The process of laser cutting sounds simple enough; you cut and engrave various materials—metal, wood, plastic, acrylic, etc.—using a focused beam of light. However, in reality, it’s much trickier than that and requires relatively sophisticated software to guide and control the beam.
Vector files define all those lines, curves, and points during laser engraving and cutting projects, so choosing the appropriate engraving or cutter software that meets your needs is essential. In other words, picking the suitable laser engraving or cutting software is as critical as choosing a laser engraving machine or a laser cutting machine—maybe even more!
Some software programs are specifically designed to work with laser cutters, while others are general-purpose software with laser cutting as one of their applications. The laser engraving/cutting software on our list serves many industries but is also helpful for the one-person shop or the home hobbyist.
CNC machine tools, laser cutters included, require some initial designing and programming, but once completed, the machines run accurately and repeatedly with minimal interaction with an operator. Programming the machine typically requires basic knowledge of g-code, the machine language used in CNC programming.
However, designing the part requires computer software capable of producing a scalable vector file (SVG). The vector file processes and stores graphics information, which the laser engraving machine uses to generate a G-code program. Although there are various ways of producing a vector file, here is our list of the best and most popular. Most of these come with tutorials to help you get up and running.
LaserGRBL is free laser cutter software for Windows, and it’s one of the few software programs designed for beginners and hobbyists. With it, almost anyone can learn the basics of control software, file formats, and the ins and outs of laser cuts.
Some of LaserGRBL’s valuable features include a jogging feature allowing the operator to manually position the laser head with two sliders, controlling the size and speed of the steps. An override function also allows for speeding up or slowing down the engraving speed and laser power in real time during engraving.
The raster image import function lets you load any image, including photos, clip art, pencil drawings, and icons, into LaserGRBL and turn it into g-code without additional software. Raster images provide a different type of graphics than the vectors in most laser engraving software.
You can scale vectors up and down and still maintain quality. Still, raster graphics are made up of tiny pixels and are used for cutting and engraving larger areas, meaning GRBL laser cutter software is effective for numerous laser cutting projects.
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 than a specialist laser cutting software. This free engraver software uses scalable vector graphics (SVG) and can work on PDF, JPG, GIF, and PNG. Unlike LaserGRBL, Inkscape is available on all major desktop platforms, including Mac, Windows, and Linux.
A graphic design suite? For a laser cutter? It may not make sense initially, but Illustrator has 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. That expertise shows through features such as artboards, allowing users to visualize their designs on different materials. Adobe Illustrator isn’t free, but for subscribers, such as hobbyists who like to focus more on the design side, it provides all the tools you’ll need. Illustrator speeds up many processes, and more tutorials and plug-ins are available to help you become even more productive.
Unlike Adobe Illustrator, SolveSpace has a relatively simple user interface but a steep learning curve because of its minimal input. Still, SolveSpace can meet your laser-cutting design needs and has some advantages: 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 problems, and the program is free. It also exports directly to SVG.
LW4 is a free laser cutter program with a community of users to assist with tips, modifications, and additions to the code. The program has various features, including some not found on most other applications. LaserWeb 4 includes materials and price calculators, allowing users to design a new part and estimate how much it will cost. The combination of features plus a supportive community makes LaserWeb 4 an excellent choice for hobbyists or beginners who want to master the complexities of laser cutting.
CorelDRAW is a popular vector graphics program with all the standard features to make your creations come alive. It offers an intuitive interface with simple tools and competent organization so you can easily see what to do. The latest version even supports PDF/X-4, which means CorelDRAW can 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 that can create custom illustrations from scratch with pressure sensitivity in seconds, then look no further than CorelDRAW.
LightBurn is another paid product justifying its monthly subscription with many helpful features, including design and layout features and 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, making programming one step instead of two. Although LightBurn doesn’t work with every controller available, it is compatible with most, and support is constantly expanding. You can create new vector shapes using the offsetting, welding, and node editing features in LightBurn.
Draft Sight is professional-grade design software at a relatively high price. Its features include converting JPG files into designs, importing multiple files into a single project, and rendering projects in a wide array of vector and raster image output files, including SVG, EPS, PNG, BMP, DWG, and DXF files. The image conversion feature enables professional designers to reprocess old designs from paper, creating new laser-cutting programs for old designs.
SolidWorks focuses on converting 3D designs into 2D cutting programs, so although it might not have as many features as most of the other programs on the list, it can quickly render 3D models into linear shapes. SolidWorks offers trials, so try it for architectural-type products and product design.
TurboCAD is a paid, powerful design tool for making the 2D designs required for laser cutting or engraving applications. It exports vector files in DXF, DWG, DWF, and PDF format, which many laser control software accept, and it’s also compatible with other file types such as JPG, BMP, ASM, PNG, and more.
TurboCAD Designer runs on Windows and Mac OS, and although you’ll need internet access for the initial authentication and updates, you can use it offline. It has lots of features to make laser cutting easy. For example, an Overkill tool removes overlapping arcs and lines within a design, cleaning up a vector drawing for effective laser cutting. You can also use their PDF Insert/Underlay tool, which allows you to copy and save a design as a vector PDF file and trace over it within a new TurboCAD project.
Affinity Designer is a vector graphics editor considered one of the best alternatives to Adobe Illustrator. It offers several powerful creation features and tools, including the possibility of working with many artboards at a time and applying custom grids and guides to them. It also enables users to work with raster images, providing enough control for laser engraving.
Affinity Designer software is a one-time purchase available for Windows and Mac or on iPad at a lower price but with most of the primary functions.
Choose between these five free and six paid choices to find the perfect software for your laser cutting machine. Like any CNC machine, there’s a bit of a learning curve. However, with some of the best laser engraving software at your fingertips, you’ll soon master the finer points of raster and vector files and design laser engravings confidently.
Looking for a Vertical Milling Machine? Check out the CNC Max
CNC Masters added the CNC MAX to our lineup of quality CNC mills. Specifically designed for the machinist considering the CNC Baron Mill, the MAX has higher spindle speeds and more Y-axis travel. The value and small footprint of the CNC Baron Mill are enhanced with additional features of the CNC MAX.
Easy to learn and operate, the CNC MAX Milling Machine has a durable cast iron body, just like the CNC Baron. It’s ideal for those demanding users accustomed to machining on classic Bridgeport-type vertical knee milling machines that take up floor space. The MAX provides advanced features that emphasize cutting precision and ease of use. Best of all, it’s made in the USA!
Be sure to check out our full listing of vertical milling machines.