CNC routers and laser engravers tend to have a similar idea when it comes to their uses. They are tools used to either cut or engrave wood in more precise details or patterns. However, despite their similarities, they also have a variety of differences as well.
The main difference is that lasers use heat to cut through the wood, while CNC routers use a spinning bit to remove material. Lasers are mainly used to cut 2 dimensional shallow shapes either by etching the top surface or cutting through the material. CNC routers, however, excel at carving material to create varying depths, 3D effects, and 2D profiles.
Both CNC routers and lasers have their pros and cons, which is why many people prefer to switch between tools for different situations. The differences highlight each of their strengths, and this is what often decides which tool should be used for a project. If you’re interested in the differences between CNC routers and lasers, then keep reading.
What’s the Difference?
When deciding which tool to use, or which you may prefer, you should also consider what the differences are. Each tool produces different work despite a similar idea behind them. Each of these tools is unique to their field and require a different level of experience when working with them.
The biggest difference is the difference in the tools that are used. Lasers were not used for woodwork until more recently. Meanwhile, the routers have been used for much longer, especially after they developed the CNC router to make woodwork simpler and more consistent. The use of CNC (Computer Numeric Control) is where the CNC laser and the CNC router merge.
CNC routers are a tool run by a computer through software. This process can be equated to sending a written document to a printer. The original design is created in a drafting software before the designer places the section of wood they want to be engraved under the machine.
Like the computerized router, lasers are directed by a CNC system. However, instead of using friction to carve the wood like a router, the laser uses heat. The beam the laser emits carves or etches into the wood, leaving precise and finished edges.
Final Cuts Produced
The biggest difference between the two is the outcome. They both have beautiful finishes, but they do differ in overall style.
CNC routers can’t cut sharp inside corners or edges, so most of the designs created using this tool come out with rounded corners. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as some people do prefer the look of the rounded corners.
You can purchase smaller bits to create a smaller curve, but it will not be an absolute sharp corner still. To get a sharp corner, you would need to finish the design yourself, which requires you to use some hand tools and be somewhat skilled in woodworking.
CNC routers do excel at material removal. When it comes to pocketing or removing material from the top surface of the workpiece, the router is the best option. The bottom of the pocket will be determined by the shape of the bit but bits are available in many shapes including a flat bottom. (Image of bit choices.)
Despite the few cons of a CNC router, many do prefer the look of the rounded corners and traditional cut. This is up to preference to those creating the design and those purchasing the woodwork.
The biggest pro about using a laser is the precise cuts it can achieve. The detail a laser can achieve is amazing due to how small the beam size can be adjusted.
Unlike routers, this tool has much more flexibility in this area. They are also able to create the sharp angles that routers struggle to achieve.
Another thing many people enjoy about lasers is the finished edge it produces. This is due to the laser burning the wood as it cuts and creates these crisp finishes.
The biggest issue with using a laser is that they do tend to discolor the wood due to the heat burning it. There are steps to help prevent this discoloration, but it may still occur. Many consider this discoloration part of the appeal of these options. They enjoy the contrast and burnt edges that are growing more popular over time.
Pros and Cons of CNC Routers and Lasers
Some of the pros and cons were already discussed somewhat in their differences, but there are many more to consider. Along with this, you must consider how each pro and con can be considered either way, depending on your likes and dislikes.
After considering the differences, many believe a router to be the less favorable of the two tools. However, this isn’t necessarily true for a variety of reasons. There may not seem to be many pros in comparison to the laser, but the CNC router is still a popular tool used today. This is in part due to consumer requests and depending on the woodworker’s preference in tools or finished product.
The main pro to consider is that it is the original tool used for woodwork. Many consider being able to use a router by hand or computer is proof that you have mastership over your craft. This doesn’t necessarily mean everyone believes this, but there is still large respect for this tool.
This could be considered a pro or a con, depending on your outlook on the final product. Many prefer the rounded edges that a router delivers. Along with this, the wood isn’t altered in the process other than the cut made for the design. There is no discoloration involved in the cutting process.
The main reason this is also a con is due to the tool being unable to create precise details or sharp inside corners. You are limited by the smallest bit size the router can take, which just increases the likelihood of the delicate bit breaking during the process.
