Laser cutters, routers, and other machine tools are more than just modern manufacturing marvels. They’re also commonly used by hobbyists and avid DIY-ers. They can be used to cut wood, plastic, and even acrylic. Despite being high-end pieces of technology, many machine tools are relatively easy to learn and operate.
Computer Numerical Control (CNC) tools require a little more work. In return, they’re even easier to operate. Once the operation is programmed, there’s no need to manually execute each step; the machine runs automatically.
With CNC, all the work is on the front end – designing the part and laying out the cuts that need to be made, and then entering (programming) those steps into the machine. That may seem like a lot of extra work, but the payoff comes in the form of increased precision and endless repeatability. CNC programs can be run hundreds or thousands of times, producing the exact same part with every iteration.
That said, there’s still the matter of setting up the program, to begin with. This is typically done in two stages: designing the part and programming the machine.
Programming the machine typically requires some knowledge of g-code – the machine language used in CNC programming. But designing the initial part or laying out the design is a bit different. For that stage, an operator only needs a computer program that’s capable of producing a scalable vector file (SVG).
The vector file is a way of processing and storing graphics information. It lays out the dimensions and orientation of a given design. Laser engraving machines then take that file and use it to generate a G-code program. There are numerous ways of producing a vector file – here are some of the best and most popular.
For this list, we’ve focused on free software programs that are easily available. However, we’ve also included a few paid options as well, in case you need something a bit more robust.
Available for both PC, LaserGRBL is straightforward and effective. It’s beginner-friendly; the program intentionally keeps things simple in order to appeal to hobbyists and beginners. For anyone just jumping into the world of laser engravers, LaserGRBL is a fantastic free laser tool – (and did we mention it’s free?). You can use it to learn the basics of control software, file formats, and the actual ins and outs of different laser cuts. Unfortunately, recent versions of LaserGRBL are not available for macOS.
A versatile piece of open-source vector graphic software, Inkscape is more of a generalist’s tool, used by graphic designers for all sorts of applications. It’s easily capable of generating vector files for laser cutters as well, and the native output format is SVG – there’s no need to convert the final file. Inkscape is available to use across Mac, PC, and Linux.
A graphic design suite? For a laser cutter? It may not make sense at first, but Illustrator is packed with so many features that even SVG files for laser cutters are well within its grasp. While it’s not a formal AutoCAD program, Adobe has been the cream of the design software crop for years with Photoshop, and that expertise shows through in features such as artboards, which allow users to visualize their designs on different materials. Illustrator isn’t free – there’s a monthly subscription – but for hobbyists who like to focus more on the design side, AI provides all the tools you could possibly want.
The complete opposite of Adobe Illustrator, SolveSpace supports a bare-bones user interface. There’s a bit of a learning curve due to the minimal input, but SolveSpace is still plenty capable of meeting your laser cutting design needs. It’s not without certain advantages, either; SolveSpace is extremely resource-friendly, taking up less than 10 MB on your computer. You can run it on an older desktop or laptop without any problems, and the program is completely free. It also exports directly to SVG.
LW4 is more-or-less laser cutter specific. As such, there’s a vibrant community of users that can assist with any learning curve. The program is packed with features, including some not found on most other applications. LaserWeb4 boasts materials and price calculators, letting users not only design a new piece but also estimate how much it will cost to cut. The combination of features plus a supportive community makes LaserWeb4 a great choice for hobbyists or beginners who want to master the intricacies of laser cutting.
CorelDRAW is a popular vector graphics program that has all the standard features to make your creations come alive. It offers an intuitive interface with simple tools and smart organization so you can easily see what needs to be done. The latest version even supports PDF/X-4, which means Coreldraw will be able to save in any format needed for print or web use.
Pressure, angle, and shape are essential to a drawing. If you’re looking for the best computer software out there that can create custom illustrations from scratch with pressure sensitivity in just seconds then look no further than CorelDRAW.
Another paid product, LightBurn justifies its monthly subscription with a range of helpful features. There are the usual design and layout features, along with advanced operations tools. Users can specify the number of passes the cutter takes, depth of cut, cut order, etc. Operators can shortcut the normal process by using LightBurn to talk directly to your laser cutter’s control unit; programming becomes one step, rather than two. While LightBurn doesn’t work with every controller available, it is compatible with most, and support is always being expanded.
Fully professional design software – at a correspondingly high price. Draft Sight is a CAD program for pros; features include the ability to convert JPG files into designs, to import multiple files into a single project, and render projects in a wide array of both vector and raster image output files including SVG, EPS, PNG, BMP, DWG, and DXF files. The image conversion feature is especially useful – professional designers can use it to reprocess old designs from paper, creating new laser cutting programs for old designs.
The last one on our list is primarily focused on converting 3D designs into 2D cutting programs. While SolidWorks may not have all the features of some of the other programs on the list, it can quickly render 3D models into linear shapes. Use it for architectural-type products and product design – SolidWorks is free.
Choose between these five free and four paid choices to find the perfect software for your laser cutting machine. Like any CNC machine, there’s a bit of a learning curve – but with some of the best laser engraving software at your fingertips, you’ll soon master the ins and outs of raster and vector and be designing laser engravings with the best of them.