Lser cutters and engravers keep getting cheaper, which is why I decided to give it a shot. A few days later, I received the Atomstack A5. This is a 20 W laser engraver, not a cutter, although it can cut plywood up to four or five millimeters or so. Also, officially, it’s not suitable for metal, as it seems to be able to engrave aluminum alloys as well.
A5 is a kit of parts that you have to assemble yourself. It’s not very difficult, and all the tools it needs are included in the kit. These six steps will take about 30 minutes in total to complete, and you’ll have a good, sturdy assembly. It’s all solid aluminum with no plastic parts.
Make sure the seat belt is properly tightened. Not too tight, not too loose, you want a smooth glide. The same goes for the guide wheel in step 5. If it’s too tight, you might feel a click when moving the X-axis; if it’s too loose, things might start to wiggle. The laser head also has guide wheels, which may also need adjustment.
The software LaserGRBL that controls the Atomstack A5 20W is free. There’s also LightBurn, which isn’t free, but has a time-limited, fully-featured free trial. Once you get the hang of your engraving machine, you might want to give it a try.
The installation manual included with the kit does not explain how to use the engraver, nor does the Atomstack website. The LaserGRBL tool, by the way, is an open source tool developed by arkypita, not related to Atomstack, it helps itself, but also doesn’t provide real guidance. Instead of searching YouTube for tutorials, I decided to try and solve the problem myself.
After connecting the A5 to my Windows 10 computer, I noticed that it requires a CH340 USB-to-serial converter driver. However, you don’t have to search for it online, as it’s conveniently included in LaserGRBL’s Tools menu.
There is also an option to upload firmware, which is possible because the Atomstack control hardware is actually a custom Arduino running the popular open source g-code interpreter GRBL. That’s great news for manufacturers and hackers, as there’s nothing proprietary inside the A5.
As a first attempt, I repeated the plywood cutting benchmark shown in the video on the LaserGRBL website. I loaded the example graph in LaserGRBL and hit the play button. After a few minutes, I cut out a circle (along with some plastic sample material) from a small piece of plywood included in the A5 kit.
Engraving an image on a piece of wood is a bit difficult. Engraving is easy to get started, but getting something right takes practice and experimentation. However, after a few bad and burnt sculpts, I managed to get a clean result.
The trick is to consult the materials database built into LaserGRBL. It has a section on the Atomstack A5 20W that recommends setting the laser power to 28% for the wood. Using this value with constant power instead of dynamic power produces beautiful results. Also, it is important to focus the laser by moving the head up and down.
I highly recommend doing all this in a well-ventilated room, or better yet, outside (as I do). Laser engraving works by burning the material, so there are various toxic levels of fumes that you don’t want to breathe in. Also, please wear goggles!
The Atomstack A5 Laser Engraver is a complete kit that includes tools, green goggles, and even some sample materials for practice. Assembling this kit is easy and, if done correctly, results in a sturdy, sturdy tool with smooth sliding X and Y axes and a stable head.
Adjusting the height of the head might be a little more comfortable, but probably not at this price point, and the fan is a bit noisy.
The A5 relies on Arduino and third-party open source software to control it, so by adopting the A5, you’re not stuck in half-baked buggy programs that will never be updated. The software is easy to use and you can start sculpting right away.