An Er:YAG laser coupled with a cooling stream of water effectively removes dental hard tissues. However, before such a system can be deemed clinically viable, some safety and efficacy issues must be addressed. We compared the bonding of composite to dentin following the preparation of the dentinal surface with either an Er:YAG laser (lambda = 2.94 microns) or a standard dental bur and with and without a subsequent acid-etching treatment. The crowns of extracted human molars were removed, revealing the underlying dentin. We removed an additional thickness of material with either a dental handpiece or an Er:YAG laser (350 mJ/pulse at 6 Hz) by raster-scanning the samples under a fixed handpiece or laser. Comparable surface roughnesses were obtained. Several samples from each group received an acid-conditioning treatment. A cylinder of composite was bonded onto the prepared surfaces. The dentin-composite bond was then shear-stressed to failure on a universal testing apparatus. The results indicate that laser-irradiated samples had improved bond strengths compared with acid-etched and handpiece controls. SEM photographs of the surfaces show exposed tubules following the laser treatment: tubules could also be exposed with acid etching. We conclude that Er:YAG laser preparation of dentin leaves a suitable surface for strong bonding or an applied composite material.