There's always a demand for personalized products, and a good laser engraver allows you to turn all manner of different items into individual gifts for family, friends, or business use. However, the capabilities of these machines vary, so it's important to understand what they can and can't do.

Our concise buying guide is packed with useful information, and we've also made a few recommendations. Our favorite, Glowforge Plus, is a remarkable machine that's easy to set up and is capable of stunning detail in a wide range of materials and products.

Power: The power output of laser engravers can vary from 500 milliwatts (mW) on the smallest up to over 150 watts on commercial machines. However, the most powerful you're likely to find on crafter/homeowner models is between 40 and 50 watts.

Higher output means you can engrave harder materials, and to greater depth. A 1,500mW machine can handle paper, card, leather, and plastics, but a 40W model may be capable of engraving stone and glass.

Work area: You also find a big difference in the work area these machines are capable of. On lower quality engravers it might only be a couple of inches square. At the other end of the scale, they can be as large as 11 x 19 inches.



Engraving detail: In terms of quality of engraving, it depends on how fine the laser itself is (they can be as narrow as a human hair), and how high the resolution is, which is measured in dots per inch or lines per inch. Bigger numbers mean more detail, but it can slow down the process. The option to switch resolutions is an advantage, but not something that's often offered.

There are differences in construction between models. Budget machines are usually an open frame (the laser head is exposed), where top models are fully enclosed, and thus safer.

The best laser engravers work with Windows, Mac, and portable devices, but not all do, so it's important to check. Some need to be connected by USB or might accept images from a thumb drive. Others can work over WiFi. You might be able to use a graphics program that you're already comfortable with, but you may need to use proprietary software. Each of these things affects how convenient the laser engraver is for you to use.

Basic laser engravers can be found for around $150. Their main drawback is the relatively small workpiece size. Look at spending around $300 for a good entry-level machine. There's lots of choice in the $600 to $1,500 bracket, and these machines have larger working areas and can engrave a greater variety of materials. At the upper end, you can spend anywhere from $3,500 to $15,000 for something capable of fine detail and high productivity.

A. Safety goggles are often provided with "open" type machines and should be worn. Keep hands well away from the laser, and don't allow children to use the machine without close supervision. Materials being engraved might give off unpleasant fumes, so it's a good idea to work in a well-ventilated area

A. No. Keeping your laser engraver clean is most important, because dirt can throw off the focus and thus the clarity of the finished piece. Make sure you disconnect the machine from power first and follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully.

What we like: 40-watt laser engraves and carves up to half an inch deep. Auto-senses material type and auto-focuses. Cuts aluminum, glass, wood, leather, plastic -- even chocolate! Accurate to one-thousandth of an inch. Windows, Mac, phone, and tablet compatible. Fully enclosed for safety.

What we like: 3,000mW engraver works on card, wood, bamboo, plastic, acrylic, etc. Maximum area over six inches square, which is unusual for machines at this price. Good accuracy. Supports all major image types.

2000w Fiber Laser Cutting Machine

What we like: Easy to use touchscreen control. WiFi or USB connectivity. "Remembers" position in the event of power outage or material shortage, so it picks up where it left off. Windows and Mac supported. Competitive price.

Bob Beacham is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.

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