A CO₂ laser engraver is an amazing machine that can accomplish a wide range of laser cutting and engraving tasks right out of the box. Many CO₂ laser engraver users are simply amazed by the quality of their DIY laser projects and don’t see much need for laser engraver accessories. However, some easy laser engraver upgrades can make your laser work processes faster, simpler, safer, and more profitable.
In this article, we’ll teach you all about the best laser cutter upgrades that can enhance your laser engraver’s performance and ease your workflow.
The 10 Best CO₂ Laser Engraver Upgrades
1. CO₂ Laser Water Chiller
The laser beam in your CO₂ laser engraver is generated by exciting a gas inside of a glass tube with a very high voltage. This energy creates a potent laser light beam — and also excess heat. Without cooling, the glass tube would crack, so it is surrounded with a water jacket through which cool water is continuously pumped to carry the heat away.
As you start laser engraving and cutting, you will probably begin with a 5-gallon bucket of distilled water and add ice packs to keep the temperature below the critical 70°F (20°C). Over this temperature, the lifespan of the laser tube and its performance will decrease.
Keeping a ready supply of ice blocks close to the laser engraver and constantly monitoring the temperature adds to your workload, so many people upgrade to an automatic laser water chiller.
Which water chiller is best for my CO₂ laser engraver?
Three different laser water chillers are available for purchase: The ‘3000’ and two variants of the ‘5000’ series.
The CW-3000 is recommended for laser engravers 40W and below. Although it is a cheaper option, it uses a fan and the ambient air to cool the water. In hot climates or unconditioned work rooms, this may not be sufficient to keep the water temperatures low enough for safe operation.
The 5000 series is more expensive, but it uses a more conventional HVAC style compressor to actively chill the water, along with advanced electronics to monitor the water temperature and has alarms in case something goes wrong. This laser engraver accessory adds great convenience to your workflow.
Upgraded Laser Ventilation: Fume Extractor or Inline Fan
2. Inline Fans for Laser Engraver Ventilation
As your laser machine works its magic, it superheats precise areas of your workpiece to vaporize and reduce the material to your specifications. During this vaporization process, tiny particles of smoke and debris can enter the air, posing a danger to your health and adhering to your laser machine's internal surfaces and mechanisms. Removing these particles is up to your laser ventilation system.
Your CO₂ laser engraver should come with a built-in exhaust fan, typically a centrifugal style that is powerful but can be rather noisy. Depending upon your situation, you may find these acceptable, especially if the ventilation pipework is quite short.
Alternatively, you can install an external ventilation fan. Many beginner laser engravers notice smoke or odors that escape through the small seams of the cabinet. If your pipe runs are long, or you are working with materials that create a lot of smoke, you may want to upgrade to an inline fan. They are easy to install, nearly silent, and come in various sizes to fit your ducting.
Always place your inline ventilation fan as close to the wall outlet as possible, rather than close to the laser machine. It needs to ‘pull’ the air rather than ‘push’ it. This simple move will make a big difference in your laser ventilation performance. If you have a laser engraver with a built-in ventilation fan, you should remove this when installing an inline fan, as it will simply cause a restriction to the airflow.
Finally, if you choose an inline fan that is significantly more powerful than the stock system, you may need to open an intake hole in the laser cabinet to compensate. The fan can only extract the same amount of air that enters the laser cabinet. You can easily accomplish this by leaving one of the side access doors slightly open.
3. Use a Fume Extractor for Laser Engraver Exhaust
Generally, the laser engraver ventilation system extracts fumes and smoke to the outdoors. Once diluted with outside air, your laser engraver exhaust does not cause any issues or health concerns. However, some owners want to operate their laser engraver in a dense residential area, a place where the smells may disturb neighbors, or in a windowless room with no outside vents. In situations like these, a fume extractor may be a more suitable alternative. Fume extraction works by sucking the fumes out of the cabinet and passing them through a series of filters, such as activated charcoal, paper, and HEPA filters. The fume extractor releases clean air back into the room, giving you purified laser exhaust indoors.
It is important to choose the correct size for your laser machine and follow the maintenance procedures, cleaning, and filter replacement cycle. Fume extractors can be expensive, so they’re generally used in large production environments or home workshops where you simply have no other choice.
4. Upgraded Laser Air Assist
As the CO₂ laser beam hits the workpiece, it vaporizes the material, creating smoke and airborne particles. Air assist keeps a constant stream of air flowing through the nozzle to clear the kerf (the cut line) of debris, prevent particles from contaminating the lens, and blow out any flames that might startup.
The air pump supplied with your laser is quite sufficient when you are engraving. But an air assist upgrade can definitely improve the laser cutting performance, as the higher pressure air jet penetrates deeper into the kerf, clearing the path for the laser beam more efficiently. This can improve your cutting speed and maximum cutting thickness.
The kits for an improved air assist system can be purchased inexpensively online and consist of various tubes and valves that connect to your laser head on one end and an external air compressor on the other. Many kits even offer solenoids that allow you to control the air assist with your laser software.
