Guide to Understanding Laser, Plasma, and Water-Jet Cutting in Design

Laser cutting and its fellow industrial cousins, plasma cutting and water-jet cutting, might sound inaccessible and intimidating, but these high-tech methods can produce unique etchings and patterns for a wide range of design applications.
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A lamp by Julia Lohmann is made out of seaweed, a delicate material that's a good match for intricate cuts made by a laser cutter.

It’s no surprise: the relationship between design and production processes is a feedback loop where innovations in design inspires new methods of manufacturing, and vice versa. Among the more commonly known industrial techniques used today are laser cutting, plasma cutting, and water-jet cutting, which are all used to puncture through various materials to create pieces as large as fences and awnings, or as small and precise as furniture and light fixtures—often in shapes and forms that would have been nearly impossible if it weren't for these technological advances.

A balcony of steel panels with unusual cutouts creates a unique balcony on this weathered-steel home.

Although laser cutting is probably the treatment you’ve heard of most, each of the methods is distinct in its approach, abilities, and results. Of the three methods, plasma and water-jet cutting are actually the oldest, first used in the 1950s, with laser cutting followed as a means of cutting through materials in 1965. But it isn’t until recently that they’ve become more common in architectural design. What’s more, is that most of these methods were initially used manually by hand, but today, they're most often carried out through specialized software and 2-D or 3-D machining heads, allowing designs to grow more and more complex as technology develops.

Architect Janna Levitt laser cut an astral pattern into the garage door of this renovated Toronto home, installing LED lights behind the fiber-cement surface to complete her depiction of the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpio.

Laser Cutting

To start, laser cutting, as its name implies, uses a laser beam that’s been directed through mirrors to create enough heat that the material burns or melts away, resulting in a piece that's been cut with a clean, smooth edge. Although it was originally used in industrial settings, it’s now being applied in different environments by a range of individuals, from hobbyists to students.

A trademark facade of laser-cut Cor-Ten steel marks The Wyckoff Exchange, a former abandoned warehouse in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. The panels are laser cut with a dynamic gradient pattern and internally illuminated by concealed LED lighting to create a dramatic building facade.

Laser cutting is ideal for thinner materials like fabric and paper, as well as other materials that are under a certain thickness, like plexiglass, wood, ceramic, rubber, and certain types of metal. It produces pieces that are precisely and quickly cut, with a high degree of detail possible. Settings for the laser cutter can also be developed so that it creates etchings of different depths rather than cleanly cutting through a piece. This results in a wide range of possible effects—from surface patterns to punctured designs—on a range of materials.

A copper-plated finish coats this counter stool by Blu Dot, which ships flat and folds along laser-cut lines to create a dynamic chair. 

Plasma Cutting

Plasm-arc cutting, also known as plasma cutting, essentially consists of using an accelerated jet of hot plasma to cut through materials that conduct electricity. These materials, including stainless steel, aluminum, and copper, typically can’t be cut using a flame, so alternate methods of slicing have been developed.

Plasma-cut aluminum panels cover a rear facade of a home in San Francisco.

Plasma cutting requires specific protection against the high temperatures, energy radiation, fumes, and smoke that it produces, and it’s often used everywhere from fabrication shops to salvage and scrapping operations. Today, it’s often done mechanically with a CNC mill rather than by hand, especially for large-scale jobs.

A bicylce rack called "Koi" by Juliet Whelan is made from stainless steel and was inspired by "the lazy fluidity of koi in a pond," Whelan says. 

Kister Scheithauer Gross Architects designed a laser jet-cut Star of David pattern for the facade, which creates a corner window in the sacral room housing the Torah. 

Water-Jet Cutting

Water-jet cutting is another commonly used industrial tool. It uses a jet of high-pressure water to cut through materials like wood or rubber, or, when mixed with an abrasive, to cut through harder materials like metal or granite. Water-jet cutting is known for being a "finish cut," that is, it has a smooth, sandblasted finish that's free of chips, burned edges, jagged edges, or burrs. Plus, it doesn’t need to be finished with sandpaper after a cut. 

In a renovation of an existing farmhouse, a hanging screen composed of aluminum circles and lines, cut with a CNC water jet, separates the entry from the staircase and rear kitchen area.

One advantage of water-jet cutting is that it works well on materials that are sensitive to high temperatures, because it doesn’t require the high heat of plasma cutting, for example. This means that it doesn’t change the inherent molecular structure of a material, potentially weakening it. Because of this, water-jet cutting is often used in the fabrication of machine parts and pieces that might need intricate cuts, but also need to maintain their material strength and integrity. 

A custom-cut steel awning with a perforated pattern casts shade on a glazed wall.



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