When Glowforge CEO Dan Shapiro told me that the Aura “just works,” I was skeptical. As someone who owns a vinyl cutter, I’ve long had to deal with picking out the right materials, making sure the machine has the right blade, and creating my own designs. I was expecting a similar level of legwork (minus the vinyl) when the Glowforge Aura arrived on my doorstep — but it proved me wrong.
At $1,199, the Glowforge Aura sits on the higher end of the entry-level laser cutter price range. However, it makes up for that by making laser cutting and engraving a ridiculously simple task. While Glowforge doesn’t market it as such, the Aura is a CNC (computer numerical control) machine that uses a laser to make precise cuts and engravings based on information that gets fed through its accompanying software.
Like Glowforge’s more expensive models, the Glowforge Aura can slice and dice through hundreds of different materials, including wood, acrylic, leather, paper, rubber, cardstock, and a whole lot more. But with a price that’s several thousand dollars less than the $6,995 Glowforge Pro and the $4,995 Glowforge Plus, it comes with some limitations, including a smaller, 12 x 12-inch cutting area and a 1/4-inch depth limit when cutting (or 3/4-inch for engraving) that makes it more difficult to work with large, thick sheets of material. Both of Glowforge’s premium models, on the other hand, let you cut materials up to 18 inches wide and half an inch thick and also come with a Pro Passthrough slot that lets material hang outside the cutting area for oversized projects.
Another drawback is that the Glowforge Aura comes with a weaker 6W diode laser as opposed to the 40W CO2 laser in the Glowforge Plus and the 45W CO2 laser in the Glowforge Pro. The stronger CO2 lasers allow Glowforge’s premium printers to cut and engrave at a much faster rate when compared to the Aura. They’re also able to cut through transparent and translucent materials, something the Glowforge Aura can’t do because its diode laser emits a blue light that will pass through the material without scoring it.
When a laser cuts or engraves material, it emits fumes that could be harmful to your health. That’s why, for this review, I used the Aura alongside Glowforge’s personal air filter, which the company sells separately for $399. The filter combines HEPA and carbon filtration technology to purify the Aura’s exhaust. You don’t have to purchase the filter if you don’t want to spend the extra money — the Aura comes with a ventilation hose that you can place outside of a window instead.
Setting everything up was simple: I popped the Aura’s laser into place using the built-in magnet and then slid in the crumb tray that catches excess material. From there, I connected the cutter’s ventilation hose to the Personal Filter. The machine and filter were much bigger than I had anticipated. At 20.5 inches long and 22 inches wide, the Aura just barely fit on my desk, so I opted to put it atop my coffee table alongside the air filter, which is about the size of a small desktop tower.
After connecting the Aura to Wi-Fi (you can’t print without an internet connection), I was ready to start crafting. You control the Aura through Glowforge’s web app — there aren’t any controls on the machine itself besides the big, glowing button that you press when you’re ready to cut or engrave something. The same goes for the Personal Filter. Both devices shut on and off automatically, although you can always just unplug them when you’re done.
I sourced the majority of my test projects from the catalog of readymade designs on Glowforge’s website. Outside of a few free designs, individual projects cost between $0.99 and $19.99 (excluding materials). Or you can subscribe to Glowforge Premium, which costs $50 per month (adding up to $600 annually) and gives you unlimited access to most of the paid designs. If that sounds like a lot, Glowforge also offers a discounted annual subscription that costs $239 when paid upfront. At the time of testing, Glowforge’s website listed 2,789 Aura-compatible projects, of which 2,727 are “Free with Premium.”
For my first cut, I started out small. I created a Glowforge gift box by putting regular copy paper into the machine, affixing some masking tape to its side (per Glowforge’s instructions), and shutting the lid on the Aura. The machine comes with a camera on the inside of its lid and takes a picture each time you close it. An image of the paper immediately surfaced on Glowforge’s web interface, with a flattened outline of the giftbox superimposed on its image. I dragged the design around to make sure it all fit, entered printer paper as my material, and hit the big button on the machine to start cutting.
You can comfortably watch the laser do its job thanks to the orange-tinted lid on the Aura, and it’s pretty cool to watch. The Aura took about 12 minutes to cut out the design, which I found a bit long given that it was just slicing standard copy paper. What interested me, though, is that the Aura is also capable of lightly scoring the paper as well, which created lines that made it easier for me to fold the paper into a box shape. I didn’t just use the machine with paper, though — I got a chance to try out a few different types of woods from Glowforge’s line of Proofgrade materials, as well as sheets of black and red opaque acrylic.
