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Laser cutting wood is a method of using a high-powered laser to vaporize or burn away material to create designs for decorative furnishings. Originally an industrial process used on metal sheets and piping, this process has extended to craftspeople and schools in the creative manipulation of many artificial and natural, hard, and soft materials. While the process is guided by automated movements and computer-aided design (CAD) software, adept laser wood cutting requires experience and experimentation, familiarity with materials, and technical knowledge.
Subtracting material with focused beams the thickness of a human hair, laser cutting wood relies on the elements of speed and power to vary its cut. By reducing speed and increasing power, an operator can make a cut by extending laser contact time with the wood. Reducing power and extending speed create the shallower etches used in shading and creating forms on the surface of the wood. Experimentation and experience allow operators to hone their techniques across various grades and thicknesses of wood. As with other arts, improving technique requires practice and the acquisition of detailed knowledge.
Bear in mind that dry and lightweight woods cut more easily than dense, moist woods. Lasers also vary by power, polarization, mode, and control. Laser cutting wood requires careful control over feed speed; even the type of gas used to clear the laser's path will affect the qualities of the cut. Remember that differences between computer and reality result in variance in the laser's cutting dimensions; beam kerf, or the width of the hole, might end up slightly bigger than drawn, while solids might emerge fractionally thinner than planned. Thin lines can disappear in the etch, and thin wood can warp or break under the heat of the laser.
With most laser engraving machines,lasers reflect off angled mirrors until directed toward the surface of the material to be cut. Once the angle is established, the laser then travels through its focusing lens as a narrow beam for vector cutting smooth lines, or raster etching shadings and gradations. Etching allows the operator to focus the laser directly onto the surface. Cutting, however, produces a slight angle that gets more noticeable depending on the thickness of the wood. Carefully plan and reposition focal points to avoid such pitfalls before they happen.
For more difficult designs, many machines allow operators to use “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) software to create artistic representations in stunning detail. Software comes in varying degrees of difficulty, from user-friendly to the unending learning curve of professional suites. Materials can extend to natural, plastics, ceramics, stone, glass, and metals, but not vinyl, Lexan, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), as these contain chlorine, which can harm the laser's mechanism. Laser cutting wood allows extensive design discoveries in a material people thought they knew.
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