Category Archives: Major Projects


123: Semi-Precious Stone Engraving

The smoky quartz gives away its engraving with visible lines in the star.

A recent client sent me a few small precious gemstones to see how easily they could be engraved. I did some tests on them, with varying results, and sent them back her way. We went with a really simple five point star to test the engraving quality—with the smallest one just .07″ in diameter!

The tiniest piece, topaz, didn’t seem to show the same engraving pattern as the quartz.

Out of this initial batch, the topaz and quartz both engraved beautifully, but the opal’s engraving was basically invisible. This is probably due to a combination of factors. Opal is completely opaque, so no light can come through the material to highlight engraving. It’s a consistent color throughout, and it doesn’t burn, which means the untouched surface is only different from the engraved surface in texture. It’s very hard to capture in pictures.

This image was processed to try to show off that the opal was engraved. The star is there, I promise! Look closely!

My client received her gemstones back, and made some observations: in one piece, the horizontal lines that make up the engraving (because of how raster engraving works) were visible even at the laser’s highest engraving density setting. She also felt that the engraving wasn’t very deep and was wondering if a deeper engraving would affect the overall quality of the engraving.

Conveniently, I found out that Jennifer had done some tests on gemstone beads before, so we had some quartz of our own, as well as some garnet, to do tests. I became determined to solve these problems and answer these questions without requiring a new shipment of gemstones.

I was pretty shocked to see that the individual lines of the engraving were visible; this is something that happens on lower density settings (like 4, which is used to reduce engraving time but can leave ultra-fine gaps between the lines in certain materials). At the max density, this normally isn’t visible at all. I decided to try to engrave my pieces slightly out of focus, increasing the laser point’s diameter so that each pass overlaps somewhat.

My later engraving tests on beads of quartz and garnet were… less than successful.

As it turns out, though, none of my testing worked quite the way I’d hoped it would. Maybe the gemstone beads’ facets were impeding the engraving, or both of my solutions weren’t solutions at all, but all I got out of six different attempts were excessive chipping and almost unrecognizable engravings.

They’re supposed to be hearts! While I engraved the first batch with stars, I figured hearts would be a good shape for the quartz and garnet beads. I don’t think the shape mattered much in the end.

I engraved three pieces of quartz. From left to right, I gave them one engraving pass, then two, then three, at the same settings I used for the client’s quartz seen above. This time the chipping was so severe that you almost can’t even see the difference between the three tests, but upon close examination the heart that was engraved three times was actually a deeper engraving—completely moot with how poorly it turned out.

For the garnet, I was testing whether engraving out of focus would result in a smoother engraving, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case. Perhaps the offsets (focused, 0.5″ out, and 1″ out) were too severe a difference to see any value, but even the focused heart on the left was nowhere near as clean an engraving as on the client’s gemstones.

So I think the moral of these disappointing results is to always perform subsequent tests on the same exact material. I wasn’t able to give my client a good answer to her questions with these tests. Still, I’m fairly convinced now that chipping will prevent multiple passes from getting a deeper engraving without reducing the engraving quality, but the jury’s still out on whether adjusting the focus can have a positive effect. We’ll find out eventually!

122: Stone Inlay

For this post, I thought I was going to explore steam bending wood, but in doing my research, I totally got distracted by stone inlay in wood.  (Bending wood will happen sometime, I promise!)  I have seen where woodworking artists used crushed turquoise to fill in gaps in turned bowls, tables and jewelry to great effect, but it never occurred to me before that other stones could be used as well.

There are two main methods of inlaying stone – mixing the powder with epoxy, or laying the powder and topping with cyanoacrylate (super glue).  Thinking it would be easier, I went the super glue route and loosely followed this tutorial by Patricia Spero.

Disclaimer: photos aren’t great because I couldn’t use my photobooth, and totally used my phone camera.

