Laser Cutting 101
Time 2.1 hrs

Difficulty Intermediate
Prerequisites Teardown Lab
Departments Human Technologies
Authors Sandra Kuipers
Groupings Individual
Minimum Year Group None


Laser Cutting 101


This work is shared under the following license: Creative Commons BY-SA


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5 mins
Laser Cutting
Getting Started
  • In this unit, you'll learn about laser cutter safety and how to use the laser cutter.
  • You'll use your new-found knowledge to cut out an element from the periodic table of the elements.
  • Eventually, we'll combine each of the elements to create a huge wall display of the periodic table.
  • You'll add your initials to the bottom corner, to be forever immortalized as the creator of that element.

5 mins
  • Before we begin, lets learn a little more about the laser cutting process.
  • Our laser cutter is an Atomstack X7 40W Ultra-thin Laser Cutter & Engraving Machine.
  • It uses a Class 4 Laser to cut materials like wood, cardboard, acrylic and paper.
  • Laser cutters work by super-heating materials with a high-powered laser until they vaporize. Neat stuff!
  • Our laser cutter is protected by a metal enclosure, which safely vents smoke outside.
  • Even so, if you get close you may notice the laser cutter has a nice campfire smell, and anything it cuts will smell a little toasty for a few days after cutting. It is, after all, using a high-powered laser to vaporize the material it cuts.

5 mins
  • We use a piece of software called LightBurn to control the laser cutter.
  • LightBurn communicates with the laser cutter and tells it where to cut, as well as the power and speed to cut with.
  • LightBurn uses the mathematical precision of vector graphics to determine where to cut.
  • You can design things directly in LightBurn, as well as import vector files designed in other programs (such as .svg and .dxf)
  • Each coloured layer in LightBurn can have different settings, letting you etch, fill, and cut all in one go.

  • An important part of LightBurn is it's ability to preview exactly what and where the laser cutter will cut.
  • The preview gives you an estimated time, as well as lets you see the order that each cut will be made in.
  • Previewing before cutting is essential to ensure you don't waste materials. "Measure twice, cut once"

5 mins
  • Laser cutters can cut a variety of different materials. Some high-powered lasers can even cut metal.
  • The speed and power required to cut a material depends on the density and thickness of the material.
  • Our laser cutter can cut up to 15mm of wood, but this requires a lot of power. We'll mostly cut 2mm and 3mm sheets of basswood, or 3mm cardboard.
  • Check the material library spreadsheet for info about cutting different materials.
  • Generally, at ICHK, we will mainly be cutting wood, cardboard and paper.
  • Note: only use the materials provided by the school, unless authorized by a teacher. Do not cut anything that is painted or has a plastic coating.

Safe Materials:

Unsafe Materials

  • Using the laser cutter on materials that are unsafe can cause toxic fumes. Always check that your material is safe.
  • Specifically, the following types of plastic should NEVER be cut by a laser cutter:
    • PVC (Polyvinyl chloride): it emits chlorine gas when cut which combines with moisture in the air to create hydrochloric acid.
    • ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene): it emits cyanide and carbon monoxide, melts. When burned ABS decomposes to several components, a few of which are carcinogenic to humans
    • HDPE (High-density polyethylene): it melts and easily catches fire. Similar to ABS, has a low melting point which means it melts rather than cut.
    • Other plastics to never cut: Polycarbonate/Lexan, Polystyrene/polypropylene foam, Fiberglass and Coated Carbon Fiber.
  • At ICHK, in general, we will avoid cutting any kind of acrylic or plastic, in order to prevent unsafe fumes.
30 mins
Laser Cutter Safety
Essential Information
  • Before you get started, it's essential to read and understand the safety procedures for the laser cutter.

10 mins
Before Continuing
BEFORE continuing, please complete this checkpoint:
  • Read the safety instructions and be sure you understand them.
  • Record a quick 1 minute video telling us about how to use a laser cutter safely.
  • Upload your video to Google Drive, share it, and submit a link to complete this checkpoint.
30 mins
Getting Started

To continue, you'll need to switch from using your own laptop to using the dedicated Laser Cutter laptop. Check to see if it is available. Note: when multiple students are waiting to use the laser cutter, we go by the order that they emailed their files to
  • Using the laser cutter laptop, open the LightBurn application.
  • Go to the File menu and Open, then go to Desktop > Templates and open the LaserCutter101-ElementTemplate file.
  • Once the template file is open, go to File > Save As and go to Desktop > Student Templates to save your file.
  • Add your name to the filename, eg: LaserCutting101-Sandra, then click Save.

  • Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the location of different features: the Cuts/Layers window, the Move window, and the Frame and Origin settings inside the Laser window.
  • The tools available in LightBurn are similar to many other vector graphics editors, and can be found in toolbars along the left side and top side of the screen.
  • You can Zoom In and Out using two fingers on the track pad. This can be very helpful when working with small text.

  • Step 1: Gather your materials:
    • First, check the materials storage bin to see if there are any leftover pieces of 3mm Basswood from previous cuts. Use these first before starting a new sheet.
    • Use a ruler to measure your sheet. It should be at least 22cm wide and 30cm high.
  •  Step 2: Edit the template by doing the following:
    • Determine where you have space to cut on the sheet.
    • Use the selection tool to select and delete the other three elements in spaces you're not using. Don't delete the "Frame" layer (the outside edge).
    • You should have only one element remaining on your template:

    • Select the A tool and click on the words and numbers to edit the text in the template to match your element.
    • Do not delete the existing text: edit it by using the A tool, then selecting the text.
    • Be sure to update the symbol, name, atomic number and atomic weight.
    • Then, update the tiny initials in the bottom corner, changing them to your initials.

