…at least the El Cheapo ones do.

I’ve used big industrial lasers with precision alignment and error correction functionality but decided I wanted something small for home use.  I’ll say it now, unless you spend over about $200 you’re not going to be cutting much more than paper (if that).  Rather than read for hours on end about it, I decided to grab a super cheap 1 watt (5volt at 0.2amp) laser diode and just see what it could do.

Out of the box you can plug 5volts into this thing and start lasering in minutes.  Unfortunately, there’s very little documentation available for these units and they’re kinda considered to be toys by those in the know.

What it can do

“Engraving” into wood or leather works great as well as various other materials.  I’ve used it to cut some stencils for spray on tattoos and signage lettering for various other projects.

What it can’t do

It can’t cut through paper.  I mean it could, given enough time.  Just don’t expect it to be done any time this year.  It seems you need the right materials to absorb the lasers energy and burn.  Color seems to help too.  So while my black leather wallet was good for lasering, cutting an image in a single , the paper took up to 20 passes to cut through.  Of course, clear plastic or glass is out of the question as is most fabrics.

What else sucks about it?

So the thing about lasers is that you have to focus the beam on the product you wish to burn.  Think something like burning things with a magnifying glass.  Since I can’t change focal point or distance to my target it means I’m limted to lasering flat surfaces.  Anything else. Means only part of the product is in focus for burning.  Any dirt on the lens etc. also affects the success of the lasering but just as bad is the smoke coming off the lasered part blocking the laser as well.  On top of all this, the shitty screw on lens it uses to focus rattles around a lot.  So even if you were super careful in setting it up, it wont stay calibrated for very long.  Beauing even tried to mount lasers on planes but soon discovered the difficulties of focussing a laser that’s travelling through various atmospheric conditions like pockets of hot and cold air.

Getting the most from a shitty laser

So here’s a list of tweaks Ive made to try to get better performance from a crappy toy laser.

  • Stretch the spring in the lense housing so it doesn’t rattle around so much and stays on target.
  • Clean the lens.  
  • Correct distance to target.  These things are best at 2 or 3 inches from target.
  • Overvoltage.  MORE POWER!  I know these are only rated for 5v but I’ve been running mine at 6.3v.  Some active cooling may let you push that further.
  • Slow lasering.  Once something starts burning, the matering next to it is easier to burn too, so slow it down and draw a nice continuous path where you can.
  • Aggregated power.  2 separate lasers focused on the same target does an ok job.

    The long and the short of it is that diode lasers aren’t going to take you very far, so (unless you want to invest is a gas laser) all you can hope for is a pretty engraver.  I’m open to suggestions if anyone has ideas on how to get more out of it.

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