Years ago, I purchased a roll of a foil material when I was first getting creative with the laser. I didn’t really know how it worked, and most instructions required a process I was wholly uncomfortable with: touching the material in-between passes. Most of my experiences touching anything between engraving and cutting meant engravings that fell out of alignment, so my poor roll of black laser foil was left mostly unused for several years.
This year, for a New Years Party happening in just a few days, we were asked to design name badges for the attendees. For part of the design, Jen and I wanted to use a thin sticker on top the base badge acrylic, but since our normal supply of paper-thin acrylic didn’t come in red, we had to find alternatives. At some point I was reminded of the laser foil, so I ran a quick test with the black roll I’ve had on hand and quickly realized that would be the way to go.
The foil would have to be red, though, because of the design chosen. The badge design for this event features two small dogs sipping their drinks (art by 957thedog.com!) next to a large dumpster fire—complete with a burning “2016” sign inside—the symbolism of which I’ll leave to you to interpret. That fire wouldn’t really stand out if it was just engraved onto the same smooth silver surface the badge is made from, so red foil it would be!
There are a few different ways to use laser foil effectively, but the way I settled on is described below, and it requires a few different steps that have to be done in order.
Make sure you only run your raster engraving first—the black and grey fills will convert to halftone and result in the surface engraving seen in the photography, while (in this configuration) the blue and red lines are score and cut respectively and will be done next.
With raster engraving done, very carefully apply a portion of laser foil to the surface, overlapping where your blue and red lines will do the dirty work. Since the fire design element is completely enclosed, you don’t have to worry about aligning the foil too much. Just make absolutely certain you do not nudge the material out of alignment during this step. I use an old iron bookbinding bar to keep my material in place.
Set your software up to cut the blue lines next, and then the red lines after. You don’t need to stop the process in-between unless you want to turn on air assist for the cutting portion. Once all three processing steps are completed, you’ll have a finished badge with a bunch of extra foil on it.
Carefully remove the foil. It’s not as bad as weeding vinyl, thankfully, as the foil doesn’t easily get bent out of shape. Once you’re done, a light cleaning with some denatured or isopropyl alcohol and the badge is done!
Because of its reflective nature, the foil fire will catch reflections and create a high contrast black and red look, while the smooth silver below will be bright in low light and aid in badge visibility. I did consider for a brief time going with a classic “dumpster green”, but the back color (white) didn’t work with the design well and, frankly, the results were too ugly to even consider photographing.
One of the first limitations of laser engraving I learned about was the right angle. On most (if not all? let me know!) laser engravers, the laser can only fire in one direction: straight down, perpendicular to the surface plane. This means that you can’t easily get beveled edges, rounded corners, or other nice depth effects you can get using a rotary engraving system like a CNC mill.
There are ways around this limitation, of course: a patron I spoke to at the Aurora Public Library‘s Makerspace suggested rigging smaller pieces of material at their own angles, allowing the laser to fire directly down at a skewed surface, creating the angled edge desired. I considered this process, but it only works if you are cutting a single straight line—any shift in the direction will pull the head out of focus with the section of material you’re cutting.
Focus matters, though, as I found out several months ago while cutting some badges for an event. I accidentally left the laser bed way out of focus when cutting one of these badges, and you can see how the laser didn’t cut through, and instead just created a rounded channel in the surface of the material, in the shape of the badge I’d intended to cut. It made me realize I could cut a shape normally, and then cut it again out of focus, to give the edge a soft curve.
So this month, I got around to testing that some more! I opted for some snowflake designs (sourced from freepik.com; thank you!) to give me plenty of edges to smooth and for general holiday goodness. The first step is to cut the piece normally, which results in the traditional sharp 90 degree edges you see in most lasered pieces.
Leave the leftover material in the laser bed, and do your absolute best not to disrupt its place. In fact, I suggest not touching the piece at all at this point and just telling the laser to fire again with new settings. Specifically, I threw the laser out of focus by telling it I was engraving on a 1.125″ thick material rather than a .125″ thick material. I’ve experimented with different unfocused settings, and can probably dial that in a little better, but 1″ is a nice easy number to get a decently rounded corner on a 2″ lens. I also sped up the laser a little bit because I didn’t want to overpower the edges when rounding them (while my speed settings won’t match yours exactly for a multitude of reasons, I cut the snowflake at 5.5% speed and then rounded the edges at 15% speed.)
Since the rounding only happens on one side, you’ll have to flip the piece and round the edges again if you want to give both surfaces the same treatment. This is only possible if your piece has an axis of symmetry, and this is where you have to be very careful not to move your temporary jig. Once you’re done, you might have to clean the piece as firing a laser out of focus can produce a fair bit more detritus than firing it in focus.
