Laser cutters in woodworking

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threedee

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I was wondering what is the opinion of using laser cutters in traditional woodworking ?
I'm of sign making and graphics background, but always dabbled and was interested in the art of woodworking.
A year ago i bought myself a relatively large laser cutter, started whole research of its uses beyond usual cheap ply box making, modeling, etc, etc. Then life happened, i had to move house, covid, loss of job.. all the while the beast was sitting in storage for 9 months.
Now, things are starting to move again and i might want to come back to woodworking idea, mostly inlaying/marquetry, which plays nicely with laser cutters, apparently. And me being unafraid of any cad/graphics work i'll do well.
Only recently i finished aligning/tuning the thing and ready to roll, beginning with said cheap, but maybe less so, ply boxes :D Covered in marquetry ???

In the search of laser usage i, sadly, came across some people calling use of laser cutters in trad woodworking an abomination.
CNCs were lumped in the same cathegory.

If anyone interested, my machine is of 900x600 bed size, ~250mm Z lift capacity, Ruida RDC6442s controller, 80W CO2 glass tube in the back with 100W tube on standby should 80W go pop. Still have to get/make a rotary attachment for engraving cyllindrical objects. Tried my hand at engraving wood, glass, black granite, and of course acrylic. Well adjusted CO2's can bleach cotton denim, engrave coir mats, engrave logos into fleece fabric or towels. Theoretically i could get through about 20mm of soft plank (havent tried hardwood yet), same for mdf (stuff's nasty, binders sometimes contain formaldehyde). When i laser wood it smells oh so good in the workshop :D

So, what is your view of using emerging technologies in fusion with traditional arts ?

I'm pretty sure some of you will own a CNC, but anyone here owns/uses laser cutters ?
 

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MikeG.

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Sort of sums it up for me that your post and your photo are all about the machine, and nothing about the finished product. I'm interested somewhat, but not in the machine. It's the results that count. If you can persuade me that sitting drawing on CAD, then inserting a block of wood and pressing a button produces a more attractive finished article then sitting down with a set of carving chisels, then great.

Tell you what, you laser cut a Tudor Rose in oak with your machine, and post a photo for comparison with one I carve with chisels. We'll see which one is A/ quicker and B/ more attractive.
 

Trevanion

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It's been a long time since I've used a laser cutter but wouldn't it be completely pants for marquetry since it burns the cut and leaves a black border?
 

custard

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I was wondering what is the opinion of using laser cutters in traditional woodworking ?

There's a debate currently raging in the custom made furniture and marquetry worlds. Laser cutting radically changes the cost structure of marquetry decorated furniture, as well as reducing the skills necessary for the most intricate work. Consequently there's been an explosion of marquetry led furniture pieces, it's everywhere from top end yacht fit outs to Guild Mark submissions.

But here's the rub. Laser cut marquetry scorches the edges of paler woods. once you've got your eye in and know what to look for, laser cut work stands out like a fish in a tree. The guys with the skill to do traditional work argue that the lasered stuff is inferior. Within the trade they're probably winning the argument, most makers I speak to turn their noses up at laser cut stuff. However, the ultimate arbiter is the customer, and as far as I can see they're still loving it!

Go back in time and you see similar debates played out time after time in furniture making. Machine carving was considered inferior to hand work because it sacrificed ultra crisp definition in favour of florid ornamentality. What happens over time is that the machine made version generally sows the seeds of its own destruction, going completely over the top and eventually the customer rejects it as graceless and crass. I'd bet a pound to a penny that'll be the same outcome for laser cut marquetry, but it will have a good long run yet before we get to the point of the consumer becoming sick of it.
 

threedee

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All comments are very fair.

MikeG: I'm not here to persuade you, i'm here to hear your thoughts on the subject. As for "pushing a button for instant result", nope, not as easy as that. There's a lot going on before you push the button. Science behind lasers which needs to be applied even in this case is mind boggling. Knowing material is crucial. You can do "just push the button" approach for, emm, very charred results. As for my machine photo its for people to know what i'm talking about - compact laser cnc.

