All posts by Ryan

likes lasers, geometric design, typography, and video games

117: PC Case Engraving

To ring in the new year, and celebrate the ten year anniversary of my previous build, I decided to build a new PC. Back in 2007, it was two years before we even started playing with lasers. This time around, I knew for sure I’d be laser engraving some piece or another. I’ve engraved a few macbooks and other portable devices, and I’ve even engraved a custom wood faceplate for a friend’s ATX midtower. So I’ve been pretty excited about the idea of engraving something on my own machine!

Over a few weeks in January I did the research, collected the parts, and then planned a small “build party” with some of my local PC enthusiast friends so we could put the machine together together. Hey, it only happens once a decade or so, that’s a pretty good excuse for a shindig, yeah?

From left to right, Brenn, Jen (<3), myself, Maul, Ray, and Mark. Also not pictured: Maul’s bro Joe! Thanks for the photography, Mark!

Together we had dinner, built the PC, played some couch games, and mulled over a few remaining questions. What should this new build be called? What part of the case will be laser engraved? What are we going to engrave on it? I was so wishy-washy on the name decision that I couldn’t even settle on it before the party was over. Furthermore, I wanted the engraving design to be related to the name, so I couldn’t really come to any decisions on that front, either. But we were able to figure out what part to engrave, and as it turned out, the answer was nothing.

Fractal Design’s Define C case is sexy, but made out of questionably engravable plastic.

The Fractal Design Define C is a sexy, sexy midtower ATX case. I love the shroud, I love the quiet, and I love the flat textured front. I like simple, unassuming case designs, and I wanted to continue down that road after my last build in an Antec P180B. But when we finally dug into the case, I learned a few laser-unfriendly things I could probably have sussed out from reviews online if I had been more thorough.

The front of the case is not an anodized aluminum plate, and it’s also not easily detached from the surrounding plastic chassis that covers the front exhaust system. It’s made out of the same plastic—it’s very pretty, with a subtle vertical brushed texture, but it’s still just the case plastic. Because the textured surface isn’t repeated anywhere on the inside (or indeed on any other external surface) I wasn’t going to be able to do an inconspicuous engraving test. So I wouldn’t be able to engrave the front plate, but what about the window?

On a quest for extreme sound dampening, my previous PC build didn’t have a window at all. But over the years I’ve kind of missed being able to peek in on my parts, so this time I bought a case with built-in acrylic window.

With a power shroud for modesty and excellent cable arrangement, who wouldn’t want to peek inside?

Unfortunately, there wasn’t going to be an easy way to test that material inconspicuously either, and with the  engraving quality difference between cast and extruded acrylics, I didn’t want to gamble.

When I looked closer at the acrylic window, I noticed there was a lip on the inside, one that would fit a secondary piece of acrylic just fine as long as the measurements were correct. So I did a couple of sizing tests with some old pieces of acrylic, got my measurements spot on, and settled on a solution: cut a separate piece of cast acrylic and snap it into the existing acrylic window. I wouldn’t technically be engraving the PC case after all, but the finished piece would still look as good. As a bonus, I’d be able to easily change out the acrylic in the future if I wanted to change the design.

Amusingly enough, it was mulling around design ideas that led me to my final decision on the name of the machine. I’ve always been a fan of the Metroid series, you can see it in some of my other projects. Most game servers I host have names based on “Maru Mari”, and you’ll be connecting to “Varia” if you try to stream content to my television. I had a feeling I’d end up going with the Metroid theme again, but it wasn’t until I thought about how much fun it would be to engrave the cold steel corridors of Tourian into acrylic that I really landed on it.

The full map is too big; I’d have to fit it in this cyan rectangle

Tourian is a big map. Well, it’s not big, but its hallways are long and the vertical shafts are all a daunting climb. I’d have to compress the map pretty significantly to make it fit the relatively tiny space I had for my acrylic window. To make matters worse, halfway through the design I realized I had laid out the template wrong and was designing for the measurements in landscape instead of portrait. But after cutting a few rooms in half (and completely excising the hallway before Mother Brain’s chamber) I was able to make it fit.

The final compressed map, corrected to a portrait aspect.

I added a few additional details (the opening text scroll and an excessively big title in the original typeface in the corner) and the design was finished. I cleaned up the acrylic, seated it in the window’s lip, and used a tiny bit of clear packing tape on the inside corners to make sure it wouldn’t somehow come loose.

A mockup of what the case might look like with the final design.

The panel looks great when it’s not connected to the computer, but as it turns out, I should look into buying some motherboard-powered LED strip lighting to brighten up this design. Most of the photography here is cleaned up to make the engraving visible, but it’s much more subtle than that when properly installed on the PC.

This door is all that’s left of a completely deleted room. Don’t tell the purists!

The end result may be disappointingly dim, but I still had a blast manipulating the Tourian map in a way that wouldn’t compromise the basic layout, and I will definitely be using what I’ve learned on this project to make some more “window inserts” for this case in the future. Once it’s lit up, the design itself should really shine, but for now it still makes for some pretty fun close up photography!

The engraving fights with the inner bits just a little more than I’d hoped.
I love that the escape shaft coincidentally has its own murky yellow and green lighting.
This example clearly shows how dim the engraving is compared to the LED-lit components inside.
A two character 8 segment LED readout hides in Tourian’s O.
One Metroid, permanently frozen.

116: Laser Foil

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.

