Laser Engraving and Cutting of Cork
Learn more about how to laser engrave and cut with cork.
A laser cutting machine can perform both the cutting and engraving processes, using different settings. The part to be cut or engraved is stationary within the machine, while the laser travels over the surface. Using a laser is an ideal way to cut or engrave cork. Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak tree. It has such useful properties as: high elasticity, good thermal insulation properties, and the ability to form tight seals with liquids. Because cork is such a good insulator, it absorbs most of the laser energy directed at it, making it possible to perform intricate cuts and trace complex designs with lower power than is required for wood, plastic, or metal.
Cork is best laser cut or engraved with a CO2 laser at low power. Depending on the thickness of the cork to be cut, recommended settings fall into a power range of 30-100 W, with travel speeds of 1-30 mm/second. Lasers use a lens to focus the beam while cutting and engraving the material. Lens focal lengths typically vary between 1.5 and 4 inches depending on the machine and application. Shorter focal lengths are better for thin materials like cork sheets, with 1 to 2 inches giving the cleanest cut for thin materials.
This article will discuss laser cutting and engraving of cork, the process, recommended settings, and beginner tips.
Cork can be cut to shape (“natural cork”) or ground into pieces and either extruded or pressed to form “agglomerated” cork. Most industrial applications outside of winemaking use agglomerated cork in the form of flat sheets or blocks. Laser cutting and engraving of extruded cork can be done by following the steps below:
- A 2D drawing is required as a basis for laser cutting or engraving. This can be created on any standard CAD (computer-assisted design) software package or using your laser cutting machine’s software. Vector drawings (made up of points, lines, and curves) are used for cutting while raster drawings (collections of pixels that create an image) are used for engraving.
- If you use a 2D design package apart from the one that came with your laser cutter, you will need to transfer the design file to the laser cutter in the required file format. Most laser cutters use .dwg, .dxf and .ai file types for vector files, and .jpg and .bmp for raster (engraving) files. Other file types can be used depending on your equipment.
- Check your laser cutter for guidance on the best starting point for laser power and speed settings. Laser cutting sheets of cork are usually performed at 30-100 W of power and at a speed of 1-30 mm/second of speed.
- Position your cork sheet or block within the laser cutter’s workspace. If you plan on painting your part, this can be done before engraving to create striking designs.
- Tape the sections with large cut-outs, which leave narrow pieces of cork bridging from one section to another. This is to help hold small pieces that become detached during cutting in place while you unload the platform after cutting.
- Start the laser cutting or engraving.
- Remove the finished parts from the workspace.
- The surface of laser-cut or engraved cork will burn or oxidize. To remove the resulting dark residue, clean the surface with cold water and detergent.
There is no difference in the laser cutting or engraving processes for cut, extruded, or cast cork. The general steps are as follows:
- Create a 2D drawing using any standard CAD package or the laser cutting machine’s software.
- Set the desired or recommended laser-cutting settings.
- Position the cork sheet or blocks within the laser cutter's workspace.
- Tape the sections where there are small cutouts.
- Start laser cutting or engraving.
- Remove finished parts from the workspace.
The required laser-cutting machine table size depends greatly on your application and industry. But it can be worthwhile to match your laser table size to the size of the cork sheet you plan to use for your largest project during the initial purchase of the machine. Some common laser cutting platform sizes and standard cork sheet dimensions are given below:
- Small-Scale and Hobbyist Machines: These machines are similar in size to desktop printers. Four-inch circles and squares of pre-cut cork are extensively used to make coasters and placemats, and for creating small decorations and jewelry.
- Workshop Machines: Most workshops and industrial settings have tables that can accept standard-sized 3x2 ft or 4x3 ft cork sheets. Multiple small pieces can be laser cut or engraved at the same time on these mid-sized tables using the same program.
- Large-Scale Machines: Production machines have table sizes of up to 6x4 ft or more. Multiple sheets of cork can be stacked to create dozens of cut pieces. Many large-scale machines have the ability to be loaded (or unloaded) without interrupting the laser cutting. The workspace is large enough for the laser head to cut at one side of the bed, while the material is loaded or unloaded at the other side, using a conveyor belt or similar system.
Camera recognition is the integration of a camera or vision system into laser-cutting equipment. Camera recognition is important for laser cutting cork because such systems can recognize patterns, labels, or other identifying features on the cork and guide the laser around features that must be avoided. This is important in applications that call for the cutting of complex shapes, or a high number of cut-outs in one workpiece. The camera can automate parts of the process to increase speed and simplify the setup for the operator.
Cork parts for which the cosmetic appearance of the laser-cut edge is important can be referred to as "presentation parts." "General part cutting" is applicable when the laser-cut edges of a part are either not visible, or appearance is not important.
When the cork is cut using a laser, its edges are discolored by oxidation along the edges where the beam made the cut. This oxidation results in a dark brown or black color on the cut edges. This may be acceptable for general parts, but some modifications to the laser power and speed settings can improve the edge appearance for presentation parts.
The fastest possible speed for cutting cork presentation parts depends on your laser cutter's maximum speed and power. Low laser power will transfer less heat to the workpiece. Moving the laser head more quickly will reduce the amount of time that the material is exposed to the heat source and reduce any burning of the edges.
