Welcome back to Farbulous Creations! I’m Ron, and in this video I’m going to walk you through my decision-making process in deciding which laser cutter to purchase for my shop. I don’t do a ton of pure “talking to the camera” videos, but I prepared some notes for myself and figured I would try to do this all in one go. So let’s hop in!
So I bit the bullet and bought my very own laser cutter. And let’s touch on the elephant in the room shall we? This thing is basically the size of a baby elephant.
That is to say – this is not a hobbyist laser, like in the slightest.
No, this is a full-featured pro machine, the Nova 35-80, made by Thunder Laser USA. I’ve only had it for about a month, but I did a ton of research into the company and their machines before ultimately deciding on this machine. It’ll be the main star of future laser project on my channel so I had to make sure whatever laser I picked was up to the task!
So, I know many people are going to ask why I didn’t get a Glowforge. They are, after all, one of the biggest names in the laser-cutting community now-a-days. This is mostly due to the fact that they do a ton of advertising and sponsorships. Because they are so well-known in the space, I did give them a thorough looking-at when doing my research to see how they stacked up compared to my list of requirements. Ultimately though, I did determine it wasn’t the right machine for me. Why though?
To answer that, let’s take a look at the list of requirements I had defined for my machine. I’ll touch on each point briefly now, and then dig deeper into each topic later on in the video.
First up, Z-Depth – One of my biggest musts: I wanted to be able to laser etch things that were decently thick. Namely, bowls. I plan on getting into bowl making on the lathe soon, and I hope to personalize the bottom of each bowl I make. These bowls could be anywhere from 3 inches tall to 10 inches tall or more, so being able to fit non-sheet goods was key.
Next up, Price – I wanted the biggest bang for my buck. I knew this wasn’t going to be a cheap purchase no matter how I sliced it, so I wanted to make sure if I was going to dropping thousands of dollars on a machine that I didn’t feel limited by it.
My next requirement, Speed – The speed of a laser is largely linked to its price, but I wanted a laser that didn’t take forever for relatively simple projects. Time is money, after all.
My fourth and final requirement was Local Control – This may seem like a weird requirement, but many hobby lasers and CNC machines rely on online cloud software to send jobs to the machine, rather than using a desktop application installed on your computer. This is a great way for them to continuously update their software, but I do not love this model when paired with expensive hardware. For one, what happens if your internet goes out? The bigger concern I have with this model, though, is the scenario in which a laser company using cloud-controlled software goes out of business in the future. If this were to happen, I’d like to think they would put out a desktop app to allow their customers to control their machines long after they’re gone, but there’s no guarantee of that. And then what? You have an expensive laser cutting machine with no way to control it.
So those were my four big musts. So let’s look at how the Glowforge faired with those requirements compared to other machines I considered, including the one I ultimately went with, the Nova-35.
First up, depth.
The depth requirement unfortunately took the Glowforge out of the running for me straight away. The max thickness of anything you can etch in a Glowforge laser is 2 inches – and that’s after taking the crumb tray out. There are some emerging hobbyist laser brands out there that have a removable bottom plate, that allows you to prop the laser up on riser blocks so you can etch something from below, but unfortunately the Glowforge doesn’t have that option.
And sure, with my example of engraving the bottom of bowls – most of which will be segmented bowls like this one (that I started a few years ago and never finished) – I could etch the bottom of the bowl – the bottom piece of the bowl – before gluing it on, but that only works with segmented bowls, and not solid bowls, or other thick items that I might want to etch that are over 2 inches, like a cutting board or chopping block.
My Thunder Nova 35, by comparison – I can lower the bed a full 9 inches with the crumb tray in, and if I remove the crumb-tray, that gives me another few inches. And if I really need to, I could remove the supports for the crumb tray and give me even more space. That’ll easily give me the ability to etch on the bottom of large bowls, or vases, or other items I make in my shop.
Now of course price is going to be the biggest determining factor for most people who buy a laser machine, so this is something the Glowforge has going for it in terms of entry-level affordability. At the bottom of their lineup, their basic model comes in at around $3,000. Now of course that’s not chump change, but the top of their lineup the price doubles to $6,000. And the only difference between the “basic” and “pro” versions, however, are a slightly more powerful laser tube (only 5 watts difference, I think), slightly faster cutting speeds, enhanced cooling, and a pass-through slot to work with materials that are longer than the machine. Add in taxes of nearly $500, you’re looking at $6500.
Now in my opinion, when you start reaching that price-point, you should be getting a much more capable machine. Case in point, my Nova 35-80 cost me $8700 all in – taxes, shipping, software, required accessories in all. For that extra $2200 more than the Glowforge Pro cost, I got an 80 Watt machine, a cut bed of roughly 24 inches by 35 inches, a water chiller, an air assist pump, included flexible ducting, and a toolkit of everything I need to maintain the machine.
