3D printers have gotten a lot of attention in the past few years, but they aren't the only useful tools a craftsperson, maker, or hobbyist can have. Sure, they can extrude plastic, but you need a different tool for cutting and etching it. Laser cutters are powerful devices that can create intricate shapes and detailed etchings on plastics, woods, and even metals. They're also much larger and much, much more expensive than most consumer 3D printers. Still, if you have a use for one, the investment can easily be justified.
Glowforge produces laser cutters compact and affordable enough for small businesses and well-heeled hobbyists. Its machines start at $2,500 for the Glowforge Basic and go all the way up to $6,000 for the Glowforge Pro we tested. Those are substantial sums of money, but they're less than any Epilog or other commercial laser cutter.
The Glowforge Pro is easy to use and let you create some nicely intricate coasters, ornaments, plaques, and other decorations. It's a remarkable laser cutter for its size and price, but its biggest advantages over the lower-end Glowforge lasers are its feeder—which can handle longer materials than 19.5 by 11 inches—and its slightly more powerful and faster laser. Considering that the Glowforge Basic offers most of the same capabilities for less than half the money, however, we're holding off on declaring an Editors' Choice in cutting lasers for now.Our Experts Have Tested 53 Products in the Printers Category in the Past YearSince 1982, PCMag has tested and rated thousands of products to help you make better buying decisions. (See how we test.)
The Glowforge Pro is about the size and shape of a large-format printer, measuring 8.25 by 38 by 20.75 inches (HWD). Its hefty impression is enhanced by the large slot on the front, an aspect unique to the Pro to accommodate work pieces larger than 20 by 18 inches (the workable area of the bed is 19.5 by 11 inches, but Glowforge lasers can hold pieces that exceed that space). You're still limited to 19.5 inches of width, but you can slide work pieces of any length through the Pro. The top flips open to reveal the working area, and the front panel flips downward to provide more clearance for moving work pieces into position.
Besides the door, the only other element of note on the top of the laser is a metal-ringed, illuminated start button. After you send instructions from your PC to the Glowforge, the button will flash, indicating it's ready to begin. Pressing the button will start the process.
The back of the Glowforge holds a circular vent for the exhaust fan, a connector for the included power cable, and a power switch.
The exhaust fan is an important element, as is the included four-inch exhaust duct hose. The hose is vital because the Glowforge engraves by burning whatever material you're working with. Whether you're burning wood or etching acrylic, this creates unpleasant fumes that must be ventilated for safety. You can run the hose out of a window or into the optional $995 compact filter, a small box with its own intake fan and filter system that can absorb the fumes of your projects without ventilation to the outdoors.
The Glowforge Pro uses a 45-watt CO2laser that qualifies as a regulated Class IV laser product. According to the company, it can engrave 150 percent faster than the Glowforge Plus and three times faster than the Glowforge Basic, which rely on 40-watt lasers. While the Pro is more powerful, its cutting and engraving capabilities are identical to the Plus and Basic. Its big benefit, besides the slot for large work pieces, is speed.
All three Glowforge models can cut acrylic, fabric, leather, paper, wood, and nearly any other material softer than plexiglass. They can also engrave (but not cut) anodized aluminum, ceramic, glass, marble, titanium, and other hard materials.
To use the device, you need to access the Glowforge web app after creating a free account and connecting the laser to your network. From here, you can view the bed of your Glowforge through its preview camera; upload image files (most formats are supported for engraving, with vector art files like .svg needed for cutting); align and scale your designs; set the type of material to be burned; and start your project. It's a fairly direct, intuitive system that lets you set multiple image files for one burn and individually place and scale each component before starting the project.
For engraving, you need to make sure the picture is set up to translate successfully into a laser etching. This won't be a problem for simple logos and symbols, but if you want to make etchings with photos you'll need to do some image editing in an app such as GIMP, Paint.net, or Adobe Photoshop. Glowforge's website offers a few guides to preparing photos, but basically you want to convert your image to black and white, sharpen it, and adjust levels to bring the histogram toward the middle.
The Glowforge web app features dozens of material presets to work with, and can even scan QR codes found on materials bought from the company (or included in the sample project kits bundled with the cutter) to automatically set the laser correctly. You can also configure burns manually using a variety of adjustments such as laser speed and intensity. I found the material presets to work quite well; the "medium acrylic" settings got the desired results both from Glowforge's own acrylic and other acrylic panels I bought from Canal Street Plastics in Chinatown. The plywood and draftboard presets also worked very well for those materials respectively.
