I remember when I wore a younger man’s clothes and I could pretty much wrap my brain around anything with which I came into contact. It’s embarrassing to discover that I’ve transitioned into someone whose primary role is to keep out of the way while asking questions like, “What happens if I press this big red button?” (You know, the button with the associated plaque that says, “Under no circumstances press this big red button!”)

The cause for my meandering maudlin musings commenced when I recently splashed the cash for a laser engraver and cutter. Based on advice from people I used to count as friends (I’m joking), I opted for a 40W CO2 Laser from OMTech.

OMTech 40W CO2 laser engraver and cutter (Click image to see a larger version — Image source: OMTech)

I’d like to take this opportunity to say that the manual accompanying this bodacious beauty made everything clear and simple. Sad to relate, I’m not in a position to say this because there was no accompanying manual (although I did track one down online later).

Since my office is in a building shared by a bunch of other small companies, I also decided that it would be neighborly of me to invest in an air filter. I opted for a rather tasty industrial air purifier/fume extractor, also from OMTech. This little scamp boasts a 4-layer filter featuring cotton, activated carbon, and aluminum-alloy filters to absorb harmful gases and unpleasant odors, which means it may also prove to be of use following spicy lunchtime excursions.

The first step was to clear an area in my office and unpack everything. Things were overcrowded before the arrival of the laser and air filter. Suffice it to say that they are even more cramped now. On the bright side, I can control my laser without leaving the comfort of my command chair.

Once I had unboxed all the bits and pieces to peruse and ponder, I decided to call my chum, Rick Curl, who is great at doing “stuff.” Rick came round to my office and helped me connect everything together. This necessitated us making several runs to pick up things like a 5-gallon bucket and multiple gallon bottles of distilled water for the cooling system. We also decided to purchase two 4” diameter right-angle connectors to attach to the back of the laser and the air filter rather than directly connecting the supplied collapsible exhaust pipe.

Eventually, we decided that had the system ready to rock-and-roll as far as the hardware was concerned. However, since neither of us had worked with this sort of equipment before, we felt it might be a good idea to bring in an expert before proceeding further.

Sadly, we didn’t know an expert. Happily, it was coming up to 6:00pm on a Tuesday evening, and Tuesday evenings are when my local makers organization — Makers Local 256 — is open for the public to wander around and see what’s what.

Thus, we hopped in my car and drove over to the Makers Local 256 facility where we met a bunch of great folks who gave us a guided tour of their various areas and tools for woodworking, metalworking, electronics, sewing… the list goes on. One thing that caught our attention was that several of the members were working with a jolly big laser, which prompted me to present my problem. The Chairman of Makers Local 256 — we’ll call him Bradley (because that’s his name) — immediately offered to come round to my office one day after work to make sure everything was tickety-boo and get me up and running.

Bradley weaving his magic to make my laser work (Click image to see a larger version)

Bradley was as good as his word, visiting me after work earlier this week. If you read the reviews on Amazon, you’ll see that everyone pretty much agrees that the Laser Draw (LaserDRW) software supplied with this sort of machine is not of the highest order. Instead, they recommend the free open-source K40 Whisperer program, which reads SVG and DXF files, interprets the data, and sends commands to the K40 controller in the machine to move the laser head and control the laser accordingly.

The reviewers also recommend creating your designs using the free and open-source Inkscape vector graphics editor, which outputs SVG and DXF files. Given a choice, I really don’t want to learn any more programs than I need to, so it’s fortunate that I have a black belt when it comes to using Microsoft Visio, which also outputs SVG and DXF files. Although Visio isn’t free, I already have a license and I already know how to use it (happy dance).

The way this works is elegant in its simplicity. While you are creating the image you wish to cut or engrave using your laser, you use RED lines to indicate cutting, BLUE lines to indicate vector engraving, and BLACK lines and shapes to indicate raster engraving.

Once we’d downloaded and installed K40 Whisperer, including getting it to talk to my laser, Bradley placed a piece of paper on the laser bed, closed the lid, and pressed the test button. When we opened the lid, we were surprised to see that the paper was unmarked. Fortunately, from my viewing angle I had seen a whiff of smoke through the observation window. With a little playing around, it didn’t take us long to realize that the machine’s mirrors were horribly misaligned, resulting in the laser beam hitting something it shouldn’t.

Some reviewers report that their mirror alignments were perfect out of the box, but many say they required some adjustment (I think my alignments were at the outside edge of the bell curve). If you know what you are doing, like Bradley, this really isn’t a problem. The online manual does discuss this, but it could do with more work. Now I’ve seen how it’s done, I’m confident I will be able to do it myself in the future. However, if Bradley hadn’t been here to show me the ropes, I fear I would still be sitting here with my lower lip aquiver and a little tear rolling down my cheek. Happily, since Bradley was kind enough to take the time to come round, I now have a fully functional laser and I’m performing my happy dance (avert your head and close your eyes because it’s not a pretty sight).

There are a couple of things to note about the laser itself. The first is that, although it does have a big red Emergency Stop button, it does not have a safety interlock associated with the main cover. This is something that could be easily added. The second is that the water pump is a bit weedy (I had to suck the outlet pipe to get the air bubbles out and start the water flowing), but it’s OK once it’s running. The third is that the vertical focus of the laser is fixed at 2”, which is about 1/8” above the bed of the machine. I really wish this focus was adjustable. As an alternative, since I will be working with small areas, and since the laser features a removable work bed, I’ve ordered a 4″ x 4″ Lab Scissors Jack, which will allow me to raise or lower my work-pieces to be at the optimum height.

In conclusion, I’m very happy with my purchase of the 40W CO2 Laser from OMTech. I really do think this is a good deal for the price. I’m also very happy that things like makers organizations exist. As epitomized by the folks at Makers Local 256 in general, and their chairman Bradley in particular, these organizations provide an invaluable resource for their local maker communities.

What say you? Do you already have a laser engraver/cutter, in which case do you have any tales you’d care to share regard setting it up, maintaining it, and the things you’ve used it for? Alternatively, are you tempted to purchase one of these little scamps and, if so, what do you plan on using it for?