You may say it’s not a fair comparison, as the Thunder Laser is clearly a pro machine meant for larger workshops like mine and that the Glowforge is a hobbyist machine meant for more home office or craft rooms type setups. And I’d agree with you if the Glowforge Pro didn’t double its price over the Basic model. What I mean by that is that I don’t personally believe that the extra features you get in the Pro model justifies the doubling of the price over the Basic model. If you’re going to be spending that much on a laser, and you have the room for a machine this big, you might as well save a bit longer and buy a machine that you’re not going to grow out of quite as quickly.
Now of course there are big laser names out there that cost well in excess of both the Glowforge and Thunder Laser, such as Epilog or Trotec. Those companies aren’t as forthcoming with their pricing, as they are truly industrial machines and they’re often sold through resellers. But from what I gather, a machine in the same size range as my Nova 35, clocks in around $30,000-40,000. Those machines certainly have a high build quality, excellent customer support, and proprietary software that seems full-featured – and you’ll rarely hear about the owner of one of these machines being dissatisfied. But from what I can gather, their high price point is largely due to the fact that their machines are designed and assembled in the US and Canada, which obviously adds to their cost since we have higher cost of living here in North America.
When I first started researching Thunder, I discovered they were a Chinese brand first, which did give me some pause. After all, eBay is filled with cheaply made no-name Chinese laser cutters that you can get at a bargain – and as it goes, you tend to get what you pay for.
Sure you might only spend $2,000-3,000 for a machine this big, but the quality is just not going to be up to snuff – you’ll probably spend the first few months tinkering and making adjustments to the belts to get the machine to a usabel, reliable state and the laser tube will probably burn out after just a few months of use.
So naturally, I was worried it might be a similar case with the Thunder machines.
As it turns out, Thunder Laser makes some of the highest quality lasers in China, with much higher quality control and just insanely better build quality over those cheap “eBay lasers cutters.” In order to better appeal to the US market, they spun up their subsidiary, Thunder Laser USA, located out of Quitman, Texas. The folks in the US work closely with the folks in China to implement improvements to their lineup and to offer US-based customer and sales support.
Oof, that all sounded a bit sponsored. I should pause to quickly clarify that this video is not sponsored by Thunder Laser in any shape or form – like I said earlier, I just did a ton of research before moving forward to buy my machine. A lot of that research was in the form of attending their weekly webinar where I met many happy Thunder Laser customers, including Robert over at Computer Creationz, who was super excited for me when I finally placed my order.
So to summarize, Thunder’s price was perfectly situated between the low and high end of the pricing spectrum while offering a machine far more capable than any hobbyist laser on the market.
Speed is a big factor for anyone doing laser work, especially so if you hope to make a business out of it. I personally don’t have an engraving business setup right now, but I do have some ideas for products I want to make eventually.
So if you’re selling things you make with your laser, the amount of money you can make is directly tied to the speed with which the laser can complete jobs. The faster it can work, the more product or jobs you can complete in one day.
Looking around to find the tech specs related to the Glowforge is a little difficult, as they don’t refer to speed in the same way as nearly every other laser manufacturer does, which is how fast the head can travel in millimeters per second. They choose instead to describe their speeds in relation to their “basic” model – i.e. The Glowforge Pro etches 3 times faster than the Glowforge Basic. But that’s a little deceptive, in my opinion, because they don’t exactly advertise the speed of the basic version in the first place. Digging deep on their forums, members of the Glowforge community seem to indicate that you can expect speeds of around 150-200 mm/s, but I honestly couldn’t find a direct comparison between the basic and pro models in relation to speed.
Working with the old Full Spectrum laser at my local maker space – the laser that got me into laser cutting in the first place – I know the frustrations of a slow laser for especially large jobs. Any engraving job larger than just a few inches wide is just painfully slow as the laser has to travel over large swaths of open space – that’s why in my Hocus Pocus tombstone video I explained the benefit of breaking my design up into multiple, narrower sections so the laser didn’t have to travel over as much empty space. Now that maker space laser control software defined speed in percentage – like 100% speed, 50% speed – and while I have no idea the tech specs of that maker space laser, if I had to guess, it was probably in that same 150-200 mm/s realm at 100% speed.
My new Thunder laser, by comparison, can top out at speeds of 1000 mm/s, which is just blazingly fast. With a laser going 1000 mm/s, it’s barely worth the time and effort to break a larger design file into smaller portions as it’s just travelling over those large open spaces so much faster, making it almost a non-issue.
Suffice to say, when the time comes that I’m ready to pump out a ton of product with my machine, I won’t feel limited by its speed.