As it turns out, even if you don’t move the makeshift jig at all, your second pass might be slightly out of alignment to the first. Why is this? Kerf—the width of the laser—means that your freshly cut snowflake might shift a fraction of a millimeter inside the jig. There’s a tiny, tiny little bit of give and it can sometimes be enough that the alignment is visually off. You can solve this by rounding one side before cutting, but you’ll still have to contend with this on the back half, and kerf didn’t affect my alignment nearly as much as another issue:
Much more alarmingly, I discovered while doing this project that pulling my laser out of focus by about an inch noticeably moves the laser’s aim. It’s not enough to ruin the project, but it is enough that I had to correct for it after several prototypes to get a nice even rounding. This aim issue as the laser focus changes is due to incorrectly calibrated mirrors somewhere along the laser’s path (totally my fault, as I foolishly adjusted them once upon a time and have been tweaking them here and there ever since) so if your mirrors are factory aligned like they should be you shouldn’t run into this issue.
In the end, the rounded edges are a little rough looking, but if you get your settings dialed in (or would it be dialed out in this case?) you can get a nice smoothed edge that will catch light in a novel way for a laser cut item. I used opaque and translucent acrylic for this project, but I know this effect would look great in transparent and fluorescent acrylic as well. I can’t imagine it working as well with natural materials or microsurfaced plastic, but maybe I should experiment with that in the future!
If you have any unfocused laser tricks, or tips for keeping materials clean while processing pieces in multiple steps, let us know in the comments below! Happy holidays!
I’ve always been curious about enameling, but I wasn’t ready to buy lots of equipment for something I wasn’t sure I’d do regularly. I understood the basics of enameling – powdered glass is fired to its melting point, and it adheres to the metal beneath. Designs can be drawn on (well, the powder can be moved around at least), or most easily, stenciled. This was my in; my justification for taking the class. I could use the laser to make my own stencils! Satisfy my curiosity AND get a blog post!
I’m a fan of Water Street Studios on Facebook, so I am continually tempted by their class offerings. I signed up for their last “Introduction to torch fired enameling” class of the year, taught by Lisa Dienst-Thomas of Lisa’s Pieces. Water Street Studios was a real treat – it’s only about 20 minutes away from me, but I’d never checked it out They offer classes, have artists studios (both 2D and 3D), host lectures and have gallery space. Creativity is steeped into the place.
Lisa was a great instructor and I had the pleasure of being the only student in class (which means I got to ask a lot of questions!) She provided all the materials and had everything neatly laid out.
Spatula – you use this transport your piece flat from the table to firing stand. This is important because the enamel is a dry powder sitting on top. Tip it and it the powder will fall off. And you can’t touch the top with your fingers, lest you deposit oils on the surface and cause the enamel not to stick.
Little container – that’s just to hold the spatula level – the bent handle causes it to tip.
Tweezers – so you can move your fired piece without touching the top, saving it from the dreaded finger oils
Brush – moves and sweeps away grains of enamel that aren’t exactly where you want them
Awl – a nice sharp point is great for drawing in the powdered enamel
Small sifter – sifts powder over a smaller area, great if you only want to hit part of your piece
Large sifter – covers a larger area
Toothbrush – for cleaning the surface of your piece. We used pumice-type cleanser, Bon Ami
Sanding block – to clean off the back for the discoloration from firing
Magazine pages – a slick disposable surface so you can save as much of the enamel power as possible, without mixing the colors. If the colors mix in the jar, there is no separating that.
For my first stencil, I created a basic repeating stencil with Japanese fans in mind. I wasn’t sure how much fine detail would translate with dry sifting, so I was taking a little risk with the small points at the narrow end of the fan. But that’s what experimentation is about, right?
I made the stencils out of the same material we used for the Pyramid Holograms for Week 100 – 1/32″ think acrylic. Lisa pointed out some potential difficulties in using thicker stencils – you can inadvertently put too much enamel powder because the spaces are so much deeper. Also, it might be more difficult to grasp when you are trying to lift it up smoothly. Lisa likes using manila folders – lightweight, easily obtainable, and you can fold up the edge if you need a spot to grab and lift.
After cleaning the piece thoroughly with Bon Ami, I sifted a layer of cream colored enamel on the copper base, which made the first of two base coats. One coat might be a little uneven, a second evens things out. Tip from Lisa: start be sifting around the edges, then work your way to the center. Of course, the pieces I was working on were pretty darned small, so it was easy to get full coverage. Between each layer, we melted the enamel powder with a MAP torch. You heat the piece from below, which is why you can see my piece is on a 9″ tall firing ring. It was neat watching it go though sugar stage, orange peel stage to fully fused glass, and it didn’t take as long as I thought it would
After the piece was cooled and cleaned, it was time for the third layer. I lined up my stencil and sifted a very light layer of enamel on it. There were some errant grains that I used the fine brush to get rid of. One more firing, some clean up to the back and sides with sandpaper and add a bail, we’ve got a finished piece! Easy, right? 🙂
My second piece pointed out my hubris. I followed the same process – two base coats, a layer for the blue bunting and this one included a fourth layer of Orchid pink. There was very minimal overlap with the blue bunting strand, so I didn’t think the 4th level would be a problem. I was wrong. Things this piece taught me:
Light colors should go on first, dark after. I intended the pink to be the top layer, but where it over lapped, the blue still comes through.