I wasn’t sure if just engraving would be deep enough to hold the stones, so I took the design and produced it two different ways.  The first is a deep engrave in 1/8 inch bamboo.  The second is actually two layers of 1/16 inch bamboo with the design cut out of the top piece glued to a solid back, like these Hexagon pendants from Week 28.

For stones, I grabbed aventurine, amethyst, and these weird soft pink beads I was told were opals (the small squares.  Ignore the white diamonds.  I didn’t use them).  I smashed them up with a hammer on my steel pounding block.  I wouldn’t recommend that method in the future, at least not with tools you’d like to stay unmarred; the stones left imperfections in the surface.  They didn’t smash up as vibrantly as I had hoped – it wasn’t until later did I see that none of these are commonly used in inlay.  Probably because they don’t hold pigment as well in the powdery form, and are harder to sand.  To retain more color, I had lager chunks than would probably be recommended.

The colors seems more vibrant in the photo than they do in person!

Hard to see, but check out the mounded superglue gel. It also too forever to dry.

I carefully brushed the power into the design, one color at time, and then topped them with superglue.  Here’s where the “supposed to be easier” part of superglue comes in.  My preferred brand of superglue is Loctite, and I use the Ultra Gel pretty exclusively.  Gel is lovely, but it sat on top of the powdered stone.  So I went to the store to get a more liquid glue, and picked up the Loctite Precision Tip Pen, as I was working in a small area.  I didn’t read the small print – it turned out the precision pen glue is even MORE gelled.  Ugh.  So back to the store for a liquid superglue – one that said LIQUID in big bold letters.

Trying to photograph superglue drips coming out of the applicator while hitting the right area AND keeping focus on your camera phone is hard, guys. I will conscript a husband to photograph next time.

The liquid superglue did the trick, soaking right in, and making the purple and green much more vibrant.  It also ran over the sides and soaked into the wood a bit, making more of a mess to sand off later.  The tutorial recommends waxing your wood so the superglue doesn’t soak in, but I didn’t have wood wax on hand.  So I went without (such a rebel).  I can see that proper prep would be vital to more evolved pieces like hardwood turned bowls.  Perhaps one other advantage to using wax – I might have been able to leave the stones in the rugged state, rather than sanding them down and removing the excess glue on the wood.  I rather enjoyed the rough “druzy-like” look.

Though better, the liquid superglue still looked like a hot mess. The layered design is on the left, engraved design on the right. I swapped the colors in the design to make it easier to tell which is which.

After applying the superglue, I noticed a difference in how the powder behaved in the engraved vs layered pieces.  The engraving, by the nature of the burning laser, has a dark background.  This really seemed to muddy the colors.  They were much brighter on the layered pieces, with the non charred surface below the inlay.

Here we get to the point where I need better tools.  I have a terrible, hand me down, rattly, off brand dremel-like tool, that bits don’t fit in well and I have zero instructions for.  So, I winged it.  I sanded by feel – coarsest drums first, then finer, and then finishing with jewelry polishing heads I had on hand.  Both amethyst and aventurine are at about a 7 on the Mohs Scale (which determines a stones hardness) while turquoise is softer, coming in about a 5.  So, more sanding than usual.  And because my stones were not a consistent size, I felt like I had a lot more crevices in my finished pieces (that of course, picked up the debris from sanding.)

“Finished” pieces. I only half finished the one on the right, the engraved one, in the hopes you’d see a difference in the unfinished and the finished side. I prefer the one on the right – the colors are so much deeper.

My advice for the future:

  • LIQUID super glue
  • smash your stones on something you don’t mind taking a beating
  • use softer stones
  • make sure your background in your design is as light as possible – it shows off the stone colors better
  • Have good tools for finishing, and patience to get it done right!
  • Wear proper protections, kids. Breathing in sanded superglue is no good, and eye protection is always important around crappy, liable to fly off at high speeds equipment!

