View Full Version : Starting a Laser Shop

Russell Ludwick
09-03-2010, 5:11 PM
Hello Everyone, First time poster here.


So I have been thinking of starting a small side business for laser engraving/cutting if I purchase a Laser Engraving machine. I am a full time mechnical engineer working in Santa Barbara CA. While working here, on several occasions I have needed laser engraving services, but have had to outsource them to Los Angeles due to a lack of local services. Thats where I think I could carve out a niche for myself and pull local customers.

I have good design experience in Sheet metal design work in 3D programs such as solidworks, Pro Engineer, Corel Draw, and AutoCAD. I can create flat patterns for cutting on a sheet metal laser, or in my case it would be a laser engraver cutting wood or acrylic designs. Basically what I am trying to say is that I can design my own assemblies and make them myself if I had a laser engraver/cutter.

Laser product design work would be part of my company. Sheet metal design work would be outsourced to be fabricated, while any small acrylic work or engraving could be done by me on my laser.


Initially though, I think I would have to start doing Job shop work, and in the downtime developing my own products. From what I have heard, I want to stay as far away from awards and trophies as possible and focus in on other idea. Here are some of my ideas,

1. Laser Engraved Skateboard Decks- burning graphics or engraving the wood designs
2. Cutting Boards, wood/Marble - burning graphics
3. RC Car/Boat parts - lasercutting the wood, anodized aluminum parts
4. Puzzles-local tourists might buy nice Santa Barbara picture puzzles
5. Wine Glasses/stoppers laser engraved for the local wineries
6. Picture Tiles - Not photos of people but just good vector graphic themes
7. My own line of coasters. I attached a picture of one I designed. It was originally designed for metal, but could easily be adapted to acrylic.
8. Wedding Cards/puzzles

These are some of my ideas for products I want to work on, please comment if you know if any are good OR bad ideas. Any advice is welcomed.

If I am to take the plunge, I have savings in the neighborhood of 10-15k for an engraver, but financing is a possibility too. I was originally looking at a New Machine, but a good year or two old machine would probably be a better bang for my buck.

My baseline is a new Universal 3.50 Desktop 24x12, 25W machine for about 13k, but I think I can get a better deal than this.

I will probably stick with epilog or Universal, although I have heard trotec and GCC make okay machines, and just flat out stay away from the rest of the Import brands.

One thing to think about is that if I would like to do skateboards or RC boats, i will need a 32 or 36in machine. They are of course is more cost, but allows some really cool products possibilities.

Any recommendations on an entry level laser, size, brands, wattage, would be greatly appreciated.

I have to rent some small space out somewhere, but lets say I can do that. What would be my best way to get started? I was thinking offering my laser for job shop work would be a good way to start, since I think the service is lacking in my area.

My other option is just start developing my products right off the bat and start trying to sell them. Basically, How would I get started, and what should I focus on. I will be starting this part time, so the amount of time I can work on the laser is limited, but design work can be done from home.

Sorry for the long post, but I could use some help from the community. Thanks

Ross Moshinsky
09-03-2010, 5:33 PM
You're expecting way too much out of a $15,000 laser. Even if you went with a Chinese laser and got a huge bed with a lot of power, you're expecting a lot.

There are things you have to remember. I walk in your store and I want you to cut an RC car part for me. Let's say it is roughly 3 sq inches. By the time you draw, setup, and buy the material most likely your cost will be 10x what I'm willing to spend. This is the main issue with being a "we'll do everything" shop. There is money in prototyping, but one off work for a hobbiest/tinkerer is never going to pan out.

Although the coaster may look cool, how do you think you're going to do that many colors? Normally something like that is injection mold plastic to get that many colors or it is simply painted on.

My point is, you need to think the whole process through. If you buy new, you may be able to arrange through your sales person to work in a non-competitors shop 30 miles away for a few days. That way you can actually see these lasers in action.

I won't lie and say there isn't money in using a laser. The issue with most startups is they take so much time on special projects that if they actually added up their time spent and priced it at some reasonable rate, they would figure out they lost money on the project.

If I had to make a suggestion, I'd suggest you look into building a homemade CNC router. I think it's a better project for a mechanical engineer and it is more flexible machine in general. You can build a 4'x4' machine that can machine aluminum for around $4,000 which is an excellent bang for the buck.

Michael Hunter
09-03-2010, 6:09 PM
You need to be thinking about a MUCH more powerful laser if you want to cut metal (and even a decent thickness of wood).

Here is some detail from the Kern Laser website -

"The 150 watt laser will cut up to a thickness of .090" mild steel and .075" stainless steel. The 400 watt laser will cut up to .1875" mild steel, .125" stainless steel and some aluminum alloys up to .050". The 400 watt laser can also cut thinner metals like brass, titanium and nickel."

