Best Wood For Laser Cutting & Engraving Projects
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- Wood Types: There are two main types of wood: hardwoods and softwoods. Each has different properties and suitability for laser cutting and engraving.
- Wood Density: The density of wood affects how deep and fast you can cut with your laser. Softer woods are easier to cut than harder woods.
- Wood Color: The color of wood affects the contrast and appearance of your laser engraved designs. Lighter woods produce more varied effects than darker woods.
- Wood Quality: The quality of wood affects the smoothness and accuracy of your laser cuts and engravings. Engineered woods can be cheaper but also more problematic than natural woods.
You can make all sorts of different projects by laser cutting and engraving wood. However, some woods are better suited to laser cutting than others, and some should be avoided altogether.
To help you find the right wood for your project, in this guide I’ll reveal the best wood for laser cutting and engraving. We’ll explore different types of hardwood and softwood that can be used for all sorts of different projects, from small crafts to musical instruments.
Best Wood For Beginners in Laser Cutting
Birch, maple, and cherry are the best woods for beginners to use.
Birch is a stiff hardwood that’s very cheap and easily available. It has a light coloring, making it a good canvas for producing different laser engraved effects.
Birch is typically sold in plywood form, which is smooth and has uniform, loosely packed grains, helping achieve accurate cuts in a single pass.
Maple is often favored for its appearance with reddish to golden tones and it typically burns very dark when laser cut.
It has an attractive texture with fine grains and is easy to work with, and it also finishes great. Woodworkers typically use maple sapwood, which is softer than heartwood.
Considered one of the most beautiful woods, cherry can range in color from reddish, to brown, to pale yellow, producing a highlighted effect when engraved and deeper brownish cut marks.a
One of the softer hardwoods, cherry is generally easy to work with and is a popular choice for both small crafts and larger products such as furniture.
Best Softwood For Laser Cutting
Balsa, pine, cedar, and redwood are some of the most popular softwoods for laser cutting and engraving projects.
Softwoods are from coniferous evergreen trees. Bear in mind that despite the broad categorization, some softwoods are significantly harder than others.
Balsa is one of the lightest woods, and can vary in color from pale white to reddish-brown. As it has straight grains and a low density, balsa is one of the easiest woods to laser cut and engrave. It’s also one of the cheapest woods you can buy.
The low grain density also helps you achieve precise cutting while producing little fumes. Balsa wood has a wide range of uses, including thermal and sound insulation, crafts like model airplanes, fishing floats, surfboards, and musical instruments.
It’s often regarded as one of the best wood to laser cut craft projects due to its easy availability, low price, ease of cutting, lightweight, and the fact it stains and finishes well.
Redwood is quite a soft wood that can range from yellow to pinkish to red in coloring. So, you can achieve different effects and coloring with laser engraving depending on the shade of your workpiece.
Redwood’s softness makes it a popular choice for carving small crafts and decorations, although it’s also a popular choice in musical instruments, so you could use it to finish a CNC-cut guitar, for example.
Cedar is a popular wood for laser cutting products due to its reddish coloring and pleasant aroma. It also has fantastic weather resistance and is a popular choice for outdoor furniture and fencing.
Cedar is a fairly knotty wood that gives cedar projects a nice aesthetic appearance. It’s one of the denser softwoods and offers good strength.
Cork itself isn’t technically a wood. It’s a material derived from the cork oak tree, which is native to parts of Southern Europe and North Africa.
The benefit of cork for laser cutting is that it’s very soft and easy to cut, as well as being super cheap. You can easily buy cork boards from Amazon and other sites, which you can use to make personalized coasters and even wine bottle labels.
Pine varies in strength and hardness depending on the species, with the likes of red pine and spruce pine being harder than white pine and sugar pine.
Despite the differences in strength, pine typically has a light pale color with straight grains, which makes it a good blank canvas for laser engraving designs. Some people have even created laser engraved portraits on pinewood. You can produce brown lines when engraving and blacker colors by cutting.
