10 Best Plastics for Laser Cutting
Laser cutting is a versatile technology for creating precise but repeatable profiles. The success of laser cutting depends heavily on the material to be cut. This is particularly the case with plastics, where a wide variety of chemistry can give different results with different plastic materials. There are a few plastics that cannot or should not be cut with a laser, but there are many plastics that are well suited for laser cutting. Below we describe the 10 best plastics for laser cutting:
Acrylic is an ideal material for laser cutting. Acrylic is the common name for the polymer PMMA (polymethyl methacrylate), which is a transparent thermoplastic. A common trade name for acrylic is Plexiglas®. It is lightweight but strong, with high impact resistance. Acrylic cutting is widely used for safety glass and signage, and even for items of furniture.
Laser cutting acrylic can be done to give a laser-polished edge. There is some risk of flame-ups, but generally cutting acrylic is tolerant to different settings and will consistently give a clean laser cut.
Styrene is a relatively cheap polymer commonly formed in thin sheets which are similar to acrylic. These sheets are lightweight and strong but can be brittle. Styrene is very common in toys such as hobby models and is also used in home appliances.
Styrene is a good material for laser cutting as it has a low melting point and melts easily in the path of the laser. However, the low melting point also means that cuts cannot be too intricate or close together as the edges will melt and lose detail. The styrene sheet can warp if it gets too hot.
To learn more, see our guide on Polystyrene Cutting.
Kapton® tape is a thin film (only a few thousandths of an inch thick) of a polymer called a polyimide, with an adhesive coating on one side or both. It is most commonly used in the manufacture of electronics, but is also used widely in spacecraft! The reasons for these applications are that Kapton® has a relatively high thermal conductivity, is an electrical insulator, and maintains these properties across a wide temperature range. An example of the use of Kapton® tape in electronics is to attach circuit boards to heat sinks while electrically insulating them. It can withstand the temperatures of soldering.
It is an ideal material for laser cutting as it is very thin and is a thermoset plastic with high-temperature resistance. When laser cutting Kapton®, the material in the direct path of the laser absorbs the optical energy and is vaporized. The adjacent material conducts the heat well but shows some carbonization. This heat-affected zone is very narrow, and the carbonization can be easily removed with solvent. Therefore, Kapton® tape can be laser cut in complex and precise patterns, ideal for mating with circuit boards.
To learn more, see our guide on Polyimide Cutting.
Nylon is a generic name for a range of thermoplastic polyamides. It is commonly available as a filament woven into a thin fabric, originally under the trademark of Perlon®. It has high strength and toughness. It is used in textiles such as rainwear, lingerie, and parachutes. Thicker filaments are also available for applications such as fishing lines.
Nylon fabric is an ideal material for laser cutting as the laser leaves a subtle melted edge which prevents the fabric from fraying.
To learn more, see our guide on What is Nylon Used For.
High-density polyethylene is a widely used plastic due to its cost-effectiveness and versatility. It has a high strength-to-weight ratio and good moisture and chemical resistance. HDPE can be formed into a wide variety of shapes, including pipes, containers, and sheets.
HDPE is a common material for laser cutting. It melts easily at the point of laser incidence and does not discolor at the cut. However, due to its relatively low melting point, care must be taken that high power or multiple cuts close together do not cause localized melting and an uneven edge.
To learn more, see our guide on High-Density Polyethylene.
Polypropylene is a thermoplastic polymer that has excellent chemical and heat resistance. It is also rigid with a high impact resistance. PP has wide industrial applications, but can also be used in domestic and household containers.
Polypropylene is cut well by laser, giving a clean cut free of discoloration or charring. A slightly raised edge or burr may be left at the edge.
Polyethylene is the most commonly produced plastic globally, and it has many different forms and varieties. Some examples include the relatively rigid high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and the flexible, lightweight linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE). These variations provide many different applications for plastic, but its largest use is in films for packaging, which include food wrapping and plastic bags. Polyethylene tends to have a waxy, soft surface.
PE can be cut well with a laser cutter. Its relatively low melting point allows a clean cut to be made easily with a CO2 laser. Depending on the form of polyethylene, it may discolor slightly and have a wide kerf.
ABS is an opaque thermoplastic blend of three other polymers: acrylonitrile, butadiene, and styrene. Variations of ABS can be manufactured by varying the blend, but generally, ABS is rigid and durable with a high impact resistance. It can be easily formed into different shapes, and therefore has a wide application in wear-resistant parts, including: motor parts, keyboard keys, and equipment housings.
ABS can be tricky to laser cut, predominantly due to the gases (fumes) that are given off. These are a result of the energy from the laser causing the polymer to degrade into multiple products. Some of these gaseous products could be hazardous. When laser cutting ABS plastic, it is highly recommended to extract the vapor into the atmosphere.
In terms of the cut, a polished edge is possible. Generally, fine cuts cannot be made in ABS as the material tends to heat up and warp.
