Stainless steel is an extremely common material, and there are few industries that don’t make use of this versatile metal. With so many industrial and domestic applications, it’s important that metal fabrication companies can work with stainless steel effectively.
Stainless steels are a group of ferrous (or iron-based) alloys that have a high resistance to rust and corrosion, a factor that contributes to its name and its popularity. This versatile material is durable and light and can even vary in colour. However, one question that is commonly asked about stainless steel is: can it be laser engraved?
Yes, you can laser engrave stainless steel. However, the right techniques must be used to protect its corrosion resistance. Stainless steel is most often engraved for industrial use, but there are other stainless steel marking methods that are more common in domestic and manufacturing applications.
Stainless steel is commonly used for medical equipment, car parts or automotive equipment, where parts can be engraved with bar codes, serial numbers or logos for traceability. Stainless steel jewellery and other personal items can also be engraved with text and designs, whether individually or as part of a production run.
This article will explain the pros and cons of engraving stainless steel and explore some of the other laser marking processes you can choose.
Can You Laser Engrave Stainless Steel?
The short answer is yes, stainless steel can be laser engraved. It’s a misconception that engraving is never suitable for stainless steel. Feasibility will depend on the application, environment and laser engraving equipment available.
The process of laser engraving stainless steel involves a strong laser beam physically removing the surface layer of the metal to create an engraving in the desired design.
A method called deep engraving is also commonly used to mark stainless steel. It is similar to engraving, but the material undergoes multiple passes. That means calibrating your machine to emit relatively low power at a slow pace, then repeating the process multiple times. When this process is used on stainless steel, more material is removed to produce cleaner engraving designs.
Stainless steel is a strong and affordable material, and its corrosion-resistant properties make it an ideal material for a range of applications. Laser engraving is often used amongst industrial companies to mark stainless steel with:
- Serial numbers
- Part numbers
- Tracking information
- ID codes
- Company logos
In addition, stainless steel engraving is also utilised in a versatile range of industries to mark products, parts and produce decorative designs. These industries include:
- Promotional goods
- Personalisation companies
- Electronic devices
- Fine art/design
What Is the Best Method to Mark Stainless Steel?
When deciding to laser engrave stainless steel, there are several ways to go about it. A CO2 laser can engrave stainless steel with a pre-treatment applied, or a fiber laser can also engrave or etch stainless steel. Stainless steel is also suitable for laser annealing.
Deep laser engraving is commonly used for marking stainless steel. To get a deeper engraving, the marking speed of the laser will need to be reduced, and the power will need to be increased. After multiple passes over the stainless steel at various angles, a clean design will be produced.
An alternative way to mark stainless steel is to anneal it. Annealing is a kind of laser marking that is less intrusive to the material. Annealing is characterised by a low power application over a longer amount of time. When you anneal stainless steel, you melt it, but you don’t remove any material. That means the chromium oxide layer remains intact and continues to prevent stainless steel from rusting or corroding.
By annealing stainless steel, you expose it to relatively low heat over a long period of time. This process melts the material or substrate without removing the layer that protects it from oxidation or rust.
See our blog for a full laser etching and laser engraving comparison including stainless steel and other common metals.
What Kind of Laser Do You Need to Engrave Stainless Steel?
A fibre laser engraving machine is ideal for engraving stainless steel. A CO2 laser can also be used, but a marking solution must be applied to the surface beforehand. Many laser engraving contractors offer both laser options to achieve the client’s desired look.
Let’s look more closely at these two varieties of laser engraving technology and how they perform on stainless steel.
A CO2 laser is a gas laser. At its core, it typically uses carbon dioxide or helium-neon gas. As the older of the two methods, CO2 laser engraving is still in common use, but it is less efficient to run than a fibre laser.
A CO2 laser cutter can engrave wood, plastic, and metals, including stainless steel. However, a CO2 laser cannot engrave the metal directly as the laser beam reflects from the surface. In order to engrave stainless steel, the material must first be pre-treated with a marking solution such as CerMark or LaserBond.
This style of engraving is perfect for light surface etching, including engraving stainless steel jewellery and other personalised objects, as well as plaques and trophies.
Fibre laser machines are a more recent development in the industry, and are more efficient than CO2 lasers. Nowadays, this has become the preferred option to engrave or mark stainless steel. A fibre laser machine uses optical fibres dropped in rare earth elements (erbium, neodymium, thulium, praseodymium, etc.)
A fibre laser machine is more stable than a CO2 laser and very precise. Its power can range from 4kW to 15kW and even 20kW, a threshold much higher than that of a CO2 laser. For that reason, fibre lasers are more often used for industrial applications and large production runs, where efficiency and speed are critical.
How Much Does It Cost to Laser Engrave Stainless Steel?
The cost of laser engraving largely depends on the design you want, how big it is, and how many items you need to be engraved. For commercial and industrial laser engraving, time-based billing is often utilised, starting from around $250 per hour.
Most metal fabrication companies do not provide a general price for engraving stainless steel as the cost really varies too much. The most significant factor to consider when weighing up the cost of a laser engraving job is time and materials (ie. consumables used in the laser engraving process).
When it comes to laser engraving stainless steel, mosts businesses will calculate their price based on the following factors:
- Minimum charge
- Design charge
- Materials cost
- Number of items
Remember that the cost of engraving stainless steel will be unique to each project, so it’s best to request a quote from your chosen service provider.
Will Engraved Stainless Steel Rust?
It is a common concern that laser engraving will cause stainless steel to rust. However, as long as technicians utilise corrosion-resistant laser engraving techniques, then rusting should not be an issue.
Stainless steel has a thin layer of chromium oxide, protecting it from oxidation, corrosion, or rust. Regular laser engraving removes that chromium oxide, leaving the stainless steel underneath vulnerable to oxidation. That is why certain stainless steel products must undergo a treatment process or be coated to reduce damage or chemical reactivity.
Is Stainless Steel Good for Engraving?
How or where you use your engraved stainless steel will determine if laser engraving is the right choice. The fact that engraved stainless steel is used in a range of industries (medical, automotive, jewellery, etc.) can testify that it is indeed suitable for engraving.
As long as you or your service provider have the right equipment to engrave the stainless steel, it is a great product for laser engraving or laser marking.
Can Stainless Steel Be Laser Etched?
Yes, stainless steel can be laser etched. Laser etching is less invasive than engraving, meaning less material is removed in the process.
Graham Dawe is the Managing Director and Works Manager of Kanyana Engineering. With decades of experience in the metal fabrication industry, he is dedicated to keeping Kanyana at the forefront of the sector’s technological growth. Looking beyond the process itself to holistic, integrated CAD, CAM and MRP solutions, Graham believes Australian manufacturing has an enduring place on the global stage. In Kanyana Engineering’s state-of-the-art workshop in Mandurah, WA, Graham delivers an exceptional standard of work for commercial, industrial and government clients alike.