Most suppliers I use for laserable materials ship those materials with transfer tape applied to either one or both sides. I didn’t really learn to appreciate this until I made a bulk order of melamine-coated MDF from a large home improvement chain; they don’t assume you’re going to be firing a laser at their product so they ship the boards without that kind of protection. I did some lazy-bones “research” and determined that my own roll of transfer tape was too expensive, so I tried to use the material without any. Unfortunately, the MDF is 1/8″, too thick to cut with a laser without some serious scorching. That scorching meant surfaces too damaged to be presentable, so I sorted the stacks of MDF to the back of my materials pile and left it to collect dust.
Jen, awesomeness incarnate, did some proper actual research and discovered the right roll of tape at the right price. Our very first very own transfer tape roll arrived, and it was glorious. I pulled out some gray melamine MDF and whipped up a design I’d been thinking about for a while: a number pad. I’ve been a little obsessed with Clarendon lately thanks to some flyer design at work, and its numerals fit so well! Design finished, I applied some transfer tape to both sides, totally overdoing it by using a brayer and everything, and left one section without tape so I could show off the difference.
I use a manual air assist solution with my laser, which means I hook up an air compressor though an accessory that funnels said air through the laser’s path. This prevents a lot of scorching when cutting any materials, but is almost essential when cutting thicker woods as the heat can build up and wood can actually catch on fire if you’re not paying attention. For all it’s worth, it still can’t completely prevent scorched edges. With the air assist active during the entire cut, I cut four sets of numerals, one completely nude. The transfer tape did its job, shielding the melamine surfaces front and back from the laser’s super crazy heat.
The back surface in particular is a mess. The air assist does a great job of pushing all of the heat downward as the laser lases, keeping the surface mostly clean. However, the somewhat dirty downdraft cutting table—that’s the metal honeycomb pattern you’re seeing—and all that air being pushed around means the back face gets pretty grimy. It’s a huge pain cleaning that much sticky woodish residue off of any surface, let alone one with many curved edges that you don’t want to get wet.
That’s not the half of it, though! When I’m removing the cut pieces from the remaining material, every charred edge is full of soot that adheres to the nearest finger, tool and surface. It’s so much happier a process when I don’t have to daintily handle each piece while wiping down the sides to avoid dirtying the surfaces. With the transfer tape applied, I just brush the soot away, care not where it mars the taped surface, and then peel it all away!
The biggest issue, though, isn’t just a matter of inconvenience when finishing laser-cut products. Even after all of the cleaning is done, the laser just does too much damage to the tapeless surface. It might not be a big deal to some people, but the kind of surface damage seen below drives me crazy, so I couldn’t think of selling that to someone else (via Abecediary on Etsy).
There are so many ways to use transfer tape beyond protecting a material’s surface from the laser beam’s blast. I’ve used transfer paper in the past to etch various designs into acrylic surfaces to prevent discoloration, even if that can mean hundreds of tiny little paper Tetris pieces to peel. I have yet to laser-cut vinyl, so I’m not really that knowledgeable when it comes to using transfer tape to keep discrete vinyl bits aligned properly when applying them to something. Those are just two examples; if you’ve worked with transfer tape before—with lasers or otherwise—let me know in the comments below and share your own examples!