An exception to this would be the V-bit. With the V bit, an illusion of a sharp inside corner can be achieved by raising the bit to the point of the bit. This is often used for inlay processes and can be very effective at showing sharp inside corners. (show a v-carve image)
To create a precise design without any imperfections, you would need to firmly clamp it to the table you are putting on. However, this can cause damage due to the high degree of friction being caused by the router hitting the unmoving wood.
The issue that woodworkers run into during this process is the wood being damaged or warping occurring while clamped tightly down. This makes it very difficult to cut more fragile pieces that have more of a likelihood of being damaged.
The maintenance around taking care of a CNC router can be extensive and repetitive. You must keep the machine clean before and during each use; otherwise, woodchips could get caught in the bit and cause issues to occur.
Keeping up with the care of your machine is highly important, or it may become damaged over time. Not only is this a machine, but there is also a computer. You can’t leave old files, or your computer will begin to have issues, along with other factors.
A laser woodcutter is an upcoming popular tool that many are switching over to for various reasons. The majority enjoy using this tool, but there are still several cons to this machine that must be considered.
Perhaps one largely overlooked requirement of a laser is proper ventilation. Because the laser is burning its way through the material, without ventilation, the shop will quickly fill up with smoke. Depending on the material being cut, some vapors could be hazardous to the health.
This is the biggest pro to using a laser when cutting wood. You can create almost any design you could imagine, thanks to how precisely the laser is able to follow a pattern. Many prefer the ability to create sharper angles and detailed designs over the products from the CNC router.
Not only can the angles be sharper thanks to the smaller beam size, but the overall outline as well. A router is only able to create lines as small as 1 mm, while the laser can go down to 0.1 mm.
Heat and Wood
The outcome of a laser-cut piece usually has the obvious discoloration from being burnt during the cutting. This is up to the woodworker and buyer to decide if they like the outcome, but it is rising in popularity.
Woodworkers often enjoy the outcome of the beam burning the edges due to it sealing them at the same time. It makes the machine a two-in-one bonus for many woodworkers. Sealing the
edges will prevent the wood from expanding and warping the design over time.
The main issue that has been run into when cutting with a laser is fire may occur. If the proper settings aren’t input, then there is the possibility of the heat causing the wood to catch fire. Due to the proximity of the machine, it is a possibility of the fire spreading to the machine as well.
Therefore, you are not allowed to leave a laser alone while it is in the process of cutting. This is true with almost any tool, but this is a process that cannot be left alone due to safety measures.
Lasers use high-energy beams to cut the wood, which means you will be using a lot of energy to use this machine. The biggest issue with this is it will cause your electric bill to go up, along with other issues.
Maintaining a laser is already expensive, so this is a cost many don’t expect outside of this. It even has the possibility of shorting out your electricity if you do not have enough power coming in, but this is more of an issue for those using it in their own homes.
No Direct Contact
The only time you should ever need to interfere with the machine is during routine cleanings or maintenance. For the most part, you will not have to be in contact with the laser during the cutting process. This lessens the likelihood of any injuries occurring from being in contact with the laser.
Wide Variety of Materials
- Some Metals
Lasers can cut a wide variety of materials that other machines aren’t able to. This means this machine can be beneficial for uses outside of just woodwork. Some of the materials that can be cut are:
While maintenance tends to be simpler with a laser, there is more danger involved. It is possible to be burned by the laser while working on the machine, so you must be highly vigilante while doing so.
Overall, there are recommended steps with each laser on how to clean it and how often you should do so. The common agreement is there are certain items to clean daily, others weekly, and some can be done every six to twelve months.
What Software Is Available?
After deciding which tool would work best for you, the next step is to consider the best software. They are many different options ranging from free to more expensive options. Most of the available software can be used with either the CNC router or the laser.
Be aware of the 3 levels of software needed to run a CNC machine. They are CAD (Computer Aided Design), CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) and a controller software of some kind.
Design Programs (CAD)
This is one of the most important steps in the process. You will need to find a program that you feel comfortable using to create a design. This is the design you will eventually have engraved or cut into your piece of wood.
Adobe Illustrator is a popular program for almost any of your design needs. It is highly flexible with what you can create and has a large support system behind it. The biggest downside to this software is that it can be difficult to get an understanding of at first.
There are many different tutorials online to help teach any willing person how to use this tool. Another pro that many appreciate is that Adobe can be run on either a Mac or PC.
