Laser engravers used to be the domain of high-end engraving houses because they were so expensive to purchase and operate. Over the last 3 to 5 years, engravers from China have hit the market with mixed success. Companies such as Epilog have for years created the standard of "table-top" laser engravers, but even on Ebay their prices still tend to run in the $4500+ range. Any price lower than that was usually for an Epilog with a missing, broken or non-functioning laser tube. The LEs (laser engraver) from China have changed the price point in LEs significantly. Chinese LEs in the 30-40 watt range can run as low as $800 US. As with all things that you buy from China on Ebay, there should be a large measure of "buyer beware" when making a purchase.
LEs with wattages from 30 watts to 70 watts are now readily available to the average hobbiest or small-business owner. More on LE wattages and what they mean in the next paragraph. Unfortunately, I don't have the room to go into how a laser works, but Wikipedia has a great article on lasers and who they work here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laser
Just like a light bulb, the more wattage you have the more power an LE will be able to etch a surface with. Here is a quick run-down of laser wattages and what you can etch/cut with each
30-40 watts: leather, wood, acrylic/plastic, glass, "masked" metal *. You can cut acrylic to about 3mm and wood to about 2mm
50-70 watts: same as the 30-40 watt lasers, but metals such as aluminum, stainless steel, mild steel, iron, etc. can be much more easily etched or even cut. Cuts as deep ast 8mm can be made.
>70 watts: much more expensive and not usually found in desktop/tabletop models. If you find a desktop/tabletop for under $8000 and it's new, it's not a 70 watt (or above) or it's a cheat.
* A note about masking metal: you can engrave aluminum or stainless or other "shiny" & tough metals using masking sprays like CerMark, etc. - even with a lower-powered LE. Without the spray mask, the engraving will be either non-existant or you won't be able to make a mark on something tough like stainless.
Engraving on glass: keep in mind that glass, too is tough to engrave, but can be done - even without the mask. You won't get dark lettering or images without some sort of mask, but then again, on glass you may or may not want some sort of darkness to the letters or images.
** "Turbo-Charging": you have the capability of "turbo-charging" the engraver's power by blowing air, nitrogen or oxygen directly into the point where the laser contacts the material. This would have the effect (especially if you use welder's oxygen) of almost doubling the output of the laser - for example, a 35 watt laser would have the effect of almost 70 watts on a material if you blew high-pressure oxygen directly on to the spot where the laser contacts the material being engraved. In effect, you're "oxidizing" the point-point where the engraving happens.
Non-US Purchases (For United States Buyers)
If you're in the US - be careful when purchasing LEs that you have to import into the country. Typically the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has to approve of an LE, but you can also get one that's "CE" approved - the European equivalent of Underwriter's Labs. Ninety-nine times out of 100 an LE from China won't have any approval at all - and since you'll have to pay for the shipping to get it in to the US, you'll also have to get it FDA approved before customs will release it to you. I don't know how much an FDA approval costs, but I've been told that they aren't just approving yours - they have to approve ALL similar LEs on your nickle. My bet is to stay away from non-US sellers of LEs...especially if they have to send it to you from a foreign country.
ALWAYS PURCHASE DAMAGE INSURANCE!!!!
Fedex is probably the best for shipping. I've never had a shipment destroyed or damaged by Fedex, ever. The people that I know that have had shipments via Fedex that were damaged (and insured), Fedex payed the whole thing off, completely and without any problem.
Failing Fedex, use USPS and be sure to insure, insure, insure. USPS is good about living up to their agreements, and rarely have I had something damaged by them that they didn't completely reimburse me for any damages.
Finally, NEVER EVER EVER use UPS for shipping ANYTHING fragile. I purchased an LE from Ontario, Canada and had it shipped UPS. I also purchased insurance. The box was clearly marked "Fragile" and "Handle With Care", but when the box came, the contents were destoyed. I know the seller in Canada quite well (I've done extensive business with them) and they packed the unit carefully and thoughtfully. When the unit arrived at my house, it was destroyed - the high-voltage transformer board was torn out of its mounting, the laser tube was broken, and wires were sheared. On top of all that, UPS hit me up for an extra $80 in hidden "customs fees" (I'm never charged customs fees when I ship FEDEX or USPS). When I complained to the driver, he told me that he'd just take my box back and send it back to the shipper. Disgusted, I paid the "customs fees" to get my shipment. When I discovered the damage, I contacted UPS. They at first refused to help, then finally sent out a representative. My insurance claim was denied after the box was returned to the seller because the box wasn't extensively damaged, and therefore they said that there couldn't have been any damage to the box. It was clear to even the UPS rep that the damage was caused when someone dropped the box from a height. Unfortunately, I'm suing UPS for breach of contract because it was clear that the damage was done by them and even though insured, UPS refuses to pay for the damage they caused. I have yet, in the last 5 years of doing business with UPS, had a package delivered that wasn't damaged or destroyed in some fashion. Best bet: stay away from shipping with UPS until they fix their financial problems.
It's still possible to get a Chinese-made LE without having to buy it from China. There are several LE sellers on Ebay that purchase Chinese-made enclosures and mechanisms and do their own power supplies, lasers and mechanical actuators. These are probably your best bet. I purchased an LE from a company in Sacramento that uses Chinese-made enclosures, but they use very high-quality power supplies and electronics. The customer service was outstanding and their follow-up is excellent. Seller "lightobjects" makes a 35 watt LE that is perfect for the beginner...and their unit comes with software and a CE certification. The seller ebbiz01 also makes a great engraver and has great customer service, and while not FDA approved they can sell you a "used" engraver for less than $1200 (US) that's also ideal for beginners. Make sure you mark the box "used" when they ship it (either Canada Post or USPS or Fedex). The lightobjects LE sells for under $1200 US.
If there are other things that I remember or that I learn, I'll update this guide.
PS - I have no financial interests in either lightobjects or ebbiz01. I've purchased from them before and found them to be honest and reputable.
Desktop/Tabletop Laser Engravers and Cutters
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