Really, there should be only 3 layers on powder on the piece. There is a little wiggle room based on the thickness of the powder you lay on, but as a beginner, I was a little heavy handed. The more layers, the harder it is to heat and fully fuse.
Enameling is really just glass on metal. If it is improperly cooled, not fully fused or even dropped on a hard surface, the colors can crack and flake off. I didn’t apply enough heat where the colors overlapped, and there was a huge crack.
You can reheat pieces, in the hopes to fully fuse them. We did that….and then had did it again because the second final torch firing didn’t take care of the crack fully. It took three tries to fully fuse this piece! Between chatting and refiring, I kept Lisa 2 hours late! Thankfully, she was as committed to getting it right as I was.
Reds and pinks are temperamental souls. The orchid pink enamel DID NOT enjoy being reheated, twice. It separated interestingly, and allowed the base coat to come through. So instead of two solid bunting lines, I have a love blue on and a lovely pink crackly / shabby chic one.
In total: Enameling was a lot of fun. The tools are actually relatively minimal – I actually have nearly everything from my jewelry making forays except the actual enamels and the firing stand. I know I’ve only scratched the surface on techniques, but I love that I can use the laser to make a more unique look that using store bought punches for templates. Maybe Lisa will teach Enameling II in the future 🙂
The inspiration for this week’s post is Carry A. Nation, the famous barroom smasher. Carry believed that alcohol was the root of all society’s evils, and she took hatchet to things she didn’t like (namely bars, whisky bottles and paintings of scantily clad ladies). Though some called her mad, her barroom appearances had the strange effect of *increasing* business for tavern owners, so much so they often invited her to smash up the joint. Carry didn’t mind, as her message was still being heard. She was also a shrewd marketer, and sold merchandise to support her cause. She lived comfortably and even ran a home for women and children whose lives had been effected by alcohol.
Given that I’m actually enjoying a Not Your Father’s Root Beer while writing this post, you can assume I will not be taking up the cause of temperance. The museum I work for is doing a fabulous fundraiser set in a 1910s saloon, which will feature none other than Carry Nation, as portrayed by my mentor Ellie Carlson of Ellie Presents. (Happily, our event is sold out, otherwise I’d be selling you tickets too.) Ellie owns an original Carry Nation hatchet pin, and was commenting that she couldn’t get anything like it to sell in character. Cue the laser.
Ellie’s pin is a brass hatchet that features a mother of pearl head, which cleverly stops just short of the edge of the brass to make it look like it has a wicked sharp blade. Brushed gold make a nice substitute for the brass, and I finally got to experiment with mother of pearl veneer.
We first played around with mother of pearl in the laser when we tested engraving on different bead materials back in Week 32. The beads turned out beautifully (if a little sooty. But that just made the engraving stand out better.)
Because our event was coming up in short order, I ordered a “pressure sensitive” (aka peel and stick) sheet of mother of pearl veneer off Amazon. at $25 for a 9×6 inch sheet, it’s not cheap, and I should ave read the reviews better. The reviews were poor for this seller, and upon opening the package, I found my sheet had the same issues. Oops. The iridescence, created by the nacre on the inside of the shell, was inconsistent. The package was flimsy, just a soft box and a sheet of styrofoam, so the surface was a spider web of cracks. Lesson learned – find a reputable seller. Timing and budget didn’t allow for a second sheet to be purchased.
The hatchets were small enough, I figured I could find a good spot on the sheet to cut them out. I went with a full hatchet head design rather than the one with the short back, like Ellie’s pin, mostly for ease in aligning the mother of pearl to the base. Carry Nation herself had a lot of different styles of pins, so I figured I could take the liberties. For laser settings, we gave it a little more power than card stock. It sliced through quickly and easily, though the edges were a little sooty, like the beads. Not unexpected for organic materials. (I later learned that when cutting mother of pearl with a knife you should cut from back to front. It’s a very brittle material – I’m not sure if it would have made a difference on the laser, though.)
After I peeled the backing off the cut veneer, I had another disappointment. I didn’t expect the mother of pearl to be so sheer! I could read through it. I expected more body, so it would standout from the brushed gold acrylic. Honestly, it was difficult to even see it was there at a glace. As a test, I cut out a silver version of the ax. The veneer stood out slightly better on it, but not enough to make a difference.
In the end, Ellie and I decided it was better to do the pins without the mother of pearl. This of course, isn’t a radical departure from Carry Nation herself – she sold a cheaper version of the pin without the mother of pearl as well. I want to try using the mother of pearl again, perhaps on earrings or accents, where the perfection of the sheet doesn’t matter as much. But I’m not sure it’s something I would order again.