All posts by Ryan

likes lasers, geometric design, typography, and video games

111: Bottlecap Sign

The full bottle cap holder. Read on to find out how it was made!
The full bottle cap holder. Read on to find out how it was made!

It wasn’t all that long ago that the craft beer explosion happened, but it’s hard to think back to when beer—at least in my life—was a choice between Budweiser and Miller products. While I’m sure there’s debate aplenty about the community that formed around craft beer, you can’t dismiss all of the awesome artwork that community has produced. One of the best design ideas I’ve seen spreading around the Internet has been beer cap holders. They come in many sizes and shapes—usually states and countries—and are an artistic way to keep track of which craft breweries you’ve sampled fizzy drinks from.

The fact that most of these holders were laser cut was only part of the reason for my interest; many of the examples I saw had different amounts of studs to grip the bottle caps, and I wondered which one was the best solution. Sure, I could’ve done the research and stopped there, but that’s not nearly as much fun. A bottle cap holder I would make!

A stack of prototypes, some with six studs and some frightfully too small.
A stack of prototypes, some with six studs and some frightfully too small.

In my research, I learned that most pop caps (and the twist caps based on their design) have 21 teeth. Despite this, my first few prototypes had six studs. Once I realized they didn’t fit very well on the teeth of the caps I redesigned to include seven evenly distributed studs. I also experimented with stud design, settling on trapezoids after rectangles were too tight and triangles were just a little too loose. This mission to match the studs with the cap teeth would eventually cause me an issue: Goose Island’s caps have 27 teeth! Every other cap I had was only 21. While some size variance made some caps tighter and some caps looser, only Goose Island had to sit this one out. I hate geese anyway.

Bottle caps have feelings too. Look at how well the studs fit between the teeth!
Bottle caps have feelings too. Look at how well the studs fit between the teeth!

Once I had a single cap holder squared away, I spent an unreasonable amount of time trying to fit a grid of them into the word “beer”. I agonized over spacing, wanting to stick to some kind of grid without ending up with awkward, noticeable gaps. It wasn’t long before I realized I’d have to design my own letters based off of the grid rather than relying on otherwise well-made typefaces.

The initial design, with three caps per stroke. Way too big!
The initial design, with three caps per stroke. Way too big!
Another attempt, at a slightly more manageable size.
Another attempt, at a slightly more manageable size.
The final layout (apologies for how difficult it is to see!)
The final layout (apologies for how difficult it is to see!)

After a few attempts at grid-based letters that turned out far too large for the scope of this project, I ironically ended up back at a typeface: one I designed years ago based off of the bitmap version of Chicago present in Final Fantasy VI. Why not add a geeky touch? It also very easily solved the issue of making the letters fit on a grid due to its low resolution pixel quality.

Mounting holes and box joints.
Mounting holes and box joints.

Once I had the design complete, I whipped up a quick (and honestly lazy) box joint connection to hold two pieces together; the sign was very nearly three feet long and I couldn’t cut it out of one piece of oak ply. In hindsight, I should have engraved the sections of wood that held together each letter; they’re just a little too noticeable and wouldn’t be if darkened. I also inserted some small holes for screws that will eventually hold this a small distance from whatever wall it ends up on. A light sanding later and the finished piece was ready for caps!

Goose Island just had to have 27 teeth. Figures. Geese.
Goose Island just had to have 27 teeth. Figures. Geese.

…As it turns out, I don’t have many caps. I’ll fix that!

 

109: Edge-Lit Acrylic

I’ve been playing a lot lately with a new toy I picked up from Inventables: a powered LED strip for edge lighting acrylic. It’s made in particular to work in tandem with specially made acrylics that transmit light efficiently, but I’ve found it works really well with simpler transparent and fluorescent acrylics.

The first dual-layer design.
The first dual-layer design.

My first test was with transparent orange material sourced at the Aurora Public Library’s Makerspace—check it out if you’re local!—and it seemed appropriate to design a little sign for the space as the test. Because the LED strip is designed to snap to the edge of a 1/4″ piece of acrylic and I only had 1/8″ material available, I decided to split the design across two layers of acrylic. The front layer included all of the vector engraving and the back layer was just the main title text filled. The resulting look is striking, but using two transparent layers means you have to be extra careful not to let any fingerprints or dust get in between.

