Glowforge is one of the most popular laser engravers and laser cutters on the market. Through a combination of quality and ease of use, they've hit a sweet spot that appeals to hardcore makers and the crafting space. When we talk about Glowforge, we are talking about an entire ecosystem. The ecosystem includes the laser but expands to the software, materials, designs, and community surrounding the machine. This review will give you an overview of that entire ecosystem and how Glowforge stacks up against its competitors.
Note: Glowforge supplied the Glowforge Pro free for review. They have not directed anything I say; all opinions are my own. I do get a commission if you use my link to purchase.
Alright let's dive in!
Glowforge is a desktop CO2 laser. A 40-45 Watt laser beam is generated by a glass tube attached to the machine's gantry. That beam exits the tube and bounces through a series of mirrors, where it focuses into a tiny beam.
This compares to a diode-style laser where the beam generates at the laser head. These typically have much less power (1-10 Watt) but can come in a smaller form factor.
When combined with the mechanical construction, the laser can achieve a precision of 1/1000th of an inch. Think of that as a 1000 DPI image that you'll have the ability to create.
Glowforge comes in three different models: Basic, Plus, and Pro. The Basic and Plus model have a power of 40W, and the Pro comes in at 45W.
Glowforge was one of the early companies to integrate a camera system into the design. As a result, it includes two different cameras.
The first is the most visible; this is a wide-angle camera in the lid. The camera sends a "live" preview of the work area to the software control, which allows you to place your designs directly on top of the material. This camera has an accuracy of 0.25 in, so you won't use it for precise positioning but rather general placements.
Having used lots of machines that don't have a camera preview, this is a massive aid when trying to get a project knocked out quickly.
The second camera is mounted to the head assembly and gives the ability for autofocus. This camera has an accuracy of 0.1 mm and is a vast improvement over manually adjusting the laser bed or the laser focusing distance.
Just like focusing the sun through a magnifying glass, the distance between the focusing lens and the material needs to be precise to give you the best results. Glowforge automates this entire process by moving the lens for you.
Housed inside the laser head is the focusing mechanism, which helps prevent smoke and debris from messing it up.
Another benefit of autofocus comes when cutting thick material. The focus point will automatically adjust as you go deeper into the material, giving the best cutting performance.
Lasers are fantastic, but they also are pretty dangerous. One feature you will need in any higher power machine is air assist. This is a stream of air focused directly on your material that not only extinguishes potential flare-ups but also clears all the smoke and debris to give an overall better engrave and cut quality.
In cheaper CO2 machines, the air assist will come as a separate system, meaning that the air compressor and hose will be external to the machine. With Glowforge, all of this is integrated directly into the design.
Glowforge takes care of it for you, which overall is one of the benefits of the system.
Another thing they take care of is cooling. Laser's get hot, especially if you are running long engraves or batching out many orders for your Etsy shop.
Water is run around the glass laser tube to reduce temperatures. And just like air-assist, this is all managed internally to the machine.
You can refill the tank, but this will rarely happen since it's an entirely closed system that recycles the water.
I've spilled lots of makeshift water tanks over the years, and not having to worry about with the Glowforge is incredible!
Glowforge can cut and engrave in the dark, but where is the fun in that?
LED strips are attached inside the body of the machine and on the glass lid that helps illuminate your material. Not only is this great for the camera systems, but it also is a blast to watch.
Overall the machine has an excellent build quality. The body is made from steel sheets with an all-glass lid. Dual stepper motors drive the Y-Axis with a single stepper motor in the X and Z. The dual motors in the Y practically eliminate any racking that could occur as the entire gantry moves up and down relative to your material.
Everything runs along linear rails and v-wheels similar to most consumer-grade CNC Routers and 3D Printers.
A unique design element of Glowforge is the attachment of the laser tube directly to the gantry. Most machines will attach this at the back of the device. This helps to reduce the number of mirrors needed to reflect the beam into the laser head. But this also adds constant movement and vibrations to the most fragile point of the entire machine.
I haven't run into any issues, but I have seen a few people mentioning needing to get portions of their gantry replaced due to the increased weight from the glass tube.
Laser's are a beam of fire, and fire makes lots of smoke. So for any laser, you'll need to vent the smoke and fumes outside of your work area. Glowforge accomplishes this with a fan in the back of the machine that pulls out all the smoke and fumes.
At this point, you've got two different options. First, you could vent this through some tubing outside a window or purchase their Air Filter. The filter connects directly to the machine's exhaust and allows for use with no ventilation. I was able to test this with my Glowforge Pro, and it does an incredible job removing not only smoke but also fumes.
The downside is it's not cheap; at $995, it costs as much as some CO2 lasers, but the convenience it adds could be worth it, depending on your situation.
Glowforge is on the higher end in not only build quality but also price. They offer three different versions that range in price.
If you are interested in any of the models, make sure and use this link to get up to $500 off the Pro and $250 off the Plus. This is an affiliate link, so I'll get a commission if you decide to pick it up, which also supports me!
Which Glowforge model is best? It depends...everyone's favorite answer.
Let's break down the differences and walk through how they could affect your situation.
The main differences are the laser tube power, top speed, and warranty.
Power: The Basic and Plus come with a 40W laser tube, while the Pro includes a 45W. 5W isn't a massive difference, but it does lead to the differences in overall top speed.
Top Speed: Instead of giving absolute values, Glowforge lists the Plus as up to 2X faster than the Basic and then the Pro 3X faster than the Basic.
The Glowforge Pro also comes with a 20% increase in overall cut speed.