Glowforge advises that you use its own Proofgrade materials, which are designed specifically for the company’s laser cutters. According to Glowforge, using materials from other sources — especially if you don’t know the ingredients in them — can increase the risk of the material catching fire or emitting hazardous smoke that the machine can’t properly filter out. While Glowforge does have a point here, that doesn’t mean you should shy away from using non-Proofgrade materials completely. There are dozens of cheaper, non-Proofgrade materials you can use, too, you just have to make sure they won’t damage your laser and don’t contain harmful chemicals. For example, this 24-pack of 12” x 12” x 1/8” basswood sheets on Amazon costs $35.99, while Glowforge’s Proofgrade 12” x 12” x 3/25” black acrylic costs $19.99 for a single piece.
There are some advantages to using Proofgrade material. For one, they come masked — meaning a layer of tape covers the material’s surface to prevent burn marks during the cutting process. And QR codes printed on the tape let the Aura determine which material you’ve loaded inside the cutter. This means the type of material should automatically surface in Glowforge’s web app once you’ve closed the lid. You don’t get this with non-Proofgrade materials, so you’ll have to manually input your cutting settings. Fortunately, the Glowforge community has compiled a list of non-Proofgrade materials and recommended settings here, although it seems that they’re not yet optimized for the Glowforge Aura.
As someone who helped run a small Etsy shop that involved designing, cutting, and shipping decals for cars, walls, water bottles, and other surfaces, I was hoping to break out a roll of vinyl to see how the Aura fared as a cutter. However, I was a bit disappointed to learn that you actually can’t cut most types of vinyl with laser cutters — not only can the material harm your laser, but they also produce gas that’s harmful to your health when heated up. That said, there are some types of laser-safe vinyl, but I just didn’t have any on hand.
After using the laser for a while, I learned that cutting and engraving materials other than paper tends to take a pretty long time. I had the chance to try out a few different designs with varying levels of detail, including a phone holder, a pair of earrings, an earrings stand, and a set of coasters. I made all this using Proofgrade hardwood materials, with the more intricately designed earrings taking around 45 minutes to carve out. I even cut out The Verge’s logo on acrylic with a design I hastily put together in Glowforge’s web app.
A word of advice: if you’re going to create your own designs, you’re better off doing it in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Gimp, or some other image editing software. Glowforge’s web app has only basic tools that you’ll need a Premium subscription to access, including the ability to create lines and shapes or add text — and even that is tedious. Luckily, Glowforge’s web app accepts all different types of files, including JPG, PNG, SVG, and PDF, making images easy to import from separate apps. There’s also the Premium-only AI text-to-image generator, called Magic Canvas, but the designs it outputs aren’t all that useful, as there are just some things AI just can’t generate yet (e.g., hands).
Just because the Aura is pretty easy to use doesn’t mean there isn’t any maintenance involved. I found myself having to gather all the small bits of leftover wood, paper, and acrylic that fell through the holes in the crumb tray. The crumb tray itself also got pretty burned up after several uses, but it wasn’t something that a wet paper towel couldn’t fix. I also found that despite using the Personal Filter, the Aura still does produce a vague burning smell when cutting or etching wood, so you might want to open up a window while you’re using it. Oh, and that’s another thing you’ll have to maintain: Glowforge says its Personal Filter cartridges can last for up to 100 hours of printing, and they cost a hefty $135 to replace.
There are other machines out there at similar prices, like the $1,499 xTool M1 10w laser engraver, which also comes with a blade for cutting vinyl, as well as the $1,199 Creality Falcon2, which features a 22W laser on an open frame. While I haven’t had the chance to try out either of these cutters myself, neither cutter comes with the same deep design catalog as the Glowforge, making them slightly less friendly to beginners. However, xTool still offers a gallery of community-sourced designs, and there are plenty of other third-party design sites, like 3axis.co and Ponoko. But their more powerful lasers still give both devices a leg up on the Aura.
Either way, the Glowforge Aura makes up for its hefty price tag with its ease of use. It’s a great machine if you’re just starting out with laser cutting and are looking to use the cutter as a hobby or to make crafts for a small Etsy shop. But if you’re not willing to fork out $1,199 for a machine that’s less powerful than some other machines in its price range — along with an extra $50 per month for access to readymade designs — the Aura might not be the best cutter for you.
Update September 29th, 5:38PM ET: Added information about Glowforge’s discounted annual plan.