121: Anodized Aluminum Moai

When Jen and I were first researching buying a laser, we didn’t plan on buying the one we ended up with. We were looking to get a small, semi-portable solution. But my brother Johnny found a family out in Terre Haute, Indiana, who had owned their laser for about a year and realized they weren’t really using it as much as they’d like and they wanted to sell it. Buying the used laser meant I inherited some of the previous owner’s mistakes—like a damaged lens and rulers that had art engraved on them—but I had plenty of time to cover up those mistakes with my own.

One of the benefits of buying used is that the previous owner didn’t need their material stock anymore either. Bundled with the machine were dozens of small samples of various laser-ready materials, including a piece or two of black anodized aluminum. I dug up one of those old pieces while cleaning out the office, and realized that I hadn’t spent much time engraving on the medium, so I decided to give it a try!

I’ll probably never find out who these two are, but I’m sure they had fun engraving this picture!

This piece of anodized aluminum had a remnant from the previous owner: an engraving test of their own that they didn’t keep. It also had one corner clipped off, so maybe the leftover engraving I have was a test run and they kept a more successful engraving. Either way, the laser is way too low-power to actually cut through this metal, so I’d be limited to engraving the surface. I don’t have the tools necessary to cut this into a better shape, so our two buddies will, for the time being, remain a part of this experiment.

Full color, desaturated, and then inverted so that it would engrave properly.

I settled on a picture of the large moai head Jennifer took some years ago. This picture converted into black and white really well, and as you have to with all materials that engrave from dark to lighter colors, I had to invert the picture so that the laser would fire on white, not on black.

My first engraving test was too powerful: I typically use 35% power to lightly engrave surfaces, but the laser overpowered the black, creating a blown out image. I settled on 20% power—recommended in the laser driver’s settings for this medium—and the contrast was much better. That’s what I get for ignoring Universal’s built in material settings!

Because it only took one pass to get an acceptable result, I decided to use this project to compare a few of the settings available in the driver. When engraving art that has shades of grey, the machine has to dither to convert those to art it can engrave. The machinist can choose to have the laser convert those shades to a patterned halftone, use an error diffusion method, or use a threshold to convert the art to black and white. You can also select from seven different Image Density steps; the lowest step is the quickest and skips the most space on the material between horizontal lines, and the highest takes much longer and leaves very little space between each pass. The difference between those settings is pretty remarkable, but I didn’t want to do seven passes for each, so I decided upon odd numbered settings.

In the end, I made a matrix of engraving settings: each row is a different Dithering option, and each column is a different Image Density. Twelve engraving passes later, here is the result.

The full grid of engravings. Most of the difference in detail is lost in these photographs.

As expected, the image density settings took different amounts of time to finish. Density 1 took only 47 seconds to complete. Density 3 took 2:08, while the default density setting of 5 took 4:10. The maximum density setting took a whopping 15:13. Since the engraving speed isn’t really affected by the dithering option, the results were almost identical down the columns.

Lower density engravings make the dither pattern more obvious.

It’s clear in person (and less so in this photography) that error diffusion is the best option to get a good clean photograph engraved onto this medium. I’d be willing to bet that will be true for most materials, as the halftone pattern (while great for low color artwork) just doesn’t blend a photograph’s natural shades well. This is even true in the lower image density settings.

While the dither pattern all but disappears at image density 7, the time spent is too costly.

I think the default image density setting, 5, was well chosen. It’s an excellent middle ground between the time spent and the resulting image. You can’t really get a sense that the image is comprised of multiple horizontal lines like you can in setting 3, but you’re also not spending 15 minutes on a 2″ by 2.25″ photo.

119: Leather Twist Earrings Tutorial

Cutting leather was one of the first projects we did on the laser, way back in Week 3: Leather Cuffs.  While there really isn’t much new to say about the cutting and processing of the leather, I thought it would be fun to use some of the properties of leather (flexibility!) to make unique, laser cut earrings.  And, to make sure this post has something I’ve never done before, you’ll be getting a step by step tutorial!

