What Kind of File Do You Need for Laser Cutting? | All About Vectors, Raster Files & More

When it comes to laser cutting, the design possibilities are almost endless. However, it’s not as simple as using any old design you find on your computer. 

Every design needs to be in a file format that is compatible with a laser cutter’s numerical control system, and there are a lot of image formats out there to choose from. So before you get started on your laser cutting project, you must ensure all your designs are in the correct digital format.

When laser cutting, you can choose between several file options such as CAD or 3D designs for your shapes and models or vector files for your engraving. Both files are digital and built with mathematical formulas, with the only difference being their utility.

If your laser cutting contractor also provides CAD design services, you won’t have to worry about putting a file together yourself. However, if you’re taking a DIY approach, you’ll need to know which file types are compatible with laser cutting machines. 

You can learn how and when to use these files through the course of this article and discover everything you need to know about these standard laser cutting files. So stick around until the end to learn more.

What Kind of File Do You Need for Laser Cutting?

You have several file options when it comes to laser cutting, and each file type serves a specific purpose. Depending on the job, you will need to work with vector files, CAD and 3D design files, and sometimes a raster file.

Each file has a specific purpose. For example, vector files are best for laser engraving. While raster files and vector files share many similarities, a key difference is that raster files are made up of pixels. On the other hand, vector files are composed of lines and dots, allowing vector files to have higher image quality than raster files, especially when enlarged or zoomed in.

The use of CAD and 3D files differs more, however. These files are far more technical since they are used to create complex 2D and 3D laser cutting models. Continue reading for a more in-depth explanation of each of these file types.

Vector Files

A vector file is an image made up of dots and lines. A vector file is designed to follow lines and curves to cut lines and other complex shapes in laser cutting and engraving. 

Think of vector files as a map or GPS that commands your laser engraving machine to follow a distinct path. Because they are made with dots and calculations, the resolution does not affect the quality, meaning you can adjust the image without compromising the outcome. 

Vector files usually come in these formats:

  • SVG or Scalable Vector Graphics – You can infinitely adjust the size of these vector file formats without compromising the clarity of the image or the outcome of the laser cutting project. 
  • CDR or Coreldraw file- You can use software like CorelDraw and other Corel applications to create images with this particular vector file.
  • AI or Adobe Illustrator FileAdobe Illustrator files are the most common type of vector file used for laser cutting. However, some of its more typical applications are for creating logos, graphics, and other shapes and designs. 

Raster Files

Raster files, also known as bitmaps, are made with pixels to create images for computer screens or paper—meaning the resolution will affect the clarity. Zooming in on a raster image will decrease its resolution, making it more suitable for laser etching than cutting. 

Some of the common raster file formats are:

  • BMP or Bitmap Image- This format is one of the most common raster files for laser etching. As the name suggests, it serves as a map to guide your laser machine when etching graphics on materials. However, the quality of the output might decrease, depending on its resolution—and the same goes for most raster file formats.
  • GIF or Graphics Interchange Format- GIFS are now a constantly moving slideshow of photos you can find on your computer. The original purpose of GIFs was to create moving or animated images—it just so happens that you can also use them as a guide for laser etching. 
  • JPEG or Joint Photographic Expert Group– A JPEG is probably the most common image file for any use. However, a raster JPEG image compresses, which leads to quality loss. 
  • TIFF or Tagged Image File Format- This file format supports Adobe Photoshop’s features. It is probably the best format for raster files— its low-loss compression makes it widely popular for commercial printing services.
  • PNG or Portable Network Graphics- A PNG file is better than GIFs because of its 48-bit colour option and the advantage of images with higher resolution. 

If you have to choose between raster files for engraving, TIFF would probably be the best option due to its higher quality and lossless compression over the other file formats listed. 

CAD & 3D Files

CAD or computer-aided design files allow you to create more complex 2D and 3D designs with your laser cutter. CAD files are like vectors in terms of quality and mathematical formulas. They are, however, much more complicated and technical because of the complex designs these files can create. 

To generate a CAD file when designing a 2D or 3D model, you can use software, such as:

As for the file formats, CAD & 3D files come in:

  • DWG or Drawing – You can use this CAD vector file for creating 2D and 3D designs in different shapes and sizes.
  • DXF or Drawing Exchange Format – This format is the most popular option, which is trusted by the best CAD app – AutoCAD DXF. Autodesk creates a DXF file, which enables laser cutting machines to create mechanical parts and metal fabrication projects. 

Compound Files

Compound files are formats you can use to store both vector and raster files. Compound file formats include:

  • PDF or Portable Document Format – A PDF can store vector or raster files, depending on the software you are using. 
  • EPS or Encapsulated PostScript- This graphic file image in the Adobe Illustrator software is commonly used to create 2D vector images. Because it can also store Bitmap images and text, it is also suitable for storing raster files. 

How Do You Create a Laser-Cut File?

Depending on your level of expertise, you may be able to prepare files yourself for laser cutting, or you may choose to hire a professional to do so for you. 

When preparing a laser cut file, you need to choose whether you want to create a complex design or a simple laser cutting.

Using raster files would probably be the most straightforward option for beginners, since you can either download, sketch, scan, or take a photo of the image you want to use and load the image into your preferred software. Then, you will need to set the greyscale level to determine the strength of the engraving—and remember, the darker the image, the higher the engraving strength. Lastly, you need to save the file in your desired format. 

Also remember that text engraving should be converted into outlines, so the laser can follow a clearer path when engraving the line.

Alternatively, you can engage a professional CAD service to create your choice of design or model. 