    • Save this template. Be sure the colours of the layers have not changed: outside cut in blue, inside words in red, initials in black.
    • Double-check the order of your layers: it should be Labels, Etch, Cut 3mm, then Frame.
    • You're ready to move onto the next step and prepare to cut your element out :)

15 mins
Setting Up
  • Once your template is setup in LightBurn, it's time to prepare the laser cutter.
  • Ask your teacher for assistance setting up and turning on the laser cutter.
    • Currently, the only teachers trained to operate the laser cutter are Sandra Kuipers and Ross Parker. The laser cutter is a powerful piece of equipment: we require someone trained to always be present when starting up the laser cutter.
    • Your teacher will turn the laser cutter on, as well as the fan in the case and the air assist. Be sure that all three of these are turned on before cutting.
    • Ask your teacher to set the focal height for the laser so that it's set for 3mm material.

Note: Try to follow the below instructions yourself. Your teacher will be nearby observing, but you will be responsible for learning these steps and following them.

These instructions are the most important and most difficult step of operating the laser cutter: pay attention, read them carefully, and be sure to ask for help if you get stuck.

Step 1: Connect the Laser Cutter

  • Connect the laser cutter laptop, with LightBurn open, to the laser cutter using the blue USB cable.
  • In the Laser window, check that Devices is connected via cu.usbserial-1410.
  • In the Laser window, also check that Start From is set to User Origin, bottom left corner.
  • In the Laser window, press the Home button to ensure the laser is at position 0,0

Step 2: Setting the Origin

  • In the Move window, set the X coordinates to 90.00 and Y to 50.00.
  • In the Move window, click Go to move the laser to this position.
  • In the Move window, click both the Set Origin and Set Finish Point buttons.
  • Do not touch or manually move the laser after the origin is set.

Step 3: Aligning your Material

  • Check that you have acquired and measured your sheet of 3mm basswood from the template steps. Be sure to use pre-cut sheets if there are any available.
  • With the teacher present, carefully open the case of the laser cutter.
  • Without touching the laser itself, place your sheet down on the honeycomb cutting grille, roughly centred above the silver mat below the grille.

  • Try to carefully line up the bottom left corner of your sheet with the centre of the laser.
  • As much as possible, ensure the sheet is lined up straight and parallel with the laser.

Step 4: Framing your Cut

  • With your sheet in position, keep the case of the laser cutter open so you can make adjustments as needed.
  • In the Cuts/Layers window, turn the Output for the Frame layer on, as seen below:

  • In the Laser window, click the Frame button. This will cause the laser to trace the outline of your sheet without actually turning the laser beam on.

  • Now, watch carefully as the laser cutter moves around the frame of your sheet of wood. Check the see that the middle of the laser cutter head lines up with the outside edge of your sheet.
  • DO NOT touch the sheet while the laser cutter is framing. Wait for it to finish moving, then make small adjustments to position your sheet so that it is lined up in your frame.
  • Use the Frame button multiple times, as needed, to ensure your sheet is aligned.
  • Then, in the Cuts/Layers window, turn the Output for the Frame layer off, as seen below:  

With your origin point set, and sheet in place and framed, you're almost ready to move onto cutting.

Almost There

Click the Preview Button:

  • Be sure to preview your cut to check the time and order of the cuts.
  • In the preview window, use the slider bar to watch a preview of the cuts: the etching needs to occur before cutting, as the material may shift once it's cut out.
15 mins

BEFORE starting your cut, please go through the following checklist with your teacher present:

  • Check the machine:
    • Laser cutter and air assist and case are all On
    • Laser cutter case is Closed
    • Laser cutter window in LightBurn is showing Ready
  • Check yourself:
    • Protective eyeglasses are On
    • Do you have to go to the washroom or anywhere else? Go now
  • Check your software:
    • Frame layer is turned Off
    • Preview your project and note the Total Estimated Time
    • Is there enough class time left to complete the cut?
  • Check your material:
    • Press the circular Frame button: (called the "Elastic Frame")
    • The Elastic Frame tool will trace the outline of exactly where the machine will cut.
    • Does the middle of the laser line up with where you plan to cut?

With all of these checks complete, and your teacher present, you are ready to press Start

You must remain present and alert during the whole cutting process. You can watch the laser cutter, but do not stare at the beam, even with glasses on.

Do not open the case while the laser cutter is active. Press Pause or Stop in LightBurn if there is an issue with the cut. If there is a fire or excessive smoke, press the Emergency Stop button.

Watch the progress bar and wait for your cutting to complete.

BEFORE opening the case, when the laser cutter is done let your teacher know and wait patiently. The teacher must be present before you open the case. Then, make sure you:

  • Turn the laser cutter and air assist and case all Off
  • Open the case and carefully retrieve your materials.
  • Use a tissue to wipe any charcoal off the edges of your element, so it doesn't smudge.
  • Remove any excess material or debris. Do not leave material in the laser cutter.
  • Congratulations! You've just completed your first laser cut. It gets easier the more you practice :)
5 mins
Periodic Table
  • Take a picture of your newly laser-cut element and submit it as evidence of your learning in this unit.
  • Note: Be sure to give the finished element to Sandra or Ross to add to the periodic table.
  • You do not get to keep this one, but you will get to keep anything you make in the next unit :)
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