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Laser Marking, Laser Engraving & Laser Etching – The Differences

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What are the differences between laser marking, laser engraving and laser etching? We simply explain how each of these methods work, the differences, which materials are suitable and what are the typical applications.

The laser beam is a universal tool that can work such different materials like wood, glass, stone, paper, plastics and more. Tools like laser marking, laser engraving, and laser etching have become widely spread over the last decade or so due to governmental regulations calling for clearly readable product and part identification. However, the capabilities of laser marking, laser engraving and laser etching have also found their way into the toolbox of the make community, making customizations possible that would take an artisan with traditional methods.

But what are the differences between laser marking, laser engraving and, laser etching? Do you need different machines to process your parts with these methods, or are there machines that are capable to them all?

What materials are suitable to which process? How can I start laser marking, laser engraving, and laser etching at home?

Read to learn the answers to these questions concerning laser marking, laser engraving, and laser etching will be answered.

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Laser Marking , Laser Engraving & Laser Etching – The Differences

Laser Marking , Laser Engraving & Laser Etching – The Differences Laser Marking

Image of Laser Marking , Laser Engraving & Laser Etching – The Differences: Laser Marking

How does Laser Marking work?

This process works by sending out a low-powered beam onto the surface of the workpiece causing the material under the surface to oxidize. In other words, the laser beam turns the material black. The result is a high-contrast image that is both permanent and very resistant. For this reason, this method is sometimes also known under other terms like “laser coloration” or “laser dark marking”.

What are the Differences to Laser Engraving & Laser Etching?

Unlike laser engraving and laser etching, this method does not disrupt surface. Meaning no material is removed from the part and the surface retains its texture.
Both laser marking and laser etching can be used to add logos and text to parts. The difference is that the oxidized material of laser marking turns black, while laser etching alters the reflectivity and the contrast with the surrounding material. Hence, laser etching is the preferred method for objects made from precious metals.
This variety of laser technology is the least common featured in this article. It is mostly used by medical and automotive companies. Therefore, not every service will offer laser marking.

Can I do Laser Marking at home?

Yes, you can! Laser marking is supported by most commercially available laser machines. The deciding factor that determines the operating mode is the intensity of the laser beam.

If you don’t want to spend money on a desktop laser marker, or just have one project to undertake, you can utilize an online laser processing service. There is a wide range of manufacturing services that offer laser marking, laser engraving, and laser etching. The most poular among these are probably Ponoko and Sculpteo.

What are typical applications of Laser Marking?

Laser marking can be applied to a large variety of materials. You can use it not only on flat parts, but also on surfaces that are curved or even round.
Companies in the medical device industry or automotive fields are used this technology as a means to trace bespoke parts in their processing facilities. To this end, they laser mark serial numbers or model codes onto their products’ surfaces.
However, laser marking is less commonly used by hobbyists who often prefer laser etching.

How does Laser Marking compare to traditional techniques?

Laser marked parts may look like they have been printed on, but this technology is superior to tradition printing or writing. Because the logo, barcode or text is not merely ink printed onto the parts surface, it cannot be washed off and is not susceptible to abrasion. Instead it is permanently burned into the material itself making it very resistant to wear.
Lasers mark your designs with the highest precision onto the parts and can achieve an extremely high degree of detail. Moreover, since every design is saved as a file you can reproduce them at the same level of quality.

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Laser Marking , Laser Engraving & Laser Etching – The Differences Laser Engraving

Image of Laser Marking , Laser Engraving & Laser Etching – The Differences: Laser Engraving

How does Laser Engraving work?

The high heat of the laser beam vaporizes the material thereby cutting into the part’s surface and physically removing material. This process leaves a cavity in the surfaces that is not only visible but also noticeable by touch. There are noteworthy differences in the depth of this cavity that varies between 0.02″ in metals to 0.125″ in harder materials.

What are the Differences to Laser Marking & Laser Etching?

Laser Engraving is the fastest of the technologies showcased here.?
Laser marking is not an abrasive process. Hence, it is the preferred method for applying bar codes, logos and the like on industrial parts.
Laser etching is also used to remove materials, but the depth of the cut is no more than 0.001″. Making this process ideal for objects made from precious metals.

Can I do Laser Engraving at home?

Yes, you can! Laser engraving is supported by most commercially available laser machines. The deciding factor that determines the operating mode is the intensity of the laser beam.

If you don’t want to spend money on a desktop laser marker, or just have one project to undertake, you can utilize an online laser processing service. There is a wide range of manufacturing services that offer laser marking, laser engraving, and laser etching. The most poular among these are probably Ponoko and Sculpteo.

What are typical applications of Laser Engraving?

