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!

114: Enamel Stencils

img_20161023_144721598I’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.

Starting tools, from left to right: Spatula, plastic container (just to keep spatula level), tweezers, fine tipped brush, awl, small sifter, large sifter, toothbrush, foam backed sanding block
Starting tools, from left to right: Spatula, plastic container (just to keep spatula level), tweezers, fine tipped brush, awl, small sifter, large sifter, toothbrush, foam backed sanding block, and old magazine pages in the upper right

The Tools:

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.

Not pictured: The enamels.  We were using Thompson brand enamels, Medium Temperature and Medium Expansion.  Also not pictured is the firing stand, mesh and torch.

Piece #1

Stencil 1 - I was kind of going for the Japanese fan motif, abstractly. I wasn't sure if the points would come though well becuase I wasn't sure the amount of detail I'd get with dry powder
Stencil 1 – I was kind of going for the Japanese fan motif, abstractly. I wasn’t sure if the points would come though well because I wasn’t sure the amount of detail I’d get with dry powder

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.

Base layer of enamel - we did two light layers of the same color, to make sure it was fully and evenly covered
Base layer of enamel – we did two light layers of the same color, to make sure it was fully and evenly covered.  You can see how important the magazine page is to not waste enamel!

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

Just a little glimpse of the Water Street Studio's jewelry maker space. Note on my shirt: I was a little surprised to look in my closet and only have ONE long sleeved cotton shirt. Since I knew I was working with fire, I didn't want and potential issues for man made materials.
Just a little glimpse of the Water Street Studio’s jewelry maker space and the torch set up. Note on my shirt: I was a little surprised to look in my closet and only have ONE long sleeved cotton shirt. Since I knew I was working with fire, I didn’t want any potential issues for man made materials.  Photo by Lisa Dienst-Thomas.
Tapping the cute little sifter allows for even application of the powder on the stencil.
Tapping the cute little sifter allows for even application of the powder on the stencil.
Powered stencil pattern, before firing
Powered stencil pattern, before firing

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? 🙂


Piece #2

Lining up the stencil
Lining up the stencil
Powdered stencil
Powdered stencil
The stencil came off surprisingly cleanly - I didn't have any clean up work! I thought I was homefree!
The stencil came off surprisingly cleanly – I didn’t have any clean up work! I thought I was home free!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
    If you look closely where the bunting crosses, there is a crack. THis means that the glass didn't fully fuse to the copper beneath - which meant it will pop off eventually.
    After the first final firing.  If you look closely where the bunting crosses, there is a crack. This means that the glass didn’t fully fuse to the copper beneath – which meant it will pop off eventually.  The pink looks pretty good at this stage!

    The final piece. The crackling is actually interesting to look at, but I think it would work better with a more abstract piece.
    The final piece. The crackling is actually interesting to look at, but I think it would work better with a more abstract piece.  Sadly, I didn’t use the cute arrow I designed.

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 🙂

Finished pieces. Do the crackles on the bunting make it shabby chic? :)

One laser, fifty-two weeks