The typical Epilog/ULS/Trotec laser of the type that most on this forum use won't touch metal at all and are limited to 1/4 - 3/8" when cutting wood. The 24W machine you mention won't really go much beyond 1/8" of wood before charring of the cut edges gets too bad.

Like you, I have an engineering background. After 6 years self-employed, I still don't make my living from lasering. I do, however, make my living from having a laser - just owning the thing opens doors to work which I would not have got otherwise.

Don't loose the dream, but do trawl through the older posts - there is lots of advice there about the viability (or not) of a laser-based shop.

Russell Ludwick
09-03-2010, 6:51 PM
I just want to clear up that I am not trying to cut metal with the laser. I have a former employer that has both a sheet metal laser and full cnc machine shop. If I need anything beyond laser engraving/cutting, I have friends in the business. Likewise, if he needs laser engraving, he will have me to come to if i get this machine.

I mentioned knowledge of sheet metal design because it is very similar to laser engraving/cutting. I figured it would be an easy transition going from sheet metal flat pattern design to flat acrylic/wood cutting designs. I can design parts and assemblies in a 3D program, put them on a flat pattern and go straight to the laser.

I was thinking that I could offer these services

1. Sheet metal design - outsourced to a sheet metal shop
2. Acrylic/wood based design work - signs, logo design, etc.
3. Job Shop type work on laser (although i hate job shop work) - managed a shop for several years, cnc programming mills and lathes etc.
4. My own products, marketed and sold to stores by me

As far as cost of a laser, I was looking at a Universal 3.50 24x12 25W laser with table, air assist and exhaust system from the distrubutor brand new for 13k.

There is a post in the classified here for the same system 2 years old with a 50W laser with low mileage for 10k, too bad its not local. Even still im considering it even with the large shipping cost.

There was a 32 x 18 epilog 2008 preowned with all the bells and whistles on their site a couple days ago for about 15k

I think there are deals out there in my price range for a good laser, they just don't come along very often.

If I do end up going through a distributor though, i might ask about seeing them at shops in action, but definitely at least get some demo's first.

My coaster is a layered design with different colored pieces stacked on top of each other cut from different sheets of colored acrylic(lasered details possible), no need for plastic injection molding or anything fancy. Designed right, they fit together like a puzzle and form an awesome nature scene coaster. If anyone is interested in lasering me a prototype, I have all the DXF flat patterns ready to go, and I could drop ship you some materials from McMaster or some online plastic supplier. If your interested, please send me a PM and we can work out something.

Ive looked into routers. I would rather make the investment for a good laser and work with that.

How did you guys get your shops going?

I don't get what you mean about making your money from lasering and having a laser

Gary Hair
09-03-2010, 6:58 PM
You can make money at anything with a laser, especially the things that some people will tell you that you can't... Don't be afraid to try things with your laser that others won't touch but you must be able to cut your losses if/when something turns out to be not possible or not profitable.

As for brand - I have a GCC Explorer ZX, 30 watt, and love it! I would NEVER buy again from signwarehouse, but I WOULD absolutely buy another GCC. It has a 38" x 20" bed and the front and back panels open up so it's technically 38" x ??? I have lasered pool cues, canoe paddles, baseball bats and lots of other things that nobody around here can do, their lasers aren't big enough. I paid less than 18k for mine 4 years ago, you should be able to get a similar machine with a higher wattage for the 15k you mentioned, used of course.

If I were to do it over again, I would get a 45 or 60 watt machine AND the open doors/large bed. If I had to choose between 45 or 60 watt and the larger bed, I would go with the larger bed every time. I can always turn down the speed but I can't stretch the machine.

Do lots of research before you buy and find the best deal you can. Do market research as well. Check with the hobby shops for r/c parts and other stores for coasters, puzzles and wine glasses. Ask them for prices they are willing to pay for the things you want to sell - then figure out if you can make them AND make money doing so. You'll need to figure on at least $120/hour to be profitable, especially in the area you live.

I have a ME background as well and if you are like me, you'll end up with a laser, cnc router, sandcarving, etc., etc. They all make me money and I am grateful I can offer all of the services I have to my customers.

Good luck!


Larry Bratton
09-03-2010, 7:00 PM
If you have a well paying job as an engineer..by all means keep it. If I had fifteen grand to do something with in this economy I doubt I would invest it in a laser, gold maybe. Now, if you want to blow your fifteen grand on a cool hobby, and realize from the outset that you might not make any money at all, then have at it. It's fun and wayyyy cool. If your lucky, you can make some side money with it if you can educate customers what your capabilities are and what the laser can do. Good luck.