The short sign lit up easily.
The short sign lit up easily. Please ignore the Macbook!

Around the same time, I was working with a local artist to create some wall décor based on the classic Pac-Man maze. We agreed pretty quickly that the lit effect would look great and settled on some fluorescent blue acrylic. The first several tests confirmed that the two layer effect would be excellent; dividing the pellets, ghosts and other objects from the maze walls might not be very visible in the photography, but it’s a really neat trick when you’re examining the piece up close.

A small cross-section of the Pac-Man design in two layers.
A small cross-section of the Pac-Man design in two layers.

One concern I continue to have is whether a single LED strip will be able to illuminate the entire flourescent blue acrylic sheet—this piece is 16 inches tall, towering compared to the 4″ makerspace sign. A quick test on some scrap acrylic shows that the light visibly dims near the top, but I won’t be able to know for sure how the final piece will look until a last-minute shipment of materials arrives. Speaking of that, here’s a pro tip: don’t assume you’ve got all the materials you need until the day you’re scheduled to cut! Always check, even if it’s something you always keep in stock, like the black cast acrylic that was supposed to be the backing layer for the finished Pac-Man piece.

A later single layer test cut with rounded vector engraved maze walls.
A later single layer test cut with rounded vector engraved maze walls.

Edge lit acrylic is a great look, and I’m might have to investigate the “EndLighten” brand or similar substrates to maximize light transmission. I know I’m also going to be looking into portable equivalents; this hardware has to plug into a wall. I’m sure that’ll be a post in the future; until then, look forward to an update on this post with additional pictures of the finished Pac-Man piece!

This crazy square panorama shows how the lighting falls off near the top. We'll see how it looks in the finished piece!
This crazy square panorama shows how the lighting falls off near the top. We’ll see how it looks in the finished piece!

107: Thick Acrylic

A few months ago, my friend Arty got in touch with me and said he had “some thick acrylic” left over from a recent storefront revamp at a mobile phone store. Not really knowing what I was getting into, I said “hey any scrap material that I can laser is good with me!”

This stuff is so clear it's almost hard to see.
This stuff is so clear it’s almost hard to see.

Much more recently, I went to pick up the acrylic that he’d been graciously holding onto for me. As it turned out, the acrylic wasn’t just thick. It was far thicker than I could process with the laser, with 7/8″ as the thinnest edge. But there were several chunks of uniformly cut acrylic, and every surface was smooth enough that you could see clear through to the other side. This was material worth experimenting on!

The first engraving test confirmed that it was cast acrylic.
The first engraving test confirmed that it was cast acrylic.

I first determined whether it was cast or extruded acrylic by doing a surface engraving featuring some art deco frame stock. The surface engraving was powdery and white, which was perfect—cast acrylic engraves in a much more visible manner than extruded acrylic.

The second design didn't really convey the "frosted ice" look I was going for.
The second design didn’t really convey the “frosted ice” look I was going for.

The second design I tried was based on a “frosted ice” theme I developed while working with a client a couple of years ago. While it looked great on the snowflake shapes I used originally, the effect was lost on the square chunk of acrylic, and the “FROSTY” text I added didn’t really come out clearly.

Two different sizes of blocks "comprised" of tetriminos.
Two different sizes of blocks “comprised” of tetriminos.

I revisited some tetrimino patterns from a very early 52LASERS post. Using three different engraving techniques, I created a pattern that highlighted certain shapes with fills and deeper cuts. The result not only looks awesome from straight on, it created some really stunning effects when looking through the unengraved side of the acrylic.

Looking through the clean edge shows off each "deep cut" tetrimino.
Looking through the clean edge shows off each “deep cut” tetrimino.
Any fan of Tetris will recognize these shapes!
Any fan of Tetris will recognize these shapes!

I still have plenty of stock of these blocks left, so if you can think of any more creative ways to jazz up the acrylic’s surface, let me know in the comments!

Quite a supply of material too thick to cut through!
Quite a supply of material too thick to cut through!

