If you're like me, chances are you've looked into getting a DIY CO2 laser cutter to add the finishing touches to your workshop repertoire. The only problem is, these laser cutters are not what you'd call inexpensive, particularly if what you're after is a fairly large cutting area. While you do get some great customer support options and software included, the cost of a laser was so prohibitive that I decided to make my own. With the help of my friend at GCI Group, today I'll gather tips and share with you precisely how to make a laser cutter so you too can have the cutting power of a CO2 laser without having to spend so much for it.
Before I really dig into it, though, one note: this project will cost you some money simply because I think it is best to use high-grade materials and not scrap. This increases the versatility and longevity of the laser, saving you a lot of cash over time.
The Design My laser cutter makes use of a forty watt laser and has a cutting area of one thousand by six hundred millimetres and includes a touchscreen for fine control of the laser's functionality. Two microcontrollers run the machine along with a Raspberry Pi device and an Arduino. The purpose of the touchscreen in this design is to control any added features but eventually, you can use it as a standalone device too.
It's probably a good idea to mention here that you need to invest in proper, high-quality eyewear when you're dealing with this machine.
1. 3-D Printing After you've assembled the materials, you'll need using my handy list, it's time to make your own laser cutter. Note that I've decided to use a movable-lens laser head so that you can make adjustments to get the focal point just so for any of your cutting needs. If one is available to you, I highly recommend using a 3-D printer to make some of the parts for this DIY laser cutter. 3-D printing really enhances and speeds up the production process for this project. If you don't have access to your own 3D printer and cannot borrow one, there are plenty of professional services that can do this part of the job for you. I recommend that you do invest in a 3-D printer at some point though, as it is a great tool for the many other projects in your future.
2. Cutting the Profiles You'll need to cut your aluminium profiles to length before you start assembling anything for your laser. Luckily, this can be done relatively quickly and easily and the only tools you'll need for this part are a saw for cutting metal such as a circular saw, a sander for the rough edges, and a drill as you'll need some holes at various points in the profiles.
3. Starting the Assembly Once everything has been cut to length, you can start putting some of the laser cutter pieces together. I used a frame that I had printed earlier from the 3-D printer but if you don't want to do that, feel free to buy some iron parts for your frame. Don't forget that this is where you'll need hinges of some kind, too. Start with the profiles that go on the bottom first, followed by vertical profiles, then the upper ones, and finish everything off by installing the middle profiles.
4. Rail Mounts With the frame in place, mounting the necessary rails and motors is a pretty simple job. I recommend doing this now like I did, before installing any of the plates, because this is when you still have easy access to the inner workings of the laser cutter. Make sure you mount the limit switch of the X-axis to the nearest point of said axis. I caution you to take care when sliding the bearings on your rails here. There's a chance to lose the ball bearings if you don't watch out, which would create a big time sink later because you'll have to find them.
5. Cutting and Adjusting the Plates Most suppliers will cut plates for you if you do not have a CNC milling machine and they'll do it at a fairly inexpensive price point. You'll need to cut the side panels and the cover sheets as well as bend some of these to fit the bezel, and I would recommend perhaps using professional locals for this part. Although I used eight-millimetre acrylic on my sheets because that is what was available, I'd recommend using four- or six-millimetre thickness if you can find it. This makes the project cheaper and lighter and the plates are easier to bend when necessary.
6. Mounting the Majority of the Plates When it comes time to mount the plates, I recommend mounting all of them at this point except for the back plate, and the plate that rests on the same side as your electronics. That's because you haven't yet mounted the laser and some electronic parts and you'll need easy access to these areas. I also advise you to install airstrips between each plate for proper ventilation once the laser is functioning.
7. Adding the Laser, Fans, and Cooling Circuits We'll use a water-cooling process to keep our laser cool during use. You can make your own water tank out of PVC piping and punk the water through copper piping to start the process, then moved back to the tank. I suggest you just buy a few copper pipes of about twelve millimetres long and one millimetre thick and solder them together for best results. The fans that we'll soon install will be blowing air constantly in order to cool the water from the tank. You should install the fans in the ventilated area of the laser for an increased rate of flow.
Installing Electronic Components With the physical stuff out of the way, it's time to install the electronic parts. You'll use a twelve-volt supply for the fans and motors and one five-volt supply for the microcontrollers. The Raspberry Pi just powers some of the buttons of the laser. You can check my parts and materials list for full details on the electronics. Don't forget to check out my diagrams for grids of how the wiring is set up so that you don't have to backtrack.
Installing the Arduino and G Codes G-codes tell your laser where to position itself and what to do, and for that, you need something that converts data from your computer into pulses for the laser's motor. I recommend setting up an Arduino with GRBL, mostly because it is free and open-source and you can edit it if necessary. You simply need to download and install the latest Arduino to your computer and then the latest version of GRBL.
Mirror Calibration With everything installed, you should be able to use your DIY laser cutter after you calibrate the mirrors. Take your time with this step because the mirrors tell the beam where to focus and it needs to be done properly. First, you need to slide the Y-axis to the furthest point and use the test button to mark a piece of cardboard with a dot from the laser. Next, slide the axis to the nearest point and repeat the process. You'll now have two dots and the goal is to adjust the mirrors until these dots align, so you'll have to repeat this process several times but it only takes a few minutes.
Mounting the Final Pieces Now you just need to mount the final plates that we had left off earlier, the fans, and the pipes and electronics. Once these steps are done, your fully calibrated laser is ready for use.