Engraving items is time-consuming, especially if they're detailed. The Glowforge app has multiple settings for drawings and photos, including Draft, SD, HD, and 3D Graphics and SD, HD, and 3D Photos. Most graphic and photo settings use dithering to create different levels of light and dark on an engraving, while the 3D settings vary the laser intensity to create deeper burns for darker parts of an image.
The time required varies wildly depending on the size and detail of the burn. A Draft Graphic burn of an 8-by-12-inch piece of acrylic might take an hour and a half, while a 3D Photo (2D photo engraved with varying depth based on the darkness of the image) burn might take three and a half hours and an HD Photo burn could take over six. Cutting is much faster, taking only a few minutes to carve out flat pieces of acrylic or wood.
As I said, you must be extremely aware of potentially hazardous fumes when using the Glowforge. If you don't run the exhaust hose out of a window or into the optional compact filter, your workspace will quickly fill with vaporized wood or plastic, which isn't something you want in your lungs.
Lasers are nearly silent, but your burns will still get very noisy—with the duct hose running out of a window, the laser's built-in fan will spin quite loudly. With the hose plugged into the compact filter, the filter's equally loud intake fan will do most of the spinning. However you safely configure it, the Glowforge simply isn't a quiet device.
I made a variety of test prints on acrylic and wood, mostly creating Christmas tree ornaments, coasters, and signs for friends and family. I picked out various pieces of clip art and took a few snapshots of my cat Pixel, adjusting the photos as recommended by Glowforge. I made a few photo sheets, then used Inkscape to create vector image borders around them. I lined up the vector images over the photo sheets in the Glowforge app, setting the photos to engrave and the vector images to cut.
After all that was set, I clicked Print in the app, which determined the instructions to send to the laser. It took several minutes to program the cutter, after which the big button on top of the Glowforge started to flash, indicating it was ready. After I pressed the button, the Glowforge started its burn. I then repeated the process for various other projects, creating black and white pictures in Paint.net for etching and vector images in Inkscape for cutting.
My projects generally turned out fine, with a few small errors caused by my own mistakes. Specifically, I removed the protective film on my material before burning, which caused edges to blur with a bit of dust and scorch marks. I also forgot to balance one photo of my girlfriend's cat, causing her white muzzle to disappear and her dark fur to completely obscure her features.
Finally, a holder for Gunpla model kit runners had slots a bit too narrow and teeth too wide to properly fit together and hold the plastic racks of model parts, but that was because of mismeasurements I made in Inkscape. Otherwise, the plaques, coasters, and ornaments I made all came out nicely, and both etches and cuts were precisely as programmed.
The Glowforge Pro is an amazing laser cutter that's small and affordable enough for amateur hobbyists and aspiring home artisans, though it'll fill a large work table and is far from cheap at $6,000. It's simple to set up, easy to use, and capable of cutting and engraving a variety of materials. It also has a generously large test bed and the ability to handle big projects thanks to a feeder (as long as your material is 19.5 inches wide or narrower, and you have the space in front of and behind the Glowforge to feed it). It's all the power you need to become a regent of Etsy or your local craft fair.
Compared with Epilog, one of the most prominent names in commercial laser cutters, the Glowforge Pro is a bargain (the least expensive Epilog laser, the Zing 16, starts at around $8,000). However, it's arguably overkill compared with the rest of the Glowforge family. Unless you need to make some giant etchings, there is plenty you can do on the other models' 12-by-20.4-inch bed without feeder. The Glowforge Plus lacks the feeder and uses a slightly less powerful 40-watt laser, so it's slower, but it's also two-thirds the price at $4,000. The Glowforge Basic also uses a 40-watt laser but is slower still (according to the company, the Plus is twice as fast as the Basic and the Pro is three times as fast), but if time isn't vital it's a steal at $2,500.
We haven't tested the Basic or Plus, but their designs and capabilities appear to be very similar to the Pro's aside from speed and the feeder. If both size and cost are an issue, the Flux Beamo has a downright affordable price (for a laser cutter) of $1,500 and is much smaller at about the size of a home laser printer. Its printing area is also small, however, at 11.8 by 8.2 inches, and while its 30-watt laser cuts very well, its photo etchings are generally lower-quality than Glowforge's.4.0See It$5,995.00 at GlowforgeMSRP $5,995.00
The Glowforge Pro is a flexible, professional-quality laser cutter with a material feeder that can accept work pieces of any length.
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