The Complete Guide to Laser Cutting Leather

Leather is gorgeous and I love it, but laser cutting it is a bit more complicated than cutting wood.

First of all, where do you even buy it? Does the thickness matter? What is this “veg-tanned” thing? Chrome-tanned? Is the smell normal? Help!

I answer all of these below, so lets dive in!

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Can You Laser Cut Leather?

Lets start with the most basic question – can leather even be laser cut? The short version is this:

Faux leathers cannot be laser cut. Real leathers may be able to be laser cut depending on the tanning process used. Veg-tanned leather can always be cut with a laser cutter, although it produces a terrible smell. Chrome-tanned leather cannot be cut but can be engraved, although there are some possible health concerns to keep in mind.

Veg-tanned and Chrome-tanned leather refers to the way the leather was processed. Veg-tanned was processed with tree tannins, is generally stiffer than chrome-tanned leather, and is safe to use in a laser cutter.

Chrome-tanned leather is processed with chromium and is a lot more complicated.

The Debate About Chrome-Tanned Leather

Most commercial leather is chrome-tanned. You couch? Chrome-tanned. Purse? Chrome-tanned. Wallet? Chrome-tanned.

So it would be really, really nice if chrome-tanned leather could be laser-cut. You could salvage old furniture fabric, add a custom design to a leather portfolio, or scavenge goodwill for low-priced leather jackets. So many possibilities.

Therefore, lots of people talk about it. And many people say that laser-cutting it releases deadly gasses.

But other people come back and say that’s the OLD way of tanning with hexavalent chromium. Trivalent chromium is safer and can be laser cut, and is the main way leather is tanned these days.

I have found zero reliable sources on any of this. All I can find are armchair experts spouting their questionable opinions on various laser-cutting forums.

(See here, here, here and here. This one is a little more legit, but doesn’t really talk about laser cutting at all. )

But truthfully, if we’re talking solely about cutting, this is all irrelevant, because chrome-tanned leather doesn’t actually laser cut very well. Check out my first attempt at these luggage tags:

Yeah. Chrome-tanned leather turns into bacon when you try to cut it. That’s the real problem.

Engraving is possible though, and looks really good in my opinion. The luggage tag ultimately looked like this:

In my opinion, engraving is where the real health debate comes in, since it can actually be done well.

I still don’t have any answers, but both the Glowforge Aura and the xTool M1 (my two machines) are fairly portable, so I take them outside if I’m cutting chrome-tanned leather.

(Special Legal Note: You do what is right for you. Lindsay Fay and/or A Butterfly House are not responsible for any harm or injury that comes from laser cutting leather or other materials.)

Buying Leather for Laser Cutting

What to Look For

Leather usually comes with a thickness rating, which is weirdly in ounces. I don’t get it, but I guess I don’t have to.

The thickness you want depends on your project, but generally the types of things you’d make with a craft laser cutter are probably less than 7 ounces. Here’s a quick list:

Wallets2-4 oz
Book Covers4-6 oz
Key Fobs2-4 oz
Luggage Tags2-4 oz
Bracelets2-4 oz
Dog Collars6-8 oz

As I talked about above, veg-tanned leather is best for laser cutting.

That said, chrome-tanned leather often comes in more colors. It’s also more pliable, and I find easier to work with. I accidently bought some (more below,) and despite the annoying safety concerns, don’t really regret it.

Where To Find Affordable Leather

Glowforge sells “proofgrade” leather on the “Materials” section of their website, which is a decent place to start if you’re nervous about your first project.

But it’s pricy and not necessarily better quality leather than you can buy elsewhere.

When I was looking for my first project (this planner cover,) I checked out both Joann Fabrics and the Tandy Leather store. Joann’s was out of my price range, even with a coupon.

I drove out to the nearest Tandy Leather and basically bought the cheapest leather they had that I thought would work. It still set me back $20 for the single piece, although that was better than $50, which seemed to be the other options.

But then I discovered Etsy. Or, more specifically, that various leather companies sell their scrap leather on Etsy.

And for the types of craft projects one would make with a laser cutter, the scrap pieces are perfect.

I started with FrogJelly Leather, and while I was happy with my shipment, they don’t seem to sell leather in 5 lb packages anymore. I paid $20 (in 2022,) which was a ridiculously good price that I don’t expect to see again.

I’ve used most of it, but this is what’s left.

I like buying larger amounts because I know I’ll use it eventually, and a larger shipment means I’m more likely to get what I want if I’m looking for something specific.

I then bought a 10 lb package from UCMLeatherPillows for roughly $50 in 2023, and the pieces I got were massive! I’d 100% buy from them again, but it was all chrome-tanned (I wasn’t thinking when I bought it.) We’ll see what I end up using in the coming months.

This wasn’t even half of it!

I’ll update if/when I buy more, but so far I’ve been really pleased with Etsy as a leather source. I wouldn’t hesitate to just go with the cheapest 5 or 10 lb option you can find.

How to Laser Cut Leather

Finding the Right Settings

Because leather comes in all different thicknesses, I can’t just say “here are your settings, off you go.”

Instead, you’re going to have to test what settings work best for your leather (and your machine.)

I generally start with the settings recommended by laser manufacturer. For example, on the Glowforge Aura, Glowforge provides the following settings for proofgrade leather:

Leather TypePowerSpeedPasses
“Thin Natural Leather”10331
“Medium Natural Leather”10331
“Thick Natural Leather10202

Yes, thin and medium appear to have the same settings. Ask Glowforge.

Either way, I’ll upload a star shape into the software, and print it using the recommended settings. If it doesn’t cut all the way through, I’ll lower the speed or add passes until I get the cut I want.

I use a star, because it’s a trickier cut than a circle or a square.

Sometimes a circle might cut all the way through but the star does not because of the corners. I want to make sure that any tricky parts of my project are cut correctly.

I error on the side of too powerful versus too weak for this same reason.

For engraving, almost any setting significantly weaker than your cut setting will work. I just use the “proofgrade” settings on the Glowforge Aura.

Printing Your Project

Once you’ve found your settings, the actual printing process is fairly straightforward. It smells terrible, even when using veg-tanned leather, so if you can cut outside that’s probably best.

Place your leather on the laser cutter bed. If it’s wavy and you’ve got enough space, you can secure it in place with little magnets (I like these,) just be sure that they’re well out of the way of where the laser will cut.

Alternatively, there are these little pin things that can hold your material in place in honeycomb bases, but you’ll have to print them first.

And then hit print!

Chrome-Tanned Leather

Because you can’t cut chrome-tanned leather with a laser cutter, I generally score any cut lines while I’m engraving my design.

Then I can come back with scissors/rotary cutter/box cutter and follow the scored lines. Way easier than trying to freehand the correct shape.

Granted, this only works when the shape is simple enough to be cut out by hand later. If you want to cut really complex shapes on chrome-tanned leather, I recommend checking out the xTool M1, which has a blade in addition to the laser.

You can check out how it stacks up to the Glowforge Aura here.

Some Easy Laser Cut Leather Projects

Ready to jump in? Here are some easy projects to get you started!

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