear packing tape. This works because the packing tape sticks only weakly to the back of the painter’s tape; it’s a strong enough bond to hold the decal, but weak enough that the decal will stick to a surface even better.

It’s true that painter’s tape isn’t as durable as vinyl and the color selection is a bit limited, but design-wise one can go as big as the laser bed allows, and the price is certainly right. Plus it’s easily cut by even the most anemic of diode lasers.

Speaking of desktop vinyl cutters, they may have small working areas compared to most laser cutters, but they have some fantastic workshop applications. They can even do home PCB fabrication, by way of knocking out three essential pieces: the etching mask, solder mask, and solder stencil.

Laser Z-Axis Table Comes Into Focus

Laser cutters and 3D printers are game-changing tools to have in the workshop. They make rapid prototyping or repairs to existing projects a breeze as they can churn out new parts with high precision in a very short amount of time. The flip side of that, though, is that they can require quite a bit of maintenance. [Timo] has learned this lesson over his years-long saga owning a laser cutter, although he has attempted to remedy most of the problems on his own, this time by building a Z-axis table on his own rather than buying an expensive commercial offering.

The Z-axis table is especially important for lasers because a precise distance from the lens to the workpiece is needed to ensure the beams’s focal point is correctly positioned. Ensuring this distance is uniform over the entire bed can be a project all on its own. For this build, [Timo] started by building a simple table that allowed all four corners to be adjusted, but quickly moved on to a belt-driven solution that uses a stepper motor in order to adjust the entire workspace. The key to the build was learning about his specific laser’s focal distance which he found experimentally by cutting a slot in an angled piece of wood and measuring the height where the cut was the cleanest.

After everything was built, [Timo] ended up with a Z-axis table that is easily adjustable to the specific height required by his laser. Having a laser cutter on hand to bootstrap this project definitely helped, and it also seems to be an improvement on any of the commercial offerings as well. This also illustrates a specific example of how a laser cutter may be among the best tools for prototyping parts and building one-off or custom tools of any sort.