Doug Griffith
09-03-2010, 7:09 PM
I hate to say it but, in my opinion, job shop work is the easiest way to make real money with a laser. Cut or engrave thousands of the same item at $5 each and you'll pay your bills. Trying to design/manufacture/market/sell one-off or short-run items will not have the margin you need at the price point customers are willing to pay. You will have to work a lot harder for your dollar. Plus, you'll need a plethora of other equipment to keep competitive in the market.

If I had the only laser in town, I'd target manufacturing for job shop work. All the while focusing my free time on a single niche market using my skillset that is already developed.

Mike Mackenzie
09-03-2010, 8:04 PM

That price for the 3.50 25 watt system is bad they just had a new 3.50-50 watt on sale for $13,995 with cutting table and air assist. Don't get taken by a bad rep.

Joe Pelonio
09-03-2010, 9:00 PM
Knowing what I do now after 6 years with the laser I can be grateful that I only bought it as another tool for my existing sign business. The crafts and personalized gifts are just too much work for too little money. Making lettering and signs for other sign shops (wholesale) and production jobs for small manufacturers is where most of my laser generated profit came (and still comes) from, and for that a storefront is not needed.

I'd also do a lot more research, it's hard to imagine that your area doesn't have plenty of laser operators, but if that's true, see if there are sign shops that you can do work for.

Peter Meacham
09-03-2010, 10:34 PM

I am in Santa Maria/Orcutt (1 hour away) and have a 25W Trotec with a 28" x 17" bed and a ShopBot CNC with a 48" x 96" bed. You are welcome to stop by and see what the equipment can do and I can try your prototype ideas as well. You can PM me and we can connect up by phone and email.

Pete Meacham

AL Ursich
09-03-2010, 11:34 PM
I agree with the staying away from Awards... At least for me.... I am in the Mountains and the schools are just fine with the suppliers...

Then there is a "Soccer Mom" game.... Get a price from someone else then ask you to beat it.... Then back to the 1st place.... Can you beat this?....

I make 911 Signs, the Blue metal number signs... A girl found me on a Internet search and asked me for a quote.... Then said I can get is for X from someone else.... Can you beat it... I said... I can ship it Monday, price is the same.... Thank You... Never hear from her again.... O' well.... Was a Fair Price....

As for the Laser..... Started with a Laser... some VERY old lasers... Have been trading up over the years... Still have Very OLD lasers.... a 20 and 30 Watt Epilog. The Business went in the Sublimation Direction, and the CNC Direction with the little Hobby Sears CNC... (Don't Laugh) One machine has been cutting Bears and Deer for a Craft Show for 6 days in a row, 12 hours a day... The Sublimation has developed into a line of Fire Department Products along with the CNC cutting the Accountability Tag Blanks and Handles.....

As for the Laser.... Have not powered it up in 2 months.... Only because I am too busy with all the other toys.....

As for advice in picking a laser..... At least 50 Watts and a Model that has the open doors.... I have a line of walking Sticks in the works that I want to do for the Camp Kids with Laser Engraved Animal Foot Prints on the shaft...... Need to cut slots in the Laser to do this.... Doors would be GOOD....

Good Luck.... I say "GO FOR IT".... :eek:

I saw my first Laser at Sony CRT Plant in San Diego in 96.... Making thousands of valve markers... I was HOOKED....

11:30 PM and I am in the shop painting Clocks and Bears.... Good Music in the Laser Shop... The CNC is cutting in the shop next door as I listen to it on the Intercom. Life is GOOD..... I would not change a thing....


David Fairfield
09-03-2010, 11:38 PM
Go for it, but don't let enthusiasm get in the way of smart business decisions. For example you mention investing in a wider machine so you can take skateboard and RC aircraft jobs. That means a lot of paying customers will have to find you and hire you to do work you wouldn't have been able to do in a smaller machine, to recoup the additional expense. Unless you are already known in those fields, I think you'll find they are tough, tough markets. Generally it does pay to get larger capacity, but there are limits. I think higher wattage is the better investment.

Also pay close attention to what people here have to say about coasters, picture tiles, custom personalization, and puzzles market. For some reason some laser manufacturers really flog these types of markets as big money makers. I'm afraid its not nearly as simple as they make it out to be. Good luck and keep us posted.


AL Ursich
09-03-2010, 11:51 PM
Dave is right about "Products"...... I have a store room full of Sublimation Stuff.... Hardly ever get a request for it.....

But I had to GO THERE to get Where I am TODAY...... My inventory of "STUFF" to build the things I make was over $22K last year.... 75% of it was never touched last year....

I am learning..... Spent $1K on Fire Ads in April and May Mag's.... 2 calls.... No orders... But I had to RISK and TRY.....

All part of going there to get where I am TODAY.....

This is a Great Place....