This process has become very popular for customizing parts made off metal, plastics, wood, glass, and acrylic. In particular, it is a great tool to add numbers, logos, images and serial numbers to parts.

How does Laser Engraving compare to traditional techniques?

Laser engraving is a universal tool that can be applied to a wide range of materials. Meaning that you don’t need to buy dedicated tools for each of them. In short, one tool fits all.
When parts are engraved using mechanical tools it is necessary to fasten them with clamps. This adds to the work hours and may damage the parts. Since laser engraving is a contactless technology that does not require fastening parts, you save time and avoid the risk of damage the parts.
This also means that your tools like drills or cutters do not suffer from wear and need to be replaced saving you even more money.
Lasers engrave your designs with the highest precision onto the parts and can achieve an extremely high degree of detail. Moreover, since every design is saved as a file you can reproduce them at the same level of quality.
Traditional carpentry, wood-cutting and leather decorating are crafts that require long years of practical training to achieve mastery. Love it or hate it, but with laser engraving anyone can create items at a level of quality high enough to make a living! – Many people using laser engravings sell their goods on platforms like Etsy, Ponoko etc.
Compared to CNC engraving machines, laser engraving is not only faster, but you can draw on a larger number of font options and the end result is by far more legible.

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Laser Marking , Laser Engraving & Laser Etching – The Differences Laser Etching

Image of Laser Marking , Laser Engraving & Laser Etching – The Differences: Laser Etching

How does Laser Etching work?

The laser beam heats up the material to the melting point. At this temperature, the material’s surface expands with a raised cavity. This process results in altered surface properties like reflectivity. In addition, it enhances the contrast of the work surface with the surrounding area.

What are the Differences to Laser Marking & Laser Engraving?

Laser etching is settled somewhere in between laser marking and laser engraving. Laser Engraving is the more radical process, as it can cut as deep as 0.125″, while laser marking only discolors the material’s surface leaving a high-contrast mark. Unlike the other two methods, laser etching leaves a raised outline on the surface.

Can I do Laser Etching at home?

Yes, you can! Laser etching is supported by most commercially available laser machines. The deciding factor that determines the operating mode is the intensity of the laser beam.

If you don’t want to spend money on a desktop laser marker, or just have one project to undertake, you can utilize an online laser processing service. There is a wide range of manufacturing services that offer laser marking, laser engraving, and laser etching. The most poular among these are probably Ponoko and Sculpteo.

What are typical applications of Laser Etching?

The depth of the laser etching cut is no more than 0.001″, making this process ideal for objects made from precious metals. Therefore, laser etching has become quite become for customizing jewelry.

How does Laser Etching compare to traditional techniques?

Laser etching is a universal tool that can be applied to a wide range of materials. Meaning that you don’t need to buy dedicated tools for each of them. In short, one tool fits all.
When parts are etched using mechanical tools it is necessary to fasten them with clamps. This adds to the work hours and may damage the parts. Since laser etching is a contactless technology that does not require fastening parts, you save time and avoid the risk of damage the parts.
This also means that your tools like drills or cutters do not suffer from wear and need to be replaced saving you even more money.
Lasers etch your designs with the highest precision onto the parts and can achieve an extremely high degree of detail. Moreover, since every design is saved as a file you can reproduce them at the same level of quality.
Traditional carpentry, wood-cutting and leather decorating are crafts that require long years of practical training to achieve mastery. Love it or hate it, but with laser etching anyone can create items at a level of quality high enough to make a living! – Many people using laser etching sell their goods on platforms like Etsy, Ponoko etc.
Compared to CNC etching machines, laser etching is not only faster, but you can draw on a larger number of font options and the end result is by far more legible.

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Laser Marking , Laser Engraving & Laser Etching – The Differences Laser Marking, Laser Engraving & Laser Etching FAQ

How do I create designs for Laser Marking, Laser Engraving or Laser Etching?

  1. First, you should come up with concept that ties the design to material. That means the process should either aesthetically or functionally enhance the object. Keep the properties of raster engraving and vector engraving in mind when you choose the material you want to process.
  2. Next, you create the design in a graphics program like CorelDraw, Photoshop, AutoCAD, Illustrator, InkScape. Keep in mind the difference between raster engraving and vector engraving and choose your file format accordingly.
  3. Transfer the file into the laser engraver and place the part inside.
  4. The laser marking / laser engraving / laser etching processes the part.
  5. Usually, it is not necessary to post-process laser marking / laser engraving / laser etching parts. If necessary assemble the part, i.e. attach chains, glue walls and components together. In short, work your magic.

What file format should I use?