Pine’s attractive grain and medium-to-coarse texture make it a popular choice for all sorts of projects, from furniture and joinery to coasters, personalized keyrings, picture frames, and small signs.
Yes is among the hardest softwoods, and is also expensive and not easily available. However, it’s often sought after due to the stunning aesthetic produced by its wavy grains and knotting, which look particularly beautiful when finished.
Laser engraving on yew will typically provide a dark contrast. Like cedar, it would be a good choice if you wanted to laser engrave a bench or chair, for example.
Yew also has one of the more unique applications among woods, as its elasticity makes it a popular choice for archery bows.
Best Hardwoods For Laser Cutting
These include basswood, popular, walnut, oak, and mahogany.
Whereas softwoods are from coniferous trees, hardwoods are from deciduous species. Some live up to the name by being extremely hard, while others are a lot softer.
Basswood is a light-colored and soft hardwood with a fine, even texture that makes it very easy to work with. Its low density means you can cut it with a weaker laser than other hardwoods, and its pale tones allow you to produce various colored effects by engraving and cutting.
Basswood is much cheaper than most other hardwoods and is widely available; you can buy blocks easily from Amazon and other sites.
Like basswood, poplar is actually pretty soft, so it can be smoothly cut without needing a hugely powerful laser. Its color can vary between white, yellow, and brown. Engravings usually produce a brown color, while cutting poplar gives a darker, blackish border on the cut lines.
A cheap and easily available wood, poplar is commonly used for making wooden toys, crafts, and models, as well as for larger products like cabinets.
Poplar is one of the most smoke-producing woods when laser cutting, so you’ll need a suitable extractor.
Arguably the best laser cutting wood for luxury products, mahogany is widely regarded as the most premium wood due to its stunning appearance, and is also among the most expensive.
It’s best known for its use in premium furniture, but can be used for all sorts of different projects, from musical instruments to decorations and ornaments.
Mahogany’s beautiful aesthetic makes it a great choice for laser engraved jewelry boxes and similar products. Due to its dark appearance, you will need a powerful laser to make deep engravings so you can get a nice and easily visible contrast.
Walnut is often favored for its rich, dark brown, almost chocolatey appearance, although there are also lighter variations. It’s a very strong wood similar to mahogany, and is also one of the pricier options.
One of the benefits of walnut for laser cutting projects is that its straight grains make it easy to cut thin slabs, so it’s perfect for things like personalized cutting boards. It’s also shock and burn resistant, making it one of the go-to materials for wood sculptures.
Shallow engravings on walnut usually produce a highlighted effect, while going deeper brings out an almost black effect.
Oak is one of the hardest woods and typically has a yellowish-brown color, although there’s also red oak which has a reddish tint. Its densely packed grains result in fantastic durability, and it’s often favored for projects like joinery due to its distinctive ring pattern.
You typically get a dark contrast when laser engraving oak. It also stains well, so the base wood can be stained in different shades depending on what you want to make and what coloring you want to produce with your laser.
Oak is also popular due to its fragrance, which varies between species and depending on the quality of the wood. Generally, oak is one of the more affordable hardwoods. It’s sometimes considered the best wood for laser engraving for its mix of strength, coloring effects, and affordability.
Ash is among the strongest, stiffest, and most durable of all hardwoods. Not only that, but it also has a unique level of elasticity along with great shock resistance, which makes it arguably the best wood for laser engraving sports products such as tennis rackets and baseball bats.
It’s also used in drum casings, for wooden tool handles, and, along with yew, is one of the most common choices for archery bows.
Ash typically has a light yellow color and so you can produce sharp contrasts with laser cuts and engravings. Bear in mind that, like oak, ash requires a powerful laser and is best cut at lower speeds than software woods.
Alder has a darker, richer color than most other woods and a straight, uniform grain arrangement. This makes it a popular choice in decorative wood products, as you can produce dark burn colorings with laser cutting and
It’s also one of the softer hardwoods, which makes it easier to work with than the likes of oak and ash. It’s also not particularly expensive, so it’s a good alternative to the likes of walnut and mahogany.