Types of Lines in Laser Cutting Vectors

Before we go through the different lines when laser cutting using a vector file, you need to know how to identify and differentiate a vector file vs a raster file. Although they are similar in nature, a few key factors make it easy to identify a vector file based on the file type and the image quality.

The Vector Cut- Red Lines

The vector cut can precisely slice through wood and other materials to create shapes and text for signs. For example, if you create the image, the red lines would program the laser cutter to cut through the materials, creating an outline. 

When creating a vector cut, make sure that the red lines join up to make it easier for the cutter to follow the direction—especially for complex designs with shapes, tight curves, and circles. You should avoid creating broken or segmented lines because the laser cutter will take longer to figure out the patterns.

Also, avoid having the red lines in your file overlapping with each other because the laser cutter will go through the line twice, which can cause burning and longer cutting times. 

The Raster Etch- Black Lines

To create etches of lines and different strokes, you must use black lines and shades for a raster file. When a laser cutter etches, it moves back and forth lightly to avoid cutting through the material. As a result, raster engraving can be done on both sides, which is ideal for certain designs or products. 

Using vector etching might be quicker, but raster etching is still necessary to create light designs. Make sure you shade the area and draw the lines with black so that the machine can identify what it needs to do. 

The Vector Etch- Blue Lines

When laser cutting with vector files, you can also etch rather than cut through the object. Normally, a raster can be used for etching, but vector etching is much faster and more precise. In addition, vector etching can produce thinner lines for more detailed designs than raster etching. The corresponding colour for creating vector etches is blue. 

Etching & Cutting

You can get creative by mixing cutting and etching into one design. All you need to do is edit the lines to the corresponding colour. For example, if it is a vector etch, make sure the lines are blue. If it is a raster etch, make the lines black. And finally, if it is for vector cutting, make the lines red. 

The different colours program the laser cutter, so it knows what to do. And keep in mind that for mixed vector cutting, the file needs to be in an SVG format.

Vector File FAQs

What Is a Vector File?

A vector file is an image made of mathematical formulas to guide a laser cutter into following specific patterns, lines, shapes, and cut sizes. They are made of dots and lines that are not pixel-based, meaning the resolution isn’t compromised when you resize the image. You can use vector files for precise laser cutting, etching, and engraving. 

Vector File Formats

The common vector file formats are AI, CDR, and SVG. However, you can also save vector files as PDFs and EPS – which are not only used for vectors. 

How Can I Tell if My File Is a Vector File?

Some file formats are specific to vectors, so there would be no problem identifying the file there. However, for compound file types that can store files that are not vectors, such as AI, SVG, DXF, PDF, and EPS—you can tell if it’s a vector file by reshaping the image. For example, if you can see that the image is pixelated when zoomed in or stretched—it is not a vector file. 

What Software Can I Use to Create a Vector File?

You can create vector files using Adobe Illustrator, Corel Draw, AutoCAD, Draftsight, and Inkscape. Each application is equally capable of creating vector files, so it comes down to personal preference when deciding which to use. 

Who Can Create a Vector File for Me?

If you have the knowledge and experience working with software, such as Adobe Illustrator and AutoCAD, you can probably create the vector files yourself. However, it is always better to contact a professional laser cutting service, such as Kanyana Engineering, to ensure that the vectors are precise.

Raster File FAQs

What Is a Raster File?

A raster file is quite similar to a vector file. However, instead of being made of high-resolution dots, raster files are composed of pixels similar to the images taken by a photo camera. Because raster files are not of the same quality as vectors, they are most commonly used for laser etching instead of cutting and engraving. It also takes longer for the laser cutter to follow a raster file or bitmap image. 

Raster File Formats

Common raster file formats include JPEG, GIF, BMP, TIFF, PNG, and sometimes PDF. These are the most common files you’ll come across when taking photos with a camera or smartphone, so you’re probably familiar with them.

What Software Can I Use to Create a Raster File?

Since raster images are just your typical image files, you can use programs like Photoshop to create and prepare raster files.

Who Can Create a Raster File for Me?

To ensure the highest quality, professionals typically use vectors rather than raster files. But if you need to use a raster file for laser engraving, you can also hire a design and laser cutting service to create and prepare a raster file for you. But we suggest using vector files since it is more precise, faster, and it can also do the raster etch. 

CAD & 3D Design File FAQs

What Is a CAD File?

CAD files are similar to vectors. Therefore, the quality of the images is not affected if you adjust the image’s size to your preference. Likewise, the quality of the laser cut will not be impacted, allowing you to resize, zoom, and adjust the images freely. 

CADs are more complex than vectors since they are detailed 2D and 3D models—making them more difficult to prepare if you don’t have the experience. 

CAD File Formats

The common CAD file formats are DWG and DXF. CAD software is needed to create these files, which is far more complicated to use than Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator.

What Software Can I Use to Create a CAD File?

The most popular software for creating CAD files is AutoCAD. However, other software is cheaper or free, such as FreeCAD, TinkerCAD, Solidworks, DraftSight, Fusion 360, and many more.

Who Can Create a CAD File for Me?

Since CAD files are difficult to create, we recommend hiring a professional to create a CAD file for your project. Learning how to make CAD files and using AutoCAD software is a specialised skill, and you need someone especienced in modelling for laser cutting.

A design-and-fabrication company such as Kanyana Engineering can take care of the entire process. A laser cutting workshop with design capabilities can prepare the necessary files for laser cutting, laser engraving, and prototype production. 

Read more about our prototyping & CAD services and laser cutting capabilities


This article is published in good faith and for general informational purposes only. Kanyana Engineering does not make any warranties about the ongoing completeness and reliability of this information. Always seek specific advice on your metal fabrication project to ensure all variables are taken into consideration.