What’s the best air compressor for a laser air assist upgrade?
Enabling ‘air’ sends high-pressure air through the nozzle for laser cutting; disabling it lowers the airflow for engraving. You should never run the laser without air assist, as.
The standard air pump is insufficient for the high-pressure requirements, so it’s replaced with an air compressor. Choosing the right air compressor is straightforward — it needs to be ‘oilless’ so that the air produced is free of contaminants. It also needs sufficient capacity and power to handle the workload. Generally, you will need at least 2 CFM and an 8-gallon tank capacity to achieve a 50% duty cycle (the time it is running compared to the time it is off). Check to ensure that your chosen model can achieve this and err on the side of caution — too big is better than too small.
Most air compressors also have a water trap/dryer to ensure that the pressurized air contains no moisture, which can damage the lens. Finally, check the noise level of your chosen model and be sure that you can live with it running when the laser is operating. Some cheap air compressors can be very noisy.
Best cutting results are obtained with a pressure of between 25 and 30psi. However, the pipework on your laser engraver is not intended for high pressure, and losing the air supply during laser cutting could result in the workpiece igniting. That’s why it’s critical to secure all pipework connections with hose clamps and never leave the laser engraver unattended when in operation.
5. Laser Rotary Attachment
Out of the box, your CO₂ laser engraver can engrave almost any flat surface, including stone. However, due to its design, the laser head can only move horizontally in the X and Y direction, not up and down (Z). Therefore, in order to engrave any curved surface, such as tumblers, glasses, or mugs, you will need a laser rotary attachment.
A laser rotary attachment sits on the laser machine workbed and connects to the same controller as the Y-axis. In fact, the standard Y-axis is disabled when the rotary is connected.
Electronic instructions that would have moved the Y-axis now move the rotary, which ‘rotates’ the object being engraved. For example, the attachment will rotate a tumbler as the laser beam penetrates it, keeping the laser contact point at the correct distance from the focal lens so that the laser beam remains correctly focused.
There are essentially two types of rotary axis attachments — a roller model and a chuck model. With the roller-style laser rotary attachment, the object is placed onto a set of rollers that are then rotated by the servo motor. This makes them quick and easy to use for cylindrical objects but can have problems with slippage of the object.
The chuck rotary grips the object with a set of jaws so that it cannot slip, and it offers many more options for what can be engraved, handling non-cylindrical objects as well. Advanced laser engraver owners will create jigs for their rotary attachment to quickly load and engrave unique items like baseball bats, golf balls, vases,
6. Laser Focus Lenses
Your CO₂ laser engraver comes with a ‘standard’ lens that will enable you to cut and engrave a wide range of materials with very acceptable results. However, there are times when you may need to consider upgrading the laser focal lens to a different focal length for particular jobs.
How Laser Focus Lenses Work
When the CO₂ tube produces a raw laser beam, it is about 6mm wide — too diluted to cut or engrave with much precision. The laser beam must be focused into a smaller point to utilize its full power. That’s where the focus lens comes in.
Laser focusing lenses are typically made of Zinc Selenide (ZnSe) and coated with a special finish that promotes greater light transmittance. They have a convex shape that sends the laser beam on a convergent path, concentrating all the laser light energy into a sharp point about 0.01 mm in diameter. The focused laser beam now has enough energy to vaporize various materials.
How Laser Focal Length Works
A short focal length lens creates that dot closer to the focus lens, and a longer focal length creates it further away. This means laser beams with shorter focal lengths converge at relatively wider angles (see the diagram). So, if you use a shorter focal lens when cutting thick materials, the sides of the kerf (cut line) will be angled, whereas a longer focal length will produce sides that are more parallel.
The dot size will also change based on the focal length. A shorter focal length will generate a smaller dot than a longer one. This means that there is a limitation on the focal length that your laser engraver can handle based on the power of the laser tube. If the energy density of the dot is not sufficient to instantly vaporize the material, your laser cutting performance will be severely compromised.
Which Laser Focal Lens is Best for Me?
If you do a lot of engraving, especially of dithered photographs, then having a short focal length lens of 1.5” to 2” is beneficial, thanks to the relatively small dot size. A ‘compound’ lens, consisting of two lenses installed back to back in a special nozzle, can provide an extremely tiny dot. Very effective when engraving but entirely unsuitable for cutting.
If you do a lot of laser cutting through thick materials, then a longer focal length lens of 2.5” to 4” (depending on your laser power/wattage) will work best.
Always install your laser focus lens with the convex side facing up.
Before buying, ensure your new focal lens is the correct diameter to fit your laser head nozzle. Most laser focus lenses come in either 12mm, 18mm, or 20mm diameter sizes. You can find this specification in your laser machine user manual.
7. Upgraded CO₂ Laser Tubes & Power Supplies
Can I upgrade my CO₂ laser tube?
