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Laser Engraving & Cutting

A guide to PPLD's laser engravers/cutters

What is Vectorization?

Vectorization is the process of converting a raster image into a vector line by having a computer program "trace" the image and automatically create vector lines.

Most programs that can work with vector lines have methods for doing this automatically, however they all function differently and some images will work better in one program over others.

Vectorization concept

Generally speaking, black and white images are the easiest to vectorize, as all the program has to do is draw a line along the border between any black and white pixels.

Images with more complex color schemes can still be vectorized, however you will have to tell the program more information about how to determine where the lines are drawn. Also, be aware that with highly complex images (such a photographs) it may not be possible to have a program handle the vectorization automatically.

How to Vectorize

Each of the following guides assumes that you have a basic understanding of how the software works. Please see the Design Software page for more information on these programs and how to learn to use them.

Select the software that you will be using from the tabs.

Inkscape offers two types of vectorization - Single Scan, which creates a single path that traces the image, and Multiple Scans, which creates a full color (but simplified) image out of multiple vector shapes. Single Scan is generally the best way of creating vectors that will be used for cutting.

  1. Import the image into Inkscape (keep all default options) and select the image.
  2. Under the Path menu, select Trace Bitmap.
  3. Check the box next to Live Preview to get a constantly updated preview of what your vectorized image will look like. If this option is not turned on, click the Update button to refresh the preview window.
  4. There are a variety of options that can help smooth out lines, especially if the raster image is small or contains jagged lines, but for the most part the only thing that needs to be adjusted is the Brightness Cutoff or Edge Detection and the Threshold value for each.
    1. Edge Detection and Brightness Cutoff are very similar and often produce the same results. If one is not giving you the results you want, try the other one.
    2. Threshold adjusts how much of a difference there has to be between two adjacent pixels for it to count as a separate part of the image. Lower values generally produce more lines.
    3. A pure black and white image will almost always vectorize perfectly with either setting at a threshold of 0.500.
  5. When the preview looks correct, click the OK button - your image is not actually vectorized until you do this.
  6. Close the window by clicking the X in the upper right corner.
  7. The vectorized image and raster image will be immediately on top of each other at this point. Move or delete the raster image to be able to see the vector images. If you can't tell which image is which, move one off of the other and zoom in - the raster image will typically look pixelated after you've zoomed in a lot.
  8. If the vector image does not work properly, undo it and try different settings.

Trace Bitmap Options

  1. Turn on Live Preview
  2. Select Edge Detection or Brightness Cutoff
  3. Update Threshold level
  4. Click OK
  5. Click the red X to close the window


Now you are going to set the line width of your image. If you want to cut the outline, it needs to have a line width of .001 in. To change this, first select the image by clicking on it. Go to Object > Fill and Stroke. On the Fill tab, click the No Paint box. On the Stroke Paint tab, click the Flat Color box. Click on the last tab, Stroke Style, and change the Width to .001 in. Also, make sure that the Opacity is set to 100%.

This works best for monochromatic images where you want every region or a closed outline converted to vector lines.

  1. Open the image in GIMP.
  2. Using the selection options, choose the regions to outline (you can select more than one region if needed).
    GIMP section options (square, oval, lasso, fuzzy, color)‚Äč
    From left to right:
    1. Rectangular
    2. Oval
    3. Lasso / Freehand
    4. Fuzzy (continuous regions of the same color)
    5. Color (all of the same color, regardless of location)
  3. If the region selected includes the border of the image. You can set it up so it does not draw a vector box around the image by going into the Select menu and choosing Invert.
  4. In the Select menu, choose To Path.
  5. In the Layers Dock, select the Paths tab (third one from the left).
    GIMP path menu area
  6. Right click on the path and choose Export Path.
  7. Pick a place to save the file and give it a name (be sure to include .svg as the file type).
  8. You can now bring that file into Illustrator to send it to the laser for cutting.

Illustrator offers a variety of automatic tracers, which work well for a variety of image types. The default tracer works well with monochromatic images where you want everything converted to a vector image.

  1. File > Place the image into Illustrator and make sure the image is selected by clicking on it.
  2. Click Image Trace and select the preset that best matches the type of image you are working with.
  3. Click Expand (this will complete the trace).
  4. Adjust the Stroke thickness to .001.
  5. If the new vector line is usable, continue setting up the vector cut normally. Otherwise, undo the conversion and try again with a different preset. If no settings work, try manually creating the vector lines.

Tracing in Adobe Illustrator