Now onto a deep dive of my local control requirement. While this may seem like a weird “must” for this kind of list, I stand by it, and quite firmly, too. I work in SASS and am a geek for home automation, so I know all-too-well how a seemingly well-funded, stable startup cloud company can be on the runway for success one day and on the brink of bankruptcy the next.
I simply cannot fathom the idea of buying a piece of hardware as expensive as a laser cutter that requires an internet-based application to operate the machine. A cloud-based video doorbell is one thing – if they go out of business and don’t provide any way to continue using the hardware after they’re gone, you’re out a few hundred bucks, max. But no way do I feel comfortable going down that road with a multi-thousand dollar machine.
Now if you can get past that fear and convince yourself that “no way will they ever go out of business,” the other problem with that cloud reliance still remains. That reliance means that every single job you want to send to your machine needs to first get sent up to their servers, processed and optimized on their servers, then get sent back to your machine before it’s even ready to start cutting. That means if you have an especially complex job with a ton of vector points, like a map, or a high resolution photo with a ton of detail, that means it can take a long time to even just start the job.
The whole concept of sending a job to their servers for processing I find troublesome as well, because in my research I’ve found instances of Glowforges’ “job queue” being full – which I believe means that high usage of other using their machines has prevented other users from sending a job to their own machine.
Even worse, apparently Glowforge has decided to monetize the problem of jobs taking a long time to process on their end by offering a subscription service “fast lane”, that in addition to access to some artwork libraries, offers a way for those who don’t want to wait as long for their jobs to process a way to pay to avoid it. That just feels icky to me.
So how does the Thunder Laser get controlled? Big laser companies like Epilog and Trotec have their own proprietary job control software for PC and/or Mac. While well-built and enjoyed by their customers, this inevitably adds development and support costs to their bottom line – which I’d imagine certainly contributes to them being on the higher end of the pricing spectrum.
Thunder made the deliberate choice to not create their own job control software, but instead to build their machines with Ruida controllers to work with the popular cross-platform desktop laser software, “Lightburn.” While Lightburn is not open-source, it’s a well-maintained software with a large community of users, and it can work with pretty much any laser with a DSP or G-Code control board.
Lightburn releases updates to their software all the time, adding new features that the community asks for, and their software is sold on a “buy once, use forever” model, with free upgrades for a year. If you choose not to renew your license, you’ll still be able to use it forever, you just won’t get the latest and greatest features. And my Thunder Laser came with a Lightburn key included in the price.
The best part of a desktop application like Lightburn? If they were to disappear or go out of business tomorrow, the software I have installed on my Mac will continue to work forever. And because there’s nothing proprietary about the laser control board inside the Thunder Laser, if Lightburn did go out of business or shut down shop, another company or the open-source community could easily step in to fill the void by writing a new program that works with the Ruida controller.
Now while it may have sounded like it at times, this was not meant to be an anti-Glowforge video. Just because it wasn’t the right machine for me doesn’t mean it might not be the right machine for you. You may not plan to etch on anything super thick line bowls. Or you may not be using it for a business and thus you don’t need the jobs to complete super quickly. And the price of the Basic model may be in the sweet spot for you. Just keep in mind my notes about the local control, because I feel like that’s a valid concern with any machine, Glowforge or not.
Also keep in mind that I’ve been doing laser engraving, on and off, going on 5 years now, using the laser at my local maker space here in the Twin Cities, so I largely grew out of the early phases of the hobby long ago. I had experienced the frustrations of a somewhat limited machine and knew exactly what I wanted from a machine if I ever bought my own. Beginners to the laser engraving hobby largely won’t know what they want in a machine long-term, so a Glowforge could be good way for them to get their feet wet at a slightly lower price.
But if I might offer another trajectory to dip your toe in the hobby of laser cutting, let me repeat the advice I’ve offered many times in the comments on my channel, and that is to look for a local maker space with a laser that you may be able to use. Maker Spaces are a great way to learn how much you enjoy various hobbies without jumping in the deep end by buying a ton of expensive equipment right away. That’s all to say, don’t feel like you need to buy a machine day one if you want to get into laser cutting.
But if you do want to buy a machine, and your requirement list looks a lot like mine did, definitely check out Thunder Laser. I’ve only had my machine for about a month now, so while I’m by far an expert at Lightburn or the specifics of my machine just yet, I hope to get there soon!
So there ya go! I hope you enjoyed that thorough deep-dive into my decision making process on buying a laser. I don’t stress about every purchase I make quite like I did this one, but a seriously big purchase like this deserves serious deliberation.
If you have any questions about anything I found in my research or anything discussed in this video, be sure to let me know down in the comments below.
And be sure to subscribe if you want to see all the future projects I make with my new Thunder Laser. I’ll see ya then! Cheers!