CNC Vs. Laser Cutter: What are the Differences?

Both the devices are highly accurate, less time-consuming, and useful for professionals. Let's find out which one is best for you.
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When researching the topic, you have probably heard about CNC routing and laser cutting. Both are highly reliable processes to cut, etch, engrave, and manufacture fabric and other goods.

However, it is usually confusing for a commoner to understand the main difference. It is mainly because there are many similarities between the two and only a few major differences.

For instance, both CNC routing vs. laser cutting are automatic devices mainly operated by computer software, and the number of compatible materials is almost the same as well. So, what is the difference between CNC vs. Laser Cutter? Well, this article is here to help you out.

What is CNC Cutting?

What Is CNC Cutting

CNC routers are contact-based machines that work on the same principle as handheld routers. CNC routers and CNC lasers are almost similar in terms of applications and features. For instance, they are computer-controlled devices used to produce and manufacture various goods.

The major benefit of CNC routing is that it is extremely accurate, highly productive, and produces the least amount of waste material. Furthermore, adding a laser to the CNC router enhances precision and maximizes productivity.


  • Safety: The best CNC engraving machines have several safety features that protect laborers. For instance, the work area is enclosed in a transparent protective covering. This prevents any contact with shark objects when monitoring the process. Similarly, the computer software automatically adjusts the settings to ensure minimum damage to the material. 
  • Productivity: CNC routers are highly efficient machines that rely on special softwares. The time required for measuring, aligning, and processing various materials is now cut to under 30-minutes that would otherwise require several hours on a handheld router. Similarly, workers can process multiple materials simultaneously as the machine takes care of the cutting portion.
  • Higher Accuracy: Computers are generally regarded as highly accurate machines. The computer can quickly measure, process, and cut different materials with little to no errors. For instance, the least count of a CNC router cutting aluminum is less than 1mm. Such high accuracy minimizes the chances of human and machine error and produces perfect edges every time.

What is Laser Cutting?

What is Laser Cutting

The laser cutter is a non-contact-based device that utilizes a focused laser beam’s intense amount of heat. Laser cutting has emerged as a highly effective technique for accurately working with metals and non-metals alike.

However, like CNC cutters, computer software also guides a laser cutter. The software detects the laser’s position and accurately guides it to cut the material according to the design. A laser cutter consists of a small gas chamber that shoots ionized gas molecules from a small nozzle. These molecules come out in a laser beam which is further enhanced by a focal lens. 

The material under operation instantly melts, forming a groove; these are called engravings. Moreover, the material completely separates from the sheet when the groove deepens, thus cutting the material. In other words, the main difference between CNC vs. laser engraver is that a CNC works through physical shear, while a laser melts away some of the material.


  • Compatibility: Laser is an extremely versatile form of energy that can cut almost any material. The low-powered CO2 lasers are suitable for soft materials like wood, plastic, fabric, and acrylic. Similarly, the high-power fiber laser works best on metals and jewelry. Thus, it won’t be wrong to say that laser cutters have more applications than any CNC machine.
  • Precision: The laser beam of the engraver is small yet extremely powerful. The laser is refined when it passes through the focal lens. Thus, a laser cutter is a highly accurate device with the least count of less than 0.5mm. So, you will experience perfect accuracy in all your projects, even when using the best laser cutter for small businesses.
  • Automation: Unlike some manual CNC routers, all laser cutters are automatic machines. The powerful laser beam is computer-controlled that only moves according to the design. Moreover, you can further refine the grooves by allowing the laser to make a second pass. This technique forms the difference between laser etching vs. laser engraving.
  • Low power consumption: A laser cutting machine gets the job done in under 15-minutes that would otherwise take double the time with a CNC cutter. Moreover, the CO2 lasers only use a small amount of electricity for the process. Therefore, a laser cutter has a lower power consumption than CNC and other devices.

CNC Vs. Laser Cutter Differences:

CNC Vs. Laser Cutter

CNC and laser cutters are two very similar devices with several differences. For instance, they use different principles to achieve the same results, and each has its pros and cons. Here are a few key differences to help you understand the topic:

  • Basic principle: A CNC etching machine and cutter is a contact-based device that produces the design through physical shear. For instance, even the best CNC bit for small lettering uses shear force to cut the materials accurately. On the contrary, a laser cutter utilizes the melting power of a laser beam to cut and engrave the materials accurately.
  • Time: The CNC router can take up to 30-minutes to cut different materials like plastic and wood. The time of cutting depends on the material thickness and the choice of CNC setup. Similarly, a powerful laser can cut the hard metals and non-metals alike in under 15-minutes. When considering all the factors, a laser cutter surely takes a lower amount of cutting time than a CNC router.
  • Materials: You can only use a CNC cutter when working with soft materials like plastic, leather, and wood. It means that the device is unusable for cutting metals. However, different types of laser cutters are suitable for soft and hard materials. For instance, you can use a CO2 laser to cut softer materials, while a fiber laser is suitable for metals. 
  • Material waste: CNC machines use bits to cut the material through sheer force physically. However, this leads to bent material edges, lower strength, and higher material loss. On the other hand, laser cutters use small laser spots refined with a lens to cut the materials. The extreme intensity ensures that only the focused point is melted, and the rest of the sheet remains undisturbed. As a result, the project results in considerably lower material wastage than CNC cutting.
  • Precision: CNC cutters use bits of various shapes and sizes to cut according to the design. The machine’s least count depends on the bit diameter, and it is always greater than a laser beam. Similarly, laser cutters use a powerful yet thin laser beam to cut through sheets of material accurately. The least count of the laser always remains constant, so it is a highly accurate device.

How to Choose CNC Cutting and Laser Cutting?

CNC cutters and laser cutters have their pros and cons. Some materials are best suitable for contact-based cutting, while others melt seamlessly under a laser. By now, you must have some basic concept about how these machines work and which scenarios are suitable for them.

In my opinion, if you plan to work with soft materials and fabrics only, then a CNC cutter or a CO2 laser is best for you. However, if your job includes cutting metals and hard materials, I suggest that you get the best laser cutter that you can afford.

Frequently Asked Questions:

How thick of wood can a Glowforge cut?

Glowforge is a brand of reliable and powerful laser machines. The large work area can accumulate wooden sheets as thick as 1.2cm. However, the machine can cut up to 0.6cm thick wood in a single pass, and a 1.2cm sheet requires 1-2 passes.

How to laser cut without burnt edges?

Laser cutters use extremely intense laser beams to melt away the material. However, the cutting leaves behind burnt edges. There is no way to prevent these burnt edges. However, you can easily get rid of the burn marks by wiping the edges with denatured alcohol in the direction of the grains.

How to use a laser engraving machine?

Laser engraving machines are very easy as they are fully automatic. 
1. Connect the laser to the computer if it doesn’t work in offline mode.
2. Place the material inside the work area and close the protective lid.
3. Import the desired design in the laser software and adjust the laser settings accordingly.
4. Press the run/print button to start the procedure.


Nowadays, CNC and laser cutters are widely used to cut all sorts of materials. Both the devices are highly accurate, less time-consuming, and useful for professionals. However, CNC cutters use physical shear force, whereas laser cutters utilize powerful laser beams‘ heat energy. In my opinion, the laser cutter advantages are far superior to CNC routers. Still, this article will help you choose between CNC Vs. Laser cutter for your projects.

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