Rodne Gold
09-04-2010, 1:17 AM
You can make a lot of money doing custom awards - make em yourself, heres's some pics
Margins are in the 500% range......
Your laser is a useless machine unless you do one thing - and that is MARKETING!!!!
You need to spend as much time or more marketing your services than fiddling with the laser.
Initially , take on anything that comes your way and you will soon see a trend as to what direction you going.
I also agree that onesies are mostly non profitable and that jobbing is the way to go - however initially you prolly will get onesies. You only really make money on onesies if you FOAD price em (F... o.. and die) Ie price em so high that either the customer says no and goes away or they say yes and there is so much profit in the fiddly job that it's actually worth while doing.. It's a strategy you soon learn after spending 2 hrs doing a $20 job ....
At any rate , view the purchase as an expensive toy you can have fun with and perhaps make a bit of tom on the side...
Heres some pics of awards

Viktor Voroncov
09-04-2010, 1:59 AM
My 2 p :)
Better buy new brand laser (GCC, ULS, Epilog, Trotec) with help of financing.
I am personally strictly against Chinese glass tubes, and not really against used but ....

Power - my suggestion is 40-50 Wt to be universal - still good engraving quality and power is enought for cutting 90% of orders.

Try to find customers for cutting - usually this is big and repeating jobs.

keep more attention on design and creativity. Agree with Rodney - buy ready award from JDS/Marco and engrave shield - means a lot of work with small profit. Make own design non standart award - means good profit, happy customers and feeling that you are on right way :)

Some samples attached (Rodney - your awards are better :) no doubt)

Russell Ludwick
09-04-2010, 3:25 AM
Thanks for all the advice guys

I really like hearing how all you guys got started and tips for getting work, I think getting the work will be the hardest part for me.

I think the backend stuff like actually running the laser, designing parts and building websites should be the easy part. I have programmed, setup and run numerous CNC mills and lathes, design hundreds of production parts and built several websites. Getting the customers and juggling my normal job, this side gig and my girlfriend is going to be the hard part.

@dave, I totally agree about not overextending myself, particularly at first. All signs for me are pointing towards a more modest 24 x 12 entry level machine. The evil devil on my shoulder though is telling me to buy a bigger machine.

@Rodney and Victor, awesome awards guys. Great advice on designing your own awards. Which I could easily do with my experience. There are several shops in town already doing awards though, so I didn't want to step on their toes, but If the work load pushes me in that direction I am open to it.

The good part about my situation is that I always have my day job and my side design work to fall back on. If the laser thing doesn't work out, i can probably resell it and say I tried, take a modest loss and go back to my bread and butter mechanical design.

Okay, so say I buy one of these magnificent machines and find a nice place to put it, how should I get my first customers? If you guys had to start over, where would you start?

What have you guys found to be the most profitable jobs for a laser? the most fun?

Viktor Voroncov
09-04-2010, 3:37 AM
Start now and immediatelly, as in this business (at least in my area) 60% of sales are in October-December.
Look here (http://www.sawmillcreek.org/showthread.php?t=134720)
What do you need for start very well described. Buy SMC file attachment CD.

Mike Null
09-04-2010, 6:48 AM
If you want to see if your ideas will work why not talk to Pete about doing jobs for you until you can determine whether you have any marketing ability.

It seems risky to me to rent space and buy equipment without having a clue as to how you're going to market yourself and your business.

Read the threads here about running a business and identify the requirements. You won't be able to operate with just a laser engraver.

This may sound mean and it is not meant that way but my bet is that you will not be successful and will burden yourself with debt. No marketing plan equals no business.

Making products you think will sell is about 99% sure to fail. You must make the products and provide the services that your customers want.

David Fairfield
09-04-2010, 12:28 PM
Making products you think will sell is about 99% sure to fail.

LOL! It sounds discouraging, but its funny and its also sort of true, especially if you want to do creative work. Until you find your niche and make a name for yourself in it, the odds are most of your stuff will get no reaction from the market.

Hannu Rinne
09-04-2010, 6:50 PM
"You can make a lot of money doing custom awards - make em yourself, heres's some pics"


What material you've used in the "Africa Award" ? Is the picture of Nelson Mandela added separately into the plaque ? Anyway, really great awards in your pictures !


Rodne Gold
09-05-2010, 12:15 AM
Hiya , thanks for the compliments
I used African rosewood as the base and 5mm black perspex for the Africa and sub base.
It's enfraed and cut and filled with gold gilding wax, the picture is actually a gold coin that is inset into the shape of Africa , we cut the hole a teeny bit smaller than the coin and its an interference fit - you can turn the award around and see the backside of the coin.
You can go here to see more (link to a page on my website - but I have no commercial interest in posting barring showing some ideas for awards)