As for charred results... i had trouble engraving when i was trying out my laser at the very beginning. Wood would just disappear in a mist of white dust. Not char, not burn. Whatever it was it left light dusting on the surface, but good half a mil of wood was just gone, no color change... Apparently, too much power and too sharp a focus point does that... I will be revisiting all of this when learning inlaying. Now that i remembered this it gives me an idea on how to avoid burn on veneer part of inlay. Thanks.

Custard: Right on the money, i'd think. Finest craft will always be manually done. I admire people dedicated to such detail work, in any field. But there must be middle ground somewhere between MDF and inlaid pieces.

I dont pretend to know much about fine craftsmanship nor am i here to start a war. My goal is to just hear people who actually do fine woodworking and have something to say about quality difference. I will probably never achieve the heights of master, but maybe a crutch will help a bit :D
 

MikeG.

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.........MikeG:..........As for "pushing a button for instant result", nope, not as easy as that............

You're new, and I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt, but please think very carefully before you do this again. I did not type the words you have put in quote marks, nor anything like them. It's quite easy to knock down other people's arguments if you make up their quotes yourself.
 

TheTiddles

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It is possible to laser cut wood and not burn the edges, I’ve seen someone do it. Years ago a professor was enthusiastically telling me about his latest projects in a bid to get me come research for him, most of his developments ended up cutting textiles like expensive lace that knives made a mess of.

I can’t see anyone cutting an oak frame with a laser, ever. But for some things they are just fantastic and if I had the space and time, I’d have one.

Are they often used to make burned toast resembling tat... yes, but people buy it.

I need some ply cut for a lampshade and that will be laser cut, once I finish designing it.

The last place I worked with a laser I made sure to cut a boat load of my trademarks in wood and engraved steel for the future before I left.

Aidan
 

custard

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It is possible to laser cut wood and not burn the edges

I guess it all comes down to how you define "burnt". Decent laser work certainly doesn't leave scorched edges, but on really pale timbers, like Holly or Arctic Sycamore, you can see this faint pale brown tint right at the very edge. Burnt is the wrong word for it, it's just a faint discolouration. Most clients would never even notice it, but once it's been pointed out to you then it's pretty much ALL you see!
 

StevieB

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It is an interesting topic, and one I have been looking at trying to answer the same question. I am currently smitten by the Shaper Origin - a hand held CNC machine:


I cannot afford one, but for me it ticks a lot of the boxes of what I like about woodwork - custom inlays, the ability to design intricate patterns and the like. Loads of vids on youtube, but as with all technology, some people will spend 2 hours to make a joint with this machine that could be cut by hand in a fraction of the time. For specific applications though, it looks fantastic. As the Japanese say - if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Woodworking is a spectrum, from old school hand tools at one end, to full on machines at the other. Most of us are somewhere along this spectrum, and our position will very depending on the task at hand. I do not have the skills to hand cut dovetails accurately, or the time to practice, practice, practice. As a consequence I will happily use a David Barron guide and a Japanese saw to give me the spacing I decide on. To a purist this is anathema and I should be hand cutting, to others I should be using a dovetail jig and router for speed, repeatability and accuracy.

I am sure most of us will happily use a drill press rather than a hand drill to get vertical holes, or a planer thicknesser rather than a no 8 plane to flatten a board. Flattening a board takes skill, but also time. If I was a woodworker making a living, time = money, as a hobbyist I don't want to spend most of the little time I have for my hobby planing timber, I want to be making stuff. To someone else, the satisfaction of flattening a board by hand might be worth it. Neither of us is 'wrong' and I would say if it works for your needs, go for it.

I personally see no problem with using a CNC machine or a laser cutter to achieve a specific aim. Don't try to sell it as 'hand cut' or 'better' than any other method and you are fine. There will always be customers who value price over authenticity, and customers who value authenticity over price (probably more of the former than the latter!) so decide which target market you are going after and market to that. If a laser cutter allows you to produce high volume then great, you can probably make them cheaper per individual unit. If you are targeting high end customers who will pay a premium for hand cut rather than mass produced then a laser cutter has less utility in this setting.