Two-tone acrylic is a variation of acrylic that laminates one color of a thin acrylic sheet onto another core acrylic sheet of a different color. This has the same useful material properties as standard acrylic, but is more visually striking, especially when engraved. Engraving two-tone acrylic through only the thinner top layer, to reveal the color of the bottom layer, provides a visual contrast that is valuable in signage and promotional materials.
Two-tone acrylic is laser cut similarly to standard acrylic—it is tolerant of a wide range of settings and can give a laser-polished edge.
Mylar® is the trade name for thin polyester sheets. These sheets are usually transparent, flexible, and durable. Mylar® also has excellent moisture and chemical resistance, and a very good range of temperature resistance. As such, this plastic finds good application in food packaging. It is also the preferred material for laser cutting stencils.
Mylar® sheets of 200 to 250 microns are usually used for creating stencils. Laser cutting this material allows for high-precision cuts, with a very subtle burred edge.
To learn more, see our guide on Mylar Cutting.
Laser cutting plastics should be done with a CO2 laser—generally, either a 9.3-micron or 10.6-micron wavelength CO2 laser shouldn’t affect the quality of the cut. Most plastics (including those listed here) do not absorb the optical energy from a fiber laser (1.06-micron wavelength) well. Therefore a fiber laser should not be used to laser cut plastics but is recommended for engraving.
Cutting plastic with a laser is generally easier with a medium to high-powered CO2 laser. Due to the risk of melting or burning some plastics, better results (cleaner edges) are usually achieved with a higher speed and a single pass. A high-frequency laser pulse will also tend to give a more polished edge.
The most important quality of a plastic that will laser cut well is that it will not catch fire when laser cut. The plastic itself should not be readily flammable, nor should it become a degradation product when heated, melted, and vaporized. Another key quality of plastics that are good for laser cutting is that their degradation products are non-hazardous. Some plastics release toxic fumes when laser cut, which makes them unsuitable for the process.
PVC (polyvinyl chloride) cannot be laser cut, as the vaporization of the plastic generates toxic chlorine gases.
Polycarbonate can be cut with a laser cutter, but it is difficult to cut cleanly, and discolored and charred edges result. Careful selection of the laser settings can minimize this effect, but the nature of polycarbonate and its degradation is that the charring cannot be avoided. StyrofoamTM (expanded polystyrene foam) is also risky to cut on a laser cutter as it is known to easily catch fire.
When choosing plastic for laser cutting, it is important to consider the needs of the end product first. The final product (after laser cutting) will dictate the properties of the plastic that you will need to use. These could be properties like whether the plastic should be transparent or opaque, whether it should be flexible or rigid, and whether it must be tough or could acceptably be brittle.
Another thing to consider when choosing which plastic to use is the appearance of the plastic, such as a specific color, or a glossy finish. The affordability of plastic will also be important.
Once these things have been considered, there will likely be more than one potential plastic that may be suitable. Then the ease of laser cutting each plastic can be considered.
There are many plastics available for projects, and the choice can be daunting. Choose the right plastic for your laser cutting project by taking this approach:
- List the physical properties that are important to the success of the final project output. These could include: transparent or opaque, colored or white/clear, heat resistance required or not, flexible or rigid, and heavy-duty application requiring high impact resistance or not.
- Consider the possible plastics that are easily available to you and reasonably affordable.
- Think through the processing steps that would be required to complete your project. If laser cutting is the main step, select a plastic based on the ease and edge quality of cutting with a laser. If further processing is required, such as machining or attaching to another surface, another plastic may be better suited.
Some materials are not suitable to be laser cut, including:
- Carbon fiber
- Materials containing halogens (fluorine, chlorine, or bromine)
- Epoxy and phenolic resins
To learn more, see our guide on the Types of Bad Materials for Laser Cutting.
To test how well a material cuts with a laser, the easiest thing to do is to download a test file. When running through the laser cutter on your material, this test file will repeat a simple pattern while varying the speed and power of the laser cutter. Some test files vary the width of the pattern to test the minimum width that the material can handle between cuts.
Once the small test pattern has been completed on the material, you can inspect the quality of the cuts and the roughness or discoloration of the edges. The varying speed and power settings will allow you to judge whether a particular setting may give success, or whether the material appears completely unsuitable.
Yes, plastic is generally easier to cut with a laser cutter than wood. This is mainly because laser cutting wood will more often result in scorching and discoloration adjacent to the cut. Wood also has a higher risk of catching fire when laser cut. It can also warp. These same problems can occur when laser cutting with specific plastics, but there are many plastics easily available that do not have these risks.
To learn more, see our guide on the Best Wood for Laser Cutting.
This article presented the best plastics for laser cutting, explained each of them, and discussed their various applications and advantages. To learn more about plastic material for laser cutting, contact a Xometry representative.
Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities, including sheet cutting and other value-added services for all of your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to learn more or to request a free, no-obligation quote.
- Plexiglas® is a trademark of Röhm GmbH.
- Kapton® is a trademark of DuPont Electronics, Inc.
- Perlon® is a trademark of Perlon-Monofil GmbH.
- Mylar® is a trademark of DuPont Teijin Corporation.
- StyrofoamTM is a trademark of Dow Chemical Company.
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