Best Engineered Woods For Laser Cutting
Engineered woods are products typically made of wood pieces, chips, or residue, bound together with a synthetic resin.
They have the benefit of good strength while being cheaper than real wood. Although some engineered woods like MDF aren’t ideal for laser cutting, plywood and particleboard are two options to consider.
Plywood is made up of thin sheets of wood that are glued together. Due to the presence of glue, you need to use plywood that’s specifically designed for laser work, rather than any common type of plywood.
Laser plywood is widely available online, typically made of birch but sometimes also other species, such as poplar. The benefit of these is that their smooth surfaces and even grains make for effective and accurate cutting, and laser plywood is cheaper than regular woods.
However, using plywood for laser cutting gives off dangerous fumes when laser cut, so you need a proper exhaust system in place.
If you’re a novice or a hobbyist you could greatly benefit from our guide to laser cutting plywood to get the most out of this material.
Particleboard is a cheap engineered wood made up of wood chips with synthetic glue. As it contains glue, it’s best cut quickly with lower power settings to avoid over-melting the glue.
Particleboard is easily available and very versatile, so it’s a good option for all sorts of laser projects – just make sure your workplace is properly ventilated.
What Woods Should You Not Laser Cut?
Whereas there are virtually any types of wood that can be cut with a CNC router, you should avoid laser cutting the following:
- Oily hardwoods
- Resinous Softwoods
- Exotic hardwoods
- Pressure-treated woods
Certain species of hardwood trees, such as teak, bubinga, and santos mahogany, are particularly oily. Their high oil content makes it very difficult to achieve clean laser cuts, as the oil will melt, causing staining and producing smoke.
Similar to oily hardwoods, softwoods with lots of resin are prone to edge burning and can produce flashback onto the underside of your workpiece. Ponderosa pine is an example of a softwood species with a particularly high resin content.
Fiberboards are engineered woods made of wood fibers that are bound with synthetic resin. MDF (medium-density fiberboard) is widely used in CNC routing, but it’s not great for laser cutting.
This is mainly because MDF is too dense to achieve good results, and it’s prone to charring. The glue used (and sand and metal particles) can also cause issues, and it can give off formaldehyde gas when burnt, which is potentially hazardous.
You can buy laser MDF which is better suited for laser cutting, but in general, we’d recommend sticking to the wood types we’ve covered above for the best results – or plywood if you want to use engineered wood.
Exotic hardwoods, such as tigerwood, Brazilian cherry, kempas, Australian cypress, and Sapele mahogany, are typically extremely dense – more so than the hardwoods typically used in woodworking.
This denseness can make it very difficult to achieve clean results with a laser, so you’re best off sticking with domestic species.
Pressure treating wood involves infusing preservatives or fire retardants into the wood to extend its life and make it more resistant to various forces. As with other engineered wood types, laser cutting pressure-treated wood can emit dangerous fumes and is best avoided.
Things to Consider When Laser Cutting Wood
When laser cutting wood, should consider:
- Type of wood
- Thickness of wood
- Laser power
- Cutting speed
- Laser type
Type of wood
Woods are broadly divided into two types – hardwoods and softwoods. While each type within these categories are different, generally hardwoods require more energy and power to laser cut than softwoods.
Different woods also have different oil and resin content, which can affect how easy you can cut them and also the visual results you’ll achieve.
There are also engineered woods which are made up of wood residue or chips and synthetic adhesive. These are very cheap and easily available, but not all of them are suitable for laser engraving, as we explain further down.
Thickness of wood
Some woods, such as oak and ash, are much denser than others, such as balsa and poplar. This increased denseness affects how deep you can cut with your laser.
So, if you want to cut rather than just engraving, you need to make sure you have thin enough pieces for your laser to handle.