Warranty: The Pro and Plus come with a 12-month warranty while the Basic is only 6 Months.
Finally, the Glowforge Pro comes with a pass-through slot. This allows for material that is longer than the machine's work area since it can pass through both the front and back of the device.
The pass-through slot works alongside the software to auto-align your design so you can cut and engrave in multiple sections as you move the material.
The maximum material capacity is the same on the Glowforge Basic and Plus at 19.5 in by 11 in.
Due to the pass-through slot on the Glowforge Pro, there is no limit to the height, and it stays the same for the width at 19.5 in.
All models have the same maximum material thickness of 2 in.
CO2 Lasers allow for both cutting and engraving. one annoying thing about Glowforge is their constant reference to printing or calling it a 3D laser printer. I get they want to make it more approachable, and printing is more relatable. But at the end of the day, a laser works by removing material, not by adding.
With that, it does a great job at both cutting and engraving!
For both engraving and cutting, you'll be able to use the most common materials like leather, plywood, acrylic, veneers, hardwood, and draft board. If you can burn the material, then you'll be able to use a laser with it.
You won't engrave metals unless they have a coating like Stainless Steel or a powder coat. Then, to engrave directly onto raw metal, you'll need to use a fiber laser. But since lots of projects utilize stainless steel, you'll be good to go!
On the cutting side, Glowforge performs well on most 1/4 in materials with one pass. However, to go thicker, you'll need to use multiple passes.
For example I made this lamp out of 1/4 draft board which only needed one pass to cut out.
When working with plastics, you'll want to avoid things like PVC since it creates poisonous gas when vaporized.
The software does a great job recommending settings for different materials and setups. There is usually a pretty long back and forth process to find the best speed and power settings on a laser that will change per material. Glowforge nearly eliminates that with its built-in recommendations that utilize Proofgrade Materials.
The entire material selection process simplifies with their Proofgrade Materials. These are sold directly through Glowforge and include a QR code that is read by the machine. Once the lid is closed, a picture of the work area is taken, and the QR code is processed. The software then automatically changes the power and speed settings to match the correct material.
This is just another reason Glowforge does a fantastic job making the laser cutting and engraving process approachable to everyone.
You can still manually select what material you are using or even manually selecting the power and speed settings. But going with Proofgrade materials, you'll know your settings are going to be optimized.
In addition to the automatic detection, Proofgrade materials are also of excellent quality. The materials are typically nicer than anything else I can source in all of the stuff I've used and ordered.
But that also comes at a cost; the materials aren't cheap. For instance, one 12x20 sheet of 1/4 in Maple Plywood is over $20. That's compared to $50. You could pay for basically the same size baltic birch plywood on Amazon for a pack of 6.
And now the most controversial part of the Glowforge Ecosystem, the software. You can only use Glowforge with its built-in software. This comes with both a free and paid version.
The web-based software is nice since you don't have to be directly connected to the machine. Everything works over wifi. But if you aren't connected to the internet, you have a giant paperweight.
A significant drawback to web-based, locked-down software is the dependency on the company existing in the future. Most other machines allow for direct connection over USB, which opens up the ability to use other software like Lightburn or LaserGRBL.
Also, nothing is keeping Glowforge from charging more for access to the software in the future. They initially didn't include a paid subscription to the software, and once it was introduced, the price has steadily increased.
The Premium version costs $50 a month and gives you access to a library of design, fonts, and artwork. And since all of the project processing gets handled in the cloud, the Premium version also gives you access to the fast lane, which speeds up that process.
If you do most of your designing outside of Glowforge's interface, I haven't found much need for the Premium version. The Fast Lane is nice but annoying in principle to pay extra to use a machine you've already paid for.
In general, the software allows for importing both vectors and images and the ability to scan a design and turn it into a vector that can be engraved or cut.
To test this, I had my three-year-old daughter draw something in sharpie. Then, I was able to scan it, convert it, and then laser-engrave it onto a piece of wood.
The whole process was seamless and speaks to the power of the tight integration between software and machine.
Also, since the software is web-based, it receives constant improvements. New features are added to the software and modifications directly to the machine with over-the-air updates each month.
Having a laser is great, but figuring out what to make is a constant challenge. Glowforge Projects does a great job of giving both free and paid projects that anyone can open up and use.
Projects are an area that Glowforge pulls ahead of their competition.
You can browse their catalog with tons of different designs, and the Premium subscription offers "free" access to some that are locked behind a paywall.
I've always been impressed by their monthly featured design. In October of 2021, they had this awesome Haunted House from Jen (a previous podcast guest). The quality of these is high.
The projects lead into the Glowforge community, which is another huge pro to the entire ecosystem. Because Glowforge is so popular, there are many active users in their forums and around the internet.
I've always found it pretty easy to get answers to general support questions and find inspiration and advice from the things everyone else is making.
The premium desktop laser market has heated up since Glowforge pretty much invented the category with their record-breaking Kickstarter. As a result, you can find comparable machines like the Full Spectrum Muse, Makeblock Laserbox, and the Gweike Cloud.
Even with the drawbacks of locked-down software and cloud-based access, I would still pick Glowforge over anything else.
Of all the machines I've got in my shop, I wind up using Glowforge the most because it just works. Sure, I can tune my other machines to get an overall better performance and increase capabilities. But that also comes with lots of tinkering.
With Glowforge, I turn it on, log into the website, pull in my design, and hit the big button on the machine.
Glowforge provided me with the Glowforge Pro for this review. Glowforge had no say in this review, but I do have an affiliate relationship with them.
Use the link below to save up to $500 if you decide to pick one up.