You can use both raster and vector files for laser marking, engraving and etching. However, depending on the intended use, you should choose which one you apply for your design.

Raster files (JPG, PNG etc.) are the go-to format for large engravings like fillet letters, images and stamps. If you want to engrave any image made with a camera, raster engraving is what you want to use. Just like on computer screens, the image is put together by gradually adding points to form any shape you can imagine. Sometimes this method is also called “area engraving”. This method is especially well suited to materials like acrylic because it lends a beautiful frosted finish with a distinct contrast. Avoid raster engraving large glass, stone, and ceramic surfaces, since the end results may be visually uneven.

Vector files (SVG, EPS etc.) are composed of lines that are traced onto the surface sequentially. If your design consists of minute lines and curves, then vector engraving is the appropriate method. Professionals also call this approach “scoring”, and sometimes it is also called “line engraving”. Vector engraving lends itself well to wood because the burned outline creates a stunning contrast with the warm surface of the material. It is less suitable for materials like acrylic, since the melted outline is only faintly visible. The video above illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of both methods.

For the best effect, it may be worthwhile to combine both methods. The final parts feature the evenly engraved surface from raster engraving and also the crisp outline created by the vector engraving. This effect works especially well on wood.

The picture below illustrates the combination on plastic.

The difference between both methods can be a substantial cost saver even when you order only one piece from an online service. But how do you decide? As a rule of thumb, if your surface details consist of large, relatively simple shapes you should opt for vector engraving, as this is the quicker and thus more economic laser engraving method. However, if the design covers a large area that contains many intricate details, you should choose raster engraving method. However, ultimately you should decide based on what works best for your design!

What is the difference between Laser Marking, Laser Engraving, Laser Etching and Laser Cutting machines?

As outlined above, laser marking, laser engraving, laser etching, and laser cutting are very different from each other. Simply put, the effect of achieved in the workpiece depends on the intensity of the laser beam. Hence, Laser Markers, Laser Engravers, Laser Etchers, and Laser Cutters are basically the same machines.

Many laser machines on the market can perform all these operations. We simply refer to them depending on what they are mainly used for. If the machine is primarily designed for laser engraving, we call it a laser engraver. If the manufacturer markets it for laser etching, we call it a laser etcher, even though it is capable to do much more than that.

How do I reduce my Laser Marking, Laser Engraving, Laser Etching Costs?

Are you using your own device? Then read these tips:

When you work your parts yourself at home, the biggest factor to consider is material cost. There are some clear-cut tricks that help you achieve that goal.

Tile your designs together. If your designs a spread out on the material’s surface they take up large areas that will end up as waste. Reduce your costs by tiling them together.

Are you using an online service? Then read these tips:

As a rule of thumb, you pay for every minute the laser spends on your design, so want to bring down this time as much as you can.

Group your designs together. If your designs a spread out on the material’s surface they will not only take up large areas that will end up as waste, but the distances the laser has to travel between each design also adds to the overall bill. Reduce your costs by tiling them together.

Share lines. For some designs it may be possible to share a cutting line. Again, this decreases the distances travelled by the laser and reduces your costs. Remember to remove any double lines in case there are overlaps.

Vector or Raster? If your surface details consist of large, relatively simple shapes you should opt for vector engraving, as this is the quicker and thus more economic laser engraving method. However, if the design covers a large area that contains many intricate details, you should choose raster engraving method. The difference between both methods can be substantial even when you order only one piece from an online service. However, ultimately you should decide based on what works best for your design!

Simplify your Design. Intricate details of your design quickly add up to long traveling distances for the laser equaling high costs. Many of these details can be simplified to shapes that are faster to work for the laser without altering the original design intent. This is because, when raster images like photos are converted into vectors, many small features also make their way into the new file, even though they are too minuscule to be noticed in the finished part. So, study your design files carefully and save real money by making it cost effective!

Material hardness. This is another factor that is straightforward, but easy to overlook. While it takes little to time engrave soft materials such as wood, working harder materials like metal or stone takes longer and thus adds to your bill.

Laser Marking / Laser Engraving / Laser Etching. In the same vein, the method used makes a big difference. Whether a part is worked with a laser marker, laser engraver, laser etcher or even laser cutter directly affects how much material is removed or altered by the device.

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Laser Marking , Laser Engraving & Laser Etching – The Differences Materials Guide

Laser Marking, Laser Engraving & Laser Etching Materials

The following table shows you which materials are suitable for which laser process. Moreover, you can jump from the table to the detailed description of each material and process.

Wood

Because wood is a natural product, no two pieces will yield the exact same results. This notwithstanding, it is possible to give a few hints on how certain kinds of woods will behave when worked with a laser marker, laser engraver or laser etcher. First, all these methods will a slightly darkened surface compared to the surrounding material.

