Should You buy a CO2 Laser?

Continuing the discussion from I made another MP3DP…kinda:

I think any serious hobbiest and crafter should have a laser like these for precise cutting of materials 1/4" and thinner. Making lids and cases and engraving things is so easy. CNC works well for so much, but for small, precision cuts, you can’t beat it, especial very fine inlay.

Match box holders for stick matches, but can function as dice towers by adding a shelf or two.

I have a Glowforge Basic and here is my experience.

It is very safe. You do have to watch it, as in remain in the same room as it or close by to make sure you catch things that may ignite. You minimize the risk by ensuring proper materials and designing to minimize conflagration (don’t make multiple close cuts on corrugated cardboard!) Loose bits of paper masking can combust. Almost always the air assist keeps it from burning, but sometimes a loose bit of material can flap around and cause issues. Any fires that I have seen documented have been pretty clearly dependent on improper use of material and someone having left the room.

I have never had to open up my machine and dowse a fire. I have had a few flames come up in the early months of use while I was figuring out cardboard, but I was right there and the air assist blew them out.

Venting outdoors is essential if you don’t have money to throw away on a filter and cartridges. Noise can be an issue. What folks do is get an inline duct fan which is quieter than the GF exhaust fan in many cases, and use that instead to cut down on noise and extend the reach of the ducting.

I am unaware of resellers, but since Glowforge uses a cloud system for firmware management and user interface, it’s pretty locked in. The usual pros and cons apply, but for me it is mostly pros. They update firmware fairly regularly, improving or adding features. The interface is accessible through most browsers on most devices, so that is number one for me. I am loath to sell my soul to an OS dependent peripheral. There is a project called OpenGlow that has been working toward re-engineering a custom board to drive all the components. I haven’t checked on it in a while. The firmware is open sourced, but really impractical. Would be hard to reverse engineer everything if Glowforge shuts out the lights.

The Basic does most of the job. the Plus and Pro power improvements are noticeable for speed of cuts, but I haven’t really needed that. Better for some are the improved cooling capacity of the more expensive models, something that is negligible if you are operating the machine in a temp-controlled environment like an office or home workshop and not an uncooled garage in the summer. The pass through on the Pro really is useful for bigger materials and projects. The auto alignment software is almost there and folks have had some great success with the beta version of this. Even without the auto alignment as you push things through, you can do pretty good with jigs and registration marks. Still limited to only 1/4" thick material.

Bed size is bigger than the usual K40, so that is a good place to compare with.

It is dead simple to operate with the camera placement of the design over the target area on the material. There is a calibration routine to run to get final specs after delivery, but even before that calibration, camera placement on mine was super. But even without the camera alignment, you can make it cut at the same place every time by jigs and having a 20x12 artboard for the design.

Reliability? They will always make it right, but sometimes it takes a while. Most machines function flawlessly from the start. But your home WiFi needs to behave for the Glowforge to connect properly. That is a vulnerables spot, The 2.4 G only WiFi can be an issue for some, but if you know the basics of WiFi networking, you should have no problem. I never have. But some people have wonky setups and home and they can’t understand why they can’t connect. Some can’t fathom the whole connection process of getting a handshake and handoff. Again, I have never had any problems with WiFi in the six machines I have used, except when I was at Bay Area Maker Faire 2017 (I was sponsored by Glowforge) and the congestion was so bad that most of the day I couldn’t get anything to go through, even with my own hotspot.

Although you can use this as a business tool, it doesn’t have a production environment infrastructure set up for customer support and reliability yet. As a pro-sumer product, it is just fine. The community forum is excellent. Everything you need to know is there, most importantly lots of folks who are like @jeffeb3 in the V1 forum. Not just eager to help, but having the knowledge and experience to make a difference.

I got the first pre-release machine back in December 2016. The other one was Adam Savage and Tested. So I was the only person for about a month who interacted with the forum who had a machine and could do whatever I wanted with it. My fifteen minutes of fame. Over time they sent about 150 pre-release machines out into the wild for testing before final production shipping. That was one of the most exciting times in my life. We were true pioneers and laid the groundwork for a lot of successful users after that.

I got my production unit in the Fall of 17 and used it for eleven months before it just died. The crowdfunding group of purchases got a year-long warranty so I was able to get a replacement free. Got two more with myopia and strange issues. which they replaced for free, and then got my final production unit which has been performing perfectly. This is not the normal course of events, but it does happen. Much less frequently than in that first year of production. Most folks in the first wave still have their original machine with original tube and are using it every day and still no signs of tube weakening or other issues.

