For many makers, the types of material that can be processed is an important consideration when looking at laser cutters for their shops. Today we’ll be looking at some common materials and comparing the results obtained by processing them with the TwoTrees TOTEM S and an unbranded 50-watt CO2 laser. Besides the difference in power, these two machines utilize lasers with different wavelengths. Some materials are highly absorbent to one wavelength but not the other, meaning one laser is able to process them while the other is not. TwoTrees’ web listing for the TOTEM S lists a number of materials that can be processed by the TOTEM S. We’ll be testing a number of materials from their list, plus a couple of common materials not listed.
I collected samples of several of these materials. I tested plywood, paper, hardwood, acrylic, canvas, painted metal, and stainless steel. While not on the TOTEM S material list above, I also tested leather and glass.
For all my tests I used the file below. It’s small enough to run quickly, has engraving and cutting, and the script font has some fine details. I tested both cutting and engraving with most materials, but some can only be cut or engraved. I used the honeycomb bed from my CO2 laser for all tests, which helps while cutting. I used LightBurn as my cutting software. All engraving tests were done at 250 lines per inch. The power and speed were varied based on the material.
First, I tested plywood. This is one of the most common and versatile materials for laser cutting. I engraved at 50mm/sec and 100% power, and cut in 8 passes at 6mm/sec and 100% power. The engraving is sharp and well-defined. The cutting, while slow, was effective. There’s some charring, but it’s nothing a little 180 grit sandpaper can’t fix.
Next, I tried paper. This is a popular material for low-power lasers since it can be cut quickly. While TwoTrees specifies gray paper, the only paper I have on hand is white. I found it cut well, but burned rather than engraving. I decided to cut both the text and outline to test how the laser would handle fine cuts. The paper cut cleanly in one pass at 20mm/sec and 100% power.
I grabbed some walnut and tested engraving on hardwood. I didn’t try cutting due to the thickness of the wood, but hardwood generally behaves the same as plywood when cutting. The engraving is clean and sharp, though it would benefit from a light sand. This was done in one pass at 50mm/sec and 100% power.
Canvas was next. Like the paper above, engraving resulted in burning so I wound up cutting both the text and outline. Canvas cuts nicely in one pass at 6mm/sec and 100% power, leaving a light brown edge that frays easily. The fabric was wrinkled as you can see below, so I used some magnets to keep it flat on the honeycomb.
Next, I decided to try painted metal. I grabbed some off white spray paint and painted a scrap of titanium. The results are very good. At 100mm/sec and 100% power the laser cleanly removed the paint leaving a clear mark on the material. This may be one of the cleanest engravings of my tests, with the spacing between each line clearly visible.
Last but not least we have leather. For this test I used 3/4oz veg tan leather. I routinely use my CO2 laser to cut leather so I don’t need to cut it by hand. Leather also engraves well. It’s important to use real leather, not fake vinyl leather as fake leather can release toxic gasses when processed with a laser. At 50mm/sec and 100% power the TOTEM S produced a dark, crisp image with minimal scorching outside of the engraving and cut cleanly in 3 passes at 6mm/sec and 100% power leaving a dark edge.
After testing the materials with the TOTEM S, I tested them with my 50 watt CO2 laser. CO2 lasers are the most common style of laser in makerspaces. If you have experience using any style of laser that’s not a diode laser it’s most likely a CO2 laser. We’ll only be looking at the quality of the finished piece. My CO2 laser is much more powerful than the TOTEM S (with no shade to the TOTEM S – they’re built for different purposes), and would be the clear winner in any comparison of speed or cutting thickness. I kept the settings as close as possible on both lasers, but needed to use lower speed and higher power settings on the TOTEM S to account for its lower power output. In all the images below the tests done with the TOTEM S are on the left and the tests done with the CO2 laser are on the right.
My 12”x20” CO2 laser. Under the table is an air compressor and a five-gallon bucket of water with an aquarium pump that are necessary to operate this laser.
First up, we have plywood. The results are comparable. The engraving done with the CO2 laser is deeper and lighter. The edges aren’t as crisp, resulting in more obvious aliasing on the sample processed with the TOTEM S. The front of the piece processed by the CO2 laser showed a bit more charring than the piece processed with the TOTEM S, but a light sand will fix that.
Next, we have paper. The results are indistinguishable.
Hardwood showed very similar results to the plywood above. The CO2 engraving is slightly deeper, lighter, and has more surface charring.
Canvas showed similar results on both lasers.
Neither laser was able to mark on bare stainless.
On painted titanium, the CO2 laser produced a darker mark. The heat generated by the CO2 laser oxidized the titanium, turning it dark blue.
Leather showed results similar to plywood. The CO2 laser is lighter and deeper, and the TOTEM S is sharper.
Across the board, I found the CO2 laser produced lighter, deeper marks with slightly more surface charring while the TOTEM S produced sharper, cleaner marks.
All in all, the TOTEM S is a very capable laser for many materials hobbyists will encounter. The TOTEM S was able to produce excellent engravings on tested materials and proved adequate to cut plywood, paper, fabric, and leather. Engraving definitely seems to be this machine's strong point, but it does well when pressed into service for cutting too.
And if you missed our past coverage of the TOTEM S laser, we've given our unboxing and initial review, as well as an in-depth look at how it works with LightBurn and LaserGRBL!
Very interesting to see the results. Looks like quite the solid print on the titanium.
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