Bottom line - if you are happy making it, and you can sell at a price that makes you a profit and customers are happy to pay, then you are doing very well!
 

Keith 66

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I was a secondary school D&T technician & recently retired. Schools across the country started buying into Laser cutters ten or more years ago as they offered an easily visible route into CAD / CAM manufacturing. This meant the kids could see a modern machine working & they are always fascinated with it. We did a lot of ply tabbed boxes & lampshades of standardised outline that the kids put their own design onto. many were dreadful some were superb. GCSE project work produced some stunning work and some awful! Lasers have become ubiquitous in schools & prices have dropped to the point anyone can have one.
One of my things is building musical instruments, mainly cigar box guitars but other stuff too. Having access to the school laser cutter was of great value!
I have decided to invest in one because i find it interesting & it helps me do stuff that i couldnt otherwise do partly through injury.
The photorealistic engraving capability is also something very useful.
I will be avoiding the cheap chinese machines & think i have found the right manufacturer, It will be a 45w RF tube machine.
Just gotta get the new non leaky roof on the workshop & i can order the thing & get stuck in!
 

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It's obviously a contentious subject. My opinion is that if you take your hands away from both the tool and the wood, then the "working" part of the term "woodworking" is highly debatable. The only machine I can think of where this happens briefly is the thicknesser. On all other machines I'm either holding the wood or holding the tool, even if it's only to control feed speed. But often, other subtle adjustments can be made while machining the wood. It means you have your hands on the process, and can affect the outcome.
To put a lump of wood in a box and stand back is not really 'working' the wood, in my opinion. I'm a great lover of machines and tech, but maybe we need a different term - I'm sure there is a lot of skill in the design process which I don't possess.
 

Ron Tock

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I was wondering what is the opinion of using laser cutters in traditional woodworking ?
I'm of sign making and graphics background, but always dabbled and was interested in the art of woodworking.
A year ago i bought myself a relatively large laser cutter, started whole research of its uses beyond usual cheap ply box making, modeling, etc, etc. Then life happened, i had to move house, covid, loss of job.. all the while the beast was sitting in storage for 9 months.
Now, things are starting to move again and i might want to come back to woodworking idea, mostly inlaying/marquetry, which plays nicely with laser cutters, apparently. And me being unafraid of any cad/graphics work i'll do well.
Only recently i finished aligning/tuning the thing and ready to roll, beginning with said cheap, but maybe less so, ply boxes :D Covered in marquetry ???

In the search of laser usage i, sadly, came across some people calling use of laser cutters in trad woodworking an abomination.
CNCs were lumped in the same cathegory.

If anyone interested, my machine is of 900x600 bed size, ~250mm Z lift capacity, Ruida RDC6442s controller, 80W CO2 glass tube in the back with 100W tube on standby should 80W go pop. Still have to get/make a rotary attachment for engraving cyllindrical objects. Tried my hand at engraving wood, glass, black granite, and of course acrylic. Well adjusted CO2's can bleach cotton denim, engrave coir mats, engrave logos into fleece fabric or towels. Theoretically i could get through about 20mm of soft plank (havent tried hardwood yet), same for mdf (stuff's nasty, binders sometimes contain formaldehyde). When i laser wood it smells oh so good in the workshop :D

So, what is your view of using emerging technologies in fusion with traditional arts ?

I'm pretty sure some of you will own a CNC, but anyone here owns/uses laser cutters ?

My view is use what you got and do what you're good at and what you enjoy. I use a scrollsaw, which those who use a hand held piercing saw would probably describe as an abomination. I often make bespoke brass hinges and clasps and I find the slow process of cutting through brass as I'm following a line quite meditative. I'm retired so time is not an issue. A laser cutter would do the job quicker and more accurately... but then I'd be giving a job I enjoy doing to a machine that is incapable of enjoying the process, which, in my case, would make no sense. If I were running a business and needed to bash these things out quickly and consistently, then a laser cutter would be the way to go.
There are always going to be traditionalists who insist that traditional methods are the right way. The way I see it is that any method that gets the job done effectively is among the many right ways to do it. The points to consider are (a) does it do the job to your satisfaction? (b) Do you enjoy the process? And, finally, (c) do you really give a fly's fart about what anyone else thinks of your methods?
 

