Cutting leather with a laser cutter is easily done thanks to the ability of leather to absorb laser light. The high-intensity light from a laser beam causes a precise area of leather to be vaporised thus cutting the leather.
Leather can be cut using many other techniques, both automatic and manual, but laser cutting is by far one of the most repeatable and fastest methods for cutting. The use of numerically controlled stepper motors enables computer control with a high degree of repeatability and precision, something which cannot be achieved with manual cutting of leather.
Leather is an aesthetically pleasing material and therefore is commonly found in decorative and artistic pieces. One common example of leather in the fashion industry includes bags, shoes, and wallets. Leather can also be found in other luxury high-end products such as coverings in cars, seats, and even watches. While leather itself is not waterproof, it is water-resistant making it ideal for applying to services that require a degree of water resistance (such as boots).
Leather can be engraved with ease using a laser cutter, and both the engraving and cutting process is done in the same machining cycle. Since engraving leather results in a small amount being removed, the engraving is extraordinarily resilient to ageing, but laser cut and laser engraved leather initially has a burnt odour that reduces over time with edges that contain soot (as a result of vaporisation). It’s common for laser cut leather to be gently cleaned before end use on products.
While most materials can be cut with a laser, not all are considered “laser-safe”. Materials such as chromium-treated leather, can release toxic gasses that are extremely harmful to the environment. As such, it is essential that only vegetable-tanned leather is used in a laser cutter. Another example of a material that cannot be laser cut is PVC; while the material is easily cut using a laser, it releases chlorine gas which itself is very harmful. Many synthetic leathers contain PVC making them unsuitable for laser cutting. Due to the need for premium vegetable-tanned leather, Ponoko only stocks high quality leather and this is reflected in the price points you’ll see for this material.
Laser-cut leather has the same advantages as any other material that is cut using a laser cutter. Firstly, the use of a computer-controlled cutting gantry results in cuts that are highly precise, accurate, and repeatable. This means that producing 1000 leather parts will be virtually identical in dimensions, while still retaining the beauty of a natural material and therefore highly suited for large production runs.
The other major advantage of laser cut leather is that it is by far faster than other cutting methods. Other methods of cutting, such as CNC milling and scissors, are mechanical processes that see mechanical wear and tear. Furthermore, manual processes such as human labour is an intensive task that is far too expensive to do on large scale items (unless the item in question is luxury goods).
Thirdly, using Ponoko laser cutting services allows engineers to rapidly scale their designs very quickly from single pieces all the way to tens of thousands. The ability to scale quickly is often a major challenge faced by engineers during product development, and having a service that is able to provide both prototypes and commercial-ready parts is invaluable.
Fourthly, laser cut leather seals the edges meaning that no fraying occurs. This is particularly a challenge for mechanically cut leather and can lead to designs quickly wearing down and losing their professional look.
While laser cut parts are quick to produce, they are generally limited in their thickness as laser beams diverge with distance thereby reducing the lasers ability to cut as well as creating a wider cut. Ponoko stocks natural leather materials up to 0.1 inches in thickness, and offers a range of different colors including auburn, dark brown, black, and mocha.
Laser-cut leather leaves behind soot from the vaporisation of the leather, and can also leave a burnt-like odour. While the odour itself will dissipate over time, the soot may require an additional cleaning step prior to being used. A large portion of soot can be removed with the use of a coarse brush, while generic leather cleaning products can be used to remove finer dust.