Tutorial – Laser Cutter Guide

Using the Template

Download the Adobe Illustrator laser cutter template (zip).

Your file must be provided in the Laser Cutter template. The template file is formatted to 18″x32″ – the size of the laser bed. The guides indicate the cuttable area of the bed – plan for 1/4 inch margins of unused material for all laser projects.

The template has a separate layer for each type of cut/etch to help organize your file for proofing by the lab assistant. There are color swatches in the template, that when applied to objects “tell” the laser cutter what to do:

  • Black (R=0, G=0, B=0) = Raster Shallow “Shape” Etch – removes a small amount of material from the surface.
  • Green (R=0, B=0, G=255) = Raster Deep “Shape” Etch – removes more material from the surface than the shallow etch.
  • Blue (R=0, B=255, G=0) = Vector Line Engraving – removes a small amount of material in a thin line – useful for making rapid “score” and surface marks.
  • Cyan (R=0, B=255, G=255) = Vector Line Cutting – the laser will cut all the way through the material sheet.

Photo images are treated as varying levels of gray and interpreted as Black Etches.

All vector cutting and engraving line weights should be .0001″ “stroke” with no “fill.”

Type must be converted to outlines. Select type in Adobe Illustrator, and go to Create Outlines in the Type menu.

Solidly filled objects, and thick lines are treated as raster etches, and can be made to shallow etch by using “Black” or the same object will etch deeper with a “Green” fill.

Raster etching takes a long time, because the lens must move incrementally back and forth to remove material from the surface. Vector engraving and cutting commands generally take less time than etching. Thicker and harder materials also take longer to cut or etch than thinner materials.


For convenience, the Service Desk stocks some common materials, although we cannot guarantee that any given material is available at any given time.  You can find more information about stocked materials and their prices here.

You can also provide your own materials for cutting in the laser cutter. The lab assistant may need to test cut on a portion of the material that you provide – be sure to bring extra for testing. The laser system can’t cut everything. Please refer to the materials list below to see if your material is approved, and retain the original coating/packaging for the lab assistant to identify the material.

As a general rule, cutting many small sheets produces better results than cutting everything from one large sheet, because materials can warp with prolonged exposure to the heat produced by the laser.

Tape is useful for holding the many cut pieces of finished jobs while they are still on the bed as a complete sheet. The Service Desk does not supply tape. You must provide your own.

Materials that may be cut/etched:

  • Bristol Board
  • Chipboard
  • Corrugated Paper (cardboard)
  • Foamcore
  • Mat Board / Museum Board
  • Drawing / Watercolor Paper Cover or Card Stock
  • Epson Inkjet Paper
  • Laser Prints
  • Iron-on Paper
  • Birch Plywood
  • Basswood Composition
  • Hardboard (not MDF i.e. masonite, tempered wood)
  • Acrylic (Poly Methyl MethAcrylate)
  • Plastic Corrugated Board (PolyPropolyene)
  • Delrin (Poly TetraFlouroEthylene)
  • Flexible Craft Foam*
  • Transparency Film (Acetate)
  • Mylar PETG (PolyEthylene Terephthalate) only less than .022″ thick
  • PolyEster lightweight only
  • PolyPropylene lightweight only
  • Cotton*
  • Industrial Wool*
  • Artificial Felt*
  • Natural Wool*
  • Polyester* (cannot contain Vinyl)
  • Leather* (bonded or hide; cannot contain Vinyl)

*All fabrics must be mounted

1/4″ plywood is difficult for the laser cutter to fully cut through due to imperfections in the various layers of wood. The lab assistant may have to run the cut multiple times to get a clean cut. This will result in increased cutting times and some charring of the edges of the wood (which can be sanded clean). Even after two passes, there may still be small areas that did not completely cut. You can manually cut through these areas with a utility knife or similar tool to fully remove the piece.

Laser Cutting Lightweight Materials

Laser cutting lightweight materials like paper, cloth, and leather is difficult because the exhaust system pulls so strongly it lifts the material from the bed. This can cause the sheet to move from the original position; to flap and strike the lens; or get pulled into the exhaust. This is a fire hazard. This is why all jobs must be watched during the entire laser process.

Lightweight materials will not be cut unless the material is properly secured. The final decision about whether or not your chosen method and material is acceptable will be completely at the discretion of the lab assistant.

There are 3 methods for securing lightweight materials – by creating vector line breaks and only partially cutting the material, layering the material between 2 heavier boards, or gluing the light weight material to a heavier board.

Broken Vector Lines or “Tabbing” Method

“Line breaking” means making tiny interruptions in a (normally continuous) vector line to keep the pieces from being completely cut from the original sheet.

To create line breaks (or “tabs”) In Adobe Illustrator:

  1. With the Selection Tool, choose the shape or object that you want to modify.
  2. Use the Add Anchor Point Tool to create two new anchor points about 1/8th of an inch apart on the line.
  3. Then use the Direct Selection Tool to select and delete the small segment in between the anchors to create a break.
  4. Repeat for each “tab” needed to secure the shape. Most shapes require 3 or more tabs to prevent them from separating during cutting. After the piece is cut on the laser cutter, you can use an Xacto blade to carefully cut the “tabs” and remove the objects from your sheet.

Layered Method

Place a light weight sheet between two pieces of flat, mat or chip board. You will be cutting through the top board, through the desired material sheet and lightly into the bottom board (but not through bottom board). This procedure holds the ‘middle’ light weight sheet in place, but sacrifices the two boards. Layering works especially well for saving small pieces that have vector lines that are not properly “broken” when created (see “broken vector line method”) and the small pieces are kept in place by the weight of the top board and are caught by the bottom board as they are freed from the material sheet.

A problem with the layering or “sandwich” method is getting consistent results when cutting through multiple sheets of whatever materials you bring as “heavy” boards. Also, layering will NOT allow “etching” or “engraving” elements on the surface of the light weight sheet. The lab assistant will have to do some experiments in advance of attempting your project and it’s a good idea to bring extra sheets and boards with you.

Glued Method

Gluing is a good procedure to use for flexible materials (fabric, leather) and it allows you to etch and engrave the surface. The downside of the glued process is the extra steps, and wet material that later must be dried and flattened. Drying can lead to shrinkage and distortion of the end product, especially with leather. A positive aspect of “gluing” allows you to etch and engrave the material surface.

In addition to the mounted material, keep a small sample piece of the material unmounted, so that the lab assistant can measure it for thickness.

Attach the material to some sort of appropriate substrate (like heavy weight chip board) for support during the cutting process. “UHU” brand glue stick or “YES” brand school paste work well, because both adhesives are acid free and remain water-soluble after the glue dries. Do NOT use glues that can’t be dissolved in water. Do not choose water-based glue labeled “permanent” because it contains PVA and cannot be cut on the laser cutter.

Apply a thin layer of glue to the board. Then carefully apply the material from one end of the board to the other (without trapping air between the material and the board). Allow material and board to dry flat and under pressure before attempting to laser cut.

When the project is done laser cutting, submerge and soak the entire board in a sink until the material floats freely from the board.

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