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.\n\n\n\nThe 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.\n\n\n\nBoth 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\u2019re interested in the differences between CNC routers and lasers, then keep reading.\n\n\n\nWhat\u2019s the Difference?\n\n\n\nWhen 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.\n\n\n\nTools Used\n\n\n\nThe 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.\n\n\n\nCNC Router\n\n\n\nCNC 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.\n\n\n\nLaser\n\n\n\nLike 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.\n\n\n\nFinal Cuts Produced\n\n\n\nThe biggest difference between the two is the outcome. They both have beautiful finishes, but they do differ in overall style.\n\n\n\nCNC Router\n\n\n\nCNC routers can\u2019t cut sharp inside corners or edges, so most of the designs created using this tool come out with rounded corners. This isn\u2019t necessarily a bad thing as some people do prefer the look of the rounded corners.\n\n\n\nYou 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.\n\n\n\nWoodworking milling and copy machine in working process\n\n\n\nCNC 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.) \n\n\n\nDespite 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.\n\n\n\nLaser\n\n\n\nThe 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.\n\n\n\nUnlike routers, this tool has much more flexibility in this area. They are also able to create the sharp angles that routers struggle to achieve.\n\n\n\nAnother 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.\n\n\n\nCloseup shot of laser beam cutting complex shapes from wooden part in factory workshop\n\n\n\nThe 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.\n\n\n\nPros and Cons of CNC Routers and Lasers\n\n\n\nSome 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.\n\n\n\nCNC Router\n\n\n\nAfter considering the differences, many believe a router to be the less favorable of the two tools. However, this isn\u2019t 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\u2019s preference in tools or finished product.\n\n\n\nCraftsmanship\n\n\n\nThe 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\u2019t necessarily mean everyone believes this, but there is still large respect for this tool.\n\n\n\nRounded Corners\n\n\n\nThis 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\u2019t altered in the process other than the cut made for the design. There is no discoloration involved in the cutting process.\n\n\n\nThe 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.\n\n\n\nAn 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)\n\n\n\nClamping\n\n\n\nTo 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.\n\n\n\nThe 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.\n\n\n\nMachine Care\n\n\n\nThe 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.\n\n\n\nKeeping 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\u2019t leave old files, or your computer will begin to have issues, along with other factors.\n\n\n\nLaser\n\n\n\nA 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.\n\n\n\nVentilation\n\n\n\nPerhaps 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. \n\n\n\nPrecise Details\n\n\n\nThis 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.\n\n\n\nNot 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.\n\n\n\nHeat and Wood\n\n\n\nThe 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.\n\n\n\nWoodworkers 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\n\n\n\nedges will prevent the wood from expanding and warping the design over time.\n\n\n\nThe main issue that has been run into when cutting with a laser is fire may occur. If the proper settings aren\u2019t 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.\n\n\n\nTherefore, 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.\n\n\n\nEnergy\n\n\n\nLasers 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.\n\n\n\nMaintaining a laser is already expensive, so this is a cost many don\u2019t 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.\n\n\n\nNo Direct Contact\n\n\n\nThe 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.\n\n\n\nWide Variety of Materials\n\n\n\nWoodCeramicsRubberPlasticSome Metals\n\n\n\nLasers can cut a wide variety of materials that other machines aren\u2019t able to. This means this machine can be beneficial for uses outside of just woodwork. Some of the materials that can be cut are:\n\n\n\nMachine Care\n\n\n\nWhile 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.\n\n\n\nOverall, 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.\n\n\n\nWhat Software Is Available?\n\n\n\nAfter 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.\n\n\n\nBe 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.\n\n\n\nDesign Programs (CAD)\n\n\n\nThis 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.\n\n\n\nAdobe Illustrator\n\n\n\nAdobe 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.\n\n\n\nThere 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.\n\n\n\nMany 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. \n\n\n\nIllustrator 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.\n\n\n\nCorelDRAW\n\n\n\nCorelDRAW 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.\n\n\n\nLike 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.\n\n\n\nThe 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.\n\n\n\nAutoCAD\n\n\n\nAutoCAD 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.\n\n\n\nThe 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.\n\n\n\nFusion 360\n\n\n\nFusion 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.\n\n\n\nManufacturing Programs (CAM)\n\n\n\nAfter you have a design completed, you will have to generate some manufacturing tool paths.\u00a0 Tool paths tell the cutter or laser things like where to start, how fast to go, and which direction to cut in.\u00a0 \u00a0The final product of the CAM process is a file containing G-Code that is then passed to the controller or CNC software.\n\n\n\nDeskProto\n\n\n\nDeskProto 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. \n\n\n\nVectric Software\n\n\n\nVectric 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. \n\n\n\nThis 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\n\n\n\nCNC Programs\n\n\n\nThis 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.\n\n\n\nArtSoft\n\n\n\nThis 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.\n\n\n\nMach3\n\n\n\nThis 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.\n\n\n\nMach4\n\n\n\nThis 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.\n\n\n\nMach4 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.\n\n\n\nThis software was almost totally re-written to replace Mach3 and to address an industrial-style setting, but others can buy Mach4 Hobby for $200.\n\n\n\nLinuxCNC\n\n\n\nThis 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.\n\n\n\nThere 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.\n\n\n\nFinal Thoughts\n\n\n\nThe 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.\n\n\n\nLasers 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.\n\n\n\nThe 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.