Many enjoy that you can either freehand, trace, or any other variety of functions through the program. This software has been around forever and is very mature.
Illustrator alone costs $20.99 per month, but you can get a package deal for all the Adobe products at $52.99 a month. Some prefer to do this if they are going to be using at least two Adobe programs since it is the best deal available.
CorelDRAW is one of the programs that has risen and has challenged Illustrator in its capabilities. Many people enjoy this option because of how flexible the program can be. They are known for allowing you more freedom with whatever designs you are creating.
Like most design programs, there is many tutorials online on how to use this program. They did not use to have a Mac version available but have recently come out with a newer version offering Mac software.
The CorelDraw Standard costs $299. The CorelDRAW Graphics Suite that offers a version for Mac computers costs $499. The biggest downside to this program is the cost to get a version of the program for Mac computers, but there is a subscription option available for cheaper.
AutoCAD is a slightly less common tool than the others, but it is still a well-known software. It is especially popular with architects and construction professionals when they are working on precise drawings.
The biggest downside to this program is it is the most expensive option due to its professional standards. The monthly cost for this program is $210, with a yearly cost of $1,690. If you go with the yearly deal, then the cost would end up being $141 per month.
Fusion 360 is a cousin of AutoCad and is offered for free to hobbyists. It is cloud powered and combines CAD and CAM into one convenient package. If you are not planning on making money with your CNC (and remain a hobbyist only) this package is worth a look. There is a steep learning curve but that is because it is all-encompassing. Fusion if free to use for hobbyists but carries a subscription price of $495/Year.
Manufacturing Programs (CAM)
After you have a design completed, you will have to generate some manufacturing tool paths. Tool paths tell the cutter or laser things like where to start, how fast to go, and which direction to cut in. The final product of the CAM process is a file containing G-Code that is then passed to the controller or CNC software.
DeskProto has a paid version as well as industrial versions. The free version is issues as a perpetual license meaning you can continue to us it year after year. The site has plenty of tutorials to guide you through the learning experience.
Vectric offers several layers of CAM software. Each come with a free trial that is limited in functionality. The user has the choice to buy only what they are going to use. All current license costs are applied to any upgrade. In other words, if I start with the less expensive option, when I upgrade, I only pay the difference. There is no maintenance charges and all upgrades are available to the user.
This is the software I use and if you would like to check them out, I would appreciate if you use this affiliate link to let them know I sent you. Vectric
This is the main step between creating the design and sending it to your laser or CNC router. This is where the design will be converted into numbers that the machine will understand. These numbers create your design, and the machine will then begin cutting it into the wood.
This is a company that is famous for its Mach series, which is software made for CNC products. Their products tend to be only for Windows users and have recently come out with their newest software, Mach4.
This is an optimal software for those using the machine for personal use. Before the Mach4, this was considered the most intuitive CNC software available. One negative with Mach3 is the requirement to run on a parallel port or supply extra hardware and software to accommodate computers with serial ports only. Still, many enjoy the versatile functions, touchscreen capabilities, and many other options. This product only runs on Windows at the cost of $175.
This is the newest in the Mach series from AirSoft. Mach4 is made to be the best option for those who need faster development. While Mach3 is still available, the creators recommend switching to Mach4 for the speed and support.
Mach4 software is updated to improve the screen layout, a more accurate tool path, and many other areas from the previous software. There are two versions available for the either hobbyist or industrial use.
This software was almost totally re-written to replace Mach3 and to address an industrial-style setting, but others can buy Mach4 Hobby for $200.
This is considered the Mach series biggest competition, especially among hobbyists. This is largely due to the program being free for use and completely open source. This program is simple to install and easy to understand compared to the Mach series.
There is a large community behind the program that is always offering advice to newer users. It is compatible with a variety of popular machine controls and can control up to nine axes or joints of a machine.
The biggest differences between the CNC router and the laser is how they cut and the outcome because of the difference. The preferred tool usually depends on what the woodworker wants the outcome to be or what the buyer is interested in.
Lasers are becoming more popular due to their diversity and ability to create the extra detail the CNC router may lack. However, they do have several downsides, including the cost and danger of maintaining the machine.
The tool that may work best for you depends on what you are interested in doing with it. Both options do an amazing job at woodcutting, even despite their faults.