Which (if any) of these adjectives would you use for describing a surface that has been cut using a laser beam:

  • a laser-etched surface
  • a laser-engraved surface
  • a laser-(something else) surface
  • a something else surface

So far I have found out that etched is generally lighter and made with acid, while engrave refers to a deeper trace, usually done with some physical tool.

But in the context of lasers, I have seen both words used. Are they interchangeable, or is there some difference in nuance?

  • 2
    it does seem that etching and engraving are synonyms for people who have no direct experience with the process(es) involved. "to grave" means to sculpt or carve and "etch" always involved chemicals. Common use seems to merely be concerned with the output however.
    – horatio
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 18:02
  • Inasmuch as the laser burns a groove into a surface, as acid does--rather than carving the groove by raising the material as a curly shaving, the way a burin does--"etched" seems the apter metaphor of the two. Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 19:21
  • 1
    Laser etching removes a protective coat from the surface so that the acid can etch. Laser engraving directly marks the surface.
    – wordsmythe
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 20:30
  • Your own answer is that a laser etches a light carving and engraves a deeper carving. Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 16:14

6 Answers 6


I think which one you would use also depends strongly on the context in which you are working.

If you are working on marketing material, for instance, I'd probably lean towards "laser-engraved." On the other hand, if you are writing a technical work, then I would comment that a search in Web of Science (note: subscription required), actually returns more than an order of magnitude more links for "laser etch*" (nearly 40,000) versus "laser engrav*" (about 3,000). So, for any sort of technical writing, laser-etched is actually preferred to laser-engraved.

A Google Scholar search is even more lopsided in favor of "laser etching":

  • 1
    Per my comment to @Kris's answer, this sounds right to me. +1 for the supporting reference, even if the rest of us can't actually follow it up. Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 18:16
  • @FumbleFingers: I've added a Google Scholar search and included the links, which should be more easily traceable.
    – aeismail
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 18:27
  • 1
    If I could, I'd give you another upvote for that update! I didn't know about "Google Scholar" until now, but I'm sure I'll find it useful in other contexts. Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 18:35
  • Note that the reference suggests that this is the right answer, even though it does not correspond to the traditional meaning of etch.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 23:30
  • @Colin Fine: It seems to me the associations of etch lie with eating away material using "soft" things like liquid acid or corrosive gas (whereas engrave is about carving using a "solid" hard/sharp cutting tool). From that perspective, I at least see laser light as soft (it's so insubstantial it doesn't really even weigh anything). I also see a difference between engraving initials on a personalised item, and etching a "surface" (maybe not even with a recognisable pattern, let alone precision ID lettering). Commented Dec 28, 2013 at 0:19

Engraving is a process of creating depth patterns in a surface by direct incisions. Etching is a form of surface marking done via chemical corrosion, which if prolonged, can definitely result in deep markings, but otherwise etching usually results in a textured effect (googled etched glass). Lasers are useful in that there is great control over what you want to accomplish be it an textured effect similar to chemical etching or deep engraving and even cutting all the way through the material.

  • Note that etching often is achieved by applying an acid resist material and engraving the lines you want to etch into this material.
    – horatio
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 17:59
  • 1
    But that's true of many scientific terms compared to their "traditional" counterparts. "Effusive," for instance, has very different meanings in non-technical usage, in chemistry, and in geology.
    – aeismail
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 23:35
  • My understanding is that the acid-resist (for those that don't know, this refers to a coating on the metal which protects the metal from the acid) is removed via laser in "laser etching."
    – wordsmythe
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 20:29

Laser engraving seems to be the preferred term and also more common. Wikipedia considers the term as synonymous with Laser etching.

However, Laser etching is also used, to a far lesser extent.

Furthermore, some appear to use the term engraving in a broader sense "including cutting, marking and etching".

  • I disagree. Although it's true there seem to be more instances of the collocation laser-engraved in recent decades (as shown by Vilmar's chart), I think that version is more associated with contexts involving identification marks (production process, owner's initials, etc.). In the specific context of OP's laser-etched surface, Google Books claims 136 written instances. The only instance of "laser-engraved surface" seems to be a non-native speaker's technical reference. Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 18:13

In addition to @Kris's answer I'll throw in an ngram plot:

enter image description here

We notice that "laser engraved" is used more widely in books since 2000.


There really is a significant difference, and I have had to learn this in order to do my job marking metal tools. Read how they describe these differences at the following site - there are no "opinions", just technical explanations: http://www.pannier.com/learning/about-laser-marking/laser-marking-methods.html [BTW: this is not my brand of laser equipment, but their site was informative.]

  • Your link might explain an answer, but your "answer" doesn't really give an answer.
    – wordsmythe
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 20:26

From a purely technical point of view, laser engraving and laser etching are completely different laser processes. Laser etching melts the surface whereas laser engraving disintegrates it into dust.

But people who are not laser experts tend to use both terms interchangeably, without making a difference, to refer to any laser process that creates markings on a part (hell, some people even use laser engraving to refer to laser cutting.) The correct term to refer to both processes would be "laser marking", which includes laser etching and laser engraving.

People who use laser engraving and laser etching without knowing the difference may also want to refer to other lesser-known laser processes, but they don't know what those processes are called. For example, laser annealing is another process that creates a chemical reaction under the surface of the material. The surface does not melt, as with laser etching, and is not disintegrated, as with laser engraving. Or, they could also refer to laser ablation, a process that's used when a surface has different layers (for example, a surface is covered with paint). With laser ablation, paint can be removed selectively, without ever affecting the material underneath, to create marks whose contrast is created thanks to the difference between paint and the bare material.

My source is the following website: https://www.laserax.com/laser-marking/etching-engraving

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.