ideaLAB Laser Cutter FAQ

What can I do with a laser cutter?

The laser cutter can, as the name implies, cut and etch a variety of materials with laser precision. This is used in a variety of commercial applications, such as wooden sign making and decoration, jewelry making, custom box/case design, water bottle or glass etching, and many more. For hobbyists it has been used to make short-run game pieces, electronics enclosures, artistic sculptures, and more. While the basic idea is simple, here are some applications that showcase just a few possibilities.

Which ideaLABs have laser cutters?

There are laser cutters available for free public use at the Hampden Branch Library as well as the Central Library in a first-come-first-serve system during open lab. Visit each lab’s page for their open lab hours.

What materials can I use in the laser cutter?

At the Hampden Lab you can cut: 

  • ⅛”-¼” cardboard

  • ¼” interior grade Baltic Birch plywood

  • ⅛” cast acrylic sheets

  • Fabric

  • Leather

  • Most wood ⅛” or less

  • Some soft woods ¼” or less

 And etch, not cut, the following:

  • Glass

  • Ceramic

  • Coated anodized aluminum and stainless steel

At the Central ideaLAB, you can cut: 

  • ⅛”-¼” cardboard

  • ¼” interior grade Baltic Birch plywood

  • Fabric

  • Leather

  • Most wood ⅛” or less

  • Some soft woods ¼” or less

The following materials should never be put in the laser. Certain materials can create toxic fumes if exposed to high temperature, dangerously reflect the focused laser, pose a high risk of combustion, and other risks. If you don’t know exactly what your material is, it can not go in the laser.

  • Polyvinyl Carbonate (PVC)

  • Polycarbonate

  • Foam board

  • Highly reflective or uncoated metal and plastics

  • MDF > ⅛” (etching excepted)

  • Any material > ¼” (etching excepted)

Always check in with staff about your project, and they can help provide guidance on materials and what is possible on each machine.

How big can my materials be?

At the Hampden ideaLAB, the bed of the laser cutter can hold material up to 24 inches by 15 inches, though the area the laser can reach is slightly smaller than that. You can talk to a staff person in the lab about the possibility of a pass-through cut (meaning you can cut materials that are 24" wide by longer than 15 inches), but doing so requires extra planning and prep.

At the Central ideaLAB, the bed of the laser cutter can hold material 20 inches by 12 inches though the area the laser can reach is slightly smaller than that. Pass-through cuts are not possible on this laser cutter.
If you need to cut down your material, we do have saws and clamps available in the lab for use.

Can I etch round things, like bottles or glasses?

At the Hampden ideaLAB, yes! Our cutter has a rotary attachment which allows for etching of glass bottles, champagne flutes, coated anodized aluminum water bottles, ceramic mugs, and other materials. The maximum size is 11" tall and 3.5" diameter (small handles excluded).

At the Central ideaLAB, unfortunately no.

How long can I use the laser cutter? How many times per day?

The laser is available during open lab. You must talk with ideaLAB staff once the lab opens to request a place in the production queue for that day. There is no calling ahead or lining up to reserve time. Due to demand, we limit individual jobs to an hour. We will do our best to accommodate all requests, but demand for the laser is heavy, and staff will be balancing equitable access to tools, setup and run time of jobs, and order of arrival, so we cannot guarantee that all jobs requested can be run that same day. We ask that you be kind and generous with staff and your neighbors to help ensure everyone gets access. Staff will operate the laser and assist with your designs and materials, but you must be present while your job is run. If you need to redesign your piece we ask that you allow other customers who are ready to cut to proceed. 

Is the laser dangerous?

Not if used properly. All appropriate safety measures are in place in the ideaLAB, including ventilation of smoke/fumes; air assist to prevent combustion; laser-treated enclosure; water cooled laser tube. As long as only acceptable materials are used in the laser, the laser is a very safe, creative, and powerful tool.

Do you charge to use the laser? Do you provide any materials to use on the laser?

We do not charge to use the laser or any other tool in the ideaLAB. We can provide a small amount of cardboard per customer per day and staff can help you select materials for larger projects.

What software should I use to make a design for the laser?

You'll want an SVG (Scalable Vector Graphic) file of your design - while there are a lot of programs that can save things as an SVG, we recommend using Inkscape, a free and open-source vector editing program comparable to Adobe Illustrator. There are also many online tools that can convert a raster (JPG, PNG, TIF, etc.) image into an SVG file, or you could use this useful Inkscape tutorial for tracing images

The laser cutter at the Central Library can also etch JPGS, PNGs, and PDFs. The software has some quirks, so please speak to a staff member about your project and the end result you want so that we can best assess which file type to use for your project.
Please stop by the Hampden ideaLAB or SM Energy ideaLAB at the Central Library during open lab hours if you'd like to learn more or have us check your design.