The metallic foil shines bright red from most angles.

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.

Laser foil in rolls; one black roll from years ago and the red roll bought for this project.

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.

Black fills are raster engravings, blue and red are vector cuts of varying depths.

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.

Engraving done, now to carefully apply the foil.

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.

The foil is applied; it doesn’t need to be perfectly aligned.

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.

Peeling foil back isn’t as troublesome as peeling vinyl; not nearly as stretchy!

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!

From certain angles the reflection looks even more firey.

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.

Happy new year!

115: Rounded Edges

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.

The mistake that taught me how to round corners via unfocused engraving.
The mistake that taught me how to round corners via unfocused engraving.

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.

Sharp 90 degree edges, standard for laser cutting.
Sharp 90 degree edges, standard for laser cutting.

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.)

The top side is now rounded; it's an imperfect process and looks a little rough up close.
The top side is now rounded; it’s an imperfect process and looks a little rough up close.

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.

Make sure to clean your honeycomb first, and wipe down any residue between each step. Oh, and use a clean cloth! Trust me!
Make sure to clean your honeycomb first, and wipe down any residue between each step. Oh, and use a clean cloth! Trust me!

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.

Even if you don't move the piece at all between steps, kerf or poorly calibrated mirrors might cause your rounded edges to be misaligned.
Even if you don’t move the piece at all between steps, kerf or poorly calibrated mirrors might cause your rounded edges to be misaligned.

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!

112: Three-Ply Acrylic

It’s kind of amazing that it’s taken me this long to get to this project; when 52 Lasers was first conceived, using three-ply acrylic was on the first draft of our potential projects list. Now, more than two and a half years later, I finally have a project that requires this unique material!

Rowmark's convenient visual representation.
Rowmark’s convenient visual representation.

Three-ply acrylic is similar to the two-ply acrylic I use very often, except the thin cap layer is applied to both sides of the main acrylic substrate. While most of the badges, magnets, and other pieces I make only need one side to be engraved, certain items like medallions or coins might need both sides engraved, and this is when you’d use a three-ply option. This month’s project is a great example.

 

A bunch of SCA tokens celebrating an elevation.
A bunch of SCA tokens celebrating an elevation.

A couple of dear friends of ours are part of a group called the Society for Creative Anachronism. While I’d like to explain what that is for you, I couldn’t possibly do better than the SCA’s excellent portal for curious newcomers. Dave got in touch and explained that his husband Jim was going to be recognized for his accomplishments in the Society, in a ceremony called an elevation. For the event, they wanted to distribute small tokens, in SCA appropriate colors, featuring Jim’s moniker in Chinese (凱曾, Kai Tseng) and the triple rapier logo of the Order of the Masters of Defense. I’ve always used wood for tokens that need both sides engraved up to this point, but it was far easier to get the colors Dave and Jim wanted by using the three-ply LaserMax acrylic from Rowmark.

When you’re engraving two-ply material, you don’t really have to worry too much about the back face; people aren’t going to be scrutinizing a blank back surface, so imperfections caused by the manufacturing process aren’t a big deal. That’s why two-ply materials only ship with mask on the front surface. Three-ply material has mask on both cap layers, and while you want to remove the mask from the side you’re engraving first, you definitely want to leave the mask on the bottom side. That’s because those vector cutting scars—plastic residue, honeycomb table impressions—are going to damage that side if you don’t. It’s okay to engrave the reverse side with the original side unmasked because you won’t be doing any high power vector cutting in that final step; it’s just surface engraving, which doesn’t cause those kinds of issues.

Red tokens placed upside down in the makeshift jig.
Red tokens placed upside down in the makeshift jig.

Conveniently enough, just cutting the shapes out in the first pass automatically creates a makeshift jig—or template—out of the leftover material. As long as you send the second half of the engraving data in the same exact positions as the first, all you have to do is flip the shape over and engrave again. Now, this requires a symmetrical shape, or else you’ll have to take flipping into consideration and cut extra pieces out of the material that will form the jig. You also want to remember to take the mask off of the flipped token’s new front side before engraving; firing the laser through that thin plastic layer will usually create a sticky mess.

With all of that in mind, it’s fairly simple to process three-ply material in a clean manner. You’ll still have to wipe down the edges with a light alcohol or a solvent similar to Goo Gone, but that’s usually the case with two-or-more-ply acrylics anyway. For how simple the whole process is, I still managed to muck things up, and I lost a whole set of twenty yellow tokens on the first pass due to a technical issue with the laser that I still haven’t figured out.

Unexpected markings ruined a whole batch of tokens.
Unexpected markings ruined a whole batch of tokens.

Once in a while, when raster engraving, the field I’m engraving will be speckled with tiny additional engraved dots. I can never predict when it happens, and just rebooting the system fixes it, but it always loses me a piece or two.

Token stacks.
Token stacks.

I also noticed with this project that my laser alignment isn’t perfectly perpendicular to the engraving surface currently; if you look a the picture of the token stacks above, you’ll notice the slight skew in the 1/8″ thickness of the tokens. I think this is due to a misaligned mirror #3, but it’s difficult to know for sure and I might end up having to replace the mirror #3 assembly with a factory-calibrated one.

If any of you have any tips for cleaning the laser-cut edges of a two-or-three-ply piece, any ideas on what might cause the rare engraving field speckling, or any suggestions on how to realign the beam path across the surface, let me know in the comments below!