Each generation, a new
technology in woodworking
enables us to work faster, with
more precision and more
creativity. Carbide-tipped bits
and a whole new set of portable
power tools, for example, have
improved how we work and
what we build. For the next
generation, CNC lasers may
also be one of those tools
that transform our shops.
I’m a young, 21st Century
woodworker. When Epilog, a maker
of CNC lasers, asked me to try out the
Helix , a mid-size machine from the
Legend Elite series, I jumped at the
chance. What can it do? How does it
work? How far can I push it? Dozens
of questions came up. I’ll introduce
you to what I found, but one thing
I’ll tell you up front: There’s way more
to this technology than meets the
eye. After days of experimenting,
I only scratched the surface.
What is a CNC laser?
To understand a CNC laser, think
of it as having two components.
First, there’s the CNC (computer
numerically controlled) part.
You’re probably familiar with CNC
machines–they’re common in
factories, and are making their way
into small woodworking shops, too.
In woodworking applications, a CNC
usually controls a router. OK, let’s
replace that router bit with a highintensity
beam of light–a laser. That’s
the second part of the machine.
Consider a CNC laser as a type
of printer. A computer program
moves the machine’s head. But the
head shoots a laser, instead of ink.
What can a laser do?
A CNC laser’s beam essentially
heats and vaporizes the wood it
contacts. By adjusting the intensity
of the light, you can determine
the depth that it cuts. Usually, the
waste is just reduced to smoke, but
when the laser is set on high, you
may even create a small fl ame!
You can fine-tune the depth-of-cut however you wish, but
think of it as having three levels:
shallow, medium and deep. They
correspond to three diff erent
applications: engraving, relief
carving and pattern cutting.
Lots of folks have bought a
CNC laser for engraving things like
nametags, keychains and other
quickly personalized trinkets. It’s a
great small business–there’s one in
virtually every city in the country.
You can copy your own images or
download them from the Internet.
Basically, any image that can be
digitized can be engraved.
Cutting deeper into the wood
with a laser creates a threedimensional
eff ect, similar to lowrelief
carving. The laser is extremely
precise. You can create very intricate
patterns, perfect for medallions,
awards, moldings or any design
that will embellish a project.
Cutting deeper yet, you can go
all the way through a relatively thin
piece of solid wood or plywood (up
to 3/8" on the Helix I tested). You’re
not making images anymore–you’re
making shapes. Lasers are commonly
used to make wooden clock parts,
dollhouse furniture, models, 3-D
animal sculptures and more.
For workshop applications, you
can use a laser to create extremely
accurate plywood templates,
based on CAD drawings, for
shaping parts on a router table. You
could also use a laser for intarsia,
marquetry or scroll-saw patterns.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
There’s a wide community of Epilog
users online (www.EpilogLaser.com), supported and encouraged
by Epilog to push the boundaries
of what a laser can do. If you buy
a laser for woodworking, or rent
time on one, consider yourself
a pioneer. Many applications
have yet to be discovered!
How does the
The Epilog’s laser tube is located in
back of the machine. The beam of
high-energy light passes through
a series of mirrors and lenses to
a CNC-controlled head, which
moves in an X/Y plane (Photo
1). The head moves in a totally
sealed and safe compartment
containing the workpiece.
The Epilog interfaces with your
computer much like a printer. After
you’ve set up your project in Corel
Draw, the software included with
the Epilog (which can be used with
a wide variety of graphic-editing
programs), you hit print and bring
up a print driver screen, which
Eplilog refers to as the dashboard
(Photo 2). The dashboard is where
you make your adjustments. The
most important are speed (how fast
the laser moves over your material)
and intensity (how strong the laser
is, and how deep it will cut). Once
you’ve zeroed in on your settings
for a particular project, you can
save and recall them at any time.
What does the
On the hardware side, you’ll need
a computer to run the Epilog. You’ll
also need an exhaust system, to
remove particulates and odor from
the machine’s exhaust (Photo 3).
Most users in a fi xed installation opt
to exhaust the fumes out of their
shop with a hose or ductwork, but
portable fi ltration units are available
for mobile applications (like shows
and fairs). Most lasers and fi ltration
units only need 120-volt circuits.
On the software side, the
Epilog is designed to empower
even a novice computer user to
get started creating quickly. You
don’t have to be an expert! Having
grown up in the information age,
that part of the operation didn’t
faze me, but I was surprised to
see how easy the software was
to use at its most basic levels.
Types of Epilog lasers
Epilog has two lines of lasers:
Zing and Legend Elite. The major
diff erences between the lines are
capacity (the size and depth of the
bed), power (expressed in watts) and
resolution (dots per square inch).
The Zings are entry-level lasers
with smaller beds and lower-power,
capable of cutting through 1/4"
The Legend Elite series lasers
have a larger capacity, more powerful
beams capable of cutting through
wood up to 3/8" thick. Legend
series lasers can also engrave at
a faster speed than the Zings.
Both lines of lasers have a
repeatability of ±.0005". Zing series
machines engrave up to 1000 dpi; the
Legend series goes up to 1200 dpi.
The Helix I tried out has a 24"
x 18" bed, a 60-watt laser. The exhaust
system we used is about $3,000.
The bottom line
An Epilog is an investment, no
doubt about it. But it can be the
foundation of a profi table small
business or the tool that propels your
woodworking to an entirely new
level. To fi nd out more about laser
woodworking, contact your local
Epilog distributor. He can probably
locate an Epilog in your area and
help you contract some work or
rent some time on the machine.
After seeing how quick and easy
it is to personalize a project or
engrave an intricate design, you
just might catch the laser bug. Our
photographer sure did–he achieved
some remarkable results (Photo 4).
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker August/September 2010, issue #149.
August/September 2010, issue #149
Purchase this back issue.
Click any image to view a larger version.
What A Laser Can Do
Engraving: The Epilog can burn a shallow picture or drawing on wood.
You can reproduce any digital image, including your own
photo or sketch.
Relief Carving: The Epilog can also be set to burn deeper, for shallow relief
carving. A laser can quickly and precisely duplicate intricate
Pattern Cutting: Set to full strength, the Epilog can cut all the way through
material. You can duplicate parts large or small, such as these
interlocking puzzle pieces.
Inlay: Using pattern cutting and relief carving techniques, the
Epilog can cut out an inlay and the recess in which it fi ts.
How It Works
1. The Epilog laser’s head moves like
a printer. It will scan back and forth or
follow a continuous line, depending on
how it’s programmed.
2. The Epilog’s settings are adjusted
in a printer driver window on your
computer. By adjusting rate, frequency,
intensity and other parameters, a variety
of materials can be engraved or cut.
3. The laser beam produces smoke and
fumes, so you’ll also need an external
exhaust system or a portable fi ltration
4. The future for CNC laser woodworking
is wide open. This shallow relief carving,
based on a photo of a tree, cuts through
one layer of plywood to reveal the layer
below. It’s a beautiful effect that we
found with creative experimentation.
See more fantastic examples of laser woodworking!
Visit Jason Zentner's blog and find out how he puts this next-gen tool to use. Just look at his laser-cut toy car grill!