105: Tint and Shade Engraving

A close-up showing off the depth of the shade engraving.
Tint engraving is light, frosting the finish, while shade engraving is deep, darkening the surface.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent half a day here, half an hour there, slowly going through all of the inventory I’ve accumulated since starting my collection of laserable bits back in 2011. One of the gems I pulled out of the rough was a set of about a dozen small pieces of finished wood I scavenged from Eagle Engraving’s scrap material a year or so ago. I picked it up because I noticed that the finish reacted to light engraving in a unique way, but it got lost in the stack and forgotten.

I wrote about using halftones to get more than one shade when engraving wood recently, but approximating a handful of darker shades of the wood’s surface color can only have a certain pretty small range of values. It’s better than the usual duo of the untouched wood color and a single full-engraving shade, but what about lightening the wood color? It’s not really something that can happen on untreated wood—even the darkest wood just gets darker when burnt—but wood with a clear coat of certain chemicals can sometimes frost like cell-cast acrylic does. That’s exactly what Eagle’s scrap wood was doing, so I nabbed some to experiment with both shading and tinting on a single piece.

The first batch of prototypes showed that halftones couldn't be used.
The first batch of prototypes showed that halftones couldn’t be used.

I call this “tint and shade engraving” because of its parallel to a concept in color theory, though I am sure there is already a sufficient technical term for this type of double engraving out there; let me know if you know the answer!

I started out trying to recreate a section of the castle map from an old PlayStation game I was fond of, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I was hoping to create a physical map of the castle, starting with just the Entrance for now, and the added value range afforded by the tint engraving would really help the room graphics stand out over the wood grain.

Finding the right threshold for the tint and shade graphic layers was difficult.
Finding the right threshold for the tint and shade graphic layers was difficult.

Figuring out the shade engraving settings was easy enough, but I made a quick test cut to determine the best laser power settings for tint engraving for this material. The result looked like 15% (on a 40w laser, at 100% speed, on this specific material; YMMV!), so I started a series of test engravings on the many small pieces of wood I had available.

Coincidental background shading and foreground tinting created great contrast.
Coincidental background shading and foreground tinting created great contrast.

I quickly learned that I wouldn’t be able to use halftone patterns when shade engraving on this material. Because of the same clear coat that allows us to tint engrave, a tiny white outline appears around every shade engraved section. It’s tolerable in the final pieces (take a good look at the close-up shots to see what I mean) but with halftone pattern it got really visible and completely ruined any properly shaded effect.

Using halftone patterns on the tint engraving had better success, but was far less effective than halftone on a more traditional engrave, so I opted to use just one tint and just one shade. While it meant that we technically have less values than were used in the halftoning wood examples, the contrast is way higher and the result is much more striking.

A small section of Castlevania's Entrance. Do you recognize it?
A small section of Castlevania’s Entrance. Do you recognize it?

Once I had the prototypes engraved, I engraved and cut out a small subsection of the Entrance area of the game. It turned out pretty awesome, but because I only have smaller pieces of this particular wood at the moment I wasn’t able to complete the entire Entrance area as originally planned. I’ll just have to revisit that project another time. For now, another tint & shade engraving would suffice: the beautiful Ayami Kojima promotional painting that I still have an old wall scroll of somewhere in this office.

The processed art used for the shade engraving.
The processed art used for the shade engraving.
The shade engraving is complete, and tint engraving is up next.
The shade engraving is complete, and tint engraving is up next.
The processed art used for the tint engraving.
The processed art used for the tint engraving.
A close-up showing off the depth of the shade engraving.
A close-up showing off the depth of the shade engraving.

Like with the castle maps, I fired up Photoshop and went about adjusting levels and all that to build two engraving rasters, one for the shade engraving and one for the tint engraving. I engraved the shade first, snapped a quick picture in the laser to show off the piece mid-process, and then engraved the tint layer. The shading turned out way better than I expected even after the positive results with the in-game map, and I suspect that all sorts of well-shaded facial photography and artwork would engrave really well with this procedure.

The only trouble is finding exactly the right kind of finished wood! I have several coated woods and only some of them have the same frosting effect when lightly engraving. Maybe some of you out there know of good sources of wood specifically coated to provide this effect. Let me know if you do!