How to Prepare Vector Files for Laser Engraving

Answered on this page:

  • What file types are used for laser engraving?
  • What are vector files and why are they used for laser engraving?
  • How can I create my own vector files for laser engraving?
  • How does laser engraving work?

Laser engraving is a type of laser marking that uses a high-powered laser to cut grooves into a chosen material, creating a desired image of design. Laser engraving does not require the use of inks or tool bits, and the designs are engraved onto the material by a computer-controlled process, making the production process both consistent and precise. Creating your own designs for laser engraving is a relatively simple process, but first you’ll need to understand how your laser engraving machine works with special software on your computer to transmit, read, and recreate special design files known as vector files.

Vector files contain all of the information that your laser engraving machine needs to turn your design or image into a work of art on the surface of your chosen material. Whether you’re using laser engraving to mark serial numbers on a product or etch a secret message into a gift for a special someone, you’ll need to prepare a vector file of your own so you can tell the laser engraving machine what to do. This article explains what a vector file is, how they work with your laser engraving machine, and how you can turn your own designs into vector files for use in laser engraving projects.

What is a Vector File?

English people read in English, French people read in French, and laser engraving machines read vector files. When you upload a vector file into your laser engraving machine, you’re giving it information in a format that it can understand, one that contains all of the required information for it to create a reproduction of your design file.

Understanding the function of vector files begins with a basic understanding of how laser engravers work. A laser engraving machine consists of three essential parts: the laser, the controller, and the surface. The controller has the buttons that allow you to change settings and program the machine, the laser does the cutting, and the surface is a flat area where your material goes to be engraved – this is where the magic happens.

When the laser cuts into your chosen material, it cuts in lines. Lines can be combined to create shapes. A key feature of vector files is that they contain lines and shapes, and that the lines and shapes are perfectly scale-able – they remain smooth at any resolution. If you draw a circle in a program that uses pixel mapping, and you zoomed in on that circle, eventually it would look highly pixelated, and the smooth edges of the circle would be covered in tiny edges. In contrast, a circle drawn in a vector drawing program like Corel Draw would appear perfectly smooth at any resolution.

When I first encountered vector files, I was confused about how you could draw a shape that would stay smooth at any resolution. The answer to that actually involves mathematics. Bit mapping programs like Microsoft Paint turn your cursor into a “pixel selector”, and each shape drawing tool is just a differently-shaped tool for choosing which pixels you want to color. Pixels on your screen are arranged in a grid though – so you can never draw a perfect circle using this method.

Vector files are different though – the drawing program understands shapes and lines using mathematical equations, and it actually uses math to create visual representations of those shapes. Instead of coding color-values into specific pixels on the screen, vector-drawing programs code the mathematical formula for a shape or line, along with the coordinates of the object on the canvas. This increased precision allows perfect-resolution imaging that leads to the best design and engraving results.

Unless you’re intentionally creating pixel art, you want any shapes in your design to look perfectly smooth and uniform when engraved onto your material, and this can only be achieved by using a vector file.

Resources to Help You Create Vector Files for Laser Engraving

There are many tools, both free and paid, that you can use to create vector files for use in laser engraving. Here’s our top six:

Adobe Illustrator –  Adobe Illustrator provides an EPS format (Encapsulated PostScript) that is perhaps the most common vector image format. One the benefits of using this tool is that it is not resolution dependent which means that by using this tool you get a better print output. Adobe illustrator is the standard format in the print industry because it works with virtually all systems and you do not have to choose between PC or Mac. Adobe Illustrator has very good support for reading and writing EPS and if you are already using other Adobe products like Flash or Photoshop it integrates well with both of these as well.

SVG Edit – If you’re dealing with vector files, you’re going to start seeing the acronym SVG a lot, which stands for Scalable Vector Graphics, a special type of file format whose name describes exactly what unique features it offers. SVG-Edit is a browser-based application that lets you create and edit vector files using a versatile suite of image-manipulation features. SVG-Edit is free, and its in-browser functionality means that you won’t have to download any new programs onto your computer to get started.

Vectr – Similar to SVG Edit, Vectr is browser-based and presents a simple and accessible user interface from which you can engage some basic image-manipulation features to create and edit your own vector files. The app runs smoothly on any computer and its bare-bones feature set makes it a choice application for simple edits and designs. If you’d rather run it off your own desktop, the app is available for download on Windows, Mac or Linux.

Corel Draw – A comprehensive graphic design software, Corel Draw does much more than just create and edit vector files. You can use it for website layouts, font management, photo editing, and more. This is a paid application that you’ll have to run on your own computer, and like most full-suite graphic design programs, it can prove burdensome for older computers. Make sure you check the specifications on your machine before purchasing Corel Draw. If your video card is not powerful enough to quickly render high-resolution images, you may have problems getting the program to run properly. Corel Draw is one of the best vector design options for devoted artists with good computing savvy.

FatPaint – A specialized web tool for creating logos, vector graphics and raster images for use with laser engraving machines, Fat Paint runs in your browser and is perfect for small editing jobs that don’t require loads of features. Fat Paint differentiates itself from other editors by offering a unique interface for adding three-dimensional text to your designs, but like other browser-based apps, its limited feature set makes it primarily useful for small projects and edits.

Inkscape Inkscape is probably the best cross-platform vector editor on this list. Available as a free, open-source software for Windows, Mac and Linux, Inkscape combines the robust feature set of a professional quality graphic design program like Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw, but without charging a penny. Many professional designers trust Inkscape as their vector editor of choice, as it allows virtually limitless options for image-manipulation, including layering, grouping, exporting vector files from bitmap images, and more.

Also, try these:

RollApp

LibreOffice Draw

SketchUp

Solid Edge 2D

TGIF

Gravit Designer

Primal Draw

If you’re not sure which vector editor to use, we’d recommend just picking one whose features match your level of expertise in graphics design and cover the needs of your project. There’s also budget to think about, and while most of these options are free, a couple of them will have you shelling out a few bucks for the software.

Conclusion

We hope you learned a little something about vector files and their use in laser engraving by reading this article. Here’s a short summary of what we touched on:

  • Laser engraving relies on vector files, a special type of image file that tells the laser engraving machine how to engrave your design.
  • Vector files contain shapes and lines that are drawn mathematically by special software. They are special because they allow images that are unaffected by changing the resolution – they look the same engraved on your material as they would on your computer.
  • There are many different programs you can use to create vector files. The best choice for you depends on your skill level in graphic design and what features are required for your project.
  • Experienced designers would do well with either Corel Draw or Inkscape, which provide the most feature options for image manipulation.