Laser Cutting 16 - The Vinyl Cutting Dilemma
I periodically visit a couple of laser cutting online bulletin boards and the topic of cutting vinyl will come up upon occasion. This typically creates a fire storm of advice about how dangerous that it is. And of course it is dangerous to cut vinyl products with a laser cutter; as the burning vents chlorine gas. Anyway, a new or inexperienced laser cutting user will post about cutting vinyl, and they will be shamed by nearly hysterical posters, so I usually post the below response to calm down the situation:
I think we can all agree that engraving or cutting vinyl is a bad idea, but…..While Universal does warn you not to cut vinyl, they also include settings for cutting sign vinyl, both kiss cutting and engraving in their manual. So how bad is it?
I started laser cutting as a high school teacher and a nice Universal machine had been purchased for the wood shop and engineering lab. Neither of the instructors who requested it really knew how to use it and it was basically a $25000 pen engraver. I was teaching graphics and photography in another part of the school and having a fair amount of sign cutting and graphics experience, using it was a natural. Little by little I started dropping and experimenting with it.
Well, I was never formally trained on laser cutting, and had a kid that wanted some custom model boat parts made. Really cool scale model engine details and such. Well, we used some plastic he found and realized after the fact it was PVC (polyvinylchloride). At the time, I did not know this was taboo. I little later I found out the seriousness of our error, but at the time I had no idea. Fortunately, the machine was vented quire well and there was little or no opportunity for health risks.
So, what do you do if you’ve cut vinyl in your laser and are worried about any damage?
I researched it at the time (Probably 15 or more years ago) and found that some companies actually have sacrificial lasers that they cut PVC in and just replace them when they fail. The acid and chlorine vented will corrode the interior of the machine. But what about ours? Somewhere in a laser related website I found that TSP (Trisodium phosphate) will neutralize any residue from the burning of the vinyl. So, I goggled up, gloved up and masked up and mixed a spray bottle of TSP and sprayed the inside of the laser and let it take its effect. I wiped it all up and repeated. I did the normal maintenance of the mirrors and lens.
That laser never showed any negative signs from the cutting of vinyl. I mentioned this incident to a repairman when we had the tube changed and the Universal rep said they could find no signs of damage. I no longer teach at that school, but I’m sure it is running fine, as it was 3 years ago when I left.
I find it hard to believe that cutting a vinyl record or two would cause major damage, but who knows what could be in some 50-75-year-old plastic. I am by no means endorsing cutting vinyl at all, but just wanted to share my story in case someone had, like me unknowingly done such. You need not panic. Just fix your mistake, learn, and move on.