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Laser Etching – How to Get Started

Picture of Jacob Greenburg
by Jacob Greenburg
Apr 22, 2019
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Laser etching is perfect to create an indelible mark on items and tools, but how does it work and what services are available? Read this overview of the technology, where we've marked the fundamentals.

Laser Etching Laser Technologies

An ornate laser-etched MacBook, showing off its case.
An ornate laser-etched MacBook, showing off its case. Source: iPadLaserEngraving.com

Laser technologies use a high power laser beam to cut or “draw” figures, shapes, text, or pictures into or onto objects. Traditionally, the laser is a CO2-style tube of high-power equipment, but some modern lasers can be diode-based, which is similar to a CD/DVD disc burning drive. Typical lasers are controlled via mirrors, varying magnetic fields, or other mechanical means. Already you can see that there are many variables to how laser marking or cutting will look and feel.

In addition to these variables, based on the intensity of the laser, and therefore, the amount of material removed, there are several classifications of laser technology. The lowest power technique, laser marking, simply discolors the surface of an object. When the beam is intense enough to “slice” into the material, the technique is called laser engraving – for reliefs – or laser cutting – for complete penetration.

Here, we focus on laser etching, which is a subcategory of laser engraving. The main distinction is that the resulting relief is very shallow.

Lasers are used to mark different types of metals, from fine jewelry to machine tool identification. Yet, with recent advancements, such as laser diodes, pulse lasers, and more, this technology is more refined than ever and can mark plastics, leather, rubber, and just about anything solid. This marking is much like printing on a traditional printer but using a high powered beam of light instead of ink.

Join us as we explore this topic, discussing the advantages of laser etching and where you can go to get your items made with this technology. 

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Laser Etching How It Works & Advantages

Fine details laser engraved into a glass eyepiece.
Fine details laser engraved into a glass eyepiece. Source: dac-intl.com

When using materials that are harder or must exist in environments where corrosion can occur, you want a mark that isn’t going to go away or wear off. This more permanent mark is where laser etching shines.

While laser engraving typically works in the range of 0.02 to 0.125 inches, laser etching tends not to go deeper than 0.001 inches. With such a small amount of material removed, the resulting mark is visible but virtually unnoticeable to touch.

The laser’s power is increased and pulsed to the point where the very top layers of the material are vaporized at the atomic level and removed from the component. These types of interactions between light, energy, and the material substrate are fascinating and give a range of advantages:

  • a permanent mark, 
  • the ability to produce complex patterns,
  • applicability in soft as well as hardened materials, and
  • resistance to corrosion.
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Laser Etching Etching for Hire

Laser etch a custom bookmark, using any crazy font you want!
Laser etch a custom bookmark, using any crazy font you want! Source: Ponoko

If you’re interested in making laser-etched products but don’t want to put the purchase of a whole laser machine on yourself, you can try a laser engraving service. Below are a few companies that are ready to meet your etching needs. Most will allow you to upload a file for an instant quote.

The following two services are great for international customers looking for a large organization to help meet their needs:

  • Sculpteo: One of the top “select your service” laser engravers out there, Sculpteo is one of the most popular surfaces worldwide. They feature an online quoting system, the option of different materials (plywood, MDF, acrylic, cardboard), and other services, such as laser cutting and 3D printing.
  • Ponoko: Another service provider that specializes in laser-made products, including laser etching. Unlike other companies, which are often all-in-one prototype shops, Ponoko primarily focuses on laser etching and can provide options of over 99+ different materials, design templates, and an online quoting system.

The above two work great if you’re looking for an international supplier, but what if you’re interested in something more localized to the USA or the UK? Here’s a list of local shops who can support your project.

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Laser Etching Etching at Home

The Ten-High 40W laser engraver.
The Ten-High 40W laser engraver. Source: Amazon

If you’re interested in getting into laser marking at home, there are plenty of options for that, as well! Many desktop laser engravers exist out there, from budget machines to professional solutions. The key is to check the specs and features to make sure the machine you purchase suits your needs!

Here are a few good places to start:

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Laser Etching Powering Down

Beautiful patterns laser cut into into card stock paper.
Beautiful patterns laser cut into into card stock paper. Source: blogs.cuit.columbia.edu

Laser etching technology works excellently for various commercial, industrial, and hobbyist applications. It has advantages when marking objects in low power and efficient ways, such that it can perform a clean finish on soft materials otherwise not possible.

Interested to learn more about lasers? Find out what’s available here on All3DP.com:

Feature image source: RCLifeOn / YouTube

License: The text of "Laser Etching – How to Get Started" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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