A pioneering craft for the 21st Century.
By Andrew Zoellner
Each generation, a new technology in woodworking enables us to work faster, with more precision and more creativity. Carbide-tipped bits and a whole new set of portable power tools, for example, have improved how we work and what we build. For the next generation, CNC lasers may also be one of those tools that transform our shops.
I’m a young, 21st Century woodworker. When Epilog, a maker of CNC lasers, asked me to try out the Helix , a mid-size machine from the Legend Elite series, I jumped at the chance. What can it do? How does it work? How far can I push it? Dozens of questions came up. I’ll introduce you to what I found, but one thing I’ll tell you up front: There’s way more to this technology than meets the eye. After days of experimenting, I only scratched the surface.
What is a CNC laser?
To understand a CNC laser, think of it as having two components. First, there’s the CNC (computer numerically controlled) part. You’re probably familiar with CNC machines–they’re common in factories, and are making their way into small woodworking shops, too. In woodworking applications, a CNC usually controls a router. OK, let’s replace that router bit with a highintensity beam of light–a laser. That’s the second part of the machine.
Consider a CNC laser as a type of printer. A computer program moves the machine’s head. But the head shoots a laser, instead of ink.
What can a laser do?
A CNC laser’s beam essentially heats and vaporizes the wood it contacts. By adjusting the intensity of the light, you can determine the depth that it cuts. Usually, the waste is just reduced to smoke, but when the laser is set on high, you may even create a small fl ame!
You can fine-tune the depth-of-cut however you wish, but think of it as having three levels: shallow, medium and deep. They correspond to three diff erent applications: engraving, relief carving and pattern cutting.
Lots of folks have bought a CNC laser for engraving things like nametags, keychains and other quickly personalized trinkets. It’s a great small business–there’s one in virtually every city in the country. You can copy your own images or download them from the Internet. Basically, any image that can be digitized can be engraved.
Cutting deeper into the wood with a laser creates a threedimensional eff ect, similar to lowrelief carving. The laser is extremely precise. You can create very intricate patterns, perfect for medallions, awards, moldings or any design that will embellish a project.
Cutting deeper yet, you can go all the way through a relatively thin piece of solid wood or plywood (up to 3/8" on the Helix I tested). You’re not making images anymore–you’re making shapes. Lasers are commonly used to make wooden clock parts, dollhouse furniture, models, 3-D animal sculptures and more. For workshop applications, you can use a laser to create extremely accurate plywood templates, based on CAD drawings, for shaping parts on a router table. You could also use a laser for intarsia, marquetry or scroll-saw patterns.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a wide community of Epilog users online (www.EpilogLaser.com), supported and encouraged by Epilog to push the boundaries of what a laser can do. If you buy a laser for woodworking, or rent time on one, consider yourself a pioneer. Many applications have yet to be discovered!
How does the laser work?
The Epilog’s laser tube is located in back of the machine. The beam of high-energy light passes through a series of mirrors and lenses to a CNC-controlled head, which moves in an X/Y plane (Photo 1). The head moves in a totally sealed and safe compartment containing the workpiece.
The Epilog interfaces with your computer much like a printer. After you’ve set up your project in Corel Draw, the software included with the Epilog (which can be used with a wide variety of graphic-editing programs), you hit print and bring up a print driver screen, which Eplilog refers to as the dashboard (Photo 2). The dashboard is where you make your adjustments. The most important are speed (how fast the laser moves over your material) and intensity (how strong the laser is, and how deep it will cut). Once you’ve zeroed in on your settings for a particular project, you can save and recall them at any time.
What does the Epilog require?
On the hardware side, you’ll need a computer to run the Epilog. You’ll also need an exhaust system, to remove particulates and odor from the machine’s exhaust (Photo 3). Most users in a fi xed installation opt to exhaust the fumes out of their shop with a hose or ductwork, but portable fi ltration units are available for mobile applications (like shows and fairs). Most lasers and fi ltration units only need 120-volt circuits.
On the software side, the Epilog is designed to empower even a novice computer user to get started creating quickly. You don’t have to be an expert! Having grown up in the information age, that part of the operation didn’t faze me, but I was surprised to see how easy the software was to use at its most basic levels.
Types of Epilog lasers
Epilog has two lines of lasers: Zing and Legend Elite. The major diff erences between the lines are capacity (the size and depth of the bed), power (expressed in watts) and resolution (dots per square inch).
The Zings are entry-level lasers with smaller beds and lower-power, capable of cutting through 1/4" wood.
The Legend Elite series lasers have a larger capacity, more powerful beams capable of cutting through wood up to 3/8" thick. Legend series lasers can also engrave at a faster speed than the Zings.
Both lines of lasers have a repeatability of ±.0005". Zing series machines engrave up to 1000 dpi; the Legend series goes up to 1200 dpi.
The Helix I tried out has a 24" x 18" bed, a 60-watt laser. The exhaust system we used is about $3,000.
The bottom line
An Epilog is an investment, no doubt about it. But it can be the foundation of a profi table small business or the tool that propels your woodworking to an entirely new level. To fi nd out more about laser woodworking, contact your local Epilog distributor. He can probably locate an Epilog in your area and help you contract some work or rent some time on the machine. After seeing how quick and easy it is to personalize a project or engrave an intricate design, you just might catch the laser bug. Our photographer sure did–he achieved some remarkable results (Photo 4).
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker August/September 2010, issue #149.
Click any image to view a larger version.
What A Laser Can Do
Engraving: The Epilog can burn a shallow picture or drawing on wood. You can reproduce any digital image, including your own photo or sketch.
Relief Carving: The Epilog can also be set to burn deeper, for shallow relief carving. A laser can quickly and precisely duplicate intricate patterns.
Pattern Cutting: Set to full strength, the Epilog can cut all the way through material. You can duplicate parts large or small, such as these interlocking puzzle pieces.
Inlay: Using pattern cutting and relief carving techniques, the Epilog can cut out an inlay and the recess in which it fi ts.
How It Works
1. The Epilog laser’s head moves like a printer. It will scan back and forth or follow a continuous line, depending on how it’s programmed.
2. The Epilog’s settings are adjusted in a printer driver window on your computer. By adjusting rate, frequency, intensity and other parameters, a variety of materials can be engraved or cut.
3. The laser beam produces smoke and fumes, so you’ll also need an external exhaust system or a portable fi ltration unit.
4. The future for CNC laser woodworking is wide open. This shallow relief carving, based on a photo of a tree, cuts through one layer of plywood to reveal the layer below. It’s a beautiful effect that we found with creative experimentation.