Laser engravers and cutters are available in a wide range of powers and sizes. Generally, the more powerful the laser, the larger the machine and bed size. However, some laser users may want a more powerful laser, but do not need a larger workbed (and thus a heavier machine). More laser power can allow you to engrave deeper and cut through denser and thicker materials, as well as use longer focal length lenses. In this case, you can upgrade your co₂ laser tube to a more powerful one, but you must also upgrade the laser power supply to match.
The installation process is not difficult, but it does require both parts. The laser tube works by applying a very high voltage to one end and this comes from the laser power supply. Each laser power supply is built to power one wattage of laser tube — so a 60W tube has a 60W power supply and a 100W tube requires a 100W power supply. They are not interchangeable and so a new power supply will be required. Good news again, they are physically and electrically the same and so changing them over is straightforward.
How to Upgrade Your CO₂ Laser Tube
Laser tubes vary in power based on their length and, to a lesser extent, their diameter. So the first thing to consider is whether your new tube will physically fit into the cabinet. Over 60W, laser tubes are almost all 80mm in diameter. Under 60W, they are typically 55mm. So you may at the very least require new laser tube mounts — but check these will fit and that they can be adjusted to align perfectly with laser mirror #1.
If that will work, then consider the length. The new upgraded tube will be longer than the original and will be required to stick out of the right-hand side of the laser cabinet, as shown above. When this is done in the factory, a metal box is built around the tube to protect it, so you will need to construct something similar. The good news is that there are plenty of box designs available online that you can build yourself using the laser cutter and some plywood.
8. Electric Current Ammeter
Every co₂ laser cutter has a special component called a laser power supply that controls the electric current running into the laser tube. The laser power supply receives AC current from your wall outlet plug and converts it to high-voltage DC electricity for the laser tube to utilize.
The amount of current delivered to the tube determines how powerful the laser beam will be. A 60W tube can utilize anything from about 5W to the full 60W depending upon the current from the laser power supply.
In the laser engraver software, you choose a laser power setting that represents a percentage of the total current the power supply can convert. However, this is defined as a percentage and not as an actual current. Your laser tube’s lifespan is affected very much by the amount of current supplied — OMTech recommends staying below 70% laser power to maximize the lifetime. But how do you know if your percentage setting corresponds to the correct amount of electrical current (in milliAmps)? That’s where the current ammeter comes in.
Use a Current Ammeter for CO₂ Laser Engraver
Some laser engravers have a digital current meter installed, but if yours has not, then adding an analog ammeter is simple and straightforward. A 30mA meter can be purchased for a few dollars and this is spliced into the black wire that leads to the laser tube from the power supply. Note: NEVER connect the red wire as this carries many thousands of volts when the laser tube is powered.
You can then calibrate the percentage set in the laser engraver software to the actual mA current being supplied to the tube, ensuring that you are always within the manufacturer's limits.
9. Upgrade Your Laser Engraver Software
Great laser engraving software can not only increase your laser capabilities and enhance your designs — it can make your life easier. Upgrading your laser software can make engraving tasks that once felt like a chore into an absolute pleasure.
What is the best laser engraving software?
Various software programs have been available over the years, but Lightburn laser software has emerged as probably the best available at this time. Not only is it a powerful laser control software, but also has a wide range of design tools to easily manipulate your designs and also create from scratch.
If you want to become a creator of some complex designs then there are also several commercial design software packages available. Remember that the laser works predominantly in vectors, so tools such as Photoshop and Paint will not be of much use.
CorelDRAW and Adobe Illustrator however are ideal tools for those who can afford the money and the time to learn them. An excellent alternative is Inkscape — a free piece of software that is downloadable by Windows and Mac users (and Linux) alike. It may not have the polished user interface of the commercial alternatives, but it is every bit as powerful.
10. Laser Autofocus Sensor
Your Laser Engraver may have been supplied with ‘Autofocus” or you may wish to upgrade it with this feature if you already have the motorized workbed (ZF). Used in combination, these can be extremely helpful when producing items quickly in a semi-production environment.
“Autofocus” isn’t quite what it may sound like as it does not check the focus of the laser, it ensures that the distance from the nozzle to the workpiece is always exactly the same. So calibrating it by first conducting a ramp test is essential and then when your focus is just right, you adjust the sensor to just touch the workpiece. Now, whenever you start a job, the autofocus system will move the bed up and down until the sensor touches the material and the laser should then be focused. Remember that if you change the focal length of your lens that you will also need to recalibrate the sensor.
The upgrades listed in this article are all well-proven amongst laser engraver owners and can help improve the performance, safety, and profitability of your laser operation. None of them are essential, as your laser engraver will perform very well ‘out of the box’ for most situations. However, as you start to develop your laser engraving and cutting craft into a business, these laser engraver upgrades can help improve your machine and workflow. Certain laser engraver accessories can also open up the range of objects and materials that you can cut and engrave. As you research and add them, you’ll learn more about how your laser works, which will sharpen your craft even further.