Darker Engraves without Borax?

Just wondering if anyone has any tips on getting a darker engrave on plywood (I’m using Baltic birch) without using Borax (which more or less turns out BLACK, too dark for my taste… as well as smears)?

The plywood I’m using doesn’t have an MDF core like PG wood, so my engraves are more or less turning out tanned (trying to avoid the sticky soot of MDF).

In general, in terms of settings:

Slower = darker
Higher lpi = darker
Higher power = darker

So the darkest possible is slow, hot and high lpi, but there are limits here; go slow and hot enough and you’ll burn straight through.

Also with plywoods the deeper you go means you hit new layers which can change the look of your piece in unexpected ways. Each of these factors that improve contrast also lead to deeper engraves, which may not be what you’re hoping for.

Beyond settings, understanding raster image prep principles and how to use curves to maximize dynamic range of your image can really improve the final result. If you’re not familiar you might want to check out #9:

And lastly, materials matter a great deal. For example, Baltic birch doesn’t engrave nearly as dark as cork, mahogany, maple, basswood etc. It might be worth it to find a more suitable wood species.


Trying to do pyrography with a laser is a lot like using a drill to carve wood. Lots of folk try to go there and it is very fast, and a laser is even precise in the outlines, but control over the color from barely scorched to charcoal is a very tiny part of the range that the laser uses. You can use dots in the way that a newspaper does where every dot is black, but the density of the dots your eye will interpret as shades of gray. And there a very high LPI will make the dots very small and thus show more detail but it will not be mistaken for pyrology.

You can try other reagents to react with the wood as long as they do not create gasses that will eat your electronics, or your lungs. I have seen vinegar suggested but chlorides, fluorides, or nitrides are a no-no.

The variable power mode is not so much for pyrology as for semi 3d relief carving such as this…

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this is your real answer. the right species of wood will make a huge difference. and even subspecies. i have had some walnut that engraves much darker than other varieties of walnut.

this is my theory. the more “resin” a species has, but more likely it is to engrave darker. and you’ll really see that if you mask and cut. more 'resiny" species leave a much darker, stickier residue on the masking. and, probably not coincidentally, those tend to be the ones that engrave darker.


I thought about applying oil to a wood before engraving to see if that increased color, but never got around to it. The thinking was along of the lines of your resin idea, if the oil can penetrate the wood fibers and polymerize somehow maybe I’d see increased contrast.

It’s an easy thing to test: oil half a board and then engrave on it, see if they look different. Just lazy I guess :slight_smile:


you might want something with a thicker consistency. maybe a wax? multiple layers allowed to soak in. i do have the feed’n’wax, and i need to buy a new tub of johnsons paste wax for a table of ours. maybe a small experiment is warranted.


I knew you were the right person to talk to about this :slight_smile:


I just happen to have a supply of carnauba wax, pine resin, beeswax, and Citra Solv. Hmmmmm…


i have some paste beeswax arriving tomorrow, feed’n’wax (which is more liquid), and walnut oil. that would get us at least 6 options between us.

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I’ve got feed n’wax, briwax, danish oil, mineral oil, polyurethane and maybe one or two other finishes.

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This guy says that defocusing on wood can get darker engraves too. Kind of makes sense, you’re overlapping the engrave passes, sort of like increasing lpi but without the time penalty of multiple passes.


I did actually try this… engraved at 3mm difference and it didn’t improve the contrast. Besides, the stuff I’m engraving is HIGHLY detailed, so this really wasn’t gonna work for me anyway.

I’ve more or less tried everything I can… and I do wanna stick with birch because of price and the fact that it doesn’t have an MDF core so I can stop gunking up my machine, heh.

I’m gonna try staining/sealing an engrave before removing masking… and then some light sanding. I know it’ll work, but the process is what concerns me.

I might fiddle with double engraving with a second pass that’s reduced power just to darken, but one of my sheets gets me 2.5 sets of coasters, but takes 5 hours with ONE pass of engraving at 1000 speed, lol.

I wanna just use a translucent stain that also seals in one go. Minwax Polyshade seems to be the best solution, even better that there’s an aerosol version, but the color/finish I want is gone EVERYWHERE. Any thoughts of using it through a spray bottle without clogging the thing after a single use?

The hope is engrave/cut, spray and leave it for 6 hours (over night), duct tape the masking away and light sanding with 400 grit… and compressed air or just use my airbrush to blow away dust.

Just up the price of your final products to reflect the more expensive materials.

If you spend 200% on nicer materials and then charge 3x as much for the final product, you can sell half as many and make a better profit margin with significantly less time.

The market is saturated with inexpensive coasters, maybe it’s time to leverage the custom angle instead of joining the race to the bottom on price?

Inexpensive cork ikea coasters:


Hardwood maple:

Or if you want to make and sell lots of less expensive sets, go even cheaper, with paper:

Bonus there is that you could laser up a stamp and use the stamp to “letterpress” the paper coasters.

Anyway there are a million approaches to these things. I’m sure you’ll find a process that works for you.


When I’ve had to engrave Baltic birch, I always mask and then dab some wood stain with a sponge brush (sparingly!) before removing the masking. If I’m looking for a non wood color color I’ll use Gilders Paste instead.

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This won’t work for me, unfortunately. The main stuff I sell on etsy is geared towards board gaming/table top gaming and they’re already priced kinda’ high for what they are.

Wyrmwood gaming would like a word with you:

As would many other higher-end gaming companies. There’s definitely a market for luxury gaming goods.

Dice trays and towers and other accessories in particular are definitely possible to make with a Glowforge. Custom higher end coasters are a relatively unexplored gaming accessory.

Of course you know your target market better than anyone, so I wish you luck in finding a better way to get contrast on your bb ply. :slight_smile:


this is one thing that is so hard for businesses to adjust to. and i totally get it. my BIL used to run his own computer consulting business. and as he started getting more business clients to balance out his residential clients, the residential clients became more of an issue for him. very time consuming for less consistent money (not to mention a lot of people trying to guilt him into accepting less money for his work). i kept telling him, you need to fire bad clients. you can do it by raising your rates. if you change from $25/hr to $40/hr, the bad customers will fire themselves and you work 25 hrs a week to make the same money you made working 40 hrs a week before (which leaves you 15 hrs to go find more good paying customers).

but it’s really tough to give up the customers you currently have in the higher volume/lower cost model to move into the lower volume/higher cost model.

not saying that’s where the OP is, just a very general comment about different business models.


Yes, wyrmwood uses some high quality stuff, but I don’t have a C&C machine nor embed magnets, let alone inlays and line my stuff with felt. =) For what I make and design? I think I’m in the top levels of acceptable pricing, haha.

I would be very careful with any waxes or oils as they will flame up much easier.

That’s what I use on birch plywood. Mission Oak gives a nice even dark color.

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