Softwoods (e.g. pine, larch, and spruce) can be laser processed, but additional measures in place to prevent the part from burning.

Hardwoods (e.g. walnut, mahogany, and maple) produce especially good results. Wood that has been laser marked has a great contrast with the surrounding material.

Leather

It is possible to laser mark finished leather, producing a look similar to hot-branding. Avoid raster marking large surfaces, since the leather will turn powdery. Therefore, vector marking is recommended. Also, note that fur cannot be engraved. Leather is not suitable to laser engraving.

Plastics

Each plastic has been developed with very distinctive applications ins mind. Hence, no two kinds will behave exactly the same way underneath a laser. Some plastics generate unwanted chemical modifications when irradiated by a laser. The following observations can be made for the most popular plastics:

ABS Remember the quality of Lego bricks? Then you can relate to why ABS is favored for its strength and rigidity. Today, many consumer items are made from this material using the injection-molding process. When ABS melts, it can emit toxic fumes. It is suitable for laser marking, laser etching, and laser engraving.

Acrylic Acrylic is especially well suited to raster engraving because this methods lends a beautiful frosted finish with a distinct contrast to the material. It is not suitable for vector engraving, since the melted outline is only faintly visible.

Delrin This plastic is suitable for laser marking, laser etching and laser engraving. However concerning laser engraving, the material does not provide the same range of contrast as for instance acrylic.

PEEK PEEK is a high-performance plastic that is famous for its outstanding mechanical, chemical, and thermal properties. Plastics of this family are highly resistant to stress, temperature, and chemicals. But that’s not all, parts made from PEEK can be exposed to X-ray and gamma radiation. In spite of its robustness, the material is easy to machine and fabricate. It is suitable for laser marking, laser etching, and laser engraving.

PETG PETG is a variant of PET that has been combined with glycol to achieve a number of desirable effects such as high transparency. ETG components are weather-resistant and are thus often used for garden appliances. However, PETG has a low melting point making it an unsuitable material for laser engraving. Also, you should avoid raster engraving and small details, as these will not come out well. Vector engraving is the preferred method with this material.

PLA PLA is a plastic that if favored by some people as an alternative to ABS, since it is made from renewable plant resources and it is biodegradable. Moreover, it is a suitable for food contact and it emits a harmless sweet fragrance when heated. This material is not suitable to laser marking, since no contrasting mark is created.

Styrene This plastic needs special attention when working it with a laser, since it has a low melting point. It works best with simple shapes. Also, you should avoid raster engraving and small details, as these will not come out well. Vector engraving is the preferred method with this material.

Metals

Aluminum This versatile material can be both laser engraved and laser etched using CO2 machines yielding clean, dramatic details. The high power of the laser exposes the bright substrate of the material. Hence, black anodized aluminum produces the most impressive results in terms of contrast.

Brass Favored for its gold-like appearance, brass used to be a difficult metal to laser mark, laser etching or laser engrave, due to its high reflectivity. However, modern machines can apply even intricate patterns in a breeze.

Stainless Steel Stainless Steel has an added component of least 10.5% chromium that protects the iron from rusting. Laser marking stainless steel creates high contrasts. The material can also be laser engraved.

Titanium For its unparalleled strength-to-density ratio, titanium is often used in high-performance applications. It is suitable for laser marking, laser etching, and laser engraving.

Stone

Stone that is put under a laser reacts in a way that is very different from most other kinds of materials. Hence, it is traditionally worked using sandblasting or cutting (either with diamonds or a water jet). It does not turn to its gaseous state, instead small grains are exposed that quickly expand in size. Avoid raster engraving large surfaces, since the end results may be visually uneven. Laser marking stones leaves a light mark on the surface. As a rule of thumb, you will achieve the best results on dark stone, because it has the highest contrast to the laser engraved areas.

Ceramics

Ceramic parts react very different from most other kinds of materials under a laser. Hence, it is traditionally worked using sandblasting or cutting (either with diamonds or a water jet). It does not turn to its gaseous state, instead small grains are exposed that quickly expand in size. Avoid raster engraving large surfaces, since the end results may be visually uneven.

Glass

Glass that is put under a laser reacts in a way that is very different from most other kinds of materials. Hence, it is traditionally worked using sandblasting or cutting (either with diamonds or a water jet). It does not turn to its gaseous state, instead small grains are exposed that quickly expand in size. Avoid raster engraving large surfaces, since the end results may be visually uneven.

License: The text of "Laser Marking, Laser Engraving & Laser Etching – The Differences" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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