Adding a Laser - for a newbie

I’m not going to do this for a while, so I’m asking for general education and so I can know what direction I should go with my research.

I’ve seen websites that advertise lasers that can be added to a Shapeoko.

1 - Of course, I’m wondering if this is practical and workable or a bad idea.
2 - Can I etch at different depths with a laser or is it just a straight cut all the way through?
3 - Assuming #2 works and I could make, for example, signs or plaques with a laser, is it possible to have the laser “scorch” a surface? I’m thinking that if I did this for making signs, that I could use the laser to blacken letters I carve into a sign instead of having to do it with a blowtorch.

And, of course, if my questions show ignorance in something in this field I should know before looking farther, please let me know!

A lot of folks (including myself) have gone with the JTech laser system. The support is great and the lasers are reliable. They’re diode lasers, so they don’t cut all that much, but they’re great for etching and burning on all sorts of materials. They sell kits that fit their lasers to Shapeoko. I have the 7w diode and love it.

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Thank you!

I see, in their demo photos, a lot of pieces that have been cut through - that includes plywood and thin metal. Does being able to cut work better with a stronger laser? I’m wondering just how much or how little it can do. I looked at the price and was thinking if, for the prices I see, it can cut so when I’m cutting out shapes, I have thinner lines and can fit more parts on a section of wood, it’d make it more worthwhile to get one and use it for a lot of projects instead of a router.

One huge advantage to a laser cutting (other than how thin the kerf can be) is that it’s a lot easier to hold down the work…you don’t have to worry about pieces flying away on you - so you don’t have to plan tabs, etc. You do have to consider burning and fumes (for toxic materials). For me, the laser is great for decoration, branding, layouts, etc. and I use the CNC to do actual cutouts - so the 7w (and likely less powerful diode lasers) are perfect.

Do you have to remove the laser for CNC work? Or is it just a simple tool change if you use the CNC cutting, then you can easily switch to the laser for etching on that same project?

JTech has a number of different mounting mechanisms for the laser. I have one that mounts to my old dust boot (a SuckIt mount), but JTech has lots of variations so that you don’t have to do anything other than remove the bit. There is even a “Chucked” laser mount, which you put in your collet…which is really convenient if you use both the CNC and laser for a project, because you don’t have to re-zero the machine when you change to and from laser (my mount is offset from the collet, so I have to move the machine to re-zero if I want it zero’d on the same point).

Look on the JTech site and you’ll see his various set ups.

I have the “chuck mount” JTech, but I haven’t found a way to avoid re-zeroing when switching from CNC to laser. Maybe it’s because I use Carbide Motion for CNC and Lightburn for Laser. To switch, I have to quit one program and launch the other, causing a re-home and necessitating a re-zero.

I have not tried it — but I believe, you can run both programs simultaneously. You just need to make sure you run the UseLaser macro before you use the laser (and the UseCNC macro before you use the CNC) (both run in Lightburn).

I can see where it might be tricky. But if you have lightburn running, did your CNC-ing, returned to zero and then ran Lightburn from current position origin, I think you’re fine.

Also - I believe there’s an option to start Lightburn without an initialization…so you can just run from current position origin even if you start lightburn at that point. Just run UseLaser!

I’ve looked over the lasers at J-Tech Photonics. I have read what @GJM has said about the wattage. I notice that they have listed, for the Shapeoko 3, 2.8W, 4.2W, 7W, and 14W. (The 14W is listed as “Dual Pro.”) Also, there’s a normal mount and a dust boot mount and an option for a high resolution lens. Normally I’d ask these kinds of questions on the forum for the company - but they don’t have one.

Can someone help me understand what you get at the different wattage levels, what the “Dual Pro” is, and the difference in the other options?

They do have a page with an overview of their respective models here.

That page does not have the Dual Pro version listed, but according to the product page it is just two 7W lasers combined into one unit.

Regarding wattage, here is a snippet from the Dual Pro product page:

Cut more materials. Engrave faster. Get MORE done in LESS time!

The Dual Pro wasn’t available when I bought mine.

If you’re just burning, or cutting thin stuff, any of his lasers are good choices. The 4.2W unit is popular. If you want an honest answer, just write to Jay…he’s a straight-shooter and wants to be helpful. When I first was in the market, he listened to what I was going to do with it and recommended the 4.2 — I got the 7 anyway…because I thought I might want to grow a bit more. But honestly, he was probably right - and I felt good that he wasn’t trying to upsell me.

I think, if I had it all to do again, I would choose the chuck mount option with the 7W laser. The dust mount relies on your choice of dust collector(which, as it did for me, might change over time), and it changes the center origin.

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The Dual Pro wasn’t available when I bought mine either (August 2021). I decided on the 7W spindle mount. I struggled with the different wattages too, and in the end I decided I wanted the “fastest” one available. I have no regrets on that decision. As JTech points out, the 4.2W will go 2X as fast as the 2.8W and the 7W will go 4X as fast as the 2.8W. The high-resolution lens for an extra $20 was a no-brainer for me, as it creates a higher-resolution spot.

As for the spindle mount, I recommend it because it gives you flexibility AND a good option for fume extraction. I use it when my project isn’t very tall (because there isn’t a lot of clearance under it). I also bought a magnetic mount accessory for times when I need more clearance under the laser (for example, etching a logo on the bottom of a bowl).

As for fume extraction, unless you’re outside, you’ll need it. Engraving wood throws off smoke like a campfire. I found a vacuum hose fitting that slides into my Sweepy dust shoe, and ground the edge off the fitting so it gets up close to the laser. The duct tape is there to restrict the air intake to where I need it.

So for me, fume extraction is easiest when I have the laser spindle-mounted. I have a Stinger vacuum with a charcoal filter that does a great job. If it’s nice out, I’ll open the garage door instead and just blow the smoke out with a big fan.

Here are the details on the fume extractor:

I cut it up, removed the cheapo Stinger filter, and zip-tied the carbon filter material in place. It removes 99% of the smoke, but not the smell of burning wood. Note the smoke residue on the normally-black carbon filter.

The big “X” on my wasteboard happened when I first tried to etch a clear whiskey bottle without a suitable mask on the glass to absorb the energy. Glass is transparent to a diode laser so it etched the wasteboard and not the glass. LOL.

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@ScottsdaleSteve I did the same thing for dust extraction (did I recommend it to you? I can’t recall). It works great. I’m thinking of modifying my Suckit-mount 7w for the spindle mount - Jay said they can do it for me - but the price is not terrific and probably not worth it at this point.

My 7w came with the high definition lens included…already installed. I think that was before you got yours.

BTW: I like that sweepy vacuum mount…I might have to steal that idea!

  • Gary

@GJM - I think maybe you did recommend the Stinger. It took some looking to find the 3M carbon filter sheet, but I found it locally at Lowes. I wish I could remember what the vacuum attachment came from. I have a big box of random dust parts and this one “just fit”…

I called J-Tech and talked with a sales person (who seemed rather distracted while I was asking questions). It looks to me like if I order their bundle for a Shapeoko 3 and Lightburn (which, I’m glad to see, works on Linux), that it’s all I need to start using the laser.

Can anyone recommend sites that have laser projects I can download to practice and learn laser etching? Something similar to Cut Rocket, but for laser based work?

FYI: You’re going to love Lightburn (I believe). It’s very powerful. CC is starting to approach it (I’m thrilled to say), but I still find myself doing my more intricate design work in Lightburn, exporting the design as an SVG file, and importing it into CC to add toolpaths.

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Another thought: I’ve seen the demos and have seen that the laser can be used to burn in something in a design. Can I cut with a laser without getting the burned look on wood?

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