I don’t think you can go wrong with a Basic. Best laser ecosystem for the price. Understand that they are still a young company and a bit green, but they are on the right path and again, they will make sure you have the laser you want in good working order, even though the support conversations might take a while.

Some people can’t make that investment with the risks involved. I understand that. For example, there have been some faulty components that have cropped up that they have been replacing for free. Thankfully none of these have required a return to the mother ship. The ribbon cable for the lid lights and camera was an inferior part for a while, plus inadequate design that didn’t allow for enough clearance upon opening and closing. So a lot of folks had to replace this ribbon cable. Lately it has been a roller bearing wheel that goes on the head. Some of these wheels have been disintegrating after a short time of use. Evidently there was a bad batch some where along the line.

The first year there seemed to be on the forum frequent issues with damage from shipping. It was awful. These things were being swung around like luggage. They have improved packaging, but sometimes tubes are leaking or broken upon opening. Again, they make it right.

Glowforge materials (Proofgrade) is excellent stuff. Very reliable and high quality. Known quantity to work with. You could source materials less expensive, but for example, the finished plywood is so good to work with, you can have complete projects just after assembly. If I am doing a large batch of something, I tend to use my own materials and do the finishing myself, but for one offs, you can’t beat the ease of use.

I have a giant stock of 6mm acrylic that I picked up cheap on Craigslist. It is my go to for LED edge lit signs and other projects.

As with a CNC, the most important part of the whole equation is the design. If you have 2D vector and 3D modeling technology literacy, you are good to go. If you don’t, that can be a steep curve. There are lots of designs one can purchase, but come on, seriously?

I watch lots of Maker YouTube videos. I think that a 3D printer, a laser, and a CNC are just basic tools that anyone should have in the shop. Just to make project boxes and cases and precise jigs and fixtures. I like the 3D printer for my cases, but I usually finish off with some laser cut part for the flat surfaces to engrave the legends on and to give a bit of class.

Do you have a CO2 Laser? What brand is it? How has it worked out for you. What would you recommend to someone who is looking to expland his toolset?

Thanks for prodding these questions. I am interested to see who chimes in and what they think.

This overview is very helpful. I knew you were involved closely, but I didn’t realize you were basically the first. Very neat! Thanks for sharing.

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I don’t own a CO2 laser but I have access to two through my makerspace. They are both 100W so much more powerful than the GlowForge (which I won’t EVER buy…personal reasoning). They are fantastic at cutting even 3/4" poplar and can engrave everything short of metal. I love them for a couple of reasons. I have made several signs for people for camping (something I’m hoping to expand upon with my cnc), I cut project boxes or gift boxes, and love it for engraving control signs. My wife and I have started with Christmas ornaments lately and it’s so much faster than the CNC. And you can get into tighter spots since the beam is so small.

If I had the money, I would purchase one. I’ve looked at the Chinese versions for a while but I’ve seen two catch fire now due to inadequate wiring. That means either rewiring the whole thing or saving up the $15k I’ll need for a domestic, high power one.

TLDR; A CO2 laser is a great addition to any maker’s shop.


How wide is the kerf on something like that? The speed of getting through thicker wood with a 100 watt is quite something, but the cost is also something else.

How is the engraving speed on the 100 watt? Should be a bit faster since it has more burninating power.

Engraving larger designs can get quite tedious with a 40 watt. That is something I didn’t mention in my above narrative. I do mostly cutting though so I’m not so dependent on long jobs. Thanks for the perspective.

Kerf is something like .05mm I think. I don’t remember for sure. And engraving is faster. Or not, depending on the power usage. I think I use power around 75% and speed around 350-400mm/sec.

The one we got was a chinese model for $3k with the industrial cooler and blower fan.

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That’s a pretty good price for that power. Not too sketchy of a build and software control?

I have been tinkering with the idea of buying one of these just to get some more power and learn the ins and outs of laser control. Again, dreaming.

The one we bought came with RDWorks. Fairly simple program. However, it also works with LaserCut. That’s even better than RDWorks.

I’d probably still buy a chinese one only because it wouldn’t be used as often as at a makerspace. More time to rewire the important parts.

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