Best Wood for Laser Engraving: Choosing What’s Right for Your Next Project

Whether you are dabbling in laser engraving as a hobby or making an income selling your creations, it is an exciting time to own a laser machine. Laser engravers are powerful tools that can help you fashion wood to craft many items, such as home decor, jewelry, signs, cutting boards, and furniture, to name a few. Wood's natural beauty and wide range of variety make it an ideal material for your next laser engraving project. 

Common Types of Wood for Laser Engraving

With the wide variety of available wood species, choosing just one for a particular project can seem overwhelming. However, some popular options can be a great starting point when researching the best wood for laser engraving:

  • Alder: A popular wood for laser engraving, alder wood is a soft wood that is light in color and has minor streaking. Due to the coloration and pliable nature of alder wood, laser beams create a dark etch on the material, delivering designs with high contrast.   
  • Poplar: Like alder, poplar wood is a soft wood that you can cut quickly at a low power level. Poplar's wood grain is uniform, lending itself to more even etching and making it easy to engrave.
  • Cherry: Based on specs alone, cherry wood would seem like a bad choice in wood for laser cutting. It has both elevated streaking and typically a reddish-brown hue with high resin content. However, the beauty of engraved cherry wood and its ease of use make it an extremely popular wood amongst laser enthusiasts, especially for furniture and cabinets.
  • Plywood: When choosing plywood for laser cutting, you should know that not all plywood is created the same. Good quality plywood contains layers of birch veneer pressed together with adhesive. It is perfect for beginners due to its workability and reliability. 
  • Maple: Maple wood is a hardwood with light coloring that produces a dark burn. Although maple is generally more challenging to work with than softwoods, the payoff is excellent as it lends itself to intricate details and finishes gorgeously. Maple is considered by many to be the best wood for laser engraving photos.   

How To Choose the Right Wood Type for Laser Engraving

laser wood engraving and wood cutting

There is no one-size-fits-all option for choosing the best wood for laser cutting and engraving. The wood types you can choose from are numerous, and the best material for one project could be unsatisfactory for another. Therefore, it is critical to consider the attributes needed for your particular handicraft.

Check the Resin Content and Understand How It Impacts Outcome

The resin content of a wood species has a significant impact on the end product. The resin content refers to the density of the sap contained within the wood. A laser beam burns resin, creating a dark etch that produces high contrast, especially on lighter-colored woods. If you desire a striking image, a higher resin content is the way to go. However, many designs require a more subtle effect with lighter contrast. A wood species with a low resin content would be optimal for these applications. 

Be Aware of Different Wood Properties

Aside from resin content, there are other wood properties that you should consider when choosing a wood type for your project:

  • Moisture Level: Dry wood is much more susceptible to undesirable burning and charring. Burnt designs are much less striking and can look unprofessional. An excellent way to prevent charred materials is by soaking the wood in water before engraving. Adding moisture to wood keeps it cool and makes the introduction of the laser less extreme.
  • Knots and Rings: Growth rings and knots have an aesthetic impact on the end product of any wood engraving project. Whether or not this aesthetic is pleasing to the eye depends entirely on the project itself. However, because knots and rings affect the texture of the wood, they can also make etching slightly more difficult. Unless you want your design to include these elements, choosing wood without them is probably your best bet.  
  • Harvest Season: During winter, trees prepare for their cold-weather dormancy by routing the sap to the bottom of their trunks. In the spring, the resin circulates throughout the rest of the tree to distribute much-needed nutrients. For this reason, wood harvested during the winter tends to have a lower resin content than wood harvested in the spring. Even if you have engraved a certain wood several times, it is wise to test a small section to see how dark the etching will be. 

Choose Lighter Wood Instead of Darker Wood

The shade of wood you select will likely have the most significant impact on how your laser project will look after engraving. Lighter-colored woods deliver a much darker, vivid contrast when etched. Alternatively, darker woods, even those with a high resin content, tend to produce images that appear more inconspicuous and ill-defined. If your graphic is considerably detailed or contains a logo or text, it may also be difficult to see on darker wood.  

Minimize Using Wood With Streaking When Possible

Laser wood engraving and wood cutting

Streaking occurs when a wood grain's alternating colors are vastly different. A heavy-streaking wood will have a noticeable striping effect, with the stripes being very close together. For finished furniture, this can result in a beautiful piece that will be treasured and passed down through generations. However, streaking does not usually produce the preferred result when etching wood. 

If you are engraving a photograph or any design requiring clear definition, heavy streaking will obscure the image and confuse the eye. With the lines from the etching and the stripes from the streaking, it can be challenging to identify any specific pattern. 

Be Mindful of How Thick the Wood Piece Is

Along with the resin content and wood density, the thickness of a piece of wood will directly influence your engraver's settings. You want to avoid making multiple passes on a thicker piece of wood. You will reduce clarity and create a messy cut by repeatedly going over the same design. Ideally, you want your engraving machine settings to allow you to make a single pass to produce a precise, clean etching. While some machines can engrave wood up to 1/2" thick, 1/4" thickness is the ideal measurement when etching wood. 

Invest in a High-Quality Laser Engraving Machine for Your Craft

OMTech's quality laser engravers and laser cutters are perfect for users of all experience levels and project applications. From industrial fiber laser metal cutters to desktop CO2 machines for hobbyists, view our extensive product line today to see how OMTech can help you on your laser engraving journey!