Supplies Needed:

  • Leather, about 1mm thick or less.  One color, or 2 colors, whatever floats your boat.  (Pacific Leather has a great description of use by thickness of leather)
  • Leather cutting apparatus (we obviously used a laser, but Cricut machines can do it, and you could also use a simple blade or rotary cutter)
  • Ear wires
  • Jump rings (7mm or larger suggested, depending on your thickness of leather)
  • Two pairs of pliers, preferably smooth needle nose so you don’t damage the findings (ear wire and jump rings)

Step 1: Templates

Freehand paper template

For me, I actually had to make a hand cut paper version of this, just to understand the mechanics of it, and then transfer it to the computer.  I was having a little trouble envisioning the 3D-ness of the twist.  Luckily for you, I’ve done all the hard designing work for you, and you can print out this paper template.  Use it if you want to see how the mechanics of the twist works before cutting the real thing on your machine of choice, or as a guide if you are cutting by hand.

Get your earring template here!

This template is just for ONE earring.  If you want a pair, think about how you want the second earring to look.  If you’d like it to look the same, print out a second copy.  If you’d like your final earring to be mirrored (as I do), flip the template!

Step 2: Cut!

Cut your leather!  Refer back to Week 3: Leather Cuffs for specifics in laser cutting leather, and remember, it’s a sooty job.

Step 3: Twist!

What I did was make sure the holed lined up, and then gently wrapped the leather around each other. You can’t really twist like when you make paper twist – you still want the final product to lay flat.  So, a two dimensional twist, I guess.

Make sure you have two pieces where the zig zags are opposite each other
Lay one strip on top of the other.
Hold the base and gently start to wrap the pieces around each other.
Keep on twisting!
Fully twisted, holes neatly lined up on the ends.

Step 4: Fold in half!

I wanted to make the back look as nice as the front and create a little visual interest with a loop.  You can make your fold as sharp as you’d like it, or as sharp as the leather will let you.  Make sure the holes line up.

The length of twisted leather folded in half, so the ends, and all 4 holes, line up.

Step 5: Assemble!

Home made ear wire on the left, commercially made on the right, 7mm jump ring below.

Assembly can be  a touch tricky, as more commercially available ear wires have tiny loops, and will not accommodate 4 slices of leather.  I did try them on my homemade ear wires with a bigger loop, and while they did fit, they did not swing as well.  My final solution was to use a 7mm jump ring to thread through the holes on the ends of the leather strips.  This holds the dangle part together.

If you are new to jewelry making, here is a great Instructable on how to open jump rings properly.

Leather strung on the 7mm jump ring.  Ignore the fact I used a toothy pair of pliers.

To attach the ear wire and keep the earring’s orientation (aka – show the twist from the front not the loop) you have two options.  1 – put a second jump ring on to connect the ear wire to the jump ring you already have holding to leather together or 2 (my choice) – twist the loop on the ear wire so the hole is perpendicular to the hook.

Quick visual on how to twist the ear wire:

Hold the ear wire with two pairs of pliers. Make sure the pliers have a good grip on the whole loop, and the neck of the ear wire so you don’t distort the metal.
Twist the pliers in opposite directions so they are perpendicular
Wide loop is on the left, ear wire as manufactured on the right

Then open the loop like you did the jump ring and hook the jump ring on the dangle on.  Close the loop, enjoy your earring!

Step 6: Do it all again to make a pair!

How to make the alternate design on the right:

Alternate design – don’t twist! Just fold the stacked leather strips, continue on from there.
When the leather is not twisted, the strips don’t sit quite as nicely, and you can see by the bowing inside the loop. A dab of glue will fix affix it.

I hope you have fun trying this out!  You can also shake it up by only using the curvy strips, or the zig zag strips.  The design and tutorial is by Jennifer Putzier of Isette, copyright 2017, and is shared for personal use only, please!