StevieB

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Hi Keith - interesting comments. My son has just looked at A-level options and was smitten with laser cutters, but in the ends went with Engineering. Which laser cutter are you looking at out of interest?

Vinn - I guess it depends on whether you are using a machine for the whole process or part of it. A CNC will rarely give you a finished quality piece. A 3D carving will still need sanding and finishing, even a ply tabbed box will need assembling unless you are shipping flat packed products. I guess I wouldn't be that comfortable calling e-bay sellers who sell shapes lasered out of plywood as craft supplies 'woodworkers' but someone who uses a CNC to carve an inlay recess onto a box, I probably would - lots of shades of grey rather than black and white. 'Hands-on' is such a variable term. You can spray on a finish these days, or spend hours French polishing and lacquering - the debate is endless!
 

Droogs

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My bench laser engraved wolf.



Not always...
That, while attractive and good to look at is not marquetry. Just as the idea about the business cards is not marquetry.

The wolf image is Pyrography using a laser. It is an image burned/etched into a surface made from a single species of wood.

The business cards are inlay created by using a laser to create the hole in the surface of a background into which you are either inserting a single contrasting wood or possibly could be called lasered intarsa.

Marquetry requires the use of at least 3 different species of wood, each of which is cut/sawn into shaped pieces that are then reconstructed so as to be in the same 2D plane. 90% of what modern technologists/makers call marquetry that I have seen is just pyrography.

Also IMHO anyone who relies solely on using an automated machine tool can NEVER be called a master craftsman as that titles require the person be very accomplished in the use of handtools in conjuction with their own hand/eye co-ordination. Don't get me wrong using machine tools is fine, after all tools are created to enable us to work smarter not harder. They are time savers intended to improve repeatability in making operations and nothing more. After all we have treadle/electric scroll/fretsaws and use this most of the time in preference to either a chevalet or a framed fretsaw powered by hand, we use battery drills and pillar drills and table saws etc. The use of them does not mean you aren't a woodworker but they are only semi automatic in terms of function and still need that hand/eye co-ordination. If you are using a machine that "only" requires you to sit and write a program on a computer and then hit an execute button you are a computerised machinist.
 

Keith 66

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Hi Keith - interesting comments. My son has just looked at A-level options and was smitten with laser cutters, but in the ends went with Engineering. Which laser cutter are you looking at out of interest?

Vinn - I guess it depends on whether you are using a machine for the whole process or part of it. A CNC will rarely give you a finished quality piece. A 3D carving will still need sanding and finishing, even a ply tabbed box will need assembling unless you are shipping flat packed products. I guess I wouldn't be that comfortable calling e-bay sellers who sell shapes lasered out of plywood as craft supplies 'woodworkers' but someone who uses a CNC to carve an inlay recess onto a box, I probably would - lots of shades of grey rather than black and white. 'Hands-on' is such a variable term. You can spray on a finish these days, or spend hours French polishing and lacquering - the debate is endless!

For most young people their first experience of CAD/CAM is the school laser cutter, they are fast & can show an outcome quickly. The next thing is the 3d printer but the fact remains they are slow & with print times running into hours they simply arent accesible to all the kids, sure they are getting faster but the ballsup time has to be accounted for as well & the technician has enough on their plate without watching a 3d printer all the time as it threatens the pile of pink spaghetti!
With the way schools are moving away from practical work in favour of theory & demo only I cant see the laser cutter being replaced any time soon. Schools love tech heavy gimmicky stuff & the old ways are seen as old fashioned & of no use.
Im glad to have got out of it as it was getting soul destroying.

For myself im looking at one of the Solo SE ones by Kent Lasers, small company but the owner is extremely helpful & knows his stuff. Lots of excellent reviews & competetive pricing. The price of a mainstream supplier like Trotec or Epilog is simply not justifiable unless it will be running full time. The cheap chinese ones seem to need shed loads of work or upgrade before you can use it & some of the software is frankly awful.
 
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