Your laser power will determine how fast you can cut wood and also how deep you can cut in a single pass. For example, a 50W laser will cut deeper in a single pass than a 30W lasers.
The price of wood can vary greatly, from very cheap options like balsa and pine, to premium woods like mahogany.
Since laser engraving typically involves small to medium projects, you can save some cash by going for softer, cheaper woods than if you were looking for strong and more expensive wood for furniture making, for example.
CO2 lasers are generally preferred over diode lasers for woodworking as they have a 10,600nm wavelength that’s easily absorbed by wood and are more powerful, making them effective at cutting as well as engraving and etching.
You can also vary the power settings to achieve different effects with different wood types.
Best Setting For Laser Cutting Wood
Here’s the ideal settings for laser cutting 1/8” thick balsa wood:
- 80W laser wattage
- 80% power
- 80 ipm speed
- 1-3 passes
The laser wattage refers to a laser’s base power. For example, a 40W laser is around twice as powerful as a 20W laser. You typically want at least 80W for cutting even softwoods like balsa, and 100W to 120W for harder woods.
If you’re engraving, you can go for lower-power lasers in the 30W to 70W range, depending on the wood you’re engraving and how deep you want to go.
A laser’s power setting determines what percentage of its power you use at any one time. The reason most people try to avoid using 100% is to help prolong the shelf life of their laser tubes.
When using a laser cutter for wood, you will want at least 70-80% power use, although you can get away with less for engraving.
A laser’s speed setting (ipm) determines how fast it can cut, but it’s not always about the fastest setting.
While you can use faster speeds like 80 ipm for softwood woods like balsa and pine, for hardwoods it’s better to use more power and lower speeds to achieve clean cuts at the required depths, otherwise, you’ll end up requiring more passes.
The number of passes you need to make with your laser engraver depends upon the above settings, but also on the thickness and hardness of your wood.
For example, while you can cut balsa in 1-3 passes using the above settings, you’d require more passes to cut harder wood such as oak.
Tips For Laser Cutting Wood
These are 5 top tips to help you achieve the best results when laser cutting wood.
- Choose the right wood
- Use proper ventilation
- Ensure the wood is secure
- Test the settings
- Finish the wood
Choosing the right wood
When looking for the best wood to laser engrave, make sure it’s suitable for your project. For example, an archery bow requires a more elastic wood than a chair would, while projects like model airplanes require lightweight woods.
You also need to ensure the wood is suitable for your laser. By that, we mean that you need to choose a wood that you laser is going to handle – a weaker laser that can handle pine might struggle with the likes of oak and ash, for example.
Finally, also bear in mind the different colorings that lasers produce on different woods, and that laser engraving will produce different contrasts on lighter and darker woods.
Use proper ventilation
All woods produce fumes when laser engraved, although some are smokier than others. So, it’s always important to have proper ventilation in place, by either working outside or using an extractor if working inside.
Ensure the wood is secure
You need to make sure your wood is tightly secured with a clamp or other means to avoid it jogging during the engraving or cutting process, otherwise it could ruin your project.
Test your settings
Your laser settings affect whether you can engrave or cut wood, to what depths you can do these, and also how fast. So, we recommend testing your settings on a waste piece of wood before moving onto your project.
Finish the wood
Once you’re done engraving or cutting, you can brush away any debris, sand down if required, and then finish your wood – this not only helps the wood product last longer, but also adds a nice sheen that makes it more attractive and helps it last longer
Can all wood be laser cut?
No. While many types of wood can be laser cut, resinous softwoods, oily and exotic hardwoods, fiberboard, and pressure-treated wood are not ideal.
Is laser cutting wood toxic?
Yes. Laser cutting wood emits potentially hazardous fumes, so it’s important to have a suitable exhaust system in place and to wear a mask while cutting.
What is the thickest wood you can laser cut?
This depends on the power of your laser and the density of the wood. A powerful 100W CO2 laser can cut some woods as deep as 20mm, but most lasers are limited to 0.5-12mm thickness.