I built a laser cutter! Specifically the Lasersaur, which is a professional grade open-source project. The idea is to use it to make more wooden topo maps, sell them on commission, and once I make enough to cover the cost of the machine, finally get around to making an physical version of my recreation of the Antikythera Mechanism. Plus, its hard to establish yourself as a credible mad scientist without incorporating giant lasers in some fashion.
How Does it Work?
A laser cutter is pretty simple in operation, and you can follow along with the schematic below. In the back of the machine is a large laser tube (red), which generates the laser beam when high-voltage power is applied. This bounces off a series of mirrors (pink), which guides the beam to the cutting surface. After bouncing off the last mirror, the beam goes through a lens (yellow) that focuses it from about the size of a dime to a sharp focal point right at the material surface. This concentrated beam puts enough energy into a small space to vaporize the material it’s focused on. Meanwhile, we pump coolant (blue) around the laser beam to keep it from overheating, and we have a fan sucking out the exhaust smoke (white).
We can control where we are pointing the point of the beam by moving the last two mirrors along guide rails (green). An Arduino computer in the back controls the two motors which move the mirrors along these guide rails, as well as the intensity of the laser beam. On a laptop, we load up an image file, and some software turns it into paths for the mirrors to trace out while powering the laser.
What Can it Cut?
I’ll primarily be working with 1/8″ birch plywood like above, but I have the machine also cutting through and engraving thicker wood, acrylic, paper, and leather. I also have glass and slate being engraved, but it’s not really possible to cut through those with a CO2 laser. I’m waiting on some anodized aluminum test blanks to come in, after which I’d be able to do phones / laptops if anyone trusts me enough to put theirs under the knife.
Why Build Rather Than Buy?
The Lasersaur caught my eye a few years ago. Unlike some DIY options, this one isn’t cheap – when I tally up the total cost, it came to about $7.3k. Plus it took me about 8 weeks or so to put it together. I could have gone with a Chinese import cutter, which would have cost significantly less. But there were a couple reasons I didn’t:
- The Chinese cutter software interface is usually pretty crap, though this is mitigated by the existence of some good paid replacement software out there.
- They typically need a good bit of calibration and modifications out of the box before they start working well.
- US based laser cutters are generally just repackaged Chinese ones with some of the common upgrades put in, then marked way up in price.
- The cost of a cutter scales faster than the size – I knew that I wanted a large cutting area (at least 2’x4′) so that I can make large wall-sized pieces, and a cutter that size is going to be in the $5-$10k range regardless. If I just wanted something that could engrave small stuff, a K40 would be a no-brainer.
- I’m planning on only cutting flat sheets of material, so don’t need some of the fancier options like an adjustable bed height or a rotary attachment.
- I’m a fan of open source, and the one notable deficiency for the Lasersaur project (raster engraving) was finally implemented about a year ago. The open source nature also allowed for me to make some much-needed software mods to speed up engraving and add a few quality-of-life features.
- I really liked the idea of building my own – I find that process super fun in its own right, and I liked the prospect of intimately knowing my equipment from the nuts-and-bolts level up.
I will caveat that a Chinese import from eBay or AliExpress is probably the better option for most people, especially now that the original creators decided to stop work on the project, and building it requires a little more know-how to solder together the circuit board that you could previously buy preassembled. But the instructions for doing so are available, and don’t let that dissuade you from making your own if the above bullets resonate with you!
Got Any More Info?
For a bunch more details on how I put this together, check out my other posts:
- Parts and Cost Breakdown For the Lasersaur
- Hardware Mods to the Lasersaur
- Software Mods to the Lasersaur
If you have any questions on making your own, please feel free to reach out and ask questions! The mailing list is another, reasonably active resource that helped me a bunch in my process.