The fastest laser cutters can cut at 30 mm/second. However, cutting at too low power and too high a speed can mean that the material is not cut all the way through. If this occurs, multiple passes must be performed to cut through the material.
The best power level is the one that cuts all the way through the cork at the fastest speed your machine can go. For general parts, the appearance of the cork may not be as important. Laser powers can increase above what would be used with presentation parts. Increasing the laser power to 100 W will cut through the cork even at high speeds.
Thicker sheets of cork require higher laser power than thin sheets to make sure the laser cuts all the way through. Soft materials like cork generally cut best with low power and high speed. If your laser cutter cannot cut through your sheet of cork, try reducing the speed and increasing the power. Reducing the speed and increasing the power will increase the risk of discoloration on the cut sheet, however.
The best setting for laser cutting cork is low power and high speed. The exact settings for your laser cutter depend on your machine and application, but there are some general guidelines to follow. The best laser settings for different thicknesses are given in Table 1 below:
3 mm or less
3 mm to 10 mm
greater than 10 mm
100 W (and two passes)
Some common mistakes when laser cutting cork include:
- Burning the Edge: The surface of your cork can easily oxidize and discolor at the part edge near the laser path. This can lead to dark “smoke” marks on the surface near a cut or engraved section. To avoid this, tape over the area and laser cut through the tape. Remove the tape after laser cutting and the surface will be clean.
- Not Cutting Through the Material: If your laser power is set too low, or your speed too high, you may find that the laser does not cut all the way through the thickness of the material. Always perform a test cut on some spare material to make sure your settings are correct.
- Laser Not Focused: If the laser is not focused at the right height relative to the workpiece, the laser may not cut through the material or produce clean cuts. An unfocused laser beam reduces the power transmitted to the material and may only cut the material partially through, or burn more material at the cut edge. Follow the instructions in your laser cutter’s operating manual to refocus and adjust your laser head to produce clean lines.
Here are some of the best tips when you start laser cutting and engraving cork:
- Use the LED Laser Sight: Many laser cutters and engravers have a built-in LED for viewing the position of the laser beam. Use this to check the starting positions for your cut (or etch) and the path the laser will travel on the workpiece.
- Test Your Layout by Cutting Cardboard: Test-run your program by cutting a sheet of cardboard of a similar size to the sheet of cork you plan to laser cut. This ensures that the shapes are laid out and cut as expected.
Some advantages of using a laser to cut or engrave cork include:
- The dark engraved color against the cork’s natural color creates a stark contrast with a distinctive style.
- Cork can be cut and engraved with low-cost machines using very low-power settings compared to other materials like wood, plastic, or metal.
- Laser cutting cork requires no mechanical clamping of the workpiece in place.
Diode and CO2 lasers are the best laser cutters for cork. Diode lasers are an inexpensive option for cutting and engraving cork. Many entry-level machines operate at low power (10-50 W) and can cut cork and other thin materials. Some low-power diode lasers struggle to cut thicker sections of cork (5 mm or thicker).
CO2 lasers are more expensive than diode lasers, but they produce higher-quality results when cutting cork. They can typically operate at higher power levels than diode lasers, between 30 and 500 W. This allows both thin and thick sections of cork to be cut. CO2 lasers can cut cork more quickly than low-power diode lasers because of the higher power levels available, allowing the speed to be optimized.
Here are some possible projects that can be made using a laser cutter on cork:
- Coasters and placemats
- Mouse pads and drawing boards
- Christmas decorations
- Replacement seals/gaskets
- Furniture pads (for covering floors)
- Hand grips for reusable cups
- Maps of the world marked with places you have visited
- Art installations and framed artwork
- Earrings, necklaces, and bracelets
- Personalized name plates and place setting favors for weddings and events
Alternative materials to cork for laser cutting are:
- Cardboard is a low-cost alternative to cork with many similar properties. Just like cork, it can be cut at very low laser power levels and cuts very quickly. However, it is not as durable as cork and can disintegrate when wet.
- Engraved leather is flexible and strong. It has a similar appearance to cork and can be used in fashion, jewelry, and personalized products.
- Plywood has a similar appearance to a cork, but with higher stiffness and strength.
- Engraved acrylic and plastic are very versatile materials that can be laser cut. They have the added advantage of being available in clear, colored, transparent, and translucent versions. As with cork, plastics can be cut at much lower laser powers than metals and can be processed on less expensive laser cutters or engravers.
The best materials for laser cutting are given in the list below:
- Cork: Cork can be quickly and easily laser cut or engraved at low power using inexpensive material. Cork is a great material for small businesses, arts and crafts, and personalized gifts and events.
- Acrylic: Acrylic is one of the best plastics to laser cut. This is because it cuts cleanly at low power. It can be clear or colored and is used for decorations, lighting, display cases, and product holders.
- Leather: Laser-engraved leather creates a dark contrast on the surface which can be striking for fashion, jewelry, and gifts
- Steel: Thin steel sheets can be cut with most laser cutters. Automotive components, medical devices, and jewelry are all created using laser cutters. High powers are needed to cut steel. Making through-cuts in steel may require up to 1000 W, compared to just 30-40 W with cork or leather.
This article presented laser engraving and cutting cork, explained what it is, and discussed the various applications of laser cutting cork. To learn more about laser engraving and cutting cork, contact a Xometry representative.
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