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Laser Cut Leather – Common Uses and Tips I’ve Learned

A large part of my leather crafting time is spent prototyping. I design paper patterns by hand and then cut them out, only for them to again be traced on leather and cut out. This is a time-consuming process that only gets longer with each iteration. Since growing up as a crafter, I have considered various ways to speed up this process. Laser-cutting machines are one option I have come across, as they can take design files and quickly and accurately cut leather.

Laser cut leather is leather that is cut with a cutting machine, a tool that utilizes a high-powered light beam to melt through material. Laser cutters can cut or engrave by passing a laser along lines defined in digital vector drawing files. Professional laser cutting machines start at around $900.

Laser cutting machines can be a costly investment with unexpected drawbacks. This article will explore common uses of laser cut leather and tips for using cutting machines.

What Is Laser Cut Leather?

Laser cut leather is leather that has been cut with a cutting machine, a precision cutting tool that focuses light energy to melt through materials. The machines are programmed using vector files to follow a set path or design. Laser cutters can also engrave leather by lowering their power.

Design programs such as Inkscape or Adobe Illustrator can prototype projects that can be cut with the laser cutter, including stitching holes. This allows for quick changes or prototyping when designing a new leather project.

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • History of Laser Cut Leather
  • Laser Cut Leather Overview Table
  • Tools Required to Laser Cut Leather
  • How to Laser Cut Leather
  • Benefits of Laser Cut Leather
  • Challenges of Laser Cutting Leather
  • Tips for Laser Cutting Leather
  • The Best Laser Cutting Machines
  • My Personal Research into Laser Cut Leather
  • Helpful Laser Cut Leather Insights
  • Key Takeaways
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Laser Cutting Black Leather

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

One common concern with those looking to use a laser cutter on leather is damaging the material. The heat created by the laser cutter burns the edges as it cuts and can leave residue on the leather’s surface. However, these two issues are easily solved.

The leather can be covered with masking tape to prevent surface residue, and the burnt edges can be sanded down to remove the fibers, allowing the leather to be burnished like a regular piece of leather. Laser cutters will not damage the leather.

History of Laser Cut Leather

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Three laser cutters were invented around the same time. The first invention was a fiber laser developed in 1961 by Elias Snitzer, followed by the gas-laser cutter in 1964 by Kumar Patel. In that same year, J. E. Geusic invented the crystal laser cutter. After years of product development, laser cutters began being used in production in 1967 with a gas-powered laser.

However, it was the refinement of the fiber laser cutter that helped the industry boom. The fiber laser was able to drop the cost of laser cutters, making them more accessible. Today, gas-powered and fiber powered are the most common lasers available. 

Laser Cut Leather Overview Table

CharacteristicDetails
Gas-Powered Laser (CO2 Laser)Gas-powered lasers use CO2 to help melt through materials. They can cut through various metals and non-metals. Gas-powered lasers offer great reliability and a nicer finish but use more power.
Crystal-Powered LaserCrystal-powered lasers are less common in the industry due to their high cost to build and power. However, these lasers offer the most power for cutting through thick materials, allowing it to be used on a wide variety of metals and non-metals. 
Fiber-Powered LaserSince the refinement of fiber-powered lasers, they have revolutionized the industry, offering both high cutting power and speed at a lower cost. These changes have made laser cutters more accessible. However, compared to CO2 lasers, fiber-powered lasers do not produce as clean cuts. 
Laser Cut Leather Characteristics

Tools Required to Laser Cut Leather

Regardless of what laser cutter you purchase, additional tools and supplies will be needed. First is a computer that can run the laser cutting program. This will be key as it allows you to send your cutting information to the laser. A design program, such as Inkscape or Adobe Illustrator, will also help design patterns. Laser cutters will require maintenance and adjustments.

Some key tools to keep on hand are Allen wrenches, grease lubricant, and lens cleaner. The laser company will most likely sell these items, and buying directly from your distributor is recommended. Lastly, masking tape is an optional item that can come in handy for laser cutting leather. Tape can be used to hold down the leather and protect the surface from soot.  

How to Laser Cut Leather

Laser cutting leather can be a few surprisingly intuitive steps. 

  1. Begin by opening your laser cutting program and creating or importing the shape to be cut. 
  1. Place the leather into the laser cutter and hold it down with masking tape. 
  1. Adjust the laser to the material’s thickness in the program and physically. This is typically done by lowering the laser onto the leather. As you use your laser cutter more, you can dial in how much power is necessary depending on the leather thickness. Meanwhile, most programs have a default selection when setting the material type as leather. Laser cutting programs will allow you to frame your cut before starting, showing you where the laser will cut so adjustments can be made.
  1. Once everything is set up, the laser cutting progress can begin. 
  1. Once a cut has been made, additional passes can be used for cutting thicker leather. 

In this informative video by Claridge Leather, Tanner takes an introductory look at using a laser cutter for leather crafts. In addition to showing the process, Tanner tests various types of leather to showcase the machine further.

Benefits of Laser Cut Leather

Using a laser for leather crafting can be helpful in many different areas. Like die cutting, lasers offer extreme accuracy that can help make production possible. The added benefit is that patterns only have to be designed, not purchased each time, allowing multiple variations or completely different patterns at no cost.

Since the laser cutter is accurate and fairly quick, prototyping a project can become faster as it enables changes in the design file instead of by hand. Laser cutters can also engrave leather pieces when set to a lower power. From designs to patterns or even brand marks, laser cutters can consistently apply these to the leather. 

Design programs such as Inkscape or Adobe Illustrator can prototype projects that can be cut with the laser cutter, including stitching holes.

Challenges of Laser Cutting Leather

Like most other large leather machines, laser cutters are a large investment at $900 and above. This price point can be off-putting to many who work with leather as a hobby. Cost and space are not the only issues, however. Ventilation will be necessary when using a laser cutter.

Since the laser melts through the leather, the smell produced will be poor. The laser will also burn the edges of the material, requiring extra sanding before burnishing the leather. To some, the software alone will stop them from using a laser cutter. Knowledge of using the programs needed and the design process can be challenging for some. 

Tips for Laser Cutting Leather

When working with a laser cutter, it is best to practice with the equipment before attempting to create a project. Using scrap leather to set power settings, test engraving, and designs will help ensure final projects are perfect.

Testing each type of leather is also important because hides change thickness, tanning type, and finish, affecting how the laser acts on the leather. Before the cutting process, the leather may need flattening when possible; masking tape can aid in holding the leather down. Masking tape can also be applied to the leather’s surface to protect it from soot. 

The Best Laser Cutting Machines

While there is no best brand for laser cutting machines, there are some guidelines that should help when choosing a machine. The most accessible laser cutters will be either a CO2 gas-powered cutter or a fiber-powered laser cutter. The key for either one will be choosing a powerful enough laser. Models below 10w will have difficulty cutting thin leathers, making 10w and above the recommended power.

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Keep in mind that 10w will require multiple passes on thicker leathers, with some types taking upwards of six passes. If the goal is to cut other materials aside from leather, a CO2 laser may be preferable as it can cut through much thicker material. 

My Personal Research into Laser Cut Leather

Since laser cutters are costly, I decided to research how various leather workers used their machines. My goal was to determine the best uses for a laser cutting machine and if its applications can benefit the daily work of crafters. 

Laser Cutting Applications

One of the most well-known crafters who use a laser cutter is Makesupply Leather. The company designs and tests its patterns to be laser-cutter-friendly. Makesupply has been using its laser cutter for prototyping, engraving, and designing for nearly a decade. 

In the many videos posted on their YouTube channel, Makesupply Leather has covered multiple uses for a laser cutter in leathercraft. One of the unique applications was designing and creating custom wet molds to cut out of wood. Their long-standing use of a laser cutter shows how the machine continues to be useful for their craft. 

Similarly, Claridge Leather provided tests on using a laser cutter on his YouTube channel, showing its application for thicker leathers. Tanner uses the laser cutter to cut out a wooden pattern. He notes that the laser cutter can be used to test pattern files before sending them to get made into dies, preventing any unwanted and costly mistakes.

Things to Note

When discussing laser cutters, crafters often ask what the goal is with the tool. Laser cutting machines will be slower than a clicker press, with downsides like burnt edges and a more complicated setup. They suggest that those seeking production machines may want to look elsewhere. A constant note seen when researching laser cutters was the need for ventilation.

Laser cutting leather smells unpleasant and creates small amounts of smoke. Some crafters, such as Ryan from Little King Goods, express further concern. In his video, Ryan warns of the danger of using a laser cutter on chromium tanned leather. Stating that the tanning method will cause the leather to produce toxic gasses when heated by the laser. 

However, these claims were disputed by Bruce Kloot of Coupe & Couture, a professor at the University of Cape Town. His video discusses this claim and further provides a backing study.

An article by Gulbinienė A, Fataraitė-Urbonienė E, Jucienė M, Dobilaitė V, and Valeika V., published in the Journal of Industrial Textiles concluded that when exposed to a CO2 laser, both sulfur and chromium were not produced. The largest change was an increase in carbon. Kloot continued by pointing at polyurethane and other synthetic leather materials as harmful. 

Conclusion

Plenty of crafters use laser cutters and have been doing so for years. To many, it is a helpful tool that helps them prototype, engrave, and produce leather goods. Those who have invested in this machine find it helpful in their everyday craft. However, the price tag and need for ventilation may stop some from purchasing this machine, with other options like clicker presses being more suitable.

Helpful Laser Cut Leather Insights

What leather is safe to laser cut?

What leather is safe to cut is a highly disputed topic in leathercraft. Some say only vegetable tanned leather should be used. However, research shows that all types of leather are safe to use in a laser cutter, except synthetic leathers and hides with plastic finishes, such as polyurethane.  

Can a 40w laser cut leather?

Yes, a 40w powered laser should be able to cut through most leathers. The minimum strength required is 10w, though different types of leather and leather thicknesses will change the number of passes needed for completely cutting through the leather. 

Does the Glowforge cut leather?

Yes, the Glowforge can cut leather. There are multiple videos by various crafters discussing how the Glowforge works for leather craft. In addition, the Glowforge website offers a page dedicated to projects that have been created using the tool.

Key Takeaways

  1. Laser cutters can be costly, requiring a minimum of 10w of power.
  2. Cutting leather may produce foul smells and some smoke where ventilation is necessary. 
  3. Laser cutters can be used for engraving, prototyping, and production.

In Closing

With laser cutting machines becoming more accessible, their uses in leather craft continue to expand. While a costly investment, the multi-functioning tool has become a staple to many crafters worldwide. A laser cutter might be a handy tool for those interested